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Zelensky seeks victory. Will US pay the price?

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Picture: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, centre, speaks to media in the town of Bucha, northwest of Kyiv, on April 4, 2022, a day after he said the Russian leadership was responsible for civilian killings in Bucha, where bodies were found lying in the street after the town was retaken by the Ukrainian army. While there is little sign of aid fatigue for Ukraine’s right now, it’s not clear that today’s standing ovations for Zelensky will translate into an open chequebook next year, the writer says.

By Hal Brands

Clad in his trademark fatigues, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hit all the notes one would expect in his address to a joint session of Congress. Ukraine is on the front lines of a global battle against authoritarianism. Failure to beat back Vladimir Putin now will leave the US and its allies to face an even more menacing future. “Your money is not charity,” Zelensky said. “It’s an investment in global security.” Not least, Zelensky appealed for more American assistance, as the conflict in Ukraine becomes a grim contest in economic and military endurance – and as the prospects for US assistance become less certain.

Wars have phases, even if the divisions between them are messy. The first phase of this war saw Ukraine preserve its independence by surviving a multi-pronged Russian attack. The second phase saw Ukraine begin clearing Russian forces from its territory, with major gains in the east and the south.

In both phases, US support arguably provided the critical margin of success, by forecasting Russian attacks, providing badly needed money and weapons, and even helping to war-game Kyiv’s breakout assault around Kharkiv in September. Now comes another phase, and foreign aid will be no less vital.

This phase is murky, for the moment: It is not clear which side will have the initiative or the advantage. Ukraine hopes that the liberation of Kherson was a prelude, rather than a culmination – that it can keep battering Russian forces that, in some cases, are pitifully ill-equipped for winter.

But the Russians, under General Sergei Surovikin, are preparing layered defences and augmenting their numbers with new recruits. Moscow may mount new offensives come the new year; until then, it seeks to crush Ukraine’s economy and national will by destroying its energy infrastructure. This is a strategy of slow, unrelenting brutalisation: After months of insisting that victory was near, Putin now concedes that his war will be long, and maintains that Russia has “no limitations” on military spending for it.

Picture: Alexander Ermochenko/REUTERS – A serviceman with a Russian flag on his uniform stands guard near the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in the course of Ukraine-Russia conflict outside the Russian-controlled city of Enerhodar in the Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine August 4, 2022. Ukraine must keep Russian infrastructure strikes from cratering its economy and depleting its air defences, which means more money and military aid from the West, the writer says.

Indeed, this conflict has defied neat distinctions between wars of movement and wars of attrition, between the type of wars we might expect in the 21st century and those the world experienced in the 20th. Ukraine’s eastern counter-offensive resembled a World War II-style blitzkrieg; the ongoing Russian campaign around Bakhmut looks more like Passchendaele or the Somme. The war has featured high-tech drones, HIMARS, and now Patriot missiles; it has also involved mountains of relatively low-tech artillery shells. No one quite knows how it will end, but the coming year will tax the stamina of both sides.

Russia must keep its isolated, sanctioned economy going, in part by relying more on the world’s other rogues. Ukraine must keep Russian infrastructure strikes from cratering its economy and depleting its air defences, which means more money and military aid from the West.

Ukraine also needs more advanced weapons to liberate more territory – bigger armed drones and longer-range missiles that can rip up the Russian rear echelon, heavy tanks that can penetrate well-prepared defences along the front. And both sides will need ever-more artillery to sustain current operations, let alone undertake new ones. To some degree, the war will hinge on whether the Russians can produce more 152-millimetre shells than the West can produce 155-millimetre shells – which makes the conflict a battle of the industrial bases.

Kyiv has decent prospects in this battle. Russia started with a massive artillery advantage, but sanctions and export controls have hamstrung its defence industry, while America is ramping up production. Thanks to the just-passed National Defence Authorisation Act, the Pentagon can now enter into multi-year contracts for munitions Ukraine needs, rather than raiding its own stockpiles.

But Zelensky wouldn’t be in Washington if everything was copacetic. Rumours of a Russian diplomatic trap – a peace bid meant to freeze the war and forestall the next Ukrainian offensive – are in the air. “It would be naïve to wait for steps towards peace from Russia,” Zelensky said, “which enjoys being a terrorist state.”

Some Pentagon officials are reportedly nervous that aid for Ukraine is depleting the munitions set aside for America’s own war plans. The longer this conflict extends, the more its demands will compete, in the minds of US policymakers, with those of other contingencies Washington may face. Putin knows this, which may be why he seems so confident after such a terrible year.

There is little sign of aid fatigue right now: The White House greeted Zelensky with promises of another $1.85 billion in military gear, and Congress is set to appropriate another $45 billion to see Ukraine through the coming months. But the influence of Ukraine sceptics in the new Republican-led House of Representatives must be making Kyiv nervous about what happens after that: It’s not clear that today’s standing ovations will translate into an open chequebook next year.

Putin’s dream is Zelensky’s nightmare – that America will fall short as the Ukraine war goes long.

Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. The Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, he is co-author, most recently, of “Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China” and a member of the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

This article was published in The Washington Post