Volodymyr Zelensky’s explanation for the deadly missile explosion in Poland may have been at odds with the one given by Joe Biden but could it undermine how the U.S. views future claims the Ukrainian president makes about Russia’s invasion?
On Tuesday, there was initial alarm among world leaders that the strike in Przewodow in the east of the NATO member could prompt an a response under Article 5 of the alliance’s charter. This quickly eased when Poland and the U.S. agreed that it was an accident likely caused by a Ukrainian air defense missile.
However, even as the threat of escalation under the alliance’s “one-for-all and all-for-one” principle died down, the Ukrainian president insisted that he had “no doubt that it was not our missile.” When asked about Zelensky’s response, Biden told reporters, “that’s not the evidence.”
U.S. military support for Kyiv remains steadfast but Biden’s comments show the countries don’t agree on everything. In June, Zelensky’s aides rejected Biden’s comments to a Democratic Party fundraiser that the Ukrainian president “didn’t want to hear” American warnings before Russia’s invasion.
In August, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman described a “deep mistrust” between Biden and Zelensky, and how U.S. officials “are a lot more concerned about Ukraine’s leadership than they are letting on.”
Michael Kimmage, history professor at the Catholic University of America, and former member of the U.S. secretary of state’s policy planning staff said that “Ukraine has a very aggressive, forward leaning, social media driven communication style,” which is very effective.
“But there are flaws and problems with it and it’s a bit odd that Zelensky won’t backtrack in this case,” he told Newsweek, referring to the missile explosion that killed two people. “I think that there is sometimes a frustration with questions of accuracy coming from Kyiv about the war.”
“There’s Zelensky’s shoot from the hip style, and that can be an annoyance,” he said.
“He’s showing himself to be a very effective wartime leader and I don’t think anybody doubts the justice of his cause,” said Kimmage. “Zelensky is very much supported, but there may be some degree of personality friction, that is normal.”
Kimmage said that the only risk Zelensky faces is not from the dispute over the missile in Poland but “more the Hollywood narrative that there’s going to be a quick happy ending to all of this and that’s not in the cards.”
“The degree to which his popularity depends on that Hollywood narrative is a tough act to keep going, so he has to find another foundation for it.”
Zelensky softened his position at Bloomberg‘s New Economy Forum in Singapore on Thursday, saying, “I don’t know 100 percent,” about the cause of the missile strike. Meanwhile, NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Moscow “bears ultimate responsibility” for the strike which came after it had launched a barrage of up to 100 missiles on Ukrainian territory.
“I don’t think Zelensky’s image would ever be impacted from this, however, I think his credibility would be hurt,” said Dennis Fritz, retired U.S. Air Force Command Chief Master Sergeant.
“If he comes out in the future and said, ‘Russian weapons hit a school house or hit another civilian facility’—that could be questioned now,” he told Newsweek. “I think he’ll be more cautious next time.”
“But you have got to look at it from Zelensky’s point of view. His back was against the wall. His men have been fighting toe to toe with Russia and have been winning but right now there’s just no answer for all those incoming missiles.”
“So I think he just reacted out of panic and out of needing that support of the West and the United States of America,” added Fritz, director of the Eisenhower Media Network.
That support was underlined two days after the incident when the Pentagon announced that American-supplied NASAMS [National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems] had a “100 percent success rate” in intercepting Russian missiles.
Mai’a Cross, politics professor at Northeastern University said that Zelensky’s image “as the heroic leader of Ukraine still remains in the U.S., despite his claims about the missile strike.”
“There isn’t yet complete certainty about the source of the missile that struck Poland. So naturally, Zelensky would err on the side of blaming Russia given that his country is under severe bombardment from Russian missiles,” she told Newsweek.
“He might lose some credibility if he appears to be making accusations based on nothing and then not backing down in the face of evidence to the contrary. So far, this is not the case because there is still ambiguity.”
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, reiterated his case this week for a negotiated settlement to end the war which does not chime with Zelensky’s professed goal of Russia withdrawing from all occupied territories before talks take place.
Although Milley repeated the Biden administration’s position that it is “up to Ukraine” to decide on negotiations, he expressed doubt that despite successes in the Kherson and Kharkiv regions, getting Russian forces entirely out of Ukraine would be “a very difficult task.”
Meanwhile, Kimmage said some figures in Congress raising questions about continued financial support for Zelensky’s forces, such as Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) “might slow down the speed with which military and financial assistance is given to Ukraine, but it’s not going to change policy.”
“If anything, I think the Biden administration is probably on a stronger footing after the midterm elections than it was before,” he said.