Author : Vivek Mishra

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Dec 29, 2022
Zelensky’s high-profile visit to the United States does little to ameliorate a fraught war
Zelensky’s visit to Washington: An attempt to turn the tide

In his quintessential no-time-to-dress-up getup, the embattled Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited Washington in what is being seen as a highly symbolic visit in seeking US support for the war. In a balancing spectacle,  Russian President Vladimir Putin held extensive meetings with the top brass of Russia’s military to assess shortcomings through short and medium-term strategy proposals from the commanders. Indeed, the winter appears to be the time to prepare and regroup for both sides, even as Ukraine anticipates a winter blitzkrieg by Russian infantry. The unflinching note of the warring parties, evident in  Biden’s support to Ukraine for ‘as long as it takes’ and in Putin’s claim of no financial constraints in fighting this war and that his government is providing everything to its armed forces, portends a bleak and contentious period ahead.

The unflinching note of the warring parties, evident in  Biden’s support to Ukraine for ‘as long as it takes’ and in Putin’s claim of no financial constraints in fighting this war, portends a bleak and contentious period ahead.   

President Zelensky’s visit to Washington was highly symbolic in quite a few ways. It was his first travel outside Ukraine since the war began over a year ago; the visit depicted political support for Kyiv in the west, led by the US; his impassioned personal appeal brought assurances of strategic military support which is critical to sustaining the war; it created a perceptional vantage for Ukraine in a long-drawn war and perhaps most importantly, Zelensky’s assertive tone in distinguishing US assistance as ‘not a charity’ and his nuanced position of difference from President Biden’s ambition of achieving ‘just peace’ in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war projected him as a strong leader with the intention of fighting on as opposed to seeking peace with Russia. As grand as his posture and political intentions may sound, operational difficulties, financial and arms dependence on other countries, crumbling critical infrastructure and a continued Russian onslaught could all create an insurmountable break-make gap in Ukraine.


In practical gains resulting from Zelensky’s visit, the US Congress approved one of the largest aid packages to Ukraine with more than US$45 billion allocated to Kyiv and US’s NATO allies. With this approval, the total US aid total Ukraine comes close to US$100 billion.

Perhaps, the biggest achievement of Zelensky’s visit has been the assurance on the Patriot missile systems from the US. The Patriot air defence system is built by the US company Raytheon and is considered to be one of the most advanced air defence systems in the US. Each Patriot battery can cost over US$1 billion and is currently being used by 18 countries. Despite its battlefield relevance, the supply of Patriot systems to Ukraine could fuel a few ramifications stacked disadvantageously against Ukraine. While boosting Ukrainian long-range capabilities against Russia, the Patriot systems could invite more targeted long-range retaliatory strikes against Ukrainian cities, evident through the latest missile strikes in Kherson. The deployment of Patriot systems in Ukraine could push Russia to use more drones for over-the-horizon operations to target cities and critical infrastructure in Ukraine. The use of much cheaper drones could curb the use of Patriot systems which are limited in supply to Ukraine despite a personal appeal to Biden by Zelensky. An open and unrestricted military supply with war-turning capabilities to Ukraine could position the US directly against Russia in this war, which the US government, Congress, or the American people do not want. Furthermore, the delivery of Patriot systems could take months before they are deployed as Ukrainians first need to be trained.

As the US position in the ongoing war is becoming clearer with more financial and military support to Ukraine, Russia is shedding any reluctance in engaging the US’s competitors and foes.

The other ramification is being felt at the geopolitical level. As the US position in the ongoing war is becoming clearer with more financial and military support to Ukraine, Russia is shedding any reluctance in engaging the US’s competitors and foes. Two developments have stood out in this regard: Russia’s efforts in strengthening relations with China and its deepening defence relations with Iran and North Korea. Even as Zelensky visited the US, the former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping loomed large with a message of “unprecedented level of the Russian-Chinese dialogue and practical cooperation.” If anything, the Iran-Russia relations have only strengthened since the war in Europe began. Iran’s acknowledgement of supplying its Shahed-136 drones to Russia and bragging their ‘effectiveness’ show an unrestrained Iranian cooperative strategy towards Russia which could serve a twin purpose: strengthen an alternate geopolitical axis against the US and compel concessions in future negotiations such as the stalled nuclear negotiations via the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

As the US looks to throw its full political support and considerable military assistance behind Ukraine, fears that power concentrations on opposite ends of the global power matrix has begun. There is a clear evidence of a stronger North Korea-Russia axis.  The US has claimed substantive evidence that North Korea delivered infantry rockets and missiles to Russia’s Wagner Group and is planning to deliver more military equipment to Moscow. On the back of a growing space for an anti-West coalition, Russia has hit an undaunting note with Putin laying the blame on the US for prolonging the war. Russia’s potential use of Belarus as a strategic space for military operations remains an untested variable in the war. Particularly, its deployment of Iskander tactical missile systems and the S-400 air defence systems in Belarus which is combat ready opens new operational and tactical options for Russian attacks as well as defence. Besides, Russia is scrambling quickly to improve its air defence against Ukrainian attacks.

The Russia-Ukraine war has clearly entered a cold phase of stagnation. However, as the war unravels, ground realities could very rapidly shift. Both Ukraine and Russia sit on the cusp of an unpredictable future. It will be foolhardy for Ukraine to depend too much on US support alone, even as the later grapples its own internal political division between the Democrats and Republicans over support to Ukraine. A massive support to Ukraine by the US Congress through the latest sanction of US$45 billion aid package reveals that the Democrats may not be very hopeful of continued Republican support for Ukraine amidst a prolonged war. As the Republicans look poised to take control of the House from January, the US House of Representatives minority Republican leader Kevin McCarthy has already said in that context that he is “not for a blank check for anything”.

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Vivek Mishra

Vivek Mishra

Vivek Mishra is a Fellow with ORF’s Strategic Studies Programme. His research interests include America in the Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific and Asia-Pacific regions, particularly ...

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