Zelenskyy is in France with more asks, and some skepticism

by Admin
Zelenskyy is in France with more asks, and some skepticism

PARIS — President Joe Biden‘s grand promises to stick with Ukraine to the end during his trip to France aren’t enough for Kyiv, which will keep pushing the U.S. and its other allies to do more to help turn the war in Ukraine’s favor.

Following a ceremony commemorating the 80th anniversary of D-Day on Thursday, Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met Friday at a Paris hotel. And Biden assured Zelenskyy that the U.S. is in the fight with Ukraine to the end.

“I will assure you, the United States is going to stand with you,” Biden said in a brief appearance before reporters at the outset of their meeting. “You are the bulwark against the aggression that is taking place. We have an obligation to be there. … We’re still in, completely, thoroughly.”

Zelenskyy thanked the U.S. for its support, but he also noted that there was more to discuss. He said he didn’t want to share certain updates about the war while members of the press were in the room but that he planned to bring them up with Biden. “There are some details on the battlefield you need to hear from us,” he said. Their private meeting lasted 30 minutes.

Zelenskyy is already scoring some wins on his trip. Biden announced that he’s signing a new $225 million Ukraine package Friday, some of which will go to fixing Ukraine’s electric grid. The package also includes artillery ammunition, air defense missiles and anti-tank weapons, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced Friday.

French President Emmanuel Macron also announced Thursday that Paris will help train 4,500 Ukrainian soldiers and pilots, and give a number of Mirage 2000 fighter jets to the country, Zelenskyy is also meeting with Macron during his visit.

Still, some Ukrainian lawmakers and people close to Zelenskyy’s office aren’t confident their allies are ready to provide assistance quickly enough to win the war. That’s even after rallying cries like a speech Biden gave Thursday at the D-Day commemoration, stressing that if Russia prevails, “all of Europe will be threatened.”

Some officials in Kyiv aren’t buying the rhetoric: “His D-Day speech doesn’t matter,” said a person who has spoken with officials in Zelenskyy’s office, granted anonymity to speak candidly. Among top Ukrainian officials it’s seen as empty rhetoric, the person explained.

There are a few recent moves by Biden that have led to this sense of skepticism in Kyiv.

This week, Biden both reasserted his opposition to allowing Ukraine to join NATO and opted not to attend an upcoming peace summit in Switzerland, sending Vice President Kamala Harris in his stead. And while Biden gave Kyiv permission last week to strike inside Russia with U.S. weapons, many in Zelenskyy’s government say the authorization is too limited, confined to the area around one city.

“This solution remains half-hearted. Limiting the range of strikes against Russia is not capable of ensuring our victory,” said Yehor Cherniev, deputy chair of the Ukrainian parliament’s Committee on National Security, Defense and Intelligence.

Four key items were on the Ukrainian leader’s wish list for his meetings Friday, two senior Ukrainian government officials said ahead of the discussions, granted anonymity to speak freely. Zelenskyy planned to press both Biden and Macron to seize $300 billion in Russian financial assets held in their countries and for the money to be used to fund Ukraine’s war effort. With Biden, he planned to focus on securing more long-range missiles and for the U.S. president to lift the prohibition on using them deeper in Russia than just the border areas adjacent to Kharkiv.

“As ever he will plead for more air defense systems — not only to protect our cities but our frontlines too,” one of the officials said.

Kyiv plans to use the upcoming NATO summit, held in Washington next month, to push for more Patriot air defense systems in particular, Olga Stefanishyna, Ukrainian deputy prime minister on EU and Euro-Atlantic integration, told POLITICO. She also expects “specific decisions” regarding Ukraine’s membership in NATO.

The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment about Ukraine’s complaints. However, a senior administration official, granted anonymity to speak candidly, called criticism of Biden’s remarks “nonsense,” saying that the president has created the massive coalition of countries now backing the country in its war with Russia.

In his appearance alongside Zelenskyy, Biden told the Ukrainian president: “You haven’t bowed down at all. You continue to fight in a way that’s just remarkable. And I’m not going to walk away from you.”

Biden also apologized to the Ukrainian president for the delay on the last supplemental aid package because, he said, “some of our very conservative members who were holding it up.”

Washington has rallied dozens of countries behind Ukraine’s cause, providing the country with tens of billions of economic and military assistance. The White House has also gradually granted Ukraine’s wishes over the course of the war, most recently by partially lifting the missile restrictions.

That was a welcome change for Ukraine, but it’s unlikely to lead to a major shift in the war soon. Russian forces have advanced into the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent weeks and clashed with Ukrainian forces, who haven’t yet been able to retake territory.

In order to see real results on the battlefield, said Cherniev, the Ukrainian lawmaker, Ukraine must be allowed to use Army Tactical Missile Systems, which have a range of nearly 200 miles, and other long-range weapons to strike deep into Russia. The current restriction will only slightly help Ukraine’s defensive capabilities, he argued.

Despite criticism from Kyiv and Ukraine backers in Congress, the Biden administration says it sees a clear path to Ukrainian victory as the war enters its third summer — but it will take time.

The U.S. has to dig Kyiv out of the “massive hole” left by Congress not passing funding for Ukraine for six months and solidify its defensive lines, said the senior administration official when asked about the path to victory. Then, Ukraine will then regain territory lost while the supplemental that provided that funding was held up.

Simply allowing Ukraine to strike deeper isn’t the magic bullet, the official said: Ukraine needs “a combination of a lot of different capabilities” and is receiving those from the West.

Ukraine is starting to receive the combination of capabilities it needs to potentially turn the tide, said George Barros, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. But Washington further loosening restrictions on how U.S. weapons can be used would allow Kyiv to make gains in the near term, he argued.

The White House needs “to make a couple more changes. … This could be a game changer if it’s implemented correctly and on the timeline,” Barros said.

The Biden administration believes that allowing Kyiv such capabilities would provoke Russia into widening the war, and Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that his missiles could strike the U.S. or Europe. He also threatened to supply the West’s adversaries with weapons in retaliation for the U.S. and Britain sending long-range missiles to Ukraine.

The effort to unlock seized Russian assets has more backing from the Biden administration.

Biden’s short-term focus is on leveraging the $300 billion in seized Russian assets to generate more aid to sustain Zelenskyy’s military. The U.S. has been pushing G7 allies to coalesce around a plan by next week’s summit in Italy that would issue a loan of around $50 billion to Ukraine that would be repaid over time with interest on the seized assets, most of which are held in Europe.

But Macron has concerns about the plan and is considered to be the lone remaining holdout who might prevent the G7 from approving it at next week’s meetings, according to two senior U.S. administration officials granted anonymity to discuss the sensitive topic.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan said the plan to utilize the seized Russian assets “will be a substantial agenda item” when Biden and Macron meet in Paris on Saturday as part of the president’s official state visit to France.

“We’re going to make a big push to see if we can get clarity on a path forward over the course of the next several days,” Sullivan said aboard Air Force One on Tuesday night.

He added: “This is a priority for the United States. We believe it’s a priority for the entire G7. We want to see every country come on board with a method by which we can mobilize resources for Ukraine at scale so that they are able to have what they need to be able to succeed in this war.”

Jamie Dettmer, Paul McLeary and Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.

Matt Berg reported from Washington. Eli Stokols reported from Paris.

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