In an interview, he laid out how his country could win, if the West lost its fear of Putin and gave full support.

Zelensky’s view of victory in Ukraine

Zelensky meeting with Inquirer Worldview columnist Trudy Rubin at the presidential palace in Kyiv,
Ukraine, on June 24. “We are grateful that the West did not let Russia occupy us [fully], but we need justice,”
he says.

KYIV, Ukraine — When President Volodymyr Zelensky walked into the high-ceilinged, ornate conference room in the presidential office building, the exhaustion on his face was so stark I almost felt guilty about taking his time.

Wearing his trademark black T-shirt and olive drab pants, and arriving after a morning of security meetings, he appeared to be carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. That may literally be the truth: The future of Western democracies rests heavily on what happens to Ukraine.

In a wide-ranging interview last week, Zelensky laid out how Ukraine could still win if the West can lose its fear of Vladimir Putin and recognize the Russian leader’s weakness.

Zelensky defined what victory would mean. And he insisted that direct peace talks with Moscow wouldn’t end the war but would encourage further Russian aggression against Ukraine, Europe — and America.

Russia Ukraine War Zelenskyy

FILE – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stands with soldiers after attending a national flag-raising ceremony in the freed Izium, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022. A year ago, with Russian forces bearing down on Ukraine’s capital, Western leaders feared for the life of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the U.S. offered him an escape route. Zelenskyy declined, declaring his intent to stay and defend Ukraine’s independence. (AP Photo/Leo Correa, File)

“It is impossible to help Ukraine with one hand and shake Putin’s hand with the other,” Zelensky insisted. “It will not work.” It is not just a question of the West protecting Ukraine, he stressed. “It is Ukraine which protects all of the democratic countries that Putin will attack further on.”

I entered the presidential offices through a heavily sandbagged rear building door and walked down long silent corridors. All electronics, including cell phones, were banned from the visit as a safety measure. There have been numerous Russian attempts to assassinate Zelensky, the most recent in May when Ukrainian intelligence busted a network of Russian agents aiming to take the president hostage and kill him.

It has been a rough few months for the Ukrainian leader. His forces stopped a Russian offensive in the north but Putin’s forces are still advancing slowly in the east. The ground war is essentially stalemated.

But the tech-savvy Ukrainians have been making astonishing advances in drone warfare, which have brought the war home to Russia and driven the Kremlin’s ships out of occupied Crimean ports on the Black Sea and back to Russian bases.

“The biggest [current] issue is with glide bombs,” Zelensky told me, referring to Moscow’s recent use of thousands of bombs each month that can be released at a great distance from their target, protecting the launching aircraft from antiaircraft defenses. “So you need to search for long-range solutions against their aerodromes where their military aircraft land, which Russia uses to launch glide bombs and missiles.”

If President Joe Biden would let Ukraine use long-range U.S. missiles such as the recently delivered ATACMS to hit those airports in Russia, then the attacks could be prevented, Zelensky said. But so far that permission has not been granted. Ukraine’s innovative, home-produced long-range drones are hitting those airports but don’t have the power of missiles.

Biden recently gave permission for shorter-range U.S. missiles to be used just across the Ukrainian border where Russian troops were massing, which halted the Russian offensive toward Kharkiv.

“But that doesn’t solve our issues,” Zelensky told me. “It is tactical, not strategic.”

I asked Zelensky whether he believed Biden wanted Ukraine to achieve victory.

“Yes,” he answered quickly. “I think that for the United States it is important and for Europe and for many countries. But we can have different ideas toward the word victory.”

“The West wanted to deny Putin the opportunity to fully occupy Ukraine and to put the aggressor in his place. I think for them it is the victory already,” Zelensky said.

“But for us,” he continued, growing emotional, “for the people at the front line who lost their brothers at arms, the civilians who lost their relatives, those who fled abroad but have husbands on the front line — for us, victory is a moment of satisfaction.

“We are grateful that the West did not let Russia occupy us [fully], but we need justice.”

In other words, Zelensky, who still maintains a 60% popularity rating among Ukrainians, must listen to the voices of his people and his soldiers, who won’t accept surrendering one fifth of their land to Russia after all they have suffered. That burden is visible in the lines on his face.

In practical terms, the first part of Zelensky’s “real victory” is “not to allow the full destruction of everything Ukrainian” by Putin.

In Ukrainian territory occupied by Russia, Moscow tries to wipe out use of the Ukrainian language, the Ukrainian church, and the teaching of Ukrainian history. Children are taught that Ukraine was never a legitimate state.

Putin’s true and imperialistic aim in invading Ukraine is to rebuild the historic Russian empire — by physical force or political subversion. Zelensky described how Russia is already pursuing that goal elsewhere: in Belarus, Georgia, and next stop — if the West doesn’t push back against Putin — in the Baltic states, which are NATO members. By bombing Ukraine’s cities he is trying to make the country unlivable and drive out the population.

The second part of “real victory,” Zelensky specified, “is security for today and for future Ukrainian generations, and the impossibility of the repetition of aggression.

“We should be in the European Union for economic security. And we should be in NATO for physical security. If we don’t have these two, there is a huge risk for us that the enemy will come back,” he said. Ukraine has been invited to start EU accession talks, but the process is lengthy.

Yet Zelensky fears that the West — especially the United States — is still leery of pushing for real victory. “Everybody is still afraid that Russia can split apart, everybody is afraid of what will happen to Russia without Putin and whether it will stay as it is or get worse.”

As a result, he said, Putin is free to pursue his strategy of taking as much as possible. “Any step forward on our territory, any occupation, any village even fully destroyed is positive for them, because it is important for them to bargain as much as possible,” he noted.

Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin

FILE – President Donald Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 Summit in Hamburg, July 7, 2017. A Pew survey of democracies around the world finds that views of the U.S. as a model for democracy are slipping and confidence in Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee is on par with Russian President Vladmir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

At the opportune moment (especially if Donald Trump wins the presidency), “Putin can then say ‘we are ready’ [for talks] and while they are ready, they always need a pause.

“A cease-fire is the best option for the Russians so they can prepare for taking even more,” Zelensky said.

Putin’s victory would be incompatible with life for Ukraine, Zelensky told me. “Bit by bit, they are washing away Ukrainian independence. They take territory, then legislate [to annex it] or invent economic or security unions with Moscow, and then they dissolve the country in this mud, in this Russian mud.

“That is why we need to be strong, not to lose our country.”

I asked Zelensky how Ukraine could overcome Russia’s superiority in manpower and weapons.

His reply was clear. And from what I saw in my two weeks in Ukraine — including a visit to the eastern front line — it makes sense.

“First of all, manpower. Really, they have much more people, and really, we are taking care of our people more. But today we have one dead Ukrainian for six Russians” on the eastern and northern fronts, he said.

British intelligence sources say the Russians are now losing 1,200 men a day, the highest rate of the entire war. Even for a Russian military that treats soldiers like cannon fodder, this ratio is untenable.

“Second,” Zelensky explained, “this is a different kind of war, a war of technologies, and the one who is more technologically advanced can win.” That means the West must deny the Russians the opportunity to develop the manufacture of drones (including copies of Iranian Shaheds) and missiles, by preventing Russia from dodging sanctions on chips and spare parts that come from European allies — and from China.

Third, Ukraine is already producing advanced drones and racing toward production of advanced missiles. “But we need funding so that we can be more technologically developed than Russia,” Zelensky said. This presents great opportunities for joint production with Western governments or private firms.

And fourth, further sanctions on Russia’s oil and gas exports are needed, which would mean that in 2025, the Russian economy will be shrinking and will force Putin to raise taxes and skimp on social benefits for the public.

“What’s the scariest for him is a dissatisfied Russian society,” Zelensky said. “That is the nuclear weapon against a nuclear Putin. As soon as the West stops being afraid of Russia after Putin, Russia without Putin will happen more quickly. His circle around him will feel that.”

The only possible negotiations Zelensky envisions would be talks based on his own peace plan calling for full withdrawal from Ukraine, reparations and justice for Russian war crimes.

But what about Trump, who wants to cut off military aid to Ukraine and says the war can be over in 24 hours? The GOP presidential candidate has said he’d demand a cease-fire from both sides and force them to “negotiate,” effectively giving Putin what he wants and preventing Ukraine from taking back more occupied land. Not to mention that Putin has broken every accord between Russia and Ukraine in the last three decades.

“If Trump has such a model [to end the war in 24 hours], well, everyone would like to finalize the war. Maybe even in one hour would be better,” Zelensky joked. “But if the idea is to give up our territories, no, it will not solve the issue. It will not work; it will not lead to peace [globally] or between Ukraine and Russia.

“What is needed is to give us security. Membership in NATO is good not only for Ukraine; it would provide security for Russia,” Zelensky said. The Ukrainian border would be fixed, no further Russian invasion could produce another war, and “the world wouldn’t be afraid that Putin would come back again.”

Sadly, the upcoming 75th NATO anniversary summit July 9-11 in Washington will not offer Ukraine a clear path to membership. “We understand that the White House is not ready to give us the invitation,” Zelensky said with a weary shrug. (And Trump is saying the war is NATO’s fault.)

“Unfortunately, this is the policy of one step forward, two steps back,” the Ukrainian leader said, regretfully. “I don’t think this is the policy of world leaders. These are the very cautious steps of my de-miners in the minefield.

“If the United States is afraid to annoy Putin, and this is the reason why we are not invited, then we ask our strategic partners to give us what would protect us: Patriots [anti-missile systems], a substantial number of F-16s, and the opportunity to use weapons [inside Russia].

“If NATO is not ready to protect us, and to take us into the alliance,” Zelensky said firmly, “then we ask NATO to give us everything so we can protect ourselves.”

At this moment, Putin smells American weakness and hopes for a Trump presidency that could cut off Ukraine and abandon NATO. Meanwhile, Putin is allied with Iran, North Korea, and China, which sees the fate of Ukraine as a litmus test for whether it can seize Taiwan. So it would be catastrophic if the White House failed to provide Ukraine with everything it needed — before the November election.

Watching the bone-tired Zelensky exit the conference room, bereft of the full backing he needs to defeat Putin, was painful, because Ukraine could still repel Russia. But that would require Biden to display the level of courage that Ukraine’s president must summon every day.

Source: The Philadelphia Inquirer