Is Zelensky trying America’s patience?

Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s explanation for the deadly rocket blast in Poland may have contradicted Joe Biden’s, but could it undermine the US view of future claims by the Ukrainian president about the Russian invasion?

Concerns arose among world leaders on Tuesday that the strike in Przewodow, east of the NATO member, could trigger an Article 5 response of the alliance’s charter. This quickly eased when Poland and the US agreed it was an accident likely caused by a Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile.

But even as the threat of an escalation ebbed under the alliance’s “one for all and all for one” principle, Ukraine’s president insisted he had “no doubt that it wasn’t our missile.” When asked about Zelenskyy’s response, Biden told reporters, “It’s not evidence.”

Comp. Zelenskyj and Biden
In this combination picture. Aerial photo taken on Nov. 17, 2022 shows the site where two men were killed in a rocket attack on Nov. 15, 2022 in the eastern Polish village of Przevodow, near the border with war-torn Ukraine. Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will make a surprise visit to Kherson on November 14, 2022

US military support for Kyiv remains steadfast, but Biden’s comments show countries are not on the same page. In June, Zelenskyy’s associates dismissed Biden’s comments at a Democratic Party fundraiser that the Ukrainian president “didn’t want to hear” American warnings about the Russian invasion.

In August, New York Times Columnist Thomas Friedman described a “deep distrust” between Biden and Zelenskyy and how US officials “are more concerned about Ukraine’s leadership than they admit.”

Michael Kimmage, a history professor at Catholic University of America and a former member of the US Secretary of State’s Planning Staff, said that “Ukraine has a very aggressive, forward-looking, social media-driven communication style” that is very effective.

“But there are bugs and issues with that, and it’s a bit odd that Zelensky isn’t backtracking on this one,” he said news week, which referred to the rocket explosion that killed two people. “I think it’s frustrating at times when questions about accuracy come from Kyiv about the war.”

“There’s Zelensky’s hip style shoot and that can be a nuisance,” he said.

“He’s proving to be a very effective war leader and I don’t think anyone doubts the justice of his cause,” Kimmage said. “Zelensky has a lot of support, but there can be a degree of personal friction, that’s normal.”

Kimmage said the only risk Zelensky faces is not the row over the missile in Poland, but “more the Hollywood narrative that there’s going to be a quick happy ending to all this and that’s not in sight”.

“The extent to which his popularity depends on this Hollywood narrative is a tough act to move on, so he needs to find some other basis for it.”

Zelenskyj softened his position Bloomberg’s New Economy Forum in Singapore on Thursday, saying “I don’t know 100 percent” about the cause of the missile attack. Meanwhile, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Moscow bore “ultimate responsibility” for the attack, which came after it fired a barrage of up to 100 rockets into Ukrainian territory.

Zelensky’s picture

“I don’t think Zelenskyy’s image would ever be harmed by this, but I do think it would damage his credibility,” said Dennis Fritz, retired chief master sergeant of the US Air Force Command.

“If in the future he comes out and says ‘Russian weapons hit a schoolhouse or other civilian facility’ – that could be questioned now,” he said news week. “I think he’ll be more careful next time.”

“But you have to look at it from Zelensky’s point of view. He had his back against the wall. His men went toe-to-toe with Russia and won, but right now there’s just no answer to all those incoming missiles.”

“So I think he just reacted out of panic and because he needed the support of the West and the United States,” added Fritz, director of the Eisenhower Media Network.

This support was underscored two days after the incident when the Pentagon announced that NASAMS would be provided by the US [National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems] had a “100 percent success rate” in intercepting Russian missiles.

Mai’a Cross, a politics professor at Northeastern University, said that Zelensky’s image “as Ukraine’s heroic leader still persists in the US, despite his claims about the missile attack.”

“There is still no complete certainty about the source of the missile that hit Poland. So of course Zelenskyy would rather blame Russia as his country is under heavy fire from Russian missiles,” she said news week.

Zelenskyy’s credibility

“He could lose some credibility if he appears to be making allegations based on nothing and then doesn’t back down in the face of evidence to the contrary. So far this has not been the case as there are still uncertainties.”

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley this week reiterated his call for a negotiated solution to end the war, which is at odds with Zelensky’s stated goal that Russia withdraw from all occupied territories before talks take place.

Although Milley reiterated the Biden administration’s position that it was “up to Ukraine” to decide on negotiations, he expressed doubts that despite successes in the Kherson and Kharkiv regions, it was “a very difficult task” to mobilize Russian forces withdraw completely from Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Kimmage said that some figures in Congress raising questions about continued financial support for Zelenskyy’s armed forces, such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), “might slow down the rate at which Ukraine is providing military and financial support will, but it’s not going to change politics.”

“If anything, I think the Biden administration is likely to be on a stronger footing after the midterm elections than it was before,” he said. Is Zelensky trying America’s patience?

Rick Schindler

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