Zelenskiy flies to Washington to shore up bipartisan support as the war in Ukraine moves into its middle game

Zelenskiy flies to Washington to shore up bipartisan support as the war in Ukraine moves into its middle game
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy presents a Ukrainian flag signed by the soldiers in Bakhmut to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Kamala Harris during his speech to Congress in Washington / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin December 22, 2022

The war in Ukraine moved into its middle game with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's whirlwind visit to Washington DC on December 21 to  shore up bipartisan support from the US. 

The agenda was released ahead of time, but because of security concerns the details of his trip were kept secret from even the US diplomatic staff. It was later revealed that Zelenskiy travelled to Poland by train, from where he flew on a US jet to Washington. How and exactly when he will return home remains a secret at the time of writing.

Zelenskiy had multiple goals, but the overarching need was to secure, “weapons, weapons, weapons.” Tellingly US President Joe Biden during their joint press conference said the war has moved into “a new phase” but the US president made it explicit for the first time that the US would not send Ukraine the offensive weapons it needs to win the war; only the arms it needs to not lose the war with Russia.

Zelenskiy said he “appreciates” the US support with all his heart, and Biden promised to continue this support. But at the joint press conference Biden said the US would supply “all possible support” and then went on to immediately rule out the supply of “lethal weapons”, explaining this as a threat to Nato. “We are going to give Ukraine only what it needs to defend its territory and to enable it to succeed on the battlefield,” the US President said.

Biden also warned that sending lethal weapons (offensive weapons) could “break Nato apart.”

“The war appears to have entered a less dynamic phase where Russian forces are primarily seeking to secure the already occupied areas of Ukraine by setting up multi-layered defences,” political analysts Teneo said in a note.

Tensions within the alliance have been rising since September when it became clear some Ukraine fatigue has appeared amongst Nato allies in Europe. In a speech this week German Chancellor Olaf Scholz echoed Biden’s message of unwavering support for Ukraine’s struggle, but also explicitly added that Germany would not send tanks to Ukraine – badly needed offensive weapons – in 2023.

That leaves Ukraine in a bind: it is determined to continue the fight against its much larger neighbour, but it remains entirely dependent on international aid and supplies to do so.

“Ukraine could gain significant advantages on the battlefield if its international allies, particularly the US, approved the supplies of advanced weapons requested by Kyiv, such as longer-range missile systems, fighter jets, and tanks. While Ukraine’s allies have been providing Kyiv with increasingly sophisticated weapons systems over the course of the war, Western capitals are still cautious not to provoke escalatory actions from Russia,” TENEO.

In lieu of tanks and jets, Biden promised a lot more money, including a new $1.85bn package of military aid on top of a new allocation of $45bn for 2023 – more than twice the previously promised $18bn. One billion of the $1.85bn is a battery of Patriot missiles that would be included in the package. Zelenskiy welcomed the aid but continues to press for more.

"We are not in an easy situation. The enemy is increasing its army. Our people are braver and need more powerful weapons,” Zelenskiy said, according to the Associated Press. “We will pass it on from the boys to the Congress, to the president of the United States. We are grateful for their support, but it is not enough. It is a hint — it is not enough.”

While significant, the Patriot batter is more of a gesture as a single battery is not a game-changer in the war. Patriot missiles are effective in bringing down ICBMs and short-range missiles (although military experts have raised some question over just how effective their system is) but it is useless against the shorter-range small Iranian made-drones and “dumb” artillery shells that is the mainstay of Russia’s offensive.

Ukraine has been in talks with Israel on acquiring its “Iron Dome” technology, amongst the most advanced missile defence tech in the world, but there has been no movement on that question: Israel has always maintained pragmatic relations with Russia and is wary of unsettling the status quo in the Middle East where Russia has lots of friends, Iran in particular, a sworn enemy of Israel.

Bi-partisan support

A second goal of the trip was to shore up support from the Republicans in Congress, who have been wavering ahead of the midterm elections. Bankova’s biggest fear is that eventually the west will become either bored of Ukraine’s war, or the pain and cost of the polycrisis it has engendered will lead to support being scaled back and pressure brought to bear for a peace deal.

While the general public remains in favour of supporting Ukraine, Zelenskiy visit brought out some scathing commentary by the US right. The son of former president Donald Trump, Donal Trump Jr. tweeted: "Zelensky is basically an ungrateful international welfare queen.” Other right-wing commentators, like Tucker Carton, also called into question the need to send billions to Ukraine.

Others lambasted Zelenskiy for appearing in the White House and congress wearing his khaki military fatigues and not a suit. However, Zelenskiy’s defenders pointed out that Ukraine is at war, a point the military fatigues were meant to emphasise, and drew parallels with Winston Churchill who also visited the White House during WWII wearing his trademark military boiler suit.

The Republicans won a majority in the House of Representatives in the recent midterm elections, so the need to persuade them to continue supporting Ukraine is key.

Zelenskiy’s speech to a joint meeting of Congress (video, transcript) delivered on the 300 day of the war was widely praised for being a masterful piece of carefully crafted rhetoric that played on the theme of “freedom”, referenced the US’ own fight for independence, and rested on the fact that this assistance is “not charity, but an investment” into that freedom. The speech was considered a success and was met by multiple standing ovations.

Lethal weapons, not blankets

This is not the first time a war-time Ukrainian leader has delivered a speech to Congress asking for lethal military aid.

In September 2014, six months after Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, then President Petro Poroshenko travelled to the US to make a very similar speech.

Poroshenko asked a joint meeting of Congress for lethal military weapons in the escalating fight against Russia’s separatist proxies that had taken control of the Donbas.

“One cannot win the war with blankets,” Poroshenko famously told the assembled deputies to hearty applause, adding that both lethal and nonlethal aid is “urgently needed.” The US had provided about $60mn up to the point of Poroshenko’s speech at the time.

Poroshenko’s speech followed very similar lines to Zelenskiy’s. He tied Ukraine’s fate to American assistance in the fight, the “forefront of the global fight for democracy.” He also said that the country, like Israel, had the right to defend its territory and that the annexation of Crimea—”one of the most cynical acts of treachery in modern history”—wouldn’t be tolerated.

In a speech that lasted over 40 minutes, Poroshenko said the struggle “is not only Ukraine’s war.” He pushed for further sanctions against Russia to “help distinguish between good and evil,” a fund that would aid US-Ukraine economic activity and a special US security status for Ukraine.

“The war that these men are fighting today is not only Ukraine’s war,” Poroshenko said. “It is Europe’s, and it is America’s war too. It is the war for the free world.”

The Obama administration, which included Biden as Vice President, was extremely hesitant to provide anything more than token support. Poroshenko literally got blankets and little else.

The result of the decision to not provide decisive lethal weapons support to Poroshenko at that time contributed to the stalemate that developed in Donbas that dragged out the fighting for another eight years with neither side being able to gain the initiative.

It was Donald Trump that changed this policy, supplying Ukraine with the tank-killing Javelin missiles before the war broke out, but even those came with strict caveats that they could not be used offensively, only in defence in the face of a frontal attack by the separatists.

The Biden administration continues to have the same reservations, but the bar has been significantly lifted following Russia’s all out assault on Ukraine on February 24. But the kind of support remains limited as the fear of provoking a general war between Nato and Russia remains at the top of Nato’s agenda, with ensuring Ukraine does not lose the war a very clear second. Ensuring that Ukraine wins the war is not on the agenda at all, although everyone would be happy if that happens.

Western war goals?

Bankova seems to understand this. Zelenskiy was also asking for, and can expect, more defensive weapons, but as for victory, that will depend entirely on the Ukrainian military. And Bankova also seems committed to that, irrespective of how much support Ukraine gets from its Western allies.

This point was underscored after Zelenskiy in another act of symbolic heroism, the president visited the frontline in Bakhmut to hand out medals to soldiers in the “meatgrinder” that has become the battle for the city.

While Bakhmut is not a strategically important city, it seems that it has become symbolically important to Russia top military commander General Sergei Surovikin, who has brought to a halt the Ukrainian advance following the spectacularly successful Kharkiv offensive in September, and the humiliating withdrawal from Kherson in November. The Kremlin wants a win for morale purposes and is throwing resources into the attack on the city, which is being met with equally determined efforts by Ukraine’s military to defend it.

“The effects of [September’s] mobilisation will become more visible only in 2023, while the new commander of the Russian forces Sergei Surovikin appears more capable than his predecessors,” says Teneo.

The White House’s “cash and defence” policy beggars the question of what the US long-term goal for the war is. It seems that it will support Bankova in its fight, but the White House has no clear strategy for ending the war other than trying to wear Russia down with increasingly ineffective sanctions and hope for a popular revolt, a palace coup, or a collapse of morale amongst the Russian military and a general mutiny. Currently none of those things look like happening any time soon.

While the early sanctions will be devastating for the Russian economy in the long-term, the new rounds have become progressively weaker. The ninth package of sanctions contained nothing of note other than adding more officials and oligarchs to the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (SDN) List. Some sanctions were imposed on fertiliser exports, but even those contained explicit exemptions for the key oligarchs and their companies so as not to stymie Europe’s ability to buy Russian fertilisers.

The oil price cap scheme that was launched on December 5 could potentially do a lot more damage, but currently the $60 price level is above what Russia sells its Urals blend oil and so will have no direct impact for the meantime. Having said that, Kommersant reports that export of crude oil from Russia has fallen dramatically in the first weeks following the imposition of the oil cap sanctions, mainly as a result of shipping companies self-sanctioning, afraid of bringing down secondary sanctions on themselves. `

Ukraine is running low on ammunition, according to reports, as are the Russians, but as bne IntelliNews reported, Putin has already put Russia’s economy on a war footing and there are reports of new sophisticated Russian missiles being used that were manufactured in only August. At the same time economists report that the export of semiconductors from Hong Kong to Russia have soared and CNN reports that US technology is showing up in the Iranian-made drones used against Ukraine; how that got there is now being investigated.

It has been clear from the start of the war that there was going to be significant leakage to the sanctions regime that allows Russia’s military industrial complex to function, even if the most sophisticated western technology is unavailable to Russia.

Ukraine has little or no military industrial production capacity left and is entirely dependent on western support – hence Zelenskiy speech to Congress, as ongoing US support is an existential issue for Ukraine. The west is also ramping up military production – specifically the 155mm artillery shells Ukraine so badly needs – but this production won’t be available until next year.

One of the items on the talks between Zelenskiy and Biden was how this war might end. The European Nato allies are increasingly seeing this war as unwinnable and talk of peace talks has started. In November 2022, top US General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, sent shock waves through Western capitals when he declared that the war in Ukraine is unwinnable by purely military means.

The White House subsequently told Bankova to back down from its absolutist position of “never talking to Putin, only to his successor,” which was enshrined in law in September, and Zelenskiy did back down only days later. Possible direct talks between Zelenskiy and Putin are now back on the table.

For its part the Kremlin is also tired of the war and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has made it very clear that the Kremlin would start peace negotiations provided Ukraine agreed to them under “reasonable terms.” That has been taken to mean that Bankova would have to negotiate while Russia held the occupied territories it currently holds and negotiate over what concessions Kyiv is prepared to make to stop the fighting. That is a non-started for Bankova and according to the latest polls the vast majority of Ukrainians are committed to fighting until they can return to the 1991 borders, despite the obvious hardships they are currently facing.

The two sides remain too far apart for there to be any realistic chance of peace talks starting any time soon. The Kremlin strategy is clearly to try and recapture the territory it lost in Donbas during the Kharkiv offensive and consolidate control over the whole of the greater Donbas region as well as its land corridor from Rostov on Don down to the Crimea at which point it is likely it would be willing to freeze the conflict.

Military analysts are widely anticipating a big new counteroffensive by Russia that could start from any time between when the ground freezes in January through to May, when sufficient preparation time has elapsed.

Under General Surovikin Moscow is trying to restore the country’s combat potential by training and integrating large numbers of newly mobilised troops into degraded military units, which could be seen as preparation for a new ground offensive. He has also been digging and setting up multi-layer defences at key points on the frontline in anticipation for Ukrainian counter offensives.

“Directions of potential Russian attacks Russia’s offensive in the Donetsk region could be expected to resume as it is essential for the achievement of one of the few clearly articulated Kremlin’s war objectives – the “liberation of Donbas”. However, swift advances are unlikely as both sides hold heavily entrenched positions. Even if the frontline shifts westward, the Ukrainian forces have set up multiple new lines of defence to halt Russian advances toward the key regional cities of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk,” Teneo said in a note.