What I learned from meeting President Zelensky

The last two weeks have answered a central question of the Russian-Ukrainian war; can the Ukrainians undertake the necessary offensives to liberate their people and reoccupy their territory? They answered this question emphatically with their highly successful and ongoing offensive on Kharkiv.

During this offensive, I had the opportunity to visit Ukraine and meet with senior military and government officials. I even had the privilege of meeting President Zelensky. In person, he is even more present than his social networks suggest. Small in stature but extremely engaging, funny and charismatic, one need only be in his presence for a short time to see why his leadership has been central to Ukraine’s efforts in this war.

I took away three key observations from the visit.

First, Ukrainians are competent. That’s a gross understatement. No army in this century has had to fight in all areas of warfare simultaneously and do so against a larger and better armed adversary. The Ukrainians have clearly spent years preparing. The most important preparation was not physical but intellectual. They retrained their troops away from Soviet centralized command methods to more decentralized command and control. This was a clear difference between the two belligerents and gave the less well-armed Ukrainians a significant advantage on the battlefield.

Beyond that, the Ukrainians adopted what I have described elsewhere as a strategy of corrosion. They constantly attacked the Russians at their weak points, destroyed their logistics and slowly killed as many Russian battlefield leaders as possible. At the strategic level, their global influence campaign set a new benchmark for efficiency. Zelensky insisted in our discussions on making sure he and the Ukrainian government “speak the truth by getting his message across to other nations.” This Ukrainian skill has resulted in a military institution that is now unrivaled in the art and science of 21st century warfare.

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Second, Ukrainians are proud of their national effort – military, civilian, diplomatic and informational – to defend their nation against the depredations of the deadly but clumsy Russian military. It is not a pride that features waving flags and empty patriotic gestures. Indeed, traveling around Kyiv, one might miss that there is a vicious war going on. There is a quiet, humble pride in the alert posture of each soldier, and the confident step of the officials and soldiers I encountered. Ukrainians are deeply proud of their battlefield achievements. The Russian army has not been humiliated and destroyed in this way since the Second World War. But Ukrainian pride extends to how their nation seems to have found a more overt level of unity than before the war.

Finally, the Ukrainians are confident. They know they can win this war. Zelensky said, “We don’t believe there are any compromises when it comes to Russia. There are only conditions, in particular the departure of Russia from Ukraine”. This is partly the result of their achievements in the battles of Kyiv, Kharkiv and elsewhere. The Ukrainians have taken the strategic initiative in this war and are taking back huge swaths of their territory from the Russians.

But there is another more vital source of their confidence: Ukrainians know exactly what they are fighting for. They fight for their people and their country. And they firmly believe they are fighting for the larger idea that democracies matter, whatever their form or geography. It is this deep sense of purpose that underpins the confidence of Ukrainians and strengthens the hearts of everyone, from the most junior soldier to the president.

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