Allies focus on safety of Zelensky and other Ukrainian leaders

WASHINGTON — Allied governments have been discussing how to secure the line of succession in Ukraine in the event President Volodymyr Ze...


WASHINGTON — Allied governments have been discussing how to secure the line of succession in Ukraine in the event President Volodymyr Zelensky is captured or killed by Russian forces, officials from multiple governments say.

The concerns are mainly about ensuring that there is still an independent Ukrainian government in one form or another, even if Russia finds a way to install a puppet leadership in Kyiv, the capital. Having an independent leader to recognize, Western officials said, will help prevent any Russian-backed leader from gaining legitimacy.

Mr. Zelensky’s presence and his motivational speeches were key factors in maintaining the morale of the Ukrainian army and people, and officials said it was important that this continue.

The focus on securing the succession comes, in part, because Ukraine’s constitution is unclear on the issue and because Mr. Zelensky has said he does not want to be evacuated. He memorably quipped “I need ammunition, not a round.” Despite the reports, US officials deny ever offering to evacuate the president or advising him to leave. And Western governments have applauded his determination to stay and fight as Russian troops attempt to advance across the country.

The United States, Britain and the European Union would not recognize a government put in place by Russia. Nevertheless, undermining a Moscow-controlled government in Kyiv will be easier for the United States and its allies if there is a legally recognized leader of a free Ukraine, rather than competing politicians vying for that role.

Some practical and legal issues are also at stake. The European Union and NATO countries have largely done their military and economic donations public as a way to show support for Ukraine. European countries have sent automatic weapons, Stinger anti-aircraft weapons, various anti-tank missiles and protective equipment to demonstrate that the allies are determined to strengthen Ukraine’s ability to damage Russian military forces.

It is much easier to maintain such public support with a functioning government to accept aid, even if it operates in western Ukraine or as a government-in-exile in Poland or Romania.

The United States has a long history of secretly supplying weapons to insurgent groups around the world. Such a program for Ukraine – which would require a formal but secret conclusion from President Biden – remains a possibility. But the longer the organized army leads the fight against Russia, the more Ukraine will be able to retain control of all or part of the country.

Over the past week, intense discussions at the White House and in closed meetings on Capitol Hill have focused on how to provide aid to Ukraine if Russia takes control of the capital. In this situation, the administration currently plans to openly continue to supply arms to Ukrainians.

The strong public signal of support, opposed to secret weapons programs, should help boost Ukraine’s morale and demonstrate to Russia that the supply of arms to the Ukrainian military was not going to stop, according to a person briefed on the discussion, who like others interviewed for this article spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive conversations with the Ukrainian government.

US officials urged Ukrainians not to allow senior succession officials to stay in one place for long periods of time, and also urged that they be moved to safer locations outside Kiev, a source said. person informed of the conversations.

U.S. and allied officials would like the Ukrainian government to set up a location for leaders to use if Kiev falls, according to several officials. A presidential retreat in the Carpathian Mountains in western Ukraine could possibly be used, but Ukrainian officials did not say whether the facility was equipped with bomb shelters and enhanced communications capabilities. .

Under Ukraine’s constitution, the president or speaker of parliament would succeed Mr. Zelensky as interim president. The current speaker, Ruslan Stefanchuk, is a pro-Western politician and a former senior aide to Mr Zelensky. On Monday, Mr. Stefanchuk was pictured with Mr. Zelensky signing Ukraine’s application to join the European Union. And on Friday, he took part in a virtual meeting with the President of the European Parliament.

US and European officials have said Mr Stefanchuk and other successors must continue to oppose the Russian invasion.

Ukrainian officials resisted suggestions by US and EU officials to move Mr Stefanchuk, but said they understood the need to ensure legal succession, according to two people briefed on the conversations.

On Thursday, Mr. Zelensky held a press conference in a room where sandbags were piled up against the windows for protection. If he did not speak of succession, he mentioned the possibility of dying.

Ukrainian officials have publicly stated that they do not wish to discuss the succession and are focused on fighting and winning the war. Maryan Zablotskyy, an MP from Mr Zelensky’s party, said in an interview that he had not heard any discussion of the succession issue.

The pre-invasion approach, when Ukrainian officials were publicly skeptical of Russia’s attack, quickly gave way to a more lucid view of the situation. Ukrainians are now ready to make wartime calls, say people briefed on the conversations.

For weeks before the invasion, the United States and Britain warned of Moscow’s desire to oust Mr Zelensky from power. They discussed how succession in Ukraine would work if they needed to counter a Russian-backed coup.

And despite the public rhetoric before the invasion that the United States was exaggerating the threat, Mr. Zelensky took the warning more seriously privately and realized that the Russians intended to capture him or kill him, according to US officials.

During a visit to Kiev in January, William J. Burns, the director of the CIA, discussed intelligence on the threat against Ukraine with Mr. Zelensky, according to a person briefed on the meeting. When Mr. Zelensky raised the issue of his family’s safety, Mr. Burns replied that he had to take threats against Ukraine and against himself seriously.

Since the invasion began in earnest, Russian officials have made it clear that their intention is to oust the current government from Ukraine and install an ally in Moscow. The State Department has accused Russia of drawing up lists of Ukrainian politicians to arrest and seize as their forces advance.

“The importance of Zelensky’s personality in the current circumstances is beyond doubt,” said Khrystyna Holynska, a Ukrainian who co-wrote a recent essay in The Hill newspaper on inheritance issues. “If something happens to him, it would be very important to send a crystal clear message about who is running the country now, how the government will be run.”

Ms Holynska, a researcher at the RAND Corporation, said while it may not be wise for Ukraine to make its government relocation plans public, she hoped it was ready to operate in places outside Kyiv.

Beyond Mr Stefanchuk, the speaker of Ukraine’s parliament, the line of succession is not entirely clear, Ms Holynska said. When Mr. Zelensky and Mr. Stefanchuk became sick with Covid in 2020Ukrainian jurists said Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal would be the third to take over.

The Constitution of Ukraine creates the posts of first vice-president and vice-president to assume the office of speaker of parliament, although it does not explicitly say that they are in a line of presidential succession.

“People should know who’s next,” Ms Holynska said. “Right now it’s very focused on Zelensky. He’s in the news, he’s everywhere. Losing that image as a leader won’t be good for the resistance, for the will to fight, for the spirit in Ukraine. .

Andrew E. Kramer in Kyiv and Safak Timour in Istanbul contributed to the report.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Allies focus on safety of Zelensky and other Ukrainian leaders
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