Opinion: One month into war, Zelensky is done with niceties

It’s a scene that’s being replayed across this UNESCO world heritage city, from schools to shopfronts and government buildings.

It is also a clear sign that Ukrainians are digging in for the long haul.

If the Western leaders gathered in Brussels Thursday thought they had produced a hurricane of policy making or statecraft — including pledges to bolster NATO defenses against chemical, biological and nuclear weapons of mass destruction — by the time the news reached Ukraine, it was little more than a distraction from the horror unfolding on their doorstep.

Yet again, Western leaders had said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s use of such weapons would constitute a red line and trigger unspecified consequences. Speaking to Ukrainians, I found the overwhelming response was, ‘Haven’t we all heard this before?’

Indeed, there is an increasingly apparent change in tone of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s appeal to the West. Late Thursday, in an address to the European Council summit in which he once again pleaded for EU membership, the wartime leader identified each country which was late or reluctant to provide assistance to Ukraine. Targeted were Ireland, Germany and Portugal, as well as Hungary for its neutral stance.
The very same day, after calling on NATO to dedicate at least 1% of its military assets to Ukraine, Zelensky drastically expanded his wish-list for military equipment from the United States — saying Kyiv needs 500 Javelin and 500 Stinger missiles per day. That’s in addition to the jets, attack helicopters and advanced anti-aircraft systems already requested.

Zelensky’s relatively new strategy to publicly name and shame countries that Kyiv believes to be sitting on the diplomatic fence appears to be his way to leverage soaring global popularity. (Some of my Ukrainian friends joke that the TV comedian-turned-politician is more popular abroad than in his own homeland). But whether it will move world leaders such as US President Joe Biden to provide such items as jets — which could make it appear as a belligerent to Moscow — is doubtful.

Increasingly, Ukrainians from many walks of life tell me that they feel as if the country is executing a proxy war for the West — pushing back a superpower so as to protect countries on NATO’s eastern flank. In several passionate addresses to various parliaments, Zelensky has pretty much said as much.
Even the West’s promised response to Putin’s use of WMDs would depend on the situation, Biden said. That brought back memories here of his pre-war slip-up in January when he said the degree of sanctions in response to a Russian incursion into Ukraine would be proportionate to the type of invasion (the White House quickly walked back the comment).
Now, even though dozens of countries are providing a massive pipeline of weapons, Ukraine says its stocks are being depleted at a more rapid clip than the resupply.
Realizing the lack of appetite in European capitals to directly confront Putin, Kyiv will likely increase efforts to secure micro-alliances with officials in like-minded former Soviet states who also fear ending up in Putin’s crosshairs. The brave visit two weeks ago by the Polish, Czech and Slovenian prime ministers was a sign of this growing closeness and solidarity.
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Over the past month, the toll on Ukraine has been immense: upwards of 10 million people have been displaced, several thousand dead and injured and cities such as Mariupol completely flattened.
It is Mariupol which has become ground zero for the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe that has not only shocked the world, but where red lines, which should have been established by the West, were crossed — such as the strike earlier this month on a maternity ward that killed a pregnant mother and her unborn child.

Red lines should be based on international humanitarian law that no belligerent should cross. That includes deliberate targeting of non-military sites such as schools, kindergartens, hospitals, water treatment plants and fields used for agriculture. These violations should be seen as war crimes and treated as such.

Pummeled almost beyond recognition, the southern port city of Mariupol has become the site of the most horrific images from the war. On the doorstep of Europe, people in the besieged city are reporting scenes resembling “hell on earth” — killing stray dogs for food, melting snow for drinking water and dipping mass graves to accommodate the large number of corpses.
About 300 people are believed to have died in a Russian attack on the Mariupol Theater nine days ago, where Ukrainian officials say up to 1,300 had sought refuge. Painted on the ground outside the building — in giant Russian letters — was the word “CHILDREN.”

One month into the invasion, the road ahead is likely to be equally bloody. In the worst case scenario, the Russian side, seeking to achieve regime change in Kyiv and more territory, could opt to maintain a simmering conflict just as they have in the occupied Donbas through the use of Russian-backed rebels (they aren’t separatists). Successive peace talks over eight years there failed to achieve a lasting ceasefire.

Seeking to avoid more humiliating battlefield losses (by some estimates, the number of killed Russian troops is 15,000), Russian commanders will likely shift to the use of longer-range missiles and even hypersonic missiles to pummel Ukrainian cities and strategic targets such as airfields and munitions storage depots. The Russians have already resorted to long range missiles in western Ukraine where there’s no physical presence.
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And in the past eight years cities and towns in and around the Donbas region, including Mariupol in 2015, have been struck by Russian unguided shells. Furthermore, bombing which causes civilians to flee fits well into the Russian playbook of weaponizing migration. The introduction of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons of mass destruction cannot be ruled out.
In the days and weeks ahead, Ukrainians will be nervously watching as their president enters into high-level peace negotiations with Russia proposed by Zelensky. One can safely assume that the Kremlin, in the final phase of negotiations, will demand concessions that no Ukrainian president could ever agree to: giving up territory seized by Russia, formally recognizing the occupied Donbas and Crimea as part of the Russian Federation, for example, and swearing off membership bids for alliances such as NATO.
Although Zelensky and his ambassador to the UK have touched on the idea of NATO neutrality for Ukraine, it is unclear whether it would generate widespread popular support.
To face off against Putin at the negotiating table, the comedian-turned-politician who was transformed into a wartime president literally overnight will need extraordinary skill and deftness. With so much spilled blood, senseless destruction and displacement on a massive scale, Ukrainians will not be in the mood to give Zelensky much space for concessions. And even if they did, the Russians have a well-deserved reputation for not honoring their promises.

So with so much at stake, what’s the West to do? Meeting Kyiv’s requests for more weaponry and assets such as sophisticated surface to air missiles — including more of the US-made armed switchblade or kamikaze drones — should be a no-brainer. The no-fly zone concept enforced by NATO jets is a non-starter, but if the Russians escalate their aggression by targeting Lviv, for example, that should trigger urgent discussions in NATO about protection of Ukrainian skies by technological means.

At the end of the day, the West has the choice of intervening now in the Ukraine war in a game-changing way by eliminating Russian advantages in the air, cutting off supply lines and continuing to squeeze the Russian economy. Better to act now on the West’s own terms — and prevent the destruction of the Ukrainian nation — or be forced to do so later on Putin’s terms after thousands more innocent Ukrainian men, women and children have been slaughtered.

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