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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky insisted his military’s counteroffensive against Russian forces was about “gaining momentum”, as he sought to reassure Western governments who are worried about the operation’s slow progress.
The weeks-old effort to push back Russian forces in Ukraine began later than Kiev expected, Zelensky said, due to insufficient munitions, weapons and properly trained brigades, which gave Russia time to lay mines and build defensive lines.
But momentum on the front was about to change, Zelensky added, while reiterating his call to supply allies with more long-range missiles and advanced fighter jets.
“We are approaching a moment when the relevant actions can gain momentum because we are already passing through some mine locations and we are demining these areas,” he said.
The Ukrainian leader was speaking via video to international security leaders at the four-day Aspen Security Forum, where the pace of Ukraine’s counteroffensive to push back Russian forces in eastern and southern Ukraine dominated discussions.
Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland told Zelensky that the progress of the counteroffensive was “the question on everyone’s mind here” and “the preoccupation of all your friends in the world”.
U.S. National Security Adviser Jack Sullivan told an audience in Colorado that the results of Ukraine’s military efforts will be clear only when Kiev fully commits its forces.
“It’s at that moment when they make a commitment that we’ll really see what the results of the counteroffensive will be,” Sullivan said.
The Ukrainian emphasis on securing a supply of advanced fighter jets for the counter-offensive was misplaced, as strong Ukrainian and Russian air defenses prevented air power from playing a significant role in the conflict, Sullivan said.
“The view of our military commanders is that given the basic reality that the F-16s are expected to play a decisive role in this counteroffensive . . . their view is different than what you’ve heard from some Ukrainian voices,” he said.
While officials publicly projected an upbeat outlook for Ukraine’s military advances, privately many were less sanguine.
“The bad news is that Ukrainians are headed for what could be a winter of discontent,” said Philip Zeliko, a University of Virginia history professor and former diplomat. He pointed to the severe economic impact of the war and the already heavy spending by the US and other allies to keep the Kiev government afloat.
UK Foreign Secretary James Chaturai told the Financial Times that there was a mismatch between Ukrainian expectations and Western commitments because the West had other priorities while the single focus was on Ukraine.
“In terms of what we want to achieve, there will always be some difference in approach between the Ukrainian leadership and other countries.”
Biden administration officials’ frustration with criticism of Ukraine and other NATO allies over the pace and type of aid the US is providing was evident.
Senator Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the Biden administration was too slow to send systems like main battle tanks and cluster munitions that eventually made their way to the battlefield.
“I’m tired of hearing about growth. Stop talking about progress. If you don’t step up, you will lose,” he said. “I want to [Vladimir] Putin was going to wake up in the morning worried about what he was going to do instead of wringing our hands for us.
Sullivan dismissed what he described as a “caricature” of American decision-making, including suggestions that the Biden administration “isn’t willing to provide things because we’re worried about the Russians”.
The “absolute intensity” of American aid has made it clear that the US is “willing to take risks and we will continue to be willing to take risks to support Ukraine”, Sullivan said.
He also hit back at critics who said worrying about Russian nuclear growth was a sign of weakness.
“It’s incumbent on every member of NATO, including the United States, to think about the Russian reaction when we choose to do something because it’s important to our security, it’s important to global stability.”