Ukraine’s president has declared his country’s military is ready to launch a long-awaited counteroffensive and hinted at concern about the possibility of Donald Trump retaking the White House.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy, giving an interview to the Wall Street Journal, suggested that a significant attack could come soon and said he hoped a change in the US presidency would not impact military aid to Kyiv.
“We strongly believe that we will succeed,” Zelenskiy told the Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper, although he acknowledged he did not know how long the counteroffensive would take or how well it would go.
“To be honest, it can go a variety of ways, completely different. But we are going to do it, and we are ready,” Zelenskiy said, after months of troop training and significant arms donations from the west.
Ukraine has readied 12 brigades, an estimated 60,000 troops, to spearhead an attack it hopes to show it can force the Russian invaders, who total about 300,000, from its territory, some of which has been occupied since 2014.
Initial shaping operations, including long-range missile strikes on Russian military hubs, have already begun but the concern in Kyiv remains that many Ukrainian lives will be lost in an attack that is seen as politically and militarily necessary.
The president said he feared “a large number of soldiers will die” and that he still wanted more air defence systems to protect troops from the larger Russian air force, still largely intact 15 months after the Kremlin launched its full invasion.
However, echoing other western officials, the president said they had the equipment they needed for now, acknowledging “we can’t wait for months” – pointing to the likelihood of a significant attack in coming weeks.
On Friday, John Kirby, a White House national security council spokesperson, said: “We’re comfortable that we have met Ukraine’s needs to conduct their counteroffensive now,” adding: “When I say ‘we’, I don’t just mean the United States, I mean our allies and partners.”
Ukraine has been promised $37bn in military aid from the US, including Himars rocket launchers, making it the largest single western military supporter. Britain, the second largest contributor, has pledged £4.6bn and Germany €4.2bn.
There is considerable anxiety among Ukraine’s leaders about what could happen in the event that Joe Biden is defeated by Donald Trump or another Republican in the next US presidential election in late 2024.
Last month, Trump declined to say whether he wanted Ukraine to win, opting for an equivocal formulation. “Russians and Ukrainians, I want them to stop dying,” he said. “And I’ll have that done. I’ll have that done in 24 hours.”
That underlined the decision by Zelenskiy to speak to the right-wing Journal, in an attempt to persuade a wider Republican audience of the necessity of supporting Ukraine, and ultimately pressurise the party’s notoriously unpredictable leading candidate into following suit.
In the interview, Zelenskiy said a change in president could adversely affect the otherwise vital military support from the US. “In a situation like this, when there is support, you are afraid of changes,” he said.
Choosing his words carefully, he added: “And to be honest, when you mention a change of administration, I feel the same way as any other person – you want changes for the better, but it can also be the other way around.”
The Ukrainian leader also said he did not understand how Trump thought he could end the war in 24 hours, not least because he had not brought an end to the simmering conflict that followed Russia’s seizure of Crimea and occupation by separatists of parts of the eastern Donbas in 2014.
Zelenskiy also said “there is no point” in him attending the next Nato summit in Vilnius, Lithuania in July, unless Ukraine is given a roadmap to membership of the military alliance after the conclusion of the war.
Earlier this week the French president, Emmanuel Macron, warned that alliance members may not be able to reach a consensus at the summit itself, and Zelenskiy’s comments suggest he is willing to negotiate hard on the issue.
Missile attacks were relatively restrained overnight and Kyiv was not attacked for the first night in a week. One person was killed in shelling in the northern Ukrainian Sumy region, its military administration said.