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‘Nobody Believes in Our Victory Like I Do.’ Inside Volodymyr Zelensky’s Struggle to Keep Ukraine in the Fight

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Updated: | Originally published:

Volodymyr Zelensky was running late.

The invitation to his speech at the National Archives in Washington had gone out to several hundred guests, including congressional leaders and top officials from the Biden Administration. Billed as the main event of his visit in late September, it would give him a chance to inspire U.S. support against Russia with the kind of oratory the world has come to expect from Ukraine’s wartime President. It did not go as planned.

That afternoon, Zelensky’s meetings at the White House and the Pentagon delayed him by more than an hour, and when he finally arrived to begin his speech at 6:41 p.m., he looked distant and agitated. He relied on his wife, First Lady Olena Zelenska, to carry his message of resilience on the stage beside him, while his own delivery felt stilted, as though he wanted to get it over with. At one point, while handing out medals after the speech, he urged the organizer to hurry things along. 

The reason, he later said, was the exhaustion he felt that night, not only from the demands of leadership during the war but also the persistent need to convince his allies that, with their help, Ukraine can win. “Nobody believes in our victory like I do. Nobody,” Zelensky told TIME in an interview after his trip. Instilling that belief in his allies, he said, “takes all your power, your energy. You understand? It takes so much of everything.”

Volodymyr Zelensky Time Magazine cover
Zelensky: Kay Nietfeld—Picture Alliance/Getty Images

It is only getting harder. Twenty months into the war, about a fifth of Ukraine’s territory remains under Russian occupation. Tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians have been killed, and Zelensky can feel during his travels that global interest in the war has slackened. So has the level of international support. “The scariest thing is that part of the world got used to the war in Ukraine,” he says. “Exhaustion with the war rolls along like a wave. You see it in the United States, in Europe. And we see that as soon as they start to get a little tired, it becomes like a show to them: ‘I can’t watch this rerun for the 10th time.’”

Public support for aid to Ukraine has been in decline for months in the U.S., and Zelensky’s visit did nothing to revive it. Some 41% of Americans want Congress to provide more weapons to Kyiv, down from 65% in June, when Ukraine began a major counteroffensive, according to a Reuters survey taken shortly after Zelensky’s departure. That offensive has proceeded at an excruciating pace and with enormous losses, making it ever more difficult for Zelensky to convince partners that victory is around the corner. With the outbreak of war in Israel, even keeping the world’s attention on Ukraine has become a major challenge.

After his visit to Washington, TIME followed the President and his team back to Kyiv, hoping to understand how they would react to the signals they had received, especially the insistent calls for Zelensky to fight corruption inside his own government, and the fading enthusiasm for a war with no end in sight. On my first day in Kyiv, I asked one member of his circle how the President was feeling. The response came without a second’s hesitation: “Angry.”

The usual sparkle of his optimism, his sense of humor, his tendency to liven up a meeting in the war room with a bit of banter or a bawdy joke, none of that has survived into the second year of all-out war. “Now he walks in, gets the updates, gives the orders, and walks out,” says one longtime member of his team. Another tells me that, most of all, Zelensky feels betrayed by his Western allies. They have left him without the means to win the war, only the means to survive it.

But his convictions haven’t changed. Despite the recent setbacks on the battlefield, he does not intend to give up fighting or to sue for any kind of peace. On the contrary, his belief in Ukraine’s ultimate victory over Russia has hardened into a form that worries some of his advisers. It is immovable, verging on the messianic. “He deludes himself,” one of his closest aides tells me in frustration. “We’re out of options. We’re not winning. But try telling him that.”

Zelensky’s stubbornness, some of his aides say, has hurt their team’s efforts to come up with a new strategy, a new message. As they have debated the future of the war, one issue has remained taboo: the possibility of negotiating a peace deal with the Russians. Judging by recent surveys, most Ukrainians would reject such a move, especially if it entailed the loss of any occupied territory.

Zelensky remains dead set against even a temporary truce. “For us it would mean leaving this wound open for future generations,” the President tells me. “Maybe it will calm some people down inside our country, and outside, at least those who want to wrap things up at any price. But for me, that’s a problem, because we are left with this explosive force. We only delay its detonation.” 

For now, he is intent on winning the war on Ukrainian terms, and he is shifting tactics to achieve that. Aware that the flow of Western arms could dry up over time, the Ukrainians have ramped up production of drones and missiles, which they have used to attack Russian supply routes, command centers, and ammunition depots far behind enemy lines. The Russians have responded with more bombing raids against civilians, more missile strikes against the infrastructure that Ukraine will need to heat homes and keep the lights on through the winter.

Zelensky describes it as a war of wills, and he fears that if the Russians are not stopped in Ukraine, the fighting will spread beyond its borders. “I’ve long lived with this fear,” he says. “A third world war could start in Ukraine, continue in Israel, and move on from there to Asia, and then explode somewhere else.” That was his message in Washington: Help Ukraine stop the war before it spreads, and before it’s too late. He worries his audience has stopped paying attention. 

Paramedics help a wounded man after a Russian rocket attack in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kostiantynivka on Sept. 6, 2023.
Paramedics help a wounded man after a Russian rocket attack in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kostiantynivka on Sept. 6, 2023.Evgeniy Maloletka—AP

At the end of last year, during his previous visit to Washington, Zelensky received a hero’s welcome. The White House sent a U.S. Air Force jet to pick him up in eastern Poland a few days before Christmas and, with an escort from a NATO spy plane and an F-15 Eagle fighter, deliver him to Joint Base Andrews outside the U.S. capital. That evening, Zelensky appeared before a joint session of Congress to declare that Ukraine had defeated Russia “in the battle for minds of the world.”

Watching his speech from the balcony, I counted 13 standing ovations before I stopped keeping track. One Senator told me he could not remember a time in his three decades on Capitol Hill when a foreign leader received such an admiring reception. A few right-wing Republicans refused to stand or applaud for Zelensky, but the votes to support him were bipartisan and overwhelming throughout last year. 

This time around, the atmosphere had changed. Assistance to Ukraine had become a sticking point in the debate over the federal budget. One of Zelensky’s foreign policy advisers urged him to call off the trip in September, warning that the atmosphere was too fraught. Congressional leaders declined to let Zelensky deliver a public address on Capitol Hill. His aides tried to arrange an in-person appearance for him on Fox News and an interview with Oprah Winfrey. Neither one came through.

Instead, on the morning of Sept. 21, Zelensky met in private with then House Speaker Kevin McCarthy before making his way to the Old Senate Chamber, where lawmakers grilled him behind closed doors. Most of Zelensky’s usual critics stayed silent in the session; Senator Ted Cruz strolled in more than 20 minutes late. The Democrats, for their part, wanted to understand where the war was headed, and how badly Ukraine needed U.S. support. “They asked me straight up: If we don’t give you the aid, what happens?” Zelensky recalls. “What happens is we will lose.”

Zelensky’s performance left a deep impression on some of the lawmakers present. Angus King, an independent Senator from Maine, recalled the Ukrainian leader telling his audience, “You’re giving money. We’re giving our lives.” But it was not enough. Ten days later, Congress passed a bill to temporarily avert a government shutdown. It included no assistance for Ukraine.

Read More: Inside the Race to Arm Ukraine Before Its Counteroffensive

By the time Zelensky returned to Kyiv, the cold of early fall had taken hold, and his aides rushed to prepare for the second winter of the invasion. Russian attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure have damaged power stations and parts of the electricity grid, leaving it potentially unable to meet spikes in demand when the temperature drops. Three of the senior officials in charge of dealing with this problem told me blackouts would likely be more severe this winter, and the public reaction in Ukraine would not be as forgiving. “Last year people blamed the Russians,” one of them says. “This time they’ll blame us for not doing enough to prepare.”

The cold will also make military advances more difficult, locking down the front lines at least until the spring. But Zelensky has refused to accept that. “Freezing the war, to me, means losing it,” he says. Before the winter sets in, his aides warned me to expect major changes in their military strategy and a major shake-up in the President’s team. At least one minister would need to be fired, along with a senior general in charge of the counteroffensive, they said, to ensure accountability for Ukraine’s slow progress at the front. “We’re not moving forward,” says one of Zelensky’s close aides. Some front-line commanders, he continues, have begun refusing orders to advance, even when they came directly from the office of the President. “They just want to sit in the trenches and hold the line,” he says. “But we can’t win a war that way.”

When I raised these claims with a senior military officer, he said that some commanders have little choice in second-guessing orders from the top. At one point in early October, he said, the political leadership in Kyiv demanded an operation to “retake” the city of Horlivka, a strategic outpost in eastern Ukraine that the Russians have held and fiercely defended for nearly a decade. The answer came back in the form of a question: With what? “They don’t have the men or the weapons,” says the officer. “Where are the weapons? Where is the artillery? Where are the new recruits?”

In some branches of the military, the shortage of personnel has become even more dire than the deficit in arms and ammunition. One of Zelensky’s close aides tells me that even if the U.S. and its allies come through with all the weapons they have pledged, “we don’t have the men to use them.” 

Ukrainian fighters on the frontlines near Bakhmut on March 17, 2023.
Ukrainian fighters on the frontlines near Bakhmut on March 17, 2023.Maxim Dondyuk

Since the start of the invasion, Ukraine has refused to release official counts of dead and wounded. But according to U.S. and European estimates, the toll has long surpassed 100,000 on each side of the war. It has eroded the ranks of Ukraine’s armed forces so badly that draft offices have been forced to call up ever older personnel, raising the average age of a soldier in Ukraine to around 43 years. “They’re grown men now, and they aren’t that healthy to begin with,” says the close aide to Zelensky. “This is Ukraine. Not Scandinavia.”

The picture looked different at the outset of the invasion. One branch of the military, known as the Territorial Defense Forces, reported accepting 100,000 new recruits in the first 10 days of all-out war. The mass mobilization was fueled in part by the optimistic predictions of some senior officials that the war would be won in months if not weeks. “Many people thought they could sign up for a quick tour and take part in a heroic victory,” says the second member of the President’s team.

Now recruitment is way down. As conscription efforts have intensified around the country, stories are spreading on social media of draft officers pulling men off trains and buses and sending them to the front. Those with means sometimes bribe their way out of service, often by paying for a medical exemption. Such episodes of corruption within the recruitment system became so widespread by the end of the summer that on Aug. 11 Zelensky fired the heads of the draft offices in every region of the country. 

The decision was intended to signal his commitment to fighting graft. But the move backfired, according to the senior military officer, as recruitment nearly ground to a halt without leadership. The fired officials also proved difficult to replace, in part because the reputation of the draft offices had been tainted. “Who wants that job?” the officer asks. “It’s like putting a sign on your back that says: corrupt.” 

In recent months, the issue of corruption has strained Zelensky’s relationship with many of his allies. Ahead of his visit to Washington, the White House prepared a list of anti-corruption reforms for the Ukrainians to undertake. One of the aides who traveled with Zelensky to the U.S. told me these proposals targeted the very top of the state hierarchy. “These were not suggestions,” says another presidential adviser. “These were conditions.”

To address the American concerns, Zelensky took some dramatic steps. In early September, he fired his Minister of Defense, Oleksiy Reznikov, a member of his inner circle who had come under scrutiny over corruption in his ministry. Two presidential advisers told me he had not been personally involved in graft. “But he failed to keep order within his ministry,” one says, pointing to the inflated prices the ministry paid for supplies, such as winter coats for soldiers and eggs to keep them fed.

As news of these scandals spread, the President gave strict orders for his staff to avoid the slightest perception of self-enrichment. “Don’t buy anything. Don’t take any vacations. Just sit at your desk, be quiet, and work,” one staffer says in characterizing these directives. Some midlevel officials in the administration complained to me of bureaucratic paralysis and low morale as the scrutiny of their work intensified. 

The typical salary in the President’s office, they said, comes to about $1,000 per month, or around $1,500 for more senior officials, far less than they could make in the private sector. “We sleep in rooms that are 2 by 3 meters,” about the size of a prison cell, says Andriy Yermak, the presidential chief of staff, referring to the bunker that Zelensky and a few of his confidants have called home since the start of the invasion. “We’re not out here living the high life,” he tells me in his office. “All day, every day, we are busy fighting this war.”

Amid all the pressure to root out corruption, I assumed, perhaps naively, that officials in Ukraine would think twice before taking a bribe or pocketing state funds. But when I made this point to a top presidential adviser in early October, he asked me to turn off my audio recorder so he could speak more freely. “Simon, you’re mistaken,” he says. “People are stealing like there’s no tomorrow.” 

Even the firing of the Defense Minister did not make officials “feel any fear,” he adds, because the purge took too long to materialize. The President was warned in February that corruption had grown rife inside the ministry, but he dithered for more than six months, giving his allies multiple chances to deal with the problems quietly or explain them away. By the time he acted ahead of his U.S. visit, “it was too late,” says another senior presidential adviser. Ukraine’s Western allies were already aware of the scandal by then. Soldiers at the front had begun making off-color jokes about “Reznikov’s eggs,” a new metaphor for corruption. “The reputational damage was done,” says the adviser. 

When I asked Zelensky about the problem, he acknowledged its gravity and the threat it poses to Ukraine’s morale and its relationships with foreign partners. Fighting corruption, he assured me, is among his top priorities. He also suggested that some foreign allies have an incentive to exaggerate the problem, because it gives them an excuse to cut off financial support. “It’s not right,” he says, “for them to cover up their failure to help Ukraine by tossing out these accusations.” 

U.S. President Joe Biden, right, welcomes Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the South Portico of the White House on Sept. 21, 2023.
U.S. President Joe Biden, right, welcomes Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the South Portico of the White House on Sept. 21, 2023. Saul Loeb—AFP/Getty Images

But some of the accusations have been hard to deny. In August, a Ukrainian news outlet known for investigating graft, Bihus.info, published a damning report about Zelensky’s top adviser on economic and energy policy, Rostyslav Shurma. The report revealed that Shurma, a former executive in the energy industry, has a brother who co-owns two solar-energy companies with power plants in southern Ukraine. Even after the Russians occupied that part of the country, cutting it off from the Ukrainian power grid, the companies continued to receive state payments for producing electricity.

Read More: Inside the Kremlin's Year of Ukraine Propaganda.

The anticorruption police, an independent agency known in Ukraine as NABU, responded to the publication by opening an embezzlement probe into Shurma and his brother. But Zelensky did not suspend his adviser. Instead, in late September, Shurma joined the President’s delegation to Washington, where I saw him glad-handing senior lawmakers and officials from the Biden Administration.

Soon after he returned to Kyiv, I visited Shurma in his office on the second floor of the presidential headquarters. The atmosphere inside the compound had changed in the 11 months since my last visit. Sandbags had been removed from many windows as new air-defense systems had arrived in Kyiv, including U.S. Patriot missiles, which reduced the risk of a rocket attack on Zelensky’s office. The hallways remained dark, but soldiers no longer patrolled them with assault rifles, and their sleeping mats and other gear had been cleared away. Some of the President’s aides, including Shurma, had gone back to wearing civilian clothes instead of military garb.

When we sat down inside his office, Shurma told me the allegations against him were part of a political attack paid for by one of Zelensky’s domestic enemies. “A piece of sh-t was thrown,” he says, brushing the front of his sweater. “And now we have to explain that we are clean.” It did not seem to trouble him that his brother is a major player in the industry that Shurma oversees. On the contrary, he spent nearly half an hour trying to convince me of the gold rush that renewable energy would see after the war.

Perhaps, I suggested, amid all the concerns about corruption in Ukraine, it would have been wiser for Shurma to step aside while under investigation for embezzlement, or at least sit out Zelensky’s trip to Washington. He responded with a shrug. “If we do that, tomorrow everybody on the team would be targeted,” he says. “Politics is back, and that’s the problem.”

A few minutes later, Shurma’s phone lit up with an urgent message that forced him to cut our interview short. The President had called his senior aides into a meeting in his office. It was normal on Monday mornings for their team to hold a strategy session to plan out the week. But this one would be different. Over the weekend, Palestinian terrorists had massacred many hundreds of civilians in southern Israel, prompting the Israeli government to impose a blockade of the Gaza Strip and declare war against Hamas. Huddled around a conference table, Zelensky and his aides tried to understand what the tragedy would mean for them. “My mind is racing,” one of them told me when he emerged from the meeting that afternoon. “Things are about to start moving very fast.”

From the earliest days of the Russian invasion, Zelensky’s top priority and perhaps his main contribution to the nation’s defense had been to keep attention on Ukraine and to rally the democratic world to its cause. Both tasks would become a lot harder with the outbreak of war in Israel. The focus of Ukraine’s allies in the U.S. and Europe, and of the global media, quickly shifted to the Gaza Strip.

“It’s logical,” Zelensky tells me. “Of course we lose out from the events in the Middle East. People are dying, and the world’s help is needed there to save lives, to save humanity.” Zelensky wanted to help. After the crisis meeting with aides, he asked the Israeli government for permission to visit their country in a show of solidarity. The answer appeared the following week in Israeli media reports: “The time is not right.” 

A few days later, President Biden tried to break through the impasse Zelensky had seen on Capitol Hill. Instead of asking Congress to vote on another stand-alone package of Ukraine aid, Biden bundled it with other priorities, including support for Israel and U.S.-Mexico border security. The package would cost $105 billion, with $61 billion of it for Ukraine. “It’s a smart investment,” Biden said, “that’s going to pay dividends for American security for generations.”

But it was also an acknowledgment that, on its own, Ukraine aid no longer stands much of a chance in Washington. When I asked Zelensky about this, he admitted that Biden’s hands appear to be tied by GOP opposition. The White House, he said, remains committed to helping Ukraine. But arguments about shared values no longer have much sway over American politicians or the people who elect them. “Politics is like that,” he tells me with a tired smile. “They weigh their own interests.” 

At the start of the Russian invasion, Zelensky’s mission was to maintain the sympathy of humankind. Now his task is more complicated. In his foreign trips and presidential phone calls, he needs to convince world leaders that helping Ukraine is in their own national interests, that it will, as Biden put it, “pay dividends.” Achieving that gets harder as global crises multiply. 

But faced with the alternative of freezing the war or losing it, Zelensky sees no option but to press on through the winter and beyond. “I don’t think Ukraine can allow itself to get tired of war,” he says. “Even if someone gets tired on the inside, a lot of us don’t admit it.” The President least of all. —With reporting by Julia Zorthian/New York

Correction, Nov. 1:

An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the clothing that Rostyslav Shurma, an economic adviser to President Zelensky of Ukraine, wore during an interview in his office on Oct. 9, 2023. He wore a sweater, not a white shirt.

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