Emmanuel Grynszpan, journalist for the International service of Le Monde, spent two weeks in Ukraine with photographer Laurent Van der Stockt. They went to Donbass, specifically the Donetsk region; first in Pokrovsk and its surroundings, then Kramatorsk and its surroundings. They headed for Kharkiv as soon as they learned that a new front had been opened by the Russians on May 10. Then they went on May 11 to Vovchansk, a town almost right on the Russian border, which was very heavily bombed and is now partially occupied by the Russians. The Russian army had already occupied this city for six months in 2022. Returning from Ukraine, Emmanuel Grynszpan answered questions from Internet users on Friday May 24 during a chat, the report of which follows.

There is no collapse on the Ukrainian side, but daily Russian attacks on a front longer than 500 kilometers. In certain places, the Russians are progressing, but without making any breakthroughs, without really managing to shake up the Ukrainian army, which is retreating and sometimes attempting counterattacks. The Russians have undoubtedly had the initiative for several months, thanks to great numerical superiority, both technically and humanly.

The risk of a Russian breakthrough is real and the situation could deteriorate for Ukraine. Military analysts predict very difficult months until the end of summer. The arrival of new waves of Western military aid as well as fresh new Ukrainian troops (currently in training) could change the situation in Ukraine’s favor this fall.

I noticed the opposite, that is to say a general complaint about the lack of artillery shells, missiles, anti-aircraft defense. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, after constantly raising the issue, reversed course on May 16, saying, “No brigade is complaining about running out of ammunition. »

Again, that’s not what I heard. But of course I did not speak with all the brigades. I have since learned that a mechanized brigade received tank shells. Open source experts continue to note a fire ratio (the number of shells fired by the Russians compared to the Ukrainians) extremely unfavorable to the latter (from 8/1 to 15/1). I conclude that Volodymyr Zelensky’s statements do not correspond to the reality on the ground.

The morale of the troops is generally gloomy, the soldiers are disillusioned. They do not understand why the promises of shells made several months ago do not materialize, nor why the replacement of fresh troops does not arrive.

Many soldiers are furious to see that the rear is not sufficiently mobilized and some begin to develop various and varied theories. Some dreamed of demobilization after two or even three years of engagement, but the new mobilization law says nothing on this point. This demoralizes some of the soldiers. The soldiers on the front lines are extremely tired because, due to lack of sufficient reserves, they sometimes cannot carry out their rotations in the rear.

On the other hand, I have not heard any soldiers demanding an end to the war and concessions to the Russians. This position undoubtedly exists, but it seems to me that the vast majority of Ukrainians mobilized on the front do not intend to lay down their arms.

I don’t think the Ukrainians have significant reserves of foreign-trained soldiers. I have met many combatants who have completed training in the countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the answer is almost unanimous: NATO trainers “train for yesterday’s war , not the one we are leading.” They are generally disappointed, because these tactical trainings do not take into account the central factor at all: drones. Reconnaissance drones, FPV (suicide) drones, bomber drones, which completely change the game in assaults, defense, resupply, movements, evacuation. Only one officer told me that his training had helped him with logistical issues.

Yes, and in other units. They are generally used in support, for one-off operations. I met some again last week. What do they represent in the mass of Ukrainian soldiers? Not much. There are a few hundred of them, all countries combined, and their number seems to be decreasing rather than increasing. Their presence motivates Ukrainians.

This is not linked to the Kharkiv offensive, which, although it has not progressed since May 20, has fulfilled at least two objectives: forcing the Ukrainians to strip some Donbass units to plug the holes north of Kharkiv , and create great concern about the lengthening of the front, towards the Sumy region, for example.

I’ve heard a lot of questions about this. Overall, Ukrainian soldiers do not believe it much, but it remains a hypothesis that pleases them, if only because the French posture has become more resolute towards Russia.

Number and mass are important, but they don’t decide everything. Ukrainians are not in deficit in firearm ammunition. They use a lot of combat drones (even if, here too, they are numerically inferior to the Russians). These drones are very effective in defense, to break up attacks. The Ukrainian army remains composed of soldiers who are very determined to resist, highly trained and using proven tactics. On the Russian side, the tactics remain fairly predictable, even if some new features were used north of Kharkiv. The Russian army is clearly not capable of creating gaps in the Ukrainian defense and even less of exploiting them. For the moment.

Due to the serious human deficit on the Ukrainian side, the general staff often opts for retreats if the position is too costly to protect. This is what I heard from brigade and battalion commanders. However, there remain commanders trained during the Soviet era who are less economical with men. The contrast between the Ukrainian and Russian armies seems very important on this point.

There is total incomprehension on the Ukrainian side and sometimes gives rise to doubts about the real intentions of Western leaders.

Military experts often rule out the idea of ​​a game-changing weapon (Wunderwaffe, “wonder weapon” in German). The F-16s are expected to become operational in early summer in Ukrainian skies. Their main role will be to protect Ukrainian skies by acting as a deterrent to Russian fighters and bombers; by shooting down drones and missiles and perhaps also destroying enemy radars. There are doubts about their offensive capacity, to prepare or support a land offensive.

I heard Ukrainian soldiers asking for F-16s so that the “Russians stop terrorizing us with their gliding guided bombs”, dropped by bombers, and which are capable of destroying the strongest fortifications.

I have not observed this, but it is likely that faith in the governance of the country will erode over time, given that everyone is now well aware that a quick and favorable outcome for Ukraine is highly unlikely. Russian propaganda, very active through social networks, attempts by indirect means to demoralize the population. The political decisions of the Zelensky administration do not please everyone, and corruption cases continue to emerge. But the political opposition represented in Parliament remains discreet.

I am not a sociologist and I base myself on around twenty recent interviews with soldiers. Oleksandr Syrsky is clearly less popular than Valeri Zalouzhny. Some (a minority) believe that Oleksandr Syrsky introduced more discipline into the workings of the army, and better coordination. Many believe that it is a transmission belt for political power and does not sufficiently defend the interests of the army in relation to the rest of the country, particularly on the crucial issue of mobilization.

Military analysts were even more pessimistic at the start of 2024. The fact that the Ukrainian army is holding its own against a much more powerful army with a huge numerical advantage is already good news in itself. If Western aid were more serious, and if the Ukrainian authorities better managed the problem of mobilization, the situation on the front could turn around in kyiv’s favor. The year 2025 could be very different. But hoping for a rapid end to the conflict, with a return to the 1991 borders, seems totally unrealistic today.