🔒 Biden’s urgent message to Zelenskiy: Ukraine must shift to defence – Andreas Kluth

In the corridors of the World Economic Forum in Davos, a somber exchange unfolds between US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Tasked with conveying a challenging message from President Joe Biden, Sullivan urges Ukraine to shift from offence to defence in its struggle against Russian invaders. Zelenskiy, grappling with a war that has become a stalemate, faces the harsh reality that his nation’s resources are dwindling. As political complexities unfold, the frozen front line in Ukraine tells a tale of strategic recalibration and the urgent need for international support.

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The US Can Make Ukraine Play Defense, on One Condition: Andreas Kluth

By Andreas Kluth

Speaking to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan will deliver a message from his boss, President Joe Biden. The White House wants Ukraine to change strategy in fighting the Russian invaders: from offense to defense. 

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Zelenskiy understands why that makes sense, although he won’t like to hear it or to say so publicly. So he should tell Sullivan to reply to Biden — and to remind the US Congress — that Ukraine can only play proper defense if the US and its allies guarantee that it has the wherewithal.

This, then, is the tragic situation of Ukraine, almost two years after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his unprovoked war of national annihilation: For the sake of keeping up morale at home, Zelenskiy feels he needs to keep denying that the war is now a stalemate, as his top general recently admitted in an unguarded moment. 

So Zelenskiy’s bravely stated goal remains the 10-point peace formula he proposed in 2022. It includes total Russian withdrawal, the return of all the Ukrainian children Moscow has abducted, a tribunal to try Russian war crimes, and more. This plan is what 83 countries discussed in Davos in the run-up to this week’s forum. But Russia wasn’t invited and China didn’t show up, so everybody knows it’s a dead end.

The frozen front line tells a different story. Ukraine’s counteroffensive has failed (frustrating Washington, which had urged Kyiv to adopt different tactics). The Russians are too well dug in, and the Ukrainians have lost too many soldiers and used up too much ammo, especially for air defenses against the relentless Russian missile barrages. Offense is always harder than defense, but for Ukraine it may now be out of the question.

Putin has grasped the tactical advantages of defense too: He has in effect ordered his army to suspend conquest and hold the land it occupies. That also makes strategic sense for him. Putin (whose own “re-election” in March is a foregone conclusion) will spend 2024 waiting out the US election in November, in the hope that Donald Trump returns to the White House and the two strongmen make a deal. 

In the meantime, Putin has turned Russian society into a war economy. The Kremlin will spend 8% of GDP on its army in 2024, exceeding social expenditures for the first time since the break-up of the Soviet Union. Russia’s factories are churning out bullets and bombs, and its partners Iran and North Korea are sending more.

Ukraine has fewer resources. Through last year, it received generous support from the US, UK, the European Union and other Western allies. But their enthusiasm is waning. A combined $110 billion in aid is stuck in the US and Europe. In Washington, Trumpistas in the House of Representatives are holding the money ransom in order to indulge their border-wall fantasies. The obstacle in Europe is Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary and strongman pal of Trump and Putin. Of course, Ukraine should ramp up its own production of ammo, but that’s more easily said than done while Russian missiles are hailing on its factories.

In this context, Zelenskiy is right to reject recurring Western calls for a ceasefire. Russia would use the pause to rearm and restock, in order to resume its full-bore attack on Ukrainian society later. But Ukraine, during the same truce, may not get more money and weapons from the West. So a ceasefire now could be tantamount to capitulation later.

The shocking thing about this insight is how badly the West has already betrayed Kyiv. It’s not the whole West, of course, but the pockets of it that are confused by Putin’s disinformation or have other priorities. The MAGA Republicans in the House and Orban in Europe are mostly in the latter category. Their cynicism will make history.

So Zelenskiy must whisper to Sullivan what both men already know: Sure, we’ll stop driving our Western Abrams and Leopard and Challenger tanks over well-mined mud and trenches while the Russians swarm us with drones from above. We’ll stop that because it makes no sense. We’ll instead try to hold on to what we still have, even if our compatriots in occupied Ukraine will think we’re abandoning them to their Russian overlords. We’ll do that because we need to turn time into our ally, not Putin’s. But we can defend our lines only if you in the US and Europe keep sending us the drones, missiles and bullets, and also the kit to build impenetrable fortifications. 

Zelenskiy and Sullivan understand that this support is what Biden must deliver, even as he tries to manage another war in the Middle East, tensions in East Asia, and the domestic wrecking ball called Trump. On Ukraine, at least, there can be no optimism in Davos this year, only redoubts of bravery.

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