Allies focus on security of Zelensky and other Ukraine leaders
WASHINGTON — Allied governments are discussing how to secure the line of succession in Ukraine if President Volodymyr Zelensky is captured or killed by Russian forces, according to several government officials.
The concern is mainly about ensuring that there is still an independent Ukrainian government in some form, even if Russia finds a way to establish a puppet leadership in the capital, Kyiv. To recognize an independent leader, Western officials said, would help prevent any Russian-backed leaders from gaining legitimacy.
Mr. Zelensky’s presence and motivational speech have been key factors in keeping the morale of the Ukrainian army and people up, and officials said it was important that this be continued.
The focus on securing the succession comes partly because Ukraine’s constitution is vague on the issue and because Mr. Zelensky has said he does not want to be vacated. He memorably quipped, “I want ammunition, not a ride.” Despite the news reports, US officials denied that they ever offered to evacuate the president or advised him to leave. And Western governments have applauded his resolve to stop and fight as Russian forces try to advance across the country.
The United States, Britain and the European Union will not recognize the government established by Russia. Nevertheless, undermining the Moscow-controlled government in Kyiv would be easier for the United States and its allies if there is a legally recognized leader of an independent Ukraine rather than politicians competing for that role.
There are also some practical and legal issues going on. The European Union and NATO countries are largely making their military and economic donations public as a way of showing support for Ukraine. European countries have sent automatic weapons, Stinger anti-aircraft weapons, various anti-tank missiles and protective equipment to demonstrate that allies are intent on increasing Ukraine’s ability to inflict damage on Russian military forces.
It is far easier to accept aid with a functional government than to continue with such public support, whether it is operating in western Ukraine or as a government-in-exile in Poland or Romania.
The United States has a long history of secretly providing weapons to rebel groups around the world. Such a program for Ukraine – which would require a formal but covert search from President Biden – remains a possibility. But the longer the organized army leads the fight against Russia, the more likely Ukraine will be able to take control of the whole country or part of the country.
Over the past week, intense discussions in closed-door meetings at the White House and on Capitol Hill have focused on how to provide aid to Ukraine for Russia to capture the capital. In that case, the administration currently plans to continue supplying weapons to Ukrainians.
Strong public signs of support in opposition to covert weapons programs should help bolster Ukraine’s morale and demonstrate to Russia that arms supplies to the Ukrainian military were not going to stop, a person briefed on the discussion said. who, like others interviewed for this article on condition of anonymity, discussed sensitive talks with the Ukrainian government.
A person briefed on the talks said US officials have urged Ukrainians not to allow senior officials in the line of succession to stay in one place for long periods of time, and urged that they To be taken to safe places outside Kyiv.
According to several officials, the US and allied officials would like the Ukrainian government to establish a place for leadership to be accessed should Kyiv fall. A presidential retreat into the Carpathian Mountains in western Ukraine could potentially be used, but Ukrainian officials have not said whether the facility is out of bomb shelters and rigid communications capabilities.
Under the Constitution of Ukraine, the Speaker, or Speaker, of Parliament would succeed Mr. Zelensky as Acting President. The current speaker is Ruslan Stephanchuk, a pro-Western politician and former top aide of Mr. Zelensky. On Monday, Mr Stefanchuk was pictured with Mr Zelensky signing Ukraine’s application for EU membership. And on Friday he took part in a virtual meeting with the president of the European Parliament.
US and European officials said Mr Stefanchuk and others in the line of succession were expected to continue to resist the Russian offensive.
Ukrainian officials have resisted suggestions by US and European officials to relocate Mr Stefanchuk, but say they understand the need to ensure legal succession, two people familiar with the talks said.
On Thursday, Mr Zelensky held a news conference in a room where sand bags were placed against windows for security. While he did not talk about succession, he did raise the possibility of dying.
Ukrainian officials have publicly stated that they are not interested in discussing succession and are focused on fighting and winning the war. Marin Zablotsky, a member of parliament in Mr Zelensky’s party, said in an interview that she had not heard any discussion on the issue of succession.
The outlook before the invasion, when Ukrainian officials publicly suspected that Russia would attack, has quickly given way to a more candid view of the situation. Ukrainians are now ready to make a wartime call, the people told about the talks.
For weeks before the invasion, the United States and Britain warned about Moscow’s desire to remove Mr. Zelensky from power. They discussed how succession would work in Ukraine to counter a Russia-backed coup.
And despite public rhetoric before the invasion that the United States was exacerbating the threat, Zelensky privately took the warnings more seriously and felt that the Russians were intent on capturing or killing him, according to American officials.
During a visit to Kyiv in January, CIA Director William J. Burns discussed intelligence about the threat to 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 needed to take both the threats to Ukraine and himself seriously.
Since the invasion began, Russian officials have made it clear that they intend to oust the current government in Ukraine and establish a friendly one for Moscow. The State Department accused Russia of developing a list of Ukrainian politicians and confiscating their military advances.
“The significance of Zelensky’s personality in the current circumstances is beyond doubt,” said Khristna Holinska, a Ukrainian who wrote a recent essay in The Hill newspaper about succession issues. “If something happens to them, it will be very important to give a clear message that now who is leading the country, how the government will be run.”
Ms Holinska, a researcher at the RAND Corporation, said it may not be wise for Ukraine to publicize the government’s plans to relocate, but she hopes it is ready to operate in locations outside of Kyiv.
Beyond Mr Stefanchuk, the speaker of Ukraine’s parliament, the line of succession is not entirely clear, Ms Holinska said. When Mr Zelensky and Mr Stepanchuk became ill with Covid in 2020, Ukrainian legal scholars said the prime minister, Denis Shyamal, would be the third to take office.
The Ukrainian Constitution creates the positions of First Deputy and Deputy Speaker to assume the duties of the Speaker of the Parliament, although it does not explicitly say that they are in a line of succession to the President.
“People should know who is next in line,” Ms Holinska said. “Too much Zelensky is focused right now. He’s in the news, he’s everywhere. Losing this image of a leader will not be good for the resistance, for the will to fight, for the spirit in Ukraine.”
Andrew E. Creme Kyiv and . In Safe Taimur Contributed reporting in Istanbul.
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