Opinion by Michael Bociurkiw
Odesa (CNN) — On January 6, scores of people in the Ukrainian coastal city of Odesa braved winter temperatures and jumped into the Black Sea as part of the Christian holiday Epiphany — commemorating the baptism of Christ.
This year’s icy plunge had added significance. It marked the first time that the war-torn nation celebrated the Christian feast day according to the Gregorian calendar (on January 6) rather than the Julian calendar (on January 19).
Last year, Ukraine passed legislation shifting its Christmas celebrations in line with many Western dates – a step to further distance itself from traditions commonly observed in Russia.
But for the past few weeks especially, it has been almost impossible to detach oneself from the looming presence of Russia, with heavy barrages of missiles and drones raining down on several Ukrainian cities, including Odesa.
As 2023 drew to a close, Russia launched the biggest air attack on Ukraine since the beginning of its full-scale invasion. That was followed by another barrage on an almost equal scale just a few days later.
The intensity and frequency of the attacks — on the back of reports that the Ukrainian counteroffensive is stalling and that western backers of Ukraine are holding back billions in funding — marks a major turning point in the war.
That, along with a massive shift of global attention towards the Israel-Hamas war, has Ukrainians justifiably worried.
For the first time since Russia’s full-scale invasion even the most battle-hardened of acquaintances are now voicing concern, especially after the second Russian barrage in the new year.
“That morning was horrible. It wasn’t just drones but rockets as well. And that’s when it becomes really serious because we didn’t know how many patriot rockets we have left to take down the Russian rockets,” Olha Radkevych, a friend and former OSCE colleague in Odesa told me.
“We are talking human lives here and everyone realizes that if the United States stops supporting us that those attacks will become more frequent and more severe,” she added. “People are so tired nowadays. You can see the weariness more and more. How much longer can a person live in such an environment?”
Even as Radkevych dined with friends on New Year’s Eve in a vain effort to try and forget about the war, a Russian drone buzzed around their neighborhood, demanding their attention and careful monitoring.
There was a time when security experts speculated that Russia’s stockpile of weapons was running low. But the Kremlin has apparently managed to re-supply and is now reported to be using short-range ballistic missiles in Ukraine produced by its ally, North Korea.
Meanwhile, the supply of drones from Iran seems almost limitless, amid worrying reports that Iran has transferred technology for more drones to be produced in Russia for a new stockpile that is “orders of magnitude larger” than previous stocks.
Mobilization: A political hot potato
As Russia’s full-scale invasion grinds toward the two-year mark, and with seemingly no end in the near future, Ukraine’s leaders have more to ask of their citizens.
It’s expected that parliament will pass a new mobilization legislation that could bring up to 500,000 more men into battle.
President Volodymyr Zelensky, who appeared to be maneuvering to distance himself from the controversial act, said it was needed to relieve those who’ve fought on the frontlines for months. In a blatantly political move, he placed the onus on the military brass, in particular Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, who’s also viewed as a potential political rival, to explain the rationale to the public.
Zelensky has also suggested the minimum draft age might be lowered to 25 years from the current 27.
Tinkering with mobilization is a political hot potato few leaders dare touch. Even President Vladimir Putin waited several months before signing off on Russia’s first mobilization since World War II.
While it’s impossible to put an exact number on Ukrainian war losses, anyone who visits the military portion of the Lychakiv Cemetary in Lviv can see that its expanded to almost maximum capacity.
A war fought on many fronts
This is a war being fought on many fronts. On a pre-Christmas visit to Kyiv, I saw a visible slowdown in economic activity and the spreading scars of war are now almost impossible to ignore.
Moments after emerging from the central train station, passengers come face to face with a tall office building facade heavily damaged from explosions. At a city center bistro once frequented by expats, Le Cosmopolite, a lone waitress had only two tables to serve. “People are getting poorer and it’s getting worse and worse every month,” she told me.
With fears that two aid packages from the US and European Union, for $61 billion and $52 billion respectively — are stalled due to political bickering, the mood across Ukraine has turned understandably glum.
The clock is ticking louder than ever. Ukraine has been running a massive budget deficit and there are reports that come February, it won’t be able to pay public sector wages.
2024’s big unfreeze?
But there is at least one area where Ukraine can feel hopeful: Russian assets. Ukraine scored a big win last week when the EU approved sanctions against Russia’s largest diamond producer, Alrosa, and its CEO. The EU said the company, which accounts for 90% of Russia’s diamond production, “constitutes an important part of an economic sector that is providing substantial revenue to the government.”
Russia’s diamond exports total around $4.4 billion a year, of which $1.6 billion are imports into the EU. That could blow a significant hole in funding for Putin’s war machine.
Ukraine could soon be receiving profits from the estimated hundreds of billions in Russian assets frozen overseas, starting with the tax revenue collected by Belgium, where the bulk of frozen Russian sovereign assets are held. That estimated $2.4 billion tax collection would be a huge ledger addition for reconstruction or plugging Kyiv’s budget gap.
The US and western allies are working diligently on the remaining assets frozen elsewhere. The development of a roadmap, being led by the US, could even materialize before the second anniversary of the full scale invasion in mid-February.
Ultimately though, it could fall to the Ukrainian people themselves to prevent Putin from achieving his goal of fully destroying Ukrainian statehood. When I hear of Ukraine tripling its domestic military production in 2023 and creating advanced drones seemingly out of thin air, it gives me hope that, with or without ramped-up western help, Ukraine will beat back Russia.
Whenever that seems like a distant fantasy, I try to remind myself of what Member of Parliament and Holos Party chief Kira Rudik, who on January 2 had her Kyiv flat badly damaged from a Russian attack, told me.
“I have seen so much love and support, and people working together that I don’t usually witness. So, every time someone says we are exhausted — well of course war exhausts you.
“But do we have it in ourselves to fight more and stand with each other? Absolutely yes.”
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