Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky made an important and surprising visit to Washington on Wednesday.
There are indications this meeting with US President Joe Biden will harden Russia’s stance in the war, as Ukraine is continuing to show that it has deep and clear support from Washington. Russia has relied on threats of nuclear war and dangling “peace” agreements in the past, using different strategies to try to confuse the West’s backing of Ukraine.
Zelensky has not traveled abroad during the war so far, and his resolve to stay in the capital and also visit the front lines has been one of the shining moments of Ukraine’s war effort.
Russia, meanwhile, has tried to defeat Ukraine by hammering its infrastructure in recent months in a war of attrition meant to make Ukrainian civilians suffer. Ukraine is receiving more Western defense support by the day, but the question is always whether it is enough to push Russia back, or keep the war going.
Harkening back to the Cold War
The trip to Washington holds some parallels to the Cold War as well as Britain’s resistance to Nazi Germany during World War II. CNN has described the trip as an example of how Biden is helping to revive the Western democratic alliance that was important for containing the Soviets. It has also compared the visit to the 1940 when Winston Churchill rallied the world against Nazism.
These kinds of comparisons put Zelensky in a difficult spot. He is being asked to live up to a lot of expectations.
In the US, he has generally been seen as a singular hero. The only critics of Zelensky are generally found on the far Right, far Left or among lone rising Republican voices, the voices that also performed poorly in the US midterm elections.
But, that doesn’t mean they are not influential. There is an active opposition to the Ukraine war among some people on the Right in the US. They view the war as a waste of resources or part of some kind of Biden-led left-wing conspiracy.
Some of them believe Ukraine is corrupt or even accept Moscow’s talking points painting Ukrainian resistance as “Nazis” and “dictatorial.” This is, of course, propaganda, but Zelensky will want to make sure that he not only convinces the few incoming congressional critics to support him, but also doesn’t make any mistakes that can give his critics a window of opportunity.
So far, the Ukrainian leader has done an excellent job mobilizing the West and appealing to the consensus. This has been done from Kyiv and also from the Ukrainian front line. The US is by far the biggest financial supporter of Ukraine, but European countries are very important for maintaining the defenses of Kyiv.
This means that while the US can give money, what Ukraine truly needs is the training and defense systems, such as Patriot missiles, that can protect civilians and help turn the tide. The war has already revealed that Western stockpiles of munitions are not enough.
Major wars like this one require a lot more weapons. Western countries got used to slow procurement and gold-plated expensive military programs over the last decades. Now, with a real war going on in their backyard, the question is how Ukraine can get all the systems it needs.
Goal of attrition
Russia’s goal, after setbacks in the first month of the war, has been to make Ukraine pay via attrition. This means destroying civilian areas, forcing people to flee, kidnapping children, attacking the electricity grid and using long-range missiles, drones and artillery to sap Ukraine’s resources.
All eyes will be on this important visit. It comes as the new Congress is about to be sworn in a month from now. This will present challenges to Biden so it makes some sense that Zelensky is traveling now.
It’s also on the eve of Christmas, so this is a unique time of year in both Ukraine and the US. Zelensky has done a comprehensive job at keeping up the same message regarding Ukraine’s war effort. But there are questions about what new defense systems the US can and will supply. Patriot missiles are one thing, and precision bomb kits are apparently also on the way.
Ukraine has withstood 300 days of a grueling war. This visit comes two months before the first anniversary of this war. If Zelensky’s visit can do one thing it is to make this a game changer for the country, but without seeming like he is doing too much grandstanding and without making any stumbles that might give critics some kind of talking point.
He will also need to make sure nothing happens back in Ukraine that could tarnish this visit, such as some kind of sudden Russian provocation.