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Opinion Zelensky and some lawmakers want more U.S. military personnel in Ukraine

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at a news conference in Kyiv on July 28. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

Russian artillery and heavy armor are pounding Ukrainian forces in the country’s south and east, grinding out small advances using brutal, scorched-earth tactics. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s new war objective is to occupy as much territory as possible before the winter freeze and attempt to annex it to cement his gains, which would make achieving peace far harder.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky believes that if Russia holds large parts of the south when winter arrives, such as the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, Ukraine will lose its ability to function as a viable state. He says the next few weeks will determine the country’s fate, and Ukraine is already mounting a counteroffensive. He’s right when he says that if the United States doesn’t give him the tools to succeed — and fast — Washington and Kyiv will both regret it later.

Speaking to a delegation of five U.S. lawmakers last week in Kyiv, Zelensky repeated his requests for more and better U.S. weapons. He also revealed that he has been asking the Biden administration to deploy U.S. military personnel in Kyiv to improve U.S.-Ukraine coordination on all aspects of the war, three of those lawmakers told me.

Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) asked the Ukrainian president whether he supported sending more U.S. military personnel into Ukraine to boost coordination. Zelensky jumped at the idea.

“As soon as I raised it, he cut me off and said, ‘We’ve been asking for it. We’d welcome it. We’ve proposed that,’” said Waltz, who told me, “The problem is with the White House.”

Zelensky proposed that U.S. and Ukrainian military personnel form three joint coordination cells, focused on planning, logistics and strategic communications. Waltz said U.S. troops would not be deployed to the front lines. They would work out of the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, which is struggling right now to reestablish operations with a skeleton staff.

Congressional confidence in the $40 billion U.S. weapons and aid program in Ukraine will wane without more direct supervision, Waltz said. “From an oversight standpoint, we have to know where this stuff is going,” he said. “Also, it would help the Ukrainians use it more effectively.”

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who led the delegation, told me that he, too, supports Zelensky’s idea to deploy more U.S. military personnel in Kyiv. But some Biden administration officials are concerned about further deepening U.S. military involvement in the conflict, he said. “The resistance is because the Biden administration feels it would be escalatory,” Smith said. “And also, if we’ve got U.S. personnel working in an operations center inside Ukraine, they become legitimate military targets.”

A National Security Council spokesperson told me the United States is coordinating extensively with the Ukrainian military at the leadership level and among troops on the ground in neighboring countries. The lawmakers said this coordination, mostly in Germany and Poland, is inferior to working together inside Ukraine.

There’s also resistance within the Pentagon to providing Ukraine with other weapons Zelensky is asking for, including longer-range missiles and advanced, long-range drones. Officials are worried about depleting U.S. stocks and fear the drones might be captured by Russia and then reverse-engineered or used against us, Smith said.

“I understand that risk. It’s not insignificant,” he told me. “But I think that the risk of the Russians winning and carving up Ukraine so that it ceases to be a country is greater.”

Zelensky told the lawmakers his army needs the MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), a surface-to-surface missile that can travel about 190 miles, nearly quadruple the range of the missiles the United States is currently providing. These munitions would allow Ukrainian forces to move farther away from Russian artillery, while striking deeper into the enemy-held territory and forcing the Russians to lengthen their supply lines.

Biden’s officials fear Ukraine could use them to strike inside Russia, triggering further escalation. Zelensky has given the White House assurances these missiles wouldn’t be used inside Russia. Delegation member Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) told me that Zelensky has proved he can be trusted to keep his word.

Slotkin, like the other lawmakers, emphasized the urgency of Zelensky’s requests. She said the next weeks and months present a window for Ukraine to claw back territory. If Kyiv fails, she said, hopes for a negotiated solution will further suffer.

“Any push to get the Ukrainians to the negotiating table must come with some additional military victories under their belt, and we should be focused on helping them get those victories,” she said. “That’s where we could be doing more.”

To its credit, the Biden administration has given Ukraine an enormous amount of aid — but that entire effort could falter without a new weapons surge. If Putin establishes territorial gains this year, next year he will only push further. Time is running out to give Zelensky what he needs to win or at least negotiate from a position of strength.