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Vladimir Putin’s strategic mistakes are making Zelensky a war hero

The former TV comedian Volodymyr Zelensky is the one truly standing up for his nation — and leading an intense resistance to an overwhelming Russian invasion force.

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Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Ukraine’s president, was supposed to be a pushover for Russia’s ruthless leader, Vladimir Putin. The Russians felt they could bend the neophyte politician to their will, demanding concessions on Ukraine’s freedom to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, its relationship with the European Union, and the nation’s trade priorities.

But it turns out that the former TV comedian is the one truly standing up for his nation — and leading an intense resistance to an overwhelming Russian invasion force. So often, conflicts see new leaders take charge. Such was the case for the Union army in the U.S. Civil War, where President Abraham Lincoln had to go through a variety of parade-ground generals until he found Ulysses S. Grant. During World War II, the peacetime officers gave way to wartime leaders like General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Admiral Chester Nimitz.

As Zelenskiy leads a desperate fight against an implacable foe, we are seeing a remarkable new war leader take the stage. What can the West do to help him?

Zelenskiy has been using every communication skill he learned as a performer to great effect. His ability to turn a one-liner into an inspirational quote is noteworthy. When NATO nations urged him to leave his capital city, Kyiv, in the days before the invasion, offering transport to the relative safety of Lviv in the far west of Ukraine, he said, “I need ammunition, not a ride.”

When Moscow’s propaganda machine said the Ukrainian troops would throw down their weapons, Zelenskiy warned the Russian invaders, “You will see our faces, not our backs.” Ukraine’s friends should capitalize on his inspirational appearances, magnifying them on social media and contrasting his bold, truthful commentary with the lies coming out of Russia.

In addition to his words, his physical presence has been key — appearing in the media from locations in Kyiv to demonstrate that he isn’t fleeing. Immediately after the invasion, he shed his business suits in favor of hunting-type gear, a powerful symbolic shift. It’s an effective approach, although he must be careful to balance the reward in terms of morale with the risk of being captured or killed. The West should be providing him the highest-grade intelligence, cyber overwatch, high-tech communications gear and reliable ground transport to be able to stay on social media and ahead of the Russians.

Zelenskiy has also proved to be a quick learner of the logistics of war. NATO and the EU can best help by providing a tsunami of combat materiel. We should have sent far more over the past few years, but there is still time to get additional Javelin anti-armor and Stinger anti-air missiles into the hands of the Ukrainians. They will also need massive quantities of small- and medium-caliber ammunition, communications equipment, cold-weather tactical gear, medical supplies, fuel and military rations.

Fortunately, Lviv is positioned on the border with Poland, a staunch NATO member with its own bad history with the Russian military. If Zelenskiy needs to make a tactical retreat with a government-in-exile, he can set up shop in Lviv with the option to bolt across the border, where thousands of U.S. and Polish troops will ensure no Russian assassination squads find “target number one,” as Zelenskiy has described himself.

Zelenskiy also correctly sees the twin Achilles’ heels of the Russians — logistics and combat losses.

Russia will have its hands full consolidating victory in this invasion, even with overwhelming air superiority. Trying to attack on four separate axes, as the Russians have done, has divided their forces and compromised their logistical support. An old military saying is that sometimes attacking everywhere means attacking nowhere.

Another old saw is that amateurs study strategy, but professionals study logistics. In that sense, the Russian campaign plan looks a bit amateurish; fuel shortages are already a problem. Everything the West can do to complicate Russian logistics — including crippling sanctions that will slow Russian economic options — will improve Zelenskiy’s hand.

Ukrainian resistance is stiffening, even in pro-Russian enclaves in the east, and the Ukrainians know they are fighting for their children, parents and spouses — indeed, for freedom itself. According to Ukrainian accounts, over 4,000 Russians have been killed in action in just a few days — a staggering number if even close to correct. In the entire 20 years of the Afghan War, the U.S. had just under 2,000 combat deaths.

If the Ukrainians can continue to inflict casualties at a high level, protests will grow in Russia, and the resolve of Moscow’s troops in Ukraine — many of them reportedly conscripts and mercenaries — will fade. Zelenskiy knows this is the key to persuading Putin to halt the attacks and come to the negotiating table. (Russia didn’t seem to take seriously Monday’s initial talks, sending only low-level officials including Putin’s former culture minister.)

Volodymyr Zelenskiy is turning out to be a courageous, tenacious and innovative war leader of his battered nation. I would gladly go into combat at his side. But the West needs to do more to create the conditions for his unlikely resistance effort to succeed. –Bloomberg

Also read: No breakthrough during Russian-Ukraine talks, both countries to meet again soon


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