What Zelensky Needs From Washington

Beyond weapons and ammunition, Ukraine also seeks assurances of sustained U.S. support.

President Volodymyr Zelensky walking through Bucha, Ukraine
Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP / Getty

Ten months ago, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was widely viewed as a lightweight who stood little chance against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategic brilliance and unstoppable war machine. But Zelensky famously turned down a “ride”—America’s offer to help him flee from the imminent Russian capture of Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital—insisting that he needed ammunition instead. Since then, he has far outdone Putin as a war leader by marshaling international supporters, including the United States and other NATO nations, and motivating his people and his army not only to resist Russian invaders but to start driving them back to the Russian border.

But Zelensky still needs more ammunition, along with other forms of support. As he meets with President Joe Biden today and prepares to address Congress, he needs more of the weapons systems that Ukraine has already received, additional systems to improve its capabilities, and further economic support to help the Ukrainian public endure.

So far, equipment the United States has already provided, including howitzers, the now-famous High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), high-speed anti-radiation missile (HARM) systems designed to destroy enemy radar, and more basic gear for frontline soldiers has been vital to Ukrainians’ success in forcing Russian forces to retreat. The U.S. possesses far more advanced equipment; one important story of this war is that Ukraine has inflicted terrible losses while using older American weaponry, revealing an enormous gap between the U.S. and Russian capabilities that was not widely acknowledged until this year. Still, much of that equipment has now been in high-tempo operation for months and is surely worse for the wear. The Ukrainians need spare parts and technical know-how to keep operating the systems that their country has already been given.

Just as important, they will continue to need massive amounts of ammunition. The immense expenditure of ammunition by both sides has surprised many observers. Russians’ supposedly deep stores of ammo are beginning to thin out.

U.S. systems’ far greater accuracy is a major advantage over their Russian counterparts. Using HIMARS, for instance, the Ukrainians have been able to precisely target Russian command-and-control facilities and troop depots located many miles behind the front line. The Ukrainians must hold on to this advantage if they want to keep stymieing Russian attacks in places such as the bitterly contested Bakhmut, a city in the Donetsk region, and prepare another Ukrainian offensive to reclaim captured land.

Helping them do so should be easy for the U.S. Of the substantial new military aid likely to be announced today, large stores of ammunition are probably the highest-value items. The Biden administration appears willing to provide the Ukrainians with the supplies they need in order to keep using the weapons they have already been given. It is undoubtedly calculating how much ammunition the U.S. must retain to preserve its own security, and will likely give Ukraine as much of the rest as possible.

Zelensky will want more. In particular, he will want a variety of more sophisticated American equipment, including the Patriot anti-missile systems, which first attained global renown when they were used to intercept Iraqi Scud missiles in the early 1990s. They have proved to be among the world’s most effective anti-missile equipment. Until recently, wariness about Russia’s possible response made the Biden administration hesitant to send Patriots. But Russia’s cruel bombardment of Ukrainian urban areas and its plans for expanded use of Iranian missiles and attack drones have changed America’s calculations.

Patriots are a defensive system and will mostly be used to defend Ukrainian cities. If Zelensky’s forces are going to drive the Russians back on the battlefield, they will want longer-range weapons systems than they have now. Shocked by the effectiveness of Ukrainian longer-range fire to this point, Russian military planners appear to be changing their tactics significantly, locating large depots and storage facilities so far behind the front line that HIMARS ammunition cannot reach them. If Ukraine could extend its range, it could devastate Russia’s capabilities.

Ukraine would like the U.S. to supply Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) long-range ammunition for the HIMARS. These projectiles can be fired accurately at targets almost 200 miles away. They would transform the conflict, because nowhere in occupied Ukrainian territory would be safe for the Russian invaders. This includes Crimea, which Russia occupied and annexed in 2014 and appears especially determined to keep. That is why Zelensky might fail in his ATACMS request. The Biden administration has so far resisted every Ukrainian plea for that equipment, likely fearing that extending Ukrainian range and accuracy in such a way might lead the Russians to panic and overescalate in return.

Instead, the Biden administration might try to find alternative ways to extend the range of Ukrainian fire. The next military package for Ukraine will reportedly include Joint Direct Attack Munitions equipment to allow the Ukrainians to improve the accuracy of their “dumb” bombs. This approach makes sense.

Some of Zelensky’s requests are easier to meet than others. He can likely expect significant aid to keep Ukrainian power supplies functioning this winter, as well as other economic and humanitarian assistance to let the Ukrainian people know they are not being forgotten.

Zelensky’s bigger challenge will be securing detailed plans for a significant and sustained increase in U.S. military support. In addition to the American equipment it has acquired, Ukraine has also relied on the legacy Soviet weapons systems it possessed when Russia invaded in February. Eventually, Kyiv will want to switch to equipment meeting full NATO standards. Perhaps the most pressing medium-term need will be for aircraft. Although Ukraine has had considerable success using older Soviet-designed planes, they are a finite resource. The longer the war goes on, and the better Ukraine fights, the more willing the Biden administration might be to equip Ukrainian forces with American aircraft, most notably F-16s. Though rather old, these planes are far more capable than anything the Ukrainians are now flying and would offer a major advantage over Russia’s air force.

Yet deploying F-16s in the current conflict would require months of preparation, including configuring Ukrainian airfields and training Ukrainian pilots and ground crews. Any immediate public announcement of such a move would be surprising. But if Zelensky can get some indication that the U.S. will eventually support the idea, that would make his trip a major success.

The Ukrainian president understands the impact of his own physical presence in the U.S. capital. Yesterday morning, before departing for Washington, Zelensky visited Ukrainian troops in Bakhmut—where he was easily within the range of Russian firepower. But he knew that a visit to the dangerous area, especially when compared with Putin’s carefully choreographed and very safe public appearances, would bring important moral and diplomatic benefits.

Outwardly, Zelensky’s trip to Washington will be a triumph. Biden will greet him with respect, and the Ukrainian cause will be in the spotlight in Washington as never before. With the exception of Trumpist troglodytes and far-left commentators who support Putin for their own ideological purposes, most of the U.S. public will view the Ukrainian president with real affection, and he will likely receive formal assurances of substantial support. For Zelensky, though, agreements on issues that won’t be discussed publicly may be what matters most.