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‘A Watershed Moment’: The View From Ukraine

Zelensky administration adviser Mykhailo Podolyak on what the new U.S. aid package means for the war’s future

Ukrainian soldiers receiving combat awards from President Zelensky, October 2022, photo: public domain

After months of congressional negotiations and public uncertainty, U.S. President Joe Biden signed a bill into law on Wednesday that will grant nearly $61 billion worth of economic and military aid to Ukraine. The package will provide a lifeline to Ukraine in its war effort, but the future of the country’s fight for survival against Russia remains far from certain; Kyiv will still likely receive less U.S. aid this year than last, when its highly-anticipated counteroffensive failed to yield significant results. To find out what effect Ukraine’s leadership expects this new tranche to have, Meduza spoke to Mykhailo Podolyak, a top adviser to the Zelensky administration.

On April 23, the U.S. Senate approved foreign aid legislation that includes $61 billion in assistance for Ukraine — the first significant Ukraine aid bill Congress has passed since December 2022. U.S. President Joe Biden signed the bill the following day, vowing that weapons shipments would begin “in the next few hours.” The bill’s passage followed more than six months of intense negotiations by a gridlocked Congress, leading many observers to speculate in the meantime that the war may be a lost cause.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak, who spoke to Meduza after the bill’s Senate approval, said he never doubted that the aid would eventually be passed. He did note, however, that the package isn’t as large as it sounds when compared to Russia’s military spending. “Sixty-one billion dollars isn’t some enormous amount that will fully cover Ukraine’s weapons shortage,” he said. “Russia’s total military budget is around $250–320 billion, including direct appropriations, indirect appropriations, and assistance from countries like North Korea, [so] we’re not talking about a level playing field here.”

Nonetheless, Podolyak said, the new package includes most of the types of equipment Ukraine’s military needs most urgently right now, including ammunition, long-range missiles, air defense missiles, electronic warfare equipment, and drones, among others weapons. Podolyak said that the quantities and logistics were still being finalized but that he has confidence in the U.S. to allocate the funding effectively: “Our American military partners have a good understanding of what’s most important right now for the Ukrainian Armed Forces to be able to take active defense measures in a number of areas.”

The main piece of equipment Ukraine needs that’s not included in the package, Podolyak said, is F-16 fighter jets. While Washington has so far declined to provide the U.S.-made aircraft, it has granted permission for other countries to do so. Ukrainian pilots are currently training to fly the planes, which the country will receive from a number of its European allies. “The key participant in this coalition is the Netherlands,” said Podolyak. “The training itself takes place in various countries, and multiple countries are helping with the supply logistics.” He noted that any country can join the coalition at any time.

“We also have the artillery coalition: about 20 countries, led by Czechia, have come together and are preparing to finance artillery procurement,” Podolyak added. “There’s also the drone coalition, which is being led by Latvia. And [German Chancellor Olaf] Scholz has just come out with a very good initiative: they’re planning to organize additional shipments of Patriot air defense systems.

These European-led coalitions are in part a product of the months of uncertainty over the future of U.S. aid that preceded the new bill’s passage; the possibility that no more major packages would be forthcoming from Congress prompted E.U. members to try to pick up the slack. However, Podolyak noted, there’s a crucial difference between the supplies coming from Washington and those coming from Europe: timing.

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“[The U.S.] has more of all of these things in its warehouses than European countries do. The U.S. military has a lot more weapons, ammunition, and consumables like shells and missiles of various modifications, including ones for air defense systems,” he said. “The Europeans, to provide us with these same types of tools, will need to invest a lot of money [and wait for production] or search on the global market [and purchase additional weapons]. Whereas the U.S. has all of these things in warehouses — it’s just a question of supply logistics.

While the new aid package won’t ensure Ukraine’s victory or guarantee a successful counteroffensive, Podolyak said, it will have a major positive impact on the country’s ability to carry out defensive operations. “If we understand that our [weapons] shortage has become less severe, we can do more planning and destroy larger amounts of the reserves Russia is using on the Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Luhansk fronts,” he told Meduza.

Additionally, he said, the replenishment of Kyiv’s arsenal will have a psychological effect — for Russia as well as Ukraine. “We’ll understand that our troops have artillery now,” he said. “And it will affect Russia even more because the amount of destroyed [Russian] equipment and personnel is going to increase. It will allow us to stabilize the front line [and] carry out more effective defensive operations in terms of the amount of damage they cause.”

The future of American assistance to Ukraine is still in doubt, and the upcoming U.S. presidential election only adds precarity to the situation. As Mykola Bielieskov, a research fellow at the National Institute for Strategic Studies in Kyiv, recently told Bloomberg, “The question is whether there will be aid and in what volume in 2025 and beyond — as Putin’s strategy is to wait it out.”

But Podolyak said the assistance to Ukraine approved by the U.S. and E.U. countries in recent months makes him confident that the “pro-Ukraine coalition” is committed for the long run. “We see the rhetoric coming out of Europe,” he said. “We see how [U.S. House Speaker Mike] Johnson’s rhetoric has changed.” He continued:

“There’s an understanding that there’s no compromising in this war. Because any compromise with Putin means a protracted war. He’ll simply pause for a while, and then the frozen conflict will start to unfreeze — with far more destructive consequences.

According to Podolyak, the package approved by Congress this week marked a “watershed moment” at which the U.S. “needed to decide for themselves whether to see this through or not.” The bill’s passage, he said, shows that “America’s decided to see it through to the end.”

When asked whether a second Trump presidency could spell trouble for the future of American aid to Ukraine, Podolyak said he sees the situation as a “process of constant dialogue.”

In an April 22 interview with BBC News Ukrainian, Ukrainian military intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov warned of a “difficult period” for Ukraine starting in mid-May. According to Podolyak, Budanov was referring to anticipated Russian attempts to exploit the formal expiration of Volodymyr Zelensky’s five-year presidential term by intensifying attacks on Ukrainian cities while conducting an information campaign promoting the idea that Zelensky’s presidency is illegitimate. (Ukraine’s constitution prohibits elections while martial law is in effect.)

The passage of the U.S. aid package, however, “somewhat thwarted their plans,” Podolyak said: “They thought that there would be a delay in aid and that this would help them amplify the notion that [Ukraine’s Western partners] no longer want to help it.” At the same time, he warned against alarmism, noting that Budanov also said there’s “no reason to expect Armageddon.” “We understand what they’re going to do,” Podolyak concluded. “And we know how to counteract Russia’s disinformation campaigns, because we don’t have any issues with legitimacy.”

Interview by Elizaveta Antonova. English-language summary by Sam Breazeale.

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