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Mr. Zelensky Goes to Washington (and Ottawa)
The Ukrainian president presses his friends for ATACMS, as fatigue sets in.
“A half dozen or so,” out of 535.
That’s the calculous that Senator Jim Risch put together last year, speaking to reporters at the Halifax Security Forum, of the number of members of Congress who were skeptical of continuing, nevermind increasing, lethal aid to Ukraine.
“Focus on the majority,” Risch implored us.
Risch’s words came to mind this week when a cohort of Republicans published a letter to the White House, signed by six senators and 22 members of Congress, peppered with snarky questions: “How is the counteroffensive going? Are the Ukrainians any closer to victory than they were 6 months ago? What is our strategy, and what is the president's exit plan? What does the administration define as victory in Ukraine?”
The rump of Republicans, generally on the right flank of the party, said that until their questions are satisfactorily answered, they will oppose all new funding to Ukraine.
Their ranks have certainly swelled since Risch made those comments last November in Halifax. (Dispatch #28) But, all things considered, not by much. As I wrote last week (Dispatch #63), Western unity remains surprisingly solid. But cracks are showing on Capitol Hill. (And, for what it’s worth, in Poland.)
The timing was good, then, for Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit to New York, Washington, and Ottawa this week. Long gone are the days when Zelensky had to hunker down in Kyiv, joining his allies only via video link. And now was a particularly good chance to get some facetime.
As I write this opening, we’re waiting for Zelensky to step out and address Canada’s Parliament for the second time — for the first time, in person.
So this week, on a very special Bug-eyed and Shameless, Ukraine tries to keep the support coming as it enters the trickiest part of the war yet.
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It’s mid-August, 1864.
Ulysses S. Grant has been in command of the Union Forces for fewer than six months. He’s trapped in a brutal, bloody battle to retake Virginia — his push to reclaim the state had already cost the Union Army tens of thousands of men, and had failed to make a major dent in the Confederate lines. Yet President Abraham Lincoln’s orders were to continue pressing the lines until they broke. So in the suffocating heat, undeterred by his frustrated advances, Grant pushes forward towards Richmond. And, at first, it’s a success: Grant’s men capture a swath of territory on the outskirts of the capital, dislodging the Confederates from a useful defensive position.1
But the Confederates have fortified an old mill, and their main defensive line proved resilient. Union forces pushed and bent the line, but could not break it. Some of Grant’s commanders toyed with strategies to flank the line, but David Birney, commander of the Union X Corps, decides to try something rash: He’s going to assault the line directly. The Confederate line disintegrated.
“Only a miracle could save us,” one Confederate general lamented to another.
It was a victory, but not an unqualified one. The Confederates held strong positions all around, and the path to Richmond proper was dicey. So they decided to hunker down and wait for the Union to push through on other fronts.
The day after the main thrust of battle, Grant wired Lincoln to say that the Union soldiers would hold their position. On August 17, Lincoln wired back:
I have seen your dispatch expressing your unwillingness to break your hold where you are. Neither am I willing. Hold on with a bull-dog grip, and chew and choke, as much as possible.
It was that telegraph that Zelensky opted to read when he spoke at the National Archives on Thursday.
“President Lincoln's words reflect the courage and faith that helped America,” Zelensky said. “Such words reflect exactly how Ukrainians fight.” He continued:
Every day of this war, Ukrainian soldiers hold-on with the grip of a bulldog. They chew and choke the Russian occupiers as much as possible. Never before has the Russian dictatorship met such strong resistance. And never again will Russia manage to destroy any other nation.
Ukrainians, of course, are not fighting this alone. And they’re not using field howitzers, the likes of which decided the battles in Virginia. They’re increasingly relying on drones, armored personnel carriers, heavy artillery, and advanced weaponry to defend and recapture their territory. And, while an enormous amount has already been gifted, Zelensky says they need more.
Many of the things Zelensky has asked for — the HIMARS missile system, F-16 fighter jets, the Bradley fighting vehicle — have already arrived, or are coming soon. And they are clearly making a difference: Maybe not in huge strides, but in decisive steps. The major outstanding request is for the U.S-made Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS).
These missiles can be launched from the HIMARS platform (wade through the acronym swamp with me) but offer a considerably longer range than Ukraine's current complement of missiles.
The U.K-made Storm Shadow missile, with a 150 mile range, have proved useful in letting Ukraine hit Russian bases in Crimea, for example. Well the ATACMS can reach roughly 200 miles: Putting into play a whole new list of Russian military assets, and giving Ukraine an edge as it pushes forward in the weeks to come.
A coalition of U.S. lawmakers — the bipartisan Helsinki Commission — first asked Biden to send the missiles in May, per a letter obtained by Foreign Policy. A British defense briefing, per FP, explains the utility of the missiles:
This would not only help Ukraine degrade or destroy Russian weapons of war used to murder Ukrainian defenders and civilians but would also push Russian units and supply chains further from the front, dramatically complicating sustainment and their ability to continue prosecuting this genocidal war. The fewer supplies and arms that reach Russian forces, the less capable they are of holding Ukrainian territory and killing its people.
As I wrote last week, the next few months will be pivotal for Ukraine. It has successfully breached some of Russia’s defensive lines, but the incredibly dense minefields have made advancing difficult.
Even still, according to the Institute for the Study of War, Ukrainian forces are pressing up against the final Russian defensive line near Zaporizhia. If it can break through entirely, it may open a path to the strategic city of Melitopol. That could send Russian forces scrambling to address the breach, just as Confederate soldiers did in Virginia in 1864.
The question is whether Ukrainian forces can advance on from that position, or whether Russian missiles, artillery, and air cover could halt their forward movement. That’s where the ATACMS come in. Being able to push Russian equipment and systems back — even by another 50 miles — or risk destruction, that’s huge. The F-16s, as I wrote last week, offer a similar advantage.
Despite the ATACMS being on Ukraine’s wishlist for some time now, and an emerging demand from Congress to cough them up, Zelensky left Washington empty-handed.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau clearly tried to signal that there was no Ukraine malaise in Canada: During a joint address to Parliament, Trudeau told Zelensky that he would commit another $650 million to build light armored vehicles for Ukraine over the next three years, on top of new initiatives to service Ukraine’s Leopard tanks and to train its future F-16 pilots.
But just as Zelensky was addressing Parliament, news broke that his trip to D.C. had not been in vain: The Biden White House had, behind closed doors, committed to sending the ATACMS.
Asked about the reports in Ottawa, Zelensky declined to confirm or deny that Washington had promised the missiles. “We are discussing all the different types of weapons, long range weapons,” he said.
In the same breath, however, Zelensky said he expects Biden to believe able to deliver the next package of military aid, despite some Republican opposition. But, of course, he has to say that.
The fact is, we don’t know what happens if that majority that Risch described last year keeps eroding.
An emerging narrative coming out of the Republicans’ Ukraine-skeptical minority is that America is fleecing the American people. “This guy is basically coming and saying, if you don't give me my $25 billion I'm gonna shut down your government,” Senator J.D. Vance, one of the signatories of the letter demanding a halt to Ukrainian aid, told conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec. It’s a folsky populism that might work, particularly as another government shutdown fight looms.
Ukraine, and her allies, would be right to be worried about this growing momentum for the skeptics.
Yet Risch was also right: We spend too much time talking about the appeasers, and too little time talking about those who want to see Ukraine win.
In a statement this week, Senator Roger Wicker — a Republican — blasted D.C. for being too slow on delivering the ATACMS.
“Does the Biden administration want Ukraine to win, or not?” Wicker said in a statement. “Every delay in supplying Ukraine with the tools it needs to secure victory has cost unnecessary lives and prolonged the war. Instead of leading from the front, the President held back for months after Britain and France provided deep-strike missiles. This is yet another example of the dangerous drip-drip-drip approach by the Biden administration, which has failed to give Ukraine a bigger advantage.”
So, yes, Ukraine is going to face a rising tide of fatigue. That will get worse as costs mount and success does not roll out like a Hollywood film. But worth remembering that the United States remains dominated by politicians who want Kyiv to succeed.
During his speech to Parliament, Zelensky recounted that Governor General Mary Simon, the King's representative in Canada, taught him an Inuktitut word: Ajuinnata.
Simon explained the word's meaning last year:
"Ajuinata means that if you're confronted with adversity or things that are difficult, you keep going, you don't give up, and you need to make a commitment to continue to make changes," said Simon, the first Indigenous person to hold the office.”
That’s it for this week’s short brief.
I’ll be back sooner than you know it.