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Winter setting in raises questions about Ukraine's next stage in its counteroffensive


President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said last week we wanted faster results from Ukraine's counteroffensive against Russia. This is a fraught and critical time for Ukraine. We're joined now by William Taylor, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, now vice president at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Ambassador Taylor, thanks for being with us.

WILLIAM TAYLOR: Scott, thank you for having me.

SIMON: And Phillips O'Brien, a professor of strategic studies at St. Andrews University in Scotland. Professor, thank you for being with us.

PHILLIPS O'BRIEN: Delighted to be here.

SIMON: President Zelenskyy pointed to what he called a new phase in the war. Is that how you see it?

O'BRIEN: Certain things have become apparent in this war, really apparent in the last seven or eight months. First is you're not going to break through the line relying on tanks and the sort of the old way of looking at war. Ukraine tried it. Russia has tried it. Neither side has been able to break the line and make big advances. Neither side has air superiority. And the way of going forward is really hard. So the reality is Ukraine is going to be very careful now. They have two Achilles' heels in the war. One of them of their own is they have a much smaller population base. They can't get into an attritional war with Russia where they lose one soldier for every Russian soldier or even two Russian soldiers for each one of theirs. So they're going to have to preserve their soldiers' lives to keep the war going. So they're not going to take any risks. The other Achilles' heel they have now is the one screaming from Washington of will they get any more aid from the United States? They knew there was a chance that after November of 2024 and the U.S. election, if Trump were reelected, that they might lose aid. They never thought they would lose it now.

SIMON: Ambassador Taylor, I gather you've been meeting with high-level Ukrainian officials who were in Washington, D.C., this week. Are they worried about U.S. support ending or being greatly diminished even before the 2024 elections might change that?

TAYLOR: Well, they are. I mean, they pay close attention to what goes on here, what people say, the likelihood of votes, what issues are involved in their issue. They're very concerned about our continued support.

SIMON: Ambassador Taylor, is it just a fact of life, though, that the U.S. is now distracted also by a war in the Middle East?

TAYLOR: Of course, Scott, it is. And they understand that. President Zelenskyy recognizes that. But they also listen carefully to what the White House says, that they can handle two things, that the United States is able to deal with two important issues. They understand the urgency in the Middle East, but they feel the existential - literally existential - I mean, if they lose - they understand if they lose to the Russians, there will not be a Ukraine.

SIMON: Professor O'Brien, how would you answer the concerns of Americans who say, look, I feel sorry for Ukraine, but it's just not our business?

O'BRIEN: It is so extraordinarily shortsighted for Americans to say this. We are really facing two futures, and it's a future that is intimately connected to American security. And by the way, Ukraine can win this war if aided properly. They've shown they have the military capability. They know how to beat the Russian army, but they have not been armed properly. But if Ukraine is armed properly to win the war and then later sort of admitted into NATO as a full state, Europe is basically set for generations. This concern of the United States since 1945 of a continent, they weren't quite sure - first the Soviet Union, then Russian instability, where, you know, the United States had to keep military force, get involved. But if Ukraine wins, Europe is settled.

On the other hand, if Ukraine is deprived of weapons and forced to accept a really bad peace deal where a lot of the country gets amputated and handed over to Russia, basically, you create chaos in Europe for security concerns, that Ukraine has looked to be abandoned. And by the way, all those countries in Central and Eastern Europe or the Nordics and the Baltics will see the United States happily agreed to hand over parts of a former Soviet territory to Russia through military force.

TAYLOR: Scott, if I can just say there's another thing that reinforces the professor's point about the East Europeans watching very closely. President Xi of China is watching very closely to see if the United States will stand with its allies and will defend its own interests and European interests. So this has broad implications.

SIMON: Professor O'Brien, how is the war going from Vladimir Putin's point of view?

O'BRIEN: Better than he expected now, if the U.S. doesn't give aid. I mean, it seemed to be that it was quite clear that what Putin's goals in the medium term were were to get through to November 2024 and hope that Donald Trump wins. The Russians have built up a thick defensive line that's going to be very hard, so as long as the United States and other supporters of Ukraine don't give Ukraine weapons to attack, say, Crimea, the Russians are going to be in their defensive line and then try and make certain advances to take some of the area that they have illegally annexed and then hope to get to 2024 election in the U.S. and Trump wins and then, in a sense, present Ukraine with a fait accompli. What has happened, I think, is that Putin has been emboldened and very much emboldened by what he sees now in the United States. If Congress doesn't approve this aid now, that's the greatest victory Putin has had in this war to date. Nothing in this war that has happened on the battlefield could compare to the Russian success of Congress cutting off aid to Ukraine.

SIMON: Let me ask you both, finally, is Ukraine an issue in the 2024 presidential elections because there are voices both on the left and right that say, the United States just can't afford this level of support year after year after year?

TAYLOR: When Americans hear what we're providing, what the United States is providing to Ukraine is 5% of our defense budget, and they are inflicting grave damage on one of our two main adversaries. Let's call the Russians enemies. Our enemy has lost 50% of its ground forces because of the Ukrainians' strength from our support. Five percent of our defense budget - we can handle this.

O'BRIEN: So what the United States is doing is not giving Ukraine 5% of its budget. It is literally spending 90% of that amount of money in American factories and American production, employing Americans to make the stocks that have been sent to Ukraine. It's not giving Ukraine anything. It's going into the pockets of American workers.

SIMON: Phillip O'Brien, professor of strategic studies at St. Andrews University in Scotland, and William Taylor, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, now vice president at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Gentlemen, thank you both so much for being with us.

TAYLOR: Thanks, Scott.

O'BRIEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.