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Zelensky: Donald Trump will never stand on Putin’s side

Zelensky fears that some of his country’s Western backers are losing faith, according to The Economist.

Volodymyr Zelensky does not want to think about a long war, although most Ukrainians expect a quick victory. However, that is precisely what he is preparing for. Ukraine’s president says in an interview with The Economist:

“I have to be ready, my team has to be ready for the long war, and emotionally I am ready.”

Speaking on the margins of the yes conference, an international pow-wow in Kyiv, he is calm, composed and glum. At the same events a year ago, he looked rather positive and energetic; news of Ukrainian forces’ success in pushing Russia back from the Kharkiv region heard from every direction.

Everything is very different this year. Three months into its counter-offensive, Ukraine has made only small progress along the all-important southern axis in the Zaporizhia region, where it is trying to sever Russian “land bridge” from Russia to Crimea. The question of how long that will take, or whether it will succeed, disturbs Western leaders. They still talk the good talk, pledging that they will stand with Ukraine “as long as it takes”. However, Mr Zelensky, a former television actor with an acute sense of his audience, has detected a change of mood among some of his partners. He said:

“I have this intuition, reading, hearing and seeing their eyes [when they say] ‘we’ll be always with you. But I see that he or she is not here, not with us.”

Mr Putin seems determined to exhaust the country and to wear out its partners’ resolve to keep funding and supplying it with arms after having failed to defeat Ukraine quickly. He tries to turn Ukraine into a dysfunctional, depopulated state whose refugees cause problems in Europe. But Mr Zelensky says the situation in Russia is rather unstable. Mr Putin “does not understand that in the long war, he will lose. Because it does not matter that 60% or 70% [of Russians] support him. No, his economy will lose.” As Ukraine increases its strikes inside Russia, Russians will start asking awkward questions about their army’s inability to protect them, “because our drones will land”. The Russian president’s authority was weakened by the mutiny in June of Yevgeny Prighozhin, boss of the Wagner mercenary group, who was subsequently assassinated. It will be weakened further, Mr Zelensky thinks.

The President of Ukraine regularly appeals to the Western public, often bypassing its politicians. He still thinks the best way to “convince governments, [make them] believe they are on the right side, is to push them through the media. People read, discuss, decide and insist,” he says. It was public opinion that prompted politicians to increase arms supplies to Ukraine in the early days of the war. He argues that cutting this aid could anger not only Ukrainians but also Western voters. They will begin to ask what all this effort was for. “People won’t forgive [their leaders] if they lose Ukraine.”

If Mr Putin hopes that a victory by Donald Trump in America’s presidential election in 2024 would deliver him victory, he is mistaken. Trump would “never” support Vladimir Putin. “That isn’t what strong Americans do.” He expects Joe Biden will stay the course if he is re-elected. (“Do they want Afghanistan, part two?”) And he hopes that the European Union will not only keep supplying aid, but will open negotiations over the accession process for Ukraine this year. (That move is widely expected to happen at a summit in December.) “It will support morale in Ukraine. It will give this energy to people.”

On the counter-offensive’s secondary front, near the eastern town of Bakhmut, Ukrainian forces are also slowly taking back territory. He says:

“During the first days of the full-scale war, we kept being pushed back. Each day. They took some cities, hundreds of villages,” Now, Ukrainian forces are crawling forward. But troops face a Herculean task to turn advances along either axis into a strategic breakthrough.”

In answer to Western complaints about the offensive’s slowness, Mr Zelensky says it reflects the extreme level of danger. Winning back territory needs to be balanced with preserving as many lives as possible. Soldiers need to reduce the risks: to carry out reconnaissance, to use drones, to avoid direct clashes. Ukraine would have lost “thousands” had it followed advice to commit many more troops, he says.

After months of building up expectations for the counter-offensive, Mr Zelensky is carefully adjusting his message to reality. Victory will not come “tomorrow or the day after tomorrow”, he says. But it is not some fantastical dream. Ukraine deserves to win, and the West should back it. The Russian army is losing “lots of people’‘ and redeploying its reserves to stop the Ukrainian advance, he says: “It means they lose.”

If the war continues for a long time, Ukraine will lose even more people, both on the front line and due to emigration. The government will have to convey this perspective to its citizens, Zelensky says, without specifying how; a new social contract could not be the decision of one person. Nearly 19 months after the war began, the president says he is “morally” ready for the transition. But he will only discuss the idea with his people if weakness becomes a “trend” in the eyes of his Western supporters. Has this moment arrived? No, not yet, he says. “Thank God.”

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