Ukraine can launch counteroffensive with new US support, says key Zelensky aide

KYIV, Ukraine — Mykhail Podolyak barely flinched as air raid sirens wailed in Kyiv, signaling incoming Russian missiles.

Sitting in his office at the heavily fortified presidential administration building in Ukraine’s capital, the adviser to the head of the office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the sirens have become a normal part of life six months into the war with Russia.

“We’re getting used to this new lifestyle — we are used to the wailing sirens now and to the bombardments, because the Russian Federation is mostly aiming at the civilian population and civilian infrastructure,” he said in an interview with The Hill, through a translator.

The interview took place on Wednesday, which also marked Ukraine’s Independence Day, the anniversary of its sovereignty after the fall of the Soviet Union 31 years ago.

Hours after the interview, Russian missile attacks in the eastern city of Chaplyne killed 25 people and wounded 50 others, when rockets hit a train station and residential areas. Air raid sirens sounded through much of the country on Wednesday signaling incoming Russian missiles.

Podolyak, speaking before the attack on the train station, called the threat of Russian attacks “the usual situation. Today’s not different than any other day.”

But Wednesday was different, in particular with the announcement by President Biden that the U.S. is providing Ukraine with $3 billion in additional assistance to the war effort, marking a significant tipping in the scales at the six-month mark of the fighting. 

“This means that we’ll be in a position now to effectively counterattack, to launch a counteroffensive,” Podolyak said, referring to the influx of assistance. “And we can defeat the enemy with the new equipment and with the new numerical value that is attached to our capacity and our capabilities.” 

The Ukrainian military is working overtime to strike deep into Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory with U.S.- and Western-provided heavy artillery — targeting arms depots, cutting off supply lines and destroying command and control posts. 

The attacks serve several purposes: taking the fight to Russia, strengthening Ukrainian morale while sending a signal or resiliency to the West, and bringing pain to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

At least 16 U.S.-provided High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) are on the ground to help in the effort.

Ukrainian officials and troops say these weapons can quickly turn the tide of the war, if they can get more of them faster. Maintaining strength on the battlefield and defense against Russia allows them to push back on Putin’s attempts to start negotiations — what Podolyak describes as a death sentence for Ukraine.

“President Zelensky is definitely against it [negotiations], and the Ukrainian society is adamant there, because we fully appreciate the risks,” he said.  

Podolyak warned that Russia would use any pause in fighting to remobilize and launch an even stronger attack on Ukraine. Absent negotiations, Podolyak said Putin is likely to focus on a war of attrition to grind down international support until his troops can get the upper hand. 

“They will start to manipulate, behind the scenes, moods, activities, to profess and to deepen this war fatigue,” he said, warning Russia is capable of manufacturing crises like sending an overwhelming number of migrants to Europe’s borders. He warned Moscow could also “think of some terrorist attacks against infrastructural facilities in Europe, so that they can arrive at some negotiation position, or standing for their own benefits and their own plans.”

“We understand this option very well and keep discussing it with our partners,” he said. 

Wearing track pants, sneakers and a traditional Ukrainian tunic, Podolyak leans over the large circular table in his office during the interview. His aide says he never sits at his desk, which is strewn with papers, books and folders.

The high-ceilinged, stark white walls of his office are almost bare. Of the only two photos hung up, one shows two wounded soldiers who were part of the defense of the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol — standing on crutches in the darkened tunnels of the plant, each with an amputated leg — that marked the last stand of the city before it fell under complete Russian control in May. 

“There are people who I most admire and they actually surprise me, astonish me with their courage because they are at the front line. The front line is different,” Podolyak said, reflecting on his own role in the war.

“Ukraine is a unique country. This is a country that is capable of mobilizing itself especially when the hard times, dire straits come. So I can dedicate as much time and effort as I should, and as I physically can, to help such a country, because it deserves my contribution.”

Podolyak has been by Zelensky’s side since the start of Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24.

When Zelensky stepped outside of the presidential bunker on the second day of Russia’s assault to show the world proof that he was alive and in the capital, he highlighted Podolyak’s presence.

Looking to the next phase of the war, Podolyak said the $3 billion in U.S. assistance goes farther than just providing physical aid. It’s a call to mobilization and meant to “encourage other, more cautious, Western powers to join the hunt, so to speak.” 

“They all should appreciate what this war, waged by the Russian Federation, means for the people, and how it should be conducted, and what should be the correct outcome for this war,” he said.  

Podolyak said the problem with “so-called traditional Europe,” and highlighted Germany, France and Italy, is with the “promptness of the decisionmaking,” criticizing them as too slow in sending the needed assistance to Ukraine compared to the speed of the United States.

“We have to state clearly that they are pro-Ukrainian, of course,” he said of these countries, but added that “the power of the decisionmaking, which is now demonstrated by the United States, the old Europe can follow suit making their decisions more expedient.”

Podolyak also addressed how Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has elevated himself to a role as intermediary between Russia and Ukraine, acknowledging Erdoğan as largely motivated by Turkey’s own domestic politics. 

While Turkish Bayraktar drones have proven extremely effective in Ukrainian counterattacks against Russian forces, Erdoğan, as mediator, successfully brought Russia to an agreement to allow the export of grain from Ukrainian ports in Odesa — critical for Ukraine’s economy and essential to address the global food crisis. 

Erdoğan last week traveled to the Ukrainian city of Lviv, where he met with Zelensky. It followed a meeting he held with Putin in Sochi. Erdoğan reportedly offered to host peace talks between the two.   

Podolyak, aiming to reinforce the strength of the Ukrainian position, stressed how Ukrainian attacks inside Russian-held territory are meant to strike a psychological blow to the Russians on top of depressing their military capabilities.

“We clearly see some kind of panic is piling up, is building up in the Russian Federation, because [instead] of a blitzkrieg they’ve had this six months of continuous and, seemingly, endless special operation,” he said, referring to Putin’s refusal, and Russian law banning “war,” to describe the fighting in Ukraine.  

International officials observing the Ukrainian military strategy say attacks inside Russian-held territory could rattle Putin. They are aimed at increasing the cost for him to continue the war. 

Last week, Putin replaced the commander of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, and that followed a series of significant attacks against Russian military installations on the occupied Crimean Peninsula.

Ukrainian military officials have reportedly claimed responsibility for at least one attack, on Russia’s Saki Air Base on Aug. 9, which destroyed at least seven Russian war planes. One person was killed and nine people reported injured. 

Podolyak, when asked what his assessment of what Putin’s goals are given the state of fighting, answered that while he’s not a “mind reader when it comes to the Russian side,” he said they clearly overestimated their capabilities.

“Russia is traditionally an irrational state, with a very low analytical capability. Russia, very clearly, overappreciated their own understanding of who is who in this world.”  

Tags HIMARS Joe Biden Russia Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky
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