A Twitter pal compared this to FDR visiting American soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge. Jonathan Last calls it literally Churchillian, since Churchill also made a point of visiting the front repeatedly to remind his men that their leaders hadn’t forgotten them or their sacrifice.
That’s important at this stage of the war, now that Kiev and Kharkiv have been liberated while Ukrainian troops in the Donbas are going through hell. Eighty percent of the country, including the capital, is facing nothing more than occasional airstrikes. Businesses are open, embassies are operating, life has regained a semblance of normalcy. The other 20 percent is stuck in a waking nightmare in which they’re being shelled relentlessly by Russian cannons, shot at or tortured by Russian troops, or forcibly deported to Russia if they’re captured. The battles in Mariupol and now Sievierdonetsk are some of the most brutal warfare in recent history. If you’re a Ukrainian soldier, demoralized by the mismatch in firepower lately, you might start to believe that you’re little more than cannon fodder in an expanded “frozen conflict” in the east that’s boiled over after simmering for eight years.
And then the president shows up, in person, to assure you that new weapons are en route and the tide is about to turn. Imagine that.
Incredible. Zelensky visited frontline Ukrainian positions near Lysychansk, west of Severodonetsk. That area of Luhansk region—the last under Kyiv control—has seen heavy fighting around the clock in recent weeks. He was briefed on the situation and handed out awards to soldiers. pic.twitter.com/cro8lWEbOm
— Christopher Miller (@ChristopherJM) June 6, 2022
Intriguing. Zelensky says he brought “something” to his military when he visited them on Donbas frontline yesterday. “I won’t talk about it in detail” pic.twitter.com/Ymc5kyCVjT
— Oliver Carroll (@olliecarroll) June 6, 2022
Did he bring some new long-range weapons with him? What’s that last tweet about?
As for how close he was to the shooting, remember that Lysychansk is the sister city of Sievierodonetsk, located just across the river. The Russians have been closing in on it, part of their effort to close the “pocket” in northeastern Ukraine where the Ukrainians are holding out and seal off the two cities. The trip is sufficiently dangerous that not everyone who’s attempted it lately appears to have made it:
It’s a perilous journey to reach Lysychansk. A highway and several back roads pass through farm fields pocked with artillery craters. Along the way, an oil refinery that has been on fire for weeks smolders, belching smoke. On the sides of the roads sit the burned orange husks of cars that didn’t make it, pushed aside to make way for others trying to get through.
Officials offered few details of how Mr. Zelensky reached the city, which has been bombarded by artillery and is at risk of being surrounded by Russian forces in one of the hottest areas of the front. The Ukrainian supply lines into the area, along roads that run through plains and are exposed to nearby Russian troops, are often attacked.
It’s a fine line between courage and recklessness. The last thing Ukraine needs now is for their champion to be liquidated during a daring but ill-advised surprise drop-in at the front:
Zelensky went to visit troops in Lysychansk, allegedly operationally surrounded by the Russians, and to Soledar, on the far end of the Donbas frontline, on the same day as the Russian commander of Donetsk “people’s republic” army was killed in the same area.
— Yaroslav Trofimov (@yarotrof) June 6, 2022
Physical presence has been key to Zelensky’s leadership from the start, though. In the first days of the war, he famously snuck out of his bunker one night with his top ministers and made a handheld video of himself and his team in the streets of Kiev to prove to Ukrainians that they hadn’t run. A few days ago, on the 100th day of the war, they re-created that shot — this time in daylight in civilian clothes, to show how conditions in the city had improved.
VICTORY WILL BE OURS
“Victory will be ours”, says Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky in a video marking 100 days of Moscow’s all-out assault on its pro-democracy neighbor, which includes Prime Minister Denys Shmygal and presidential aide Mykhaylo Podolyak. #Ukraine pic.twitter.com/Ly6tSWu6wU
— Daily Tribune (@tribunephl) June 4, 2022
The best leader is the leader who shows up. Zelensky keeps showing up.
Is it just me or does it look like Putin on a set made to look like his office and the extremely awkward camera work keeps catching what appears to be the lack of a ceiling?https://t.co/bmUpX0br87 pic.twitter.com/hGDOV9z4hM
— Julia Ioffe (@juliaioffe) June 4, 2022
The battle for Sievierodonetsk continues to rage with good news and bad news for both sides. After a surprise counterattack that pushed the Russians back when they appeared to have almost captured the city, the WSJ reports today that the Ukrainians have now pulled back from the city center. They still control the city’s industrial zone and nearby areas, per the regional governor. But if you’re treating that as evidence that everything is going Russia’s way, you should reconsider:
— New York Post (@nypost) June 6, 2022
Images of Kutuzov’s remains are apparently being shared on social media as proof that he’s gone. A Telegram channel claims that he and the second general “were in an armored column that was ambushed by Ukrainian forces, possibly on a bridge somewhere in the Donbas,” per the New York Post.
Lawrence Freedman has been bullish on Ukraine’s chances since the start of the war. As tough as the fighting has been in the northeast lately, logistical reality still favors the home team, he argues:
Step back and look at the Russian position. An enormous effort has gone into taking some extra land, with little spare capacity for dealing with tentative Ukrainian counteroffensives from Kharkiv to the north and towards Kherson in the south. Should they consolidate gains made in Luhansk, there is still much more to do to complete the takeover of Donetsk, which might enable Putin to claim a victory given how he framed this war at the start.
Russia may find itself in charge of lands pummelled and deprived of infrastructure, with people who stayed hardly viewing the occupying forces as liberators. Recent gains must now be defended indefinitely against Ukrainian offensives. Behind the front lines Russian forces face ambushes and sabotaged supply lines. The enemy forces confronting them are fighting for their homeland and a national identity that Russia has sought to extinguish…
Ukraine is slowly but surely bringing modern western weapons into service. This takes time and is less than ideal because of the variety of systems, the need for training and the hazards of introducing them into the fight. Still, Ukraine will get stronger in coming months, especially in the area of long-range firepower. It is not going to rush.
Time is on Ukraine’s side, Freedman insists, which would be true if the west’s will to win matched the Ukrainians’, with the financial and material support to match. But it doesn’t. I think the Ukrainians have until the end of the year realistically before the western pipeline to Kiev begins to dry up. Especially once the anti-anti-Putinites in the MAGA caucus of the new House Republican majority begin whining.