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Opinion Zelensky: ‘We are trying to find some way not to retreat’

By David Ignatius KYIV — President Volodymyr Zelensky delivered a stark message to Congress in an interview on Thursday as Russian missiles were pounding southern Ukraine: Give us the weapons to stop the Russian attacks, or Ukraine will escalate its counterattacks on Russia’s airfields, energy facilities and other strategic targets. Zelensky spoke in a sandbagged, heavily guarded presidential compound that seemed nearly empty of its old civilian workforce after more than two years of war. The security was so tight, I had to surrender my plastic felt-tip pens. But Zelensky appeared as animated and pugnacious as when he made his defiant stand in the courtyard when the war began. Zelensky, the actor who became a wartime president, now totally inhabits this role. He wore his habitual dress of a Ukrainian military sweatshirt and combat pants. He looked less haggard here on his home ground than he had about a month ago at a security conference in Munich. He seems to relish being the symbol of a nation at war. The congressional delay in approving a $60 billion military aid package has been costly for Ukraine, Zelensky said. The military has been unable to plan future operations while legislators squabbled for nearly six months. He warned that hard-pressed Ukrainian forces might have to retreat to secure their front lines and conserve ammunition. “If there is no U.S. support, it means that we have no air defense, no Patriot missiles, no jammers for electronic warfare, no 155-milimeter artillery rounds,” he said. “It means we will go back, retreat, step by step, in small steps.” To describe the military situation, Zelensky took a sheet of paper and drew a simple diagram of the combat zone. “If you need 8,000 rounds a day to defend the front line, but you only have, for example, 2,000 rounds, you have to do less,” he explained. “How? Of course, to go back. Make the front line shorter. If it breaks, the Russians could go to the big cities.” “We are trying to find some way not to retreat,” Zelensky continued. After the Russian capture of Avdiivka in February, he said, “we have stabilized the situation because of smart steps by our military.” If the front remains stable, he said Ukraine can arm and train new brigades in the rear to conduct a new counteroffensive later this year. Zelensky summed up the zero-sum reality of this conflict: “If you are not taking steps forward to prepare another counteroffensive, Russia will take them. That’s what we learned in this war: If you don’t do it, Russia will do it.” When I asked whether Ukraine was running short of interceptors and other air-defense weapons to protect its cities and infrastructure, he responded: “That’s true. I don’t want Russia to know what number of air-defense missiles we have, but basically, you’re right. Without the support of Congress, we will have a big deficit of missiles. This is the problem. We are increasing our own air-defense systems, but it is not enough.” As Russian drones, missiles and precision bombs break through Ukrainian defenses to attack energy facilities and other essential infrastructure, Zelensky feels he has no choice but to punch back across the border — in the hope of establishing deterrence. An example is Ukraine’s drone strikes against Russian refineries over the past month. I asked Zelensky if U.S. officials had warned against such attacks on energy facilities inside Russia, as has been rumored in Washington. David Ignatius on the war in Ukraine “The reaction of the U.S. was not positive on this,” he confirmed, but Washington couldn’t limit Ukraine’s deployment of its own home-built weapons. “We used our drones. Nobody can say to us you can’t.” Zelensky argued that he could check Russian attacks on Ukraine’s energy grid only by making Russia pay a similar price. “If there is no air defense to protect our energy system, and Russians attack it, my question is: Why can’t we answer them? Their society has to learn to live without petrol, without diesel, without electricity. … It’s fair.” “When Russia will stop these steps, we will stop,” he said. What Zelensky wants urgently are long-range ATACM-300 missiles, which he said could strike targets in Russian-occupied Crimea, especially the airfields from which Russia launches planes with precision-guided missiles that are doing heavy damage. These missiles recently hit Odessa and several other targets. “When Russia has missiles and we don’t, they attack by missiles: Everything — gas, energy, schools, factories, civilian buildings,” Zelensky said. “ATACM-300s, that is the answer,” he continued. He said he wanted to use the longer-range missiles not to attack Russian territory but those airfields in Crimea. “When Russia knows we can destroy these jets, they will not attack from Crimea. It’s like with the sea fleet. We pushed them from our territorial waters. Now we will push them from the airports in Crimea.” Zelensky recalled that in Munich in February, he took out a map of the targets the ATACMS could hit. “I showed them military platforms like airports, air-defense systems and other sites,” he said. When I asked whether the ATACMS are on the way, as is rumored in Washington, he laughed and said: “I can’t share with you this information. Sorry.” He said that the missiles “are not in Ukraine” now. Zelensky touted his program for a domestically produced “army of drones, including some that can reach 1,000 kilometers or more into Russia.” But he cautioned that “drones are not enough for winning the war. … We could use naval drones to push their fleet out of our territorial waters and the entire western part of the Black Sea, yes. But it’s not enough to win. These are drones, not missiles.” I asked Zelensky whether he thought President Biden was too cautious in supplying weapons, as hawkish critics sometimes charge. “I think he’s cautious about nuclear attack from Russia,” Zelensky answered. His own view is that Vladimir Putin wouldn’t risk a nuclear exchange, but he conceded that the Russian leader is unpredictable: “He’s crazy. There is nobody in the world who can tell you 100 percent what he will do. That’s why Biden is cautious.” The lesson of war for Zelensky, after two years of brutal fighting that has killed many of the best officers and soldiers in the Ukrainian army, is that Putin should have been stopped sooner. President Barack Obama “was not strong against him” when Putin seized Crimea in 2014, Zelensky said. “Europe wanted to have security on the border and big trade with Russia. That opened the way to war with Ukraine.” “He captured Crimea, and there was no reaction at all. Nobody pushed him back. Nobody stopped him.” When I asked whether he would have allowed Biden to send U.S. troops into Ukraine to deter the February 2022 invasion, he said simply: “Yes.” In hindsight, that show of force might have been the only way this terrible conflict could have been averted. Zelensky offered a chilling characterization of his adversary. “Putin is cunning, but he’s not smart,” he said. “When you fight with a smart person, it’s a fight with rules. But when you fight with a cunning person, it’s always dangerous.” Looking ahead, Zelensky said Ukraine’s options depend on what Congress decides. Until Ukraine knows it has continuing U.S. support, “we will stay where we are now in the East.” He said Ukraine might conduct limited offensive operations, but “to push them out, we need more weapons.” “We lost half a year” while Congress bickered, he said. “We can’t waste time anymore. Ukraine can’t be a political issue between the parties.” He said critics of aid for Ukraine didn’t understand the stakes in the war. “If Ukraine falls, Putin will divide the world” into Russia’s friends and enemies, he said. Zelensky has been the X-factor in this war, mobilizing his country and much of the world to resist Russian aggression. I wish members of Congress who balk at aiding Ukraine could have listened to the Ukrainian leader talk about the price that Ukraine has paid for its defiance — and the risks ahead for the United States if it doesn’t stand with its friends. © 1996-2024 The Washington Post