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Zelensky’s optimism about western support is fading

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is angry about the West’s decreased interest in Ukraine after his visit to the USA, Time reported.

In 2022, according to Time readers, Zelensky became the most influential person of the year. Joe Biden thinks Zelensky has inspired the nations of the free world with his example. With the support of the United States and other Western allies, he made his mark on history and proved that Ukraine could have a democratic future. However, as the war continues, the support of Western countries as well as Zelensky’s optimism is gradually fading.

In an interview with Time, Zelensky said after a visit to Washington on 21 September that he felt fatigue not only from leading the state during the fighting, but also from the need to convince Western allies that they should continue to support Kyiv.

Volodymyr Zelensky was running late at the summit. The reason, he later said, was the exhaustion he felt that night, not only from the demands of leadership during the war but also the persistent need to convince his allies that, with their help, Ukraine can win.

Nobody believes in our victory like I do. Nobody,” Instilling that belief in his allies, he said, “takes all your power, your energy. You understand? It takes so much of everything.

Support for military aid to Ukraine has been declining in US society for months, and Zelensky’s visit had no effect on that. According to a Reuters poll conducted shortly after Zelensky’s departure, some 41 per cent of Americans want Congress to provide Kyiv with more weapons, down from 65 per cent in June, when Ukraine launched a major counter-offensive. That offensive is proceeding at an agonising pace and with huge casualties, making it increasingly difficult for Zelensky to convince his partners that victory is just around the corner. With the outbreak of war in Israel, even keeping the world’s attention on Ukraine has become a serious problem, according to Time.

Earlier, a former adviser to former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, Oleh Soskin, said that Ukraine had no choice but to make peace before the New Year. In his opinion, new circumstances related to the conflict in the Middle East and the West’s inability to continue helping Kyiv make the defeat of the Ukrainian Armed Forces inevitable.

However, Zelensky remains adamantly opposed to even a temporary truce. He told in an interview:

For us it would mean leaving this wound open for future generations. Maybe it will calm some people down inside our country, and outside, at least those who want to wrap things up at any price. But for me, that’s a problem, because we are left with this explosive force. We only delay its detonation.

Zelensky piously believes Ukraine can win on its own terms, and is changing tactics to do so. The Ukrainians are ramping up production of drones and missiles, realising that the flow of Western weapons may eventually dry up.

Volodymyr Zelensky calls the war in Ukraine a war of wills and fears that the fighting could spread beyond its borders. He said:

I’ve long lived with this fear. A third world war could start in Ukraine, continue in Israel, and move on from there to Asia, and then explode somewhere else.

That was his message in Washington: Help Ukraine stop the war before it spreads, and before it’s too late. He worries his audience has stopped paying attention.

During Zelensky’s previous visit to Washington late last year, he was received with honours. A few days before Christmas, the White House sent a US Air Force plane to pick him up in eastern Poland and fly him, accompanied by a NATO reconnaissance plane and an F-15 Eagle fighter jet, to Joint Base Andrews near the US capital. That same evening, Zelensky addressed a joint session of Congress, saying Ukraine had won “the battle for the minds of the world”, Time reports.

A year later, things are different. Aid to Ukraine became a sticking point in the federal budget debate. One of Zelensky’s foreign policy advisers in September urged him to cancel the trip, warning that the environment was too unfavourable. Congressional leaders refused to allow Zelensky to make a public appearance on Capitol Hill. His aides tried to arrange his private appearance on Fox News Channel and an interview with Oprah Winfrey. Neither was successful.

Instead, on the morning of 21 September, Zelensky met privately with then House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and then went to the Old Senate Chamber, where lawmakers behind closed doors began asking him uncomfortable questions. Most of Zielenski’s usual critics remained silent at the meeting, with Senator Ted Cruz arriving more than 20 minutes late. Democrats, for their part, wanted to understand the direction of the war and how badly Ukraine needed US support. Zelensky recalls:

They asked me straight up: If we don’t give you the aid, what happens? What happens is we will lose.

Zelensky returned to Kyiv just when it was necessary to start preparing Ukraine for winter under war conditions. Ukraine’s war-damaged infrastructure is not ready for power surges when temperatures drop. Three high-ranking officials responsible for dealing with the problem told me that power outages are likely to be more severe this winter, and the reaction of Ukraine’s population will not be as forgiving. One of them says:

Last year people blamed the Russians. This time they’ll blame us for not doing enough to prepare.

Since the beginning of the war, Ukraine has not published official data on the number of dead and wounded. However, according to American and European estimates, the death toll has long exceeded 100,000 on each side. The war has so undermined the ranks of Ukraine’s armed forces that conscription commissions are forced to draft increasingly older men, bringing the average age of a soldier in Ukraine to about 43. The close aide to Zelensky said:

They’re grown men now, and they aren’t that healthy to begin with. This is Ukraine. Not Scandinavia.

At the beginning of the war, the picture looked different. The territorial defence forces alone received 100,000 recruits in the first 10 days of the war. The mass mobilisation was partly fuelled by optimistic predictions by some high-ranking officials that Ukraine would win the war in a matter of months, if not weeks.

Now conscription into the army has dropped significantly. As conscription intensifies across the country, stories are circulating on social media of conscripts dropping people off trains and buses and sending them to the front. Those with means sometimes take bribes for exemption from service, often paying for medical exemptions. By late summer, such instances of corruption in the conscription system had become so widespread that on 11 August Zelenski fired the heads of conscription offices in all regions of the country.

This decision was meant to demonstrate his determination to fight corruption. However, the move did not pay off, as conscription came to a near halt without leadership. In addition, the dismissed officers proved difficult to replace, also because the reputation of the conscription offices was tarnished, Time reports.

In recent months, the issue of corruption has negatively affected Zelensky’s relations with many of his allies. On the eve of his visit to the United States, the White House prepared a list of anti-corruption reforms that the Ukrainians were expected to implement. One aide who travelled with Zelensky to the US tells me that these proposals were for the very top of the state hierarchy. One presidential adviser said:

These were not suggestions. These were conditions.

When a Time journalist asked Zelensky about the problem of fighting corruption, he acknowledged its seriousness and that it poses a threat to Ukraine’s morale and its relations with foreign partners. He assured that the fight against corruption is among his top priorities. He also suggested that some foreign allies have an incentive to exaggerate the problem because it gives them an excuse to cut off financial support. Zelensky said:

It’s not right for them to cover up their failure to help Ukraine by tossing out these accusations.

Since the early days of the war in 2022, Zelensky’s main priority, and arguably his main contribution to the country’s defence, has been to draw attention to Ukraine and rally the democratic world to its side. With the outbreak of the war in Israel, both of these tasks have become much more difficult. The attention of Ukraine’s allies in the US and Europe, as well as the world’s media, quickly turned to the Gaza Strip. Zelensky told:

It’s logical. Of course, we lose out from the events in the Middle East. People are dying, and the world’s help is needed there to save lives, to save humanity.

Zelensky wanted to help. After the crisis meeting with aides, he asked the Israeli government for permission to visit their country in a show of solidarity. The answer appeared the following week in Israeli media reports:

The time is not right.

At the outset of the war, Zelensky was trying to retain the sympathy of humanity. Now his task has become more difficult. In his foreign trips and presidential phone calls, he must convince world leaders that helping Ukraine is in their national interest, that it will, in Biden’s words, “pay dividends”. This is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve as global crises escalate. But faced with the alternative – freeze the war or lose it – Zelensky sees no choice but to continue it through the winter and beyond. He says:

I don’t think Ukraine can allow itself to get tired of war. Even if someone gets tired on the inside, a lot of us don’t admit it.

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