The Biden–Zelensky Phone Call Should Alarm Us

On the menu today: Accounts of the phone call between President Biden and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky offer an unnerving portrait of a Ukrainian leader who is in denial about the risk of a full-scale Russian invasion, and an American leader who doesn’t want to send any more weapons, after equipping the Ukrainians to fight a ground war without any air cover. Is there a single “wartime Consigliere” among the leaders in the West?

There’s Nothing Reassuring about That Biden–Zelensky Call

Maybe American presidents should avoid phone calls with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky because it seems nothing good ever comes from them.

Nothing about the accounts of the Thursday call between President Biden and Zelensky is reassuring, considering the brewing crisis of a potential Russian invasion.

If the leaks from unnamed sources are true — and who knows how accurate those characterizations are — the Russian military buildup is about to face a Ukrainian president who is in denial about the risk and an American president who doesn’t want to send more weapons to Ukraine, after equipping the Ukrainians to fight a ground war without any air cover.

The first oddity is that, for several weeks, Zelensky and the top levels of the Ukrainian government have been publicly insisting that the likelihood and imminence of a Russian invasion are not as high as President Biden and U.S. officials are saying. Earlier this week, the Ukrainian defense minister was urging citizens to “sleep well”:

Speaking in the second televised speech to the nation in as many days, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged Ukrainians not to panic.

“We are strong enough to keep everything under control and derail any attempts at destabilization,” he said.

Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told parliament that “as of today, there are no grounds to believe” Russia will invade imminently, noting that its troops have not formed what he called a battle group to force its way over the border.

“Don’t worry, sleep well,” he said. “No need to have your bags packed.”

Apparently, that mindset continued on the recent presidential phone call: “Zelensky urged his American counterpart to ‘calm down the messaging,’ warning of the economic impact of panic, according to the official. He also said Ukrainian intelligence sees the threat differently.”

You know what would be even worse for the Ukrainian economy than dire warnings from American officials? About 100,000 Russian troops pouring over the border as the country gets crippled by cyberattacks.

For what it’s worth, the account of a senior Ukrainian official to CNN’s Matthew Chance did make Biden sound almost panicked, or at least trying to emphasize the worst-case scenario to Zelensky: “A Russian invasion is now virtually certain once the ground freezes. . . . Kyiv could be ‘sacked, Russian forces may attempt to occupy it, ‘prepare for impact,’ Biden said, according to this official.

”Also for what it is worth, National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne said that account is not true and mischaracterized the president’s warning: “President Biden said that there is a distinct possibility that the Russians could invade Ukraine in February. He has previously said this publicly & we have been warning about this for months. Reports of anything more or different than that are completely false.”

The Ukrainian official’s ‘once the ground freezes’ comment refers to the fact that Russian tanks and other heavy equipment can move over frozen ground, but not in mud:

U.S. officials say the Russian president’s window for an invasion is limited, dictated by temperatures that will freeze the ground — allowing for the easy movement of heavy vehicles and equipment — before a spring thaw, which could begin by March, creates a muddy quagmire.

But a relatively mild winter has slowed the ground’s freezing, and Mr. Putin’s deadline for committing his forces has slipped further toward the spring, officials say. The hard winter freeze that typically comes to Ukraine by January has not happened in many areas of the country. As long as the ground remains muddy, senior administration officials said, Mr. Putin might be forced to push back a ground offensive until February at the earliest.

Ukrainians had better pray for warm, wet weather. The other curious complication to the timing of a Russian invasion could be the winter Olympics, as our Jimmy Quinn explains.

Either way, it appears that the U.S. government — presumably relying on an intelligence community that’s spent a lot of time and effort watching Russia — is more convinced of the risk of a Russian invasion than the president of the country at risk of being invaded. Now, it’s always possible that the Ukrainians know something we don’t. But it’s also possible that we’re seeing the consequences of having the top level of the Ukrainian government being run by a Saturday Night Live-style comedy troupe:

Before turning to politics, President Volodymyr Zelensky was a television actor and comic, and he has placed allies with similar histories in key positions throughout the government, including top advisers, legislators, administrators and even an intelligence chief.

At a time when Russia has built up forces on Ukraine’s border and fear of an invasion is running high, Mr. Zelensky has surrounded himself with people drawn from his comedy studio, Kvartal 95. Few have any experience in diplomacy or warfare.

We must wonder if the danger facing Zelensky’s country is so severe that he’s in denial. As much as President Biden has bobbled his response to this crisis — “minor incursion”! — there’s only so much the U.S. government can do if the leadership of Ukraine isn’t taking the threat seriously enough.

But Biden’s half of the conversation wasn’t reassuring, either: “The senior Ukrainian official, however, told CNN that Biden said Ukraine would not be offered significantly more military help.”

Earlier in the week, I pointed out that Ukraine’s ability to resist invasion will be dependent upon a steady flow of arms and supplies from the West. (General Omar Bradley allegedly said, “Amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics.” We have all spent the past few months witnessing a vivid demonstration of the importance of supply chains in our lives, haven’t we?)

If the Ukrainian forces don’t have access to a steady supply of more weapons and ammunition, then the battle for Ukraine becomes a war of attrition. The Ukrainian military is a lot bigger, better-equipped, and better-trained than it was just a few years ago —  it reported having 6,000 “combat-ready” troops in 2014, and now is estimated to have between 145,000 and 150,000. But Russia’s moving massivenumbers of troops and weapons toward the Ukrainian border — they’re at 130,000 and could build up to 175,000 in the coming weeks. They’ve deployed about 20 warships to the Baltic Sea. They’re mobilizing short-range ballistic missiles, heavy-artillery systems, helicopter and air assets — you name it, they’re sending it to the border.

And if Zelensky is telling the truth, so far, the U.S. has shipped the Ukrainians the weapons for a ground war when they really need ways to stop the Russian Air Force from controlling the skies. From a press conference with Pentagon press secretary John F. Kirby yesterday:

Q: John, President Zelensky, has said that he’s grateful for military aid, but he’s not getting what they really asked for, which is air defense systems, anti-aircraft missiles. The kind of things that could take on the Russian Air Force, not just tanks and ammunition on the ground. Why is the Pentagon refusing to send that kind of weaponry to Ukraine when it’s such a crucial time right now as they prepare to defend themselves?

KIRBY: I will tell you, I mean Jen, we talked about the fact that we had an air and missile defense assessment team over there not long ago – in the last month or so. And they had extensive conversations with their Ukrainian counterparts about those very kinds of capability concerns. This is an iterative process, it’s ongoing. We’ve already sent over three shipments, there are more coming.

I’m not going to get ahead of any – of all that. And I’m not going to speak with great specificity here in terms of the exact systems that are being provided to Ukraine. We are in constant communication with them about their needs and capabilities. And I suspect that those conversations will continue.

If the enemy controls the skies, your forces on the ground can’t do much. Your defensive lines, your bases, your supply convoys, your fuel depots — any of them can get bombed and obliterated at the enemy’s discretion. The enemy can paratroop forces and air-drop equipment wherever they want and surround your forces. It’s another formula for a war of attrition, where Russian forces can just cut off, isolate, bombard, and starve Ukrainian units.

Then again, this wouldn’t be the first time the Biden administration underestimated the risks and consequences of not providing enough air support for an ally.

There’s one other wrinkle to keep in mind in all of this. The U.S. military already has a small number of Florida National Guard troops in Ukraine: “In November, members of the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team deployed to the Ukraine to help train and advise the Ukrainian Armed Forces to improve their defense capabilities. About 150 members of the Pinellas Park based unit are currently in Ukraine.”

Yesterday, Kirby said:

There’s been no decision at this point to change their mission or their status, their posture inside Ukraine. The members of the Florida National Guard are still there, in an advisory and training capacity. . . . And if and when, we believe that for that safety and security, a decision needs to be made about moving them, the Secretary will not hesitate to do so. I think it’s around — less than 200. So, in the event that they had to be moved, we believe that can be done in a fairly expeditious manner.

At the end of the Pentagon press conference yesterday, Kirby and reporters went back and forth about whether the U.S. government thought a Russian invasion was “imminent” or “possibly imminent.”

If the U.S. calls those Florida National Guard troops back, that’s a sign that the U.S. government thinks an invasion is not merely “possibly imminent” but is in fact “imminent.”

ADDENDUM: David Harsanyi has a useful point to keep in mind as we debate the right course on Ukraine: “Not everyone who expresses concern over the sovereignty of Ukraine is a neocon pining to send Americans to die in World War III.  Not everyone who’s anxious about the United States getting dragged into a European conflict is secretly a Putinist who abhors democracy.”