WAR IN EUROPE
Ukraine can rest only once it has expelled Russia, Zelensky tells African journalists
The Ukrainian president has acknowledged, however, that his country needed a large infusion of sophisticated Western weapons to achieve this.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is adamant that a “stalemate” in his country’s war against Russia is completely unacceptable and would simply bequeath the war to his country’s children to fight.
He was commenting on the controversial opinion of his military commander-in-chief, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, who told The Economist last month, “Just like in the First World War, we have reached the level of technology that puts us into a stalemate. There will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough.”
Zelensky was asked how he intended to break that stalemate, in a briefing for African journalists in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, on Tuesday, 14 November. He insisted that a stalemate would not be allowed to stand.
“A stalemate is a frozen conflict which is a sleeping volcano. It’s a matter of time for it to explode,” he said.
He implicitly rebuked Zaluzhnyi by suggesting he had instilled despair in Ukrainians of their chances of ending the war and urged his people to be patient.
“Who is likely to invest in your country if you have a frozen conflict?” he asked. He noted that Ukraine had had a frozen conflict in its eastern Donbas region since Russia infiltrated it in 2014. Ukraine had, in effect, agreed to freeze the conflict through the Minsk Agreement, he suggested, but then the war erupted again in 2022.
Ukraine had to bring an end to the war or it would repeat itself one day, he said. He and Ukraine could rest only when they had expelled Russia.
Ukraine had already lost many of its sons and daughters fighting this war. “Do we have to tell our children they will also be fighting this war?” he asked. “And do we have to have more children now so we can also send them to fight this war?”
Zaluzhnyi said in the interview that Ukraine needed a radical breakthrough in technology to break the stalemate. He has said before that a large infusion of sophisticated Western weapons such as American F16 jets would tip the balance in Ukraine’s favour.
Read more in Daily Maverick: War in Ukraine
At Tuesday’s briefing, he reiterated that Ukraine could not change the war decisively without F16s and more US Abrams tanks. The F16s were particularly important because Russia had full air superiority. Yet he also acknowledged Ukraine would have difficulty in sparing its pilots from combat duty while they trained to fly the F16s.
The Abrams tanks were good, but Ukraine had only 10 of them.
Zelensky said Ukraine needed the F16s, the Abrams tanks and more air defence systems to support its current counteroffensive which is advancing very slowly because of heavy Russian defences
‘Difficult but doable’
“We don’t control the skies and this delays our advance. It’s difficult but doable.”
He expressed concern at signs that the financial and military support from the US and the European Union to Ukraine might be drying up, as conservative Republicans in the US Congress block financial aid and pro-Russian Hungary blocks EU financial support. Zelensky said any assistance was better than none.
A decrease in financial support would present Ukraine with some hard choices between paying for its war effort and providing essential social services to its population, he suggested. “This could cause a crisis.”
But it would not stop Ukraine from fighting, he insisted, recalling how Ukraine had resisted the Russian invasion at the start using only its own resources.
He warned that Russia would welcome any decrease in assistance to Ukraine.
Zelensky accused Russia of complicity in the war between Israel and Hamas. He was asked if he was concerned that it was distracting attention from the war in Ukraine and if that might diminish support for Ukraine.
He said Russia had intervened through its ally Iran to divert world attention from Ukraine — just as it had intervened in Syria in 2014 to divert attention from its invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea and Donbas regions.
Iran openly sponsors Hamas, which provoked the war with Israel by launching an attack on southern Israel on 7 October in which about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed and some 240 hostages taken. Israel responded with a massive ongoing attack on Gaza in which more than 11,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed.
Ramaphosa ‘comprehended’ peace plan
Zelensky said he believed that President Cyril Ramaphosa’s visit to Ukraine in June last year had changed his attitude towards the Russia-Ukraine war and he had come to understand it better.
He said after Ramaphosa and other African leaders involved in the African peace mission had met him they were able to travel on to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin armed with truthful arguments and did not just have to listen to his false narratives of the war.
“They could see the shameful consequences of Russia’s assault on our people and especially our children,” Zelensky said.
“They left with a better understanding of what Ukraine was fighting for,” he said and a better understanding that it was Russia which had assaulted Ukraine.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Foreign ministers of Ukraine and SA hit it off in Pretoria
Zelensky said he had spoken to Ramaphosa about Ukraine’s own peace formula — which calls for the complete withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine — “and he comprehended it”.
He added that Ramaphosa had his own vision and Zelensky had told him the Ukrainians were victims, but if the Africans had any proposals that aligned with Ukraine’s peace formula they were happy to hear it.
After the visit, Ramaphosa sent his national security adviser, Sydney Mufamadi, to participate in the first round of international talks on the Ukraine peace formula in Copenhagen. Mufamadi has since participated in two more rounds, in Jeddah and Malta.
The African leaders had arrived in Ukraine with mixed emotions and information about what was happening in Ukraine. “But they left Ukraine changed. We could look each other in the eye,” he said.
Zelensky’s observations reflect a general view that Ramaphosa’s visit to Ukraine — during which he was taken to the sites of atrocities by Russian troops against civilians during the first weeks of the war in the city of Bucha — had changed his previously pro-Russian perspective.
African countries have been particularly concerned that the war in Ukraine has interrupted the exports of grains and other foodstuffs from the country, which was one of the world’s major breadbaskets. This caused food shortages and spiked prices, hitting Africa especially hard.
Several of the African journalists asked Zelensky about the impact of Russia pulling out of the year-old Black Sea Grain Initiative in July. Under that deal, Russia lifted its blockage of Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea.
Zelensky noted that more than 32 million tonnes of grain and other food had been exported between August 2022 and July 2023 when Russia withdrew. He said that had caused the price of grains to rocket by 200-300%.
But he assured the Africans that Ukraine’s own parallel grain corridor would remedy the problem. In its first month, it had exported about four million tonnes — which was about the level of its exports before the war.
He said Ukraine had created its parallel corridor not only because it needed the revenue from grain exports, but also to demonstrate that it was committed to food security.
Russia was trying to hinder Ukrainian exports through attacks on its grain export facilities, such as missile strikes on its main port, Odesa. Recently, a missile struck a Liberian-flagged iron ore carrier in the port of Pivdennyi, killing the pilot.
Zelensky said Ukraine was managing to get grain out through the Black Seat in part because Ukrainian attacks on Russian navy vessels and aircraft had forced them to withdraw from the Ukrainian coast. And Ukraine was working with the UK to provide insurance for cargo ships carrying grain via the Ukrainian corridor.
He said that Ukraine intended to create grain hubs in other countries, including possibly South Africa, to diversify sources of grain in different seasons and make Africa less dependent on the circumstances of the war.
He noted that Ukraine was making greater use of other routes to market grain and other foodstuffs, including by road, rail and the Danube River into Europe. DM
Peter Fabricius is in Ukraine on a fact-finding mission for African journalists that is sponsored by the Ukrainian government.