With help from Lara Seligman and Daniel Lippman
Ukrainian President VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYYhad an urgent message for the American congressional delegation: We only have only a few weeks left to take back territory Russia seized before it gets much harder to do so.
Rep. ADAM SMITH (D-Wash.), chair of the House Armed Services Committee, led his colleagues into Kyiv to meet with the Ukrainian leader and get an update on the war. He relayed Zelenskyy’s message and discussed other parts of his trip with NatSec Daily in a Monday afternoon interview.
Ukrainian officials said they want to reach a peace agreement with the Russians, but first they must recapture lands the Russians took, particularly in the South, Smith told us in his first print interview since the trip. “Help them now as much as possible. The next three to six weeks are crucial,” he said, conveying the main message he heard from Zelenskyy and others.
While it’s still summer, the winter months are fast approaching. The colder temperatures and brutal conditions will slow the fighting to a grinding war of attrition that mainly benefits Russia. More support now — before VLADIMIR PUTIN’s forces lock in their gains — is far preferable to assistance later.
What to provide Ukraine remains a major point of contention. The Biden administration has already given $8.2 billion in aid since Russia launched its invasion in February, including a $270 million package announced last Friday featuring four additional High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, 36,000 rounds of ammunition, and 580 Phoenix Ghost tactical drones, among other capabilities.
But the Biden administration doesn’t want to send long-range weapons to Ukraine — like the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) that can hit targets 190 miles away or MQ-1C Gray Grey Eagle drones — for fear of escalating the conflict. A goal for the U.S. is to “ensure we do not end up in a circumstance where we’re heading down the road towards a third World War,” national security adviser JAKE SULLIVANsaid last week during the Aspen Security Forum, repeating President JOE BIDEN’s oft-stated position.
Smith said “there’s pressure mounting from a lot of people to try to get them to change their mind on that.” For example, the chair told us he supports “giving [Ukraine] the ATACMS and some of the longer-range missiles and the longer-range drones.” Others in the CODEL, such as Rep. MIKE WALTZ (R-Fla.), have suggested the U.S. send military advisers to Ukraine to help with planning and logistics.
The administration isn’t budging, at least for now. But Smith, who speaks often with Sullivan and other top officials, hinted there are conditions that could lead to a shift.
“If the Russians continue to push, to commit what amounts to genocide, forcibly removing children and killing people who don’t agree to their rule, that ups the ante and creates a different situation,” he said. “The administration is not prepared to do that at this point, but there are good arguments being made. That could change at some point.”
RUSSIA WANTS REGIME CHANGE: Russian Foreign Minister SERGEY LAVROV is now advocating for the toppling of Zelenskyy’s government, an apparent reversal of Moscow’s wartime messaging, reports the Associated Press’ SUSIE BLANN.
Speaking Sunday to envoys at an Arab League summit in Cairo, Lavrov said Russia is determined to help Ukrainians “liberate themselves from the burden of this absolutely unacceptable regime” in Kyiv. He also called government Zelenskyy’s government “absolutely anti-people and anti-historical.”
Russia in recent months has refrained from calling for Zelenskyy’s ouster. According to TASS, Lavrov himself said in April that Russian officials “are not up for regime change in Ukraine, we have said it repeatedly. We want the Ukrainians themselves [to] decide how they want to live further. … We want the people to be free to decide how they want to live in Ukraine.”