Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said that Ukraine may be forced to start peace talks if it loses control of Bakhmut, in a two-day conversation with AP journalists on March 28-29.
In Moscow, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned colleagues that they should get ready for a possible “forever war” according to a report in The Guardian.
The battle for Bakhmut has been going on for seven months with neither side gaining much advantage, leading some analysts to ask why Kyiv is expending so many resources to maintain control of the relatively strategically insignificant town. Zelenskiy told the AP journalists that if Ukraine gives up the town it may be forced to sue for peace.
He predicted that if Russia defeats Ukraine in Bakhmut, Putin would set out to “sell” a victory to the international community.
“If he will feel some blood, smell that we are weak, he will push, push, push,” Zelenskiy said during a two-day train trip with the journalists (video here), adding that the pressure would come not only from the international community but also from within his own country.
“Our society will feel tired,” he said. “Our society will push me to compromise with [Russia].” Zelenskiy warned that a loss anywhere at this stage in the war could put Ukraine’s hard-fought momentum at risk.
“We can’t lose the steps because the war is a pie – pieces of victories. Small victories, small steps,” he told the AP journalists.
At the same time, Russia is settling in for a long war, according to Peskov. The Guardian reported on private comments Peskov gave at a recent dinner, according to two sources at the dinner, where he warned attendees from the political elite that the war could go on for a long time.
“Things will get much harder. This will take a very, very long time,” Peskov said.
He added in a press conference the following day: "If you mean, let's say, war in a broad context – a confrontation with hostile states, with unfriendly countries, a hybrid war that they have unleashed against our country – it is bound to last. We need to stay firm, confident, self-concentrated and united around the president," he told a news briefing on March 29 in response to the article in The Guardian.
Other reports say that Russian President Vladimir Putin has stopped talking about war goals and sees the conflict as an existential fight for Russia’s existence as a state. During Putin’s closely watched “state of the nation” speech last month, Putin said that Moscow was fighting for national survival and would ultimately win.
One Western diplomat in Moscow described Putin’s message in the speech as preparing the Russian public for “war that never ends”.
The Kremlin has put Russia’s economy on a war footing and is ramping up military production. In an interview last weekend Putin said that the US is producing some 15,000 artillery shells a month, but Russia is already producing 20,000 a month and that is expected to treble this year. He also said that while the West has promised Ukraine a total of over 400 main battle tanks (MBTs), Russia is currently preparing a total of 1,600 tanks for battle.
“Putin has practically stopped talking about any concrete aims of the war. He proposes no vision of what a future victory might look like either. The war has no clear-cut beginning nor a foreseeable end,” political analyst Maxim Trudolyubov told the Guardian.
Both sides are expected to launch a spring offensive, but Zelenskiy has said recently that Ukraine is not ready thanks to the lack of weapons, a complaint he repeated in his interview with AP.
“We have great decisions about Patriots, but we don’t have them for real,” he said, referring to the US-made air defence system.
Zelenskiy says Ukraine needs 20 Patriot batteries to protect against a bombardment by Russian missiles, but so far has received only two.
In a new admission, Zelenskiy added that an unnamed European nation had sent another air defence system to Ukraine, but it didn’t work and they “had to change it again and again.” Zelenskiy also repeated a demand for the West to send Ukraine sophisticated fighter jets, that he has been calling for since the first days of the war, but that has been ruled out by Western allies, afraid of escalating the fight into a general confrontation between Nato and Russia.
Poland and Slovakia recently decided to give Soviet-era MiG fighter jets to Ukraine, but no Western country so far has agreed to provide modern warplanes, particularly not the US-made F-16 jets Kyiv has called for.
While over 20 German-made Leopard 2 tanks and 18 UK-made Challenger 2 tanks have arrived in Ukraine in the last week, the hundreds promised will take months, if not longer to arrive, too late to make any difference to the coming battles this spring. Moreover, as bne IntelliNews has reported, Ukraine is running out of ammunition that could lead to a supply crisis this summer.
Both sides have recently ramped up conscription efforts. bne IntelliNews’ correspondent in Kyiv reports that men of military age are being issued with draft papers on the metro in Kyiv and Zelenskiy recently tightened rules for refusing to serve, in an unpopular move.
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu has talked about increasing the size of Russia’s army from 1.15mn men to 1.5mn men through hiring another 400,000 contracted soldiers, in a suggestion that military analysts dismiss as unworkable.
However, sociologists say that the Kremlin’s propaganda has been surprisingly successful, with the Russian population generally rallying to the flag and supporting Putin’s war, despite fears of being conscripted and sent to the front line.
Putin’s approval rating inched back slightly by 0.4 percentage points to 79.3% in March, according to a survey, published by the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) on March 24 reports TASS – its highest level since the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
However, a third of Russians would welcome a negotiated end to the war if Putin commands it. Over the last year, at least a third of Russians have consistently preferred talks over continued military operations. This share reached a peak of 44% in the fall of 2022 when Russian forces suffered a series of defeats in the southern and northern parts of Ukraine.
In a February survey, 40% of respondents said they would like to see Russian troops withdraw from Ukraine without achieving their goals. Even more, about two-thirds of respondents (66%) indicated that they would support the signing of a peace agreement and an end to the military campaign if such a decision came from Putin. This suggests that the Russian leadership has a wider leeway in choosing the direction of this war, including a path of de-escalation, than its Ukrainian counterparts.
For their part, Ukrainians remain adamant that Kyiv should continue fighting for the meantime and 97% believe that Ukraine will win the war, according to a survey by the International Republican Institute (IRI) conducted in March.
At the same time, nine out of ten (91%) of Ukrainians support the performance of President Zelenskiy, while 74% believe Ukraine will maintain all territories from within its internationally recognized borders defined in 1991.
During his AP interview, Zelenskiy extended an invitation to Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit Ukraine, or at least talk to him by phone.
“We are ready to see him here,” he said. “I want to speak with him. I had contact with him before [the] full-scale war. But during all this year, more than one year, I didn’t have.” Xi was in Moscow for a three-day visit between March 20-22 in an ostentatious display of support for Putin and a sign-off on $165mn worth of deals. However, analysts concluded that Putin got very little from Xi’s visit other than political support in his clash with the West.
Xi was widely expected to talk with Zelenskiy for the first time since the war started after meeting with Putin in Moscow; however, the Chinese leader didn’t call.