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Ukraine recap: Zelensky’s defiant new year speech foreshadows tough 2024 as government tightens conscription laws

Ukraine recap: Zelensky’s defiant new year speech foreshadows tough 2024 as government tightens conscription laws

By Jonathan Este, The Conversation

Ukraine is alive. Ukraine lives. Ukraine fights. Ukraine advances, Ukraine overcomes the path. Ukraine gains. Ukraine works. Ukraine exists.

In his new year’s speech this week, Volodymyr Zelensky was characteristically bullish about his country’s prospects as the war heads towards its second anniversary next month and as the Ukrainian people descend into what many of us in the northern hemisphere – even without a war to contend with – think of as the bleakest months of winter.

Following some of the worst airstrikes of the war so far in recent weeks, Zelensky reminded his listeners that they had seen this all before last year – and faced it down. The cold, the dark, shortages of power and food. Uncertainty. He said: “Ukrainians will cope with any energy shortage as they have no shortage of resilience and courage. We did not fade away in the darkness. The darkness did not engulf us. We defeated the darkness.”

He took time to thank the Ukrainian people, talking up the country’s unity in the face of existential threat. But there was also a flavour of Shakespeare’s Henry V Agincourt speech with a superficially coded message to the estimated 600,000 Ukrainian men of fighting age “now a-bed” – living in other European countries – rather returning home to fight alongside their heroic compatriots: “I know that one day I will have to ask myself: who am I? To make a choice about who I want to be. A victim or a winner? A refugee or a citizen?”

Volodymyr Zelensky delivers his new year address, 2024.

 

The cold hard fact is that 2023 ended badly on the battlefield for Ukraine. The anticipated advances from spring and summer counteroffensives failed to materialise and instead Ukraine was forced to engage in bitter and attritional fighting against an enemy with a far greater pool of men from which to recruit or conscript more troops. As late as the beginning of December Russia announced it was calling up another 170,000 troops.

Stefan Wolff, of the University of Birmingham, and Tetyana Malyarenko, of the University of Odesa, report that Zelensky and his cabinet have proposed new bills calling for stricter conscription laws with an aim to add 500,000 fresh troops.

This, they say, could be about levelling the playing field after heavy losses towards the end of last year, or it could be an attempt to compensate or insure against the possibility of a sharp decrease in the volume of western military aid in 2024.

With Russian presidential elections coming up in March, they write, it seems likely that Vladimir Putin will want to celebrate his inevitable victory by boasting of some fresh battlefield success, so perhaps Zelensky and his advisers are bracing for a possible spring offensive.

Map showing the state of the war in Ukraine as at January 3
The state of the conflict in Ukraine, January 3 2024. Institute for the Study of War

 

The new laws would bring in harsh penalties for avoiding conscription, including heavy fines, seizure of real estate and the freezing of bank accounts and cancelling of passports for Ukrainian men of fighting age living abroad.

In the meantime, a raft of new economic measures will increase the tax burden on ordinary Ukrainians, while at the same time radically reducing public spending. Wolff and Malyarenko observe that Zelensky’s parallel efforts to combat corruption among the political and military elites will need to bear some obvious fruit if Zelensky wants to continue to bring the Ukrainian people with him.

James Horncastle, of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, meanwhile, believes that while Ukraine has suffered setbacks over the past six months or so, it can still prevail. But he stresses that they will need to be given the tools to do so.

He also believes that Zelensky, for all his admirable leadership qualities, has backed his country into a corner by maintaining his maximalist stance: refusing to countenance any peace deal which doesn’t involve his country regaining every metre of its territory before 2014, including Crimea. As a result, he argues, Ukraine’s military has found itself bogged down in places such as Bakhmut in the country’s east, losing far too many troops for small rewards.

The key, he writes, is that Ukraine redefines its immediate goals – a return to the pre-February 2022 borders would be appropriate. And then works out exactly what it will take in terms of western military aid to achieve that initial goal. And a rethink in Ukraine’s western-oriented military doctrine to counter Russia’s “defence in depth”, which will require more artillery rather than fast-moving mechanised brigades, is also appropriate.

Do they know it’s Christmas?

Until the middle of last year, most Orthodox Christians in Ukraine celebrated Christmas in early January, according to the ancient Julian calendar, which was discarded by most of the western world in the 16th century. Accordingly Ukrainians celebrated Easter and other important religious festivals and saints days at different times as well.

But in May 2023, the Ukrainian government took the decision to adopt the revised Julian – what we know as the Gregorian – calendar. It was part of a move to break away from the authority of the Moscow Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, whose slavish support for the Putin regime and the war in Ukraine was intolerable for most Ukrainians – certainly in the west of the country where the sense of nationalism has traditionally always been stronger.

But this is by no means popular with all Ukrainians, writes Chris Hann of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology – especially those families who may have members who pay allegiance to different branches of the church. As Hann reports, the old religious calendar survived the Soviet era, but has now been swept away by decree from Kyiv. In a country divided in its outlook between east and west, this reform is not without its risks.

Ukraine Recap is available as a fortnightly email newsletter. Click here to get our recaps directly in your inbox.The Conversation

Jonathan Este, Senior International Affairs Editor, Associate Editor, The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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Since Vladimir Putin sent his war machine into Ukraine on February 24 2022, The Conversation has called upon some of the leading experts in international security, geopolitics and military tactics to help our readers understand the big issues. You can also subscribe to our fortnightly recap of expert analysis of the conflict in Ukraine.

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