US must help Ukraine retain its crucial gains, says ex-Zelensky press secretary
The former press secretary to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is stressing the need for sustained U.S. aid in an interview with The Hill — even as the nation presses forward with a counteroffensive that has the potential to reshape the conflict.
Iuliia Mendel, Zelensky’s press secretary from 2019 to 2021, argued that crucial gains would be wiped away if the United States did not keep buttressing Ukraine against the Russian invasion masterminded by President Vladimir Putin.
“We all know there is always fatigue from every war. People can always ask themselves questions: ‘How long will we need [to support a] war?’” Mendel said. But, she added, “If the United States stops helping Ukraine, then all our achieved results will not make any sense because Putin [will] not stop killing us.”
“We would like to ask for stable partners, for understanding that the war ends when Russia stops killing,” she said, adding that it was vital “for the American people to understand that their contribution and support is very important.”
Mendel has written a book about her experiences, “The Fight of Our Lives,” which was published Tuesday.
The book mixes details from her work with Zelensky — including her attendance at the Ukrainian president’s 2019 in-person meeting with Putin — along with more personal episodes, including her then-fiance’s decision to head to the front lines after Russia’s February invasion.
“It is so stressful. I was asking him if it is fair,” she told The Hill, recalling her partner’s decision. “We were together for less than a year. I had the feeling that it wasn’t fair.”
The couple married in June, however, and have returned to their home in Kyiv.
Ukrainian forces have made major gains across the northeast of the country in recent days, shocking many observers. By some estimates, the Ukrainians have retaken 1,000 square miles of territory.
The shift has caused consternation in Russia, with pro-war commentators criticizing their commanders and some politicians pressing Putin to institute a full-scale military draft.
The Ukrainian advances have also put wind into the sails of U.S. politicians who have championed aid for the Eastern European nation, rebutting the idea that Russia is destined to eventually grind its opponents down.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) told The Associated Press in a story published Tuesday that American weapons are “there, they’re in theater and they’re making the difference.”
Those views cross party lines, at least to some degree.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) told the AP that he had “not seen any lack of appetite so far” for backing Ukraine. To the contrary, the recent successes were “an encouragement to want to do more of that,” he said.
The United States is the single biggest source of aid to Ukraine.
Contributions announced last week by Secretary of State Antony Blinken brought total U.S. military assistance to Ukraine to roughly $15.2 billion since the beginning of President Biden’s administration, according to the State Department.
Mendel, for her part, takes a pragmatic view of when and how the war might end.
A total Ukrainian victory, in which Kyiv takes back control of the Donbas region or even Crimea, which was annexed by Russia back in 2014, is at best years away, she said.
“That’s not what I would want,” she said. “As a Ukrainian, I would want it hugely. I remember, myself, going there … I feel like it’s my country. But the thing is that I’m not sure it’s possible for the reasons that both armies are exhausted.”
Ukraine has already won a moral victory by virtue of the staunch resistance it has offered, Mendel argued.
At the beginning of the war, many independent experts expected the much larger Russian army to quickly overrun the Ukrainian forces. Instead, Russia got bogged down and had to retreat from its efforts to capture the capital.
Those early days also saw Zelensky decide to stay in Kyiv. Mendel, though she had by then left her post, said she considers this “the most important moment of his presidency.”
The war might eventually be brought to a close, Mendel argued, if Ukraine can simply hold the line until Russian will is sapped.
“We will need to see when [the] Russian Army and Putin are exhausted enough to say, ‘We would negotiate,’ ” she said.
At the same time, she noted that conversations with fellow Ukrainians reveal that many of her compatriots believe there will never be true peace while Putin remains in power.
There are concerns, from Kyiv to Washington, about what Putin might do if he believes the war is turning against him. The use of nonconventional weapons is a particular cause for alarm.
But for the moment, Ukrainians, including Mendel, are taking heart from the apparent change in momentum in the conflict.
Citing the long-running struggles in eastern Ukraine as well as other tribulations that predate the current war, she said, “We probably have learned very well how to defend. But we are learning right now how to attack.”
“The Fight of Our Lives” by Iuliia Mendel is published by Atria/One Signal Publishers.