“He deludes himself,” one of Zelensky’s closest aides tells in frustration. “We’re out of options. We’re not winning. But try telling him that,..” writes TIME at a large reportage about the state of the Ukrainian President.
Public support for aid to Ukraine has been in decline for months in the U.S., and Zelensky’s visit did nothing to revive it. Some 41% of Americans want Congress to provide more weapons to Kyiv, down from 65% in June, when Ukraine began a major counteroffensive, according to a Reuters survey taken shortly after Zelensky’s departure. That offensive has proceeded at an excruciating pace and with enormous losses, making it ever more difficult for Zelensky to convince partners that victory is around the corner. With the outbreak of war in Israel, even keeping the world’s attention on Ukraine has become a major challenge.
After his visit to Washington, TIME followed the President and his team back to Kyiv, hoping to understand how they would react to the signals they had received, especially the insistent calls for Zelensky to fight corruption inside his own government, and the fading enthusiasm for a war with no end in sight. On my first day in Kyiv, I asked one member of his circle how the President was feeling. The response came without a second’s hesitation: “Angry.”
The usual sparkle of his optimism, his sense of humor, his tendency to liven up a meeting in the war room with a bit of banter or a bawdy joke, none of that has survived into the second year of all-out war. “Now he walks in, gets the updates, gives the orders, and walks out,” says one longtime member of his team. Another tells me that, most of all, Zelensky feels betrayed by his Western allies. They have left him without the means to win the war, only the means to survive it.
But his convictions haven’t changed. Despite the recent setbacks on the battlefield, he does not intend to give up fighting or to sue for any kind of peace. On the contrary, his belief in Ukraine’s ultimate victory over Russia has hardened into a form that worries some of his advisers. It is immovable, verging on the messianic. “He deludes himself,” one of his closest aides tells me in frustration. “We’re out of options. We’re not winning. But try telling him that.”
At the end of last year, during his previous visit to Washington, Zelensky received a hero’s welcome. The White House sent a U.S. Air Force jet to pick him up in eastern Poland a few days before Christmas and, with an escort from a NATO spy plane and an F-15 Eagle fighter, deliver him to Joint Base Andrews outside the U.S. capital. That evening, Zelensky appeared before a joint session of Congress to declare that Ukraine had defeated Russia “in the battle for minds of the world.”
Watching his speech from the balcony, I counted 13 standing ovations before I stopped keeping track. One Senator told me he could not remember a time in his three decades on Capitol Hill when a foreign leader received such an admiring reception. A few right-wing Republicans refused to stand or applaud for Zelensky, but the votes to support him were bipartisan and overwhelming throughout last year.
This time around, the atmosphere had changed. Assistance to Ukraine had become a sticking point in the debate over the federal budget. One of Zelensky’s foreign policy advisers urged him to call off the trip in September, warning that the atmosphere was too fraught. Congressional leaders declined to let Zelensky deliver a public address on Capitol Hill. His aides tried to arrange an in-person appearance for him on Fox News and an interview with Oprah Winfrey. Neither one came through.
The cold will also make military advances more difficult, locking down the front lines at least until the spring. But Zelensky has refused to accept that. “Freezing the war, to me, means losing it,” he says. Before the winter sets in, his aides warned me to expect major changes in their military strategy and a major shake-up in the President’s team. At least one minister would need to be fired, along with a senior general in charge of the counteroffensive, they said, to ensure accountability for Ukraine’s slow progress at the front. “We’re not moving forward,” says one of Zelensky’s close aides. Some front-line commanders, he continues, have begun refusing orders to advance, even when they came directly from the office of the President. “They just want to sit in the trenches and hold the line,” he says. “But we can’t win a war that way.”
In some branches of the military, the shortage of personnel has become even more dire than the deficit in arms and ammunition. One of Zelensky’s close aides tells me that even if the U.S. and its allies come through with all the weapons they have pledged, “we don’t have the men to use them.”
In recent months, the issue of corruption has strained Zelensky’s relationship with many of his allies. Ahead of his visit to Washington, the White House prepared a list of anti-corruption reforms for the Ukrainians to undertake. One of the aides who traveled with Zelensky to the U.S. told me these proposals targeted the very top of the state hierarchy. “These were not suggestions,” says another presidential adviser. “These were conditions.”
The focus of Ukraine’s allies in the U.S. and Europe, and of the global media, quickly shifted to the Gaza Strip.
“It’s logical,” Zelensky tells me. “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.”
A few days later, President Biden tried to break through the impasse Zelensky had seen on Capitol Hill. Instead of asking Congress to vote on another stand-alone package of Ukraine aid, Biden bundled it with other priorities, including support for Israel and U.S.-Mexico border security. The package would cost $105 billion, with $61 billion of it for Ukraine. “It’s a smart investment,” Biden said, “that’s going to pay dividends for American security for generations.”
But it was also an acknowledgment that, on its own, Ukraine aid no longer stands much of a chance in Washington. When I asked Zelensky about this, he admitted that Biden’s hands appear to be tied by GOP oppositio, concludes TIME.
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