I just met President Volodymyr Zelensky, an even larger presence than social media suggests

The past two weeks have answered a central question of the Russo-Ukraine War; can the Ukrainians undertake the offensives required to liberate their people and reoccupy their territory? They have answered this question emphatically with their very successful and ongoing Kharkiv offensive.

During this offensive, I had the opportunity to visit Ukraine and to speak with high-level military and government officials. I even had the privilege of meeting with President Zelensky. In person, he is an even larger presence than his social media suggests. Slight of stature but enormously engaging, funny and charismatic, one only has to be in his presence for a short time to see why his leadership has been central to Ukraine’s efforts in this war.

I took away three key observations from the visit.

First, the Ukrainians are competent. This is a gross understatement. No military this century has had to fight across all the domains of war concurrently, and do so against a larger and better-armed adversary. The Ukrainians clearly spent years preparing. The most important preparation was not physical but intellectual. They re-trained their troops away from Soviet centralised command methods to adopt more decentralised command and control. This has been a clear difference between the two belligerents and has given the less well-armed Ukrainians a significant battlefield advantage.

Beyond this, the Ukrainians have adopted what I have described elsewhere as a strategy of corrosion. They have attacked the Russians at their weak points constantly, destroyed their logistics, and slowly killed as many Russian battlefield leaders as possible. At the strategic level, their global influence campaign has set a new benchmark for effectiveness. Zelensky was emphatic in our talks about ensuring that he and the Ukrainian government “talk the truth in getting its message across to other nations”. This Ukrainian competence has resulted in a military institution that is now without peer in the art and science of 21st-century warfare.

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Second, the Ukrainians are proud of their national effort – military, civil, diplomatic and informational – to defend their nation against the depredations of the murderous, yet bungling, Russian Army. It is not a pride that features flag waving and empty patriotic gestures. Indeed, in travelling around Kyiv, one might miss that there was a vicious war being fought. It is a quiet, humble pride that one finds in the alert posture of every soldier, and confident step of the officials and soldiers with whom I met. The Ukrainians are deeply proud of their battlefield achievements. The Russian Army has not been humiliated and destroyed like this since the Second World War. But Ukrainian pride extends to how their nation appears to have found a level of unity that is more overt than before the war.

Finally, the Ukrainians are confident. They know they can win this war. Zelensky stated that “we don’t believe there is compromise when it comes to Russia. There are only conditions, especially the departure of Russia from Ukraine”. Partially, this is a result of their achievements in the Battles of Kyiv, Kharkiv and elsewhere. The Ukrainians have seized the strategic initiative in this war, and are seizing back huge swathes of their territory from the Russians.

But there is another more vital source of their confidence: the Ukrainians know exactly what they are fighting for. They fight for their people and their country. And they believe strongly that they are fighting for the larger idea that democracies matter, regardless of their form or geography. It is this profound sense of purpose that underpins Ukrainian confidence and steels the hearts of everyone from the most junior soldier to the president.

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