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Opinion ‘Victory’? Zelensky and Biden differ on the path forward for Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivers remarks to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Make no mistake: Beyond the rousing, heartfelt cheers for Ukraine’s brave President Volodymyr Zelensky, his visit to Washington was a war summit. And it appears to have ended with a gap between the two allies about their strategies for ending the war.

By noting these disagreements between Washington and Kyiv, I don’t mean to diminish the spectacular success of Zelensky’s visit. The Ukrainian leader galvanized the world once again in his green military dress and combat boots, moving through the White House and Capitol with the gait and focus of a wrestler who will never submit.

In his address to Congress, Zelensky said emphatically that he seeks “absolute victory” over Russia, the same kind of triumph that President Franklin D. Roosevelt promised as the United States was entering World War II. “The Ukrainian people will win, too, absolutely,” he said.

Zelensky used the word “victory” 11 times in his speech, and once during his remarks to reporters at the White House after his meeting with President Biden. Tellingly, Biden didn’t use the word a single time. Instead, he promised support for Ukraine’s “unbreakable determination … to choose their own path” and pledged: “We will stay with you for as long as it takes.”

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Zelensky’s invocation of FDR recalled another war summit — the January 1943 conference in Casablanca between Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. It was at this meeting that Roosevelt first declared that his aim was the “unconditional surrender” of the Axis enemies. “Peace can come to the world only by the total elimination of German and Japanese war power,” Roosevelt said.

This war almost surely won’t end with the total elimination of Russian war power, which helps explain why Biden actively resists the rhetoric of “total victory.” He said so explicitly in Wednesday’s White House news conference, when a Ukrainian reporter asked whether he would give Kyiv long-distance missiles that could strike Russia and provide Ukraine “all capabilities it needs [to] liberate all territories rather sooner than later.”

Biden answered that giving Ukraine such potent attack weapons “would have a prospect of breaking up NATO.” He said that NATO allies are “not looking to go to war with Russia. They’re not looking for a third world war.” Biden put it in terms of what other allies want. But avoiding a direct conflict between the United States and Russia, even as we support Ukraine’s resistance, has been one of the president’s central war aims.

There’s another subtle tension in how these two leaders envision this conflict. For Biden, it’s about stopping Vladimir Putin and what Biden called the Russian president’s “unprovoked, unjustified, all-out assault on the free people of Ukraine.” Once Putin realizes “it’s clear that he cannot possibly win this war,” Biden said, then Zelensky can “decide how he wants to end this war” and seek a “just peace.”

Zelensky offered a somewhat different formulation. Like dozens of Ukrainians with whom I’ve talked during two visits to Kyiv this fall, he appears to see the enemy not simply as Putin, but Russia itself. “The Russians will stand a chance to be free only when they defeat the Kremlin in their minds,” he told Congress. He described Ukraine’s success as a victory for Europeans — the free, Western world that Ukraine has wanted to join for centuries. “The Russian tyranny has lost control over us. And it will never influence our minds again,” Zelensky said.

Biden and Zelensky were both asked about peace. Biden nudged his fellow commander in chief, saying that “you’re open to pursuing a just peace” and that it was Putin’s fault the war continues. “We both want this war to end,” Biden said. “It could end today if Putin had any dignity at all and did the right thing and … pulled out. But that’s not going to happen … now.”

Zelensky said he had a “peace formula,” which is basically that Russia should withdraw from all the territory it has illegally seized since 2014. And that’s the correct answer, for now.

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Post Opinions provides commentary on the war in Ukraine from columnists with expertise in foreign policy, voices on the ground in Ukraine and more.
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Iuliia Mendel, a former press secretary for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, writes guest opinions from inside Ukraine. She has written about trauma, Ukraine’s “women warriors” and what it’s like for her fiance to go off to war.
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Zelensky added a more nuanced response a few minutes later: “A just peace I don’t know. I don’t know what ‘just peace’ is. It’s a very philosophical description. … For me, as the president, just peace is no compromises as to the sovereignty, freedom and territorial integrity of my country, the payback for all the damages inflicted by Russian aggression.” A caution here: Peace and payback are not the same.

The Ukraine conflict is in part an information war, and Zelensky’s visit to Washington was a triumph in that domain. He showed the world what a real-life hero looks like. He offered the United States, his ally, a battle flag signed by Ukrainian soldiers fighting some of the most brutal ground war Europe has seen in more than a century, being fought trench by trench, yard by bloody yard.

Zelensky got his messaging right: The job for now is to fight on through a cruel winter — and maintain the “steel backbone” that Biden praised. The United States needs to pump in more weapons that will allow Ukraine to hold its lines, and where possible to push the Russians back, and protect civilians from missiles and drones.

At some point next year, the tension beneath the surface in this war summit will have to be addressed. There will need to be greater clarity and convergence on what Ukrainian success looks like, short of “absolute victory.” But for now, let’s take Zelensky’s formula: “Victory, only victory.”

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

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Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.

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