Ukraine Ready to Fight to ‘Last Drop’

But Biden’s talk of accommodating Russia has Congress worried.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy, and , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky in the Oval Office of the White House, on September 1, 2021, in Washington, DC.
U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky in the Oval Office of the White House, on September 1, 2021, in Washington, DC.
U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky in the Oval Office of the White House, on September 1, 2021, in Washington, DC. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Ukraine is ready to fight until the “last drop” in the event of a renewed Russian invasion, said Andriy Yermak, the head of the Ukrainian presidential administration, essentially the country’s national security advisor. The senior Ukrainian official spoke to Foreign Policy following Tuesday’s high-stakes call between U.S. President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin as the United States and its allies seek to deter what U.S. intelligence has warned could be an imminent Russian military action.

Biden is set to give a full readout of his conversation with Putin when he talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday, but Yermak said it was a good sign that the call went ahead on Tuesday and that the United States is looking to take a more active role in the peace process. Yermak, who has spoken several times in recent weeks with his U.S. counterpart, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, said that Ukraine has experienced “unprecedented support” from its allies amid the buildup. “It’s important that these words are translated into concrete actions,” he said.

Washington has worked closely with allies in Europe on a coordinated response, speaking with European heads of state before and after the call with Putin, and sharing intelligence among allies about the Russian threat. Sullivan stressed this week that the U.S. response to any Russian invasion of Ukraine would go beyond the somewhat tepid resort to sanctions that characterized its answer to the 2014 Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimean peninsula.

Ukraine is ready to fight until the “last drop” in the event of a renewed Russian invasion, said Andriy Yermak, the head of the Ukrainian presidential administration, essentially the country’s national security advisor. The senior Ukrainian official spoke to Foreign Policy following Tuesday’s high-stakes call between U.S. President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin as the United States and its allies seek to deter what U.S. intelligence has warned could be an imminent Russian military action.

Biden is set to give a full readout of his conversation with Putin when he talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday, but Yermak said it was a good sign that the call went ahead on Tuesday and that the United States is looking to take a more active role in the peace process. Yermak, who has spoken several times in recent weeks with his U.S. counterpart, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, said that Ukraine has experienced “unprecedented support” from its allies amid the buildup. “It’s important that these words are translated into concrete actions,” he said.

Washington has worked closely with allies in Europe on a coordinated response, speaking with European heads of state before and after the call with Putin, and sharing intelligence among allies about the Russian threat. Sullivan stressed this week that the U.S. response to any Russian invasion of Ukraine would go beyond the somewhat tepid resort to sanctions that characterized its answer to the 2014 Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimean peninsula.

“[T]hings we did not do in 2014 we are prepared to do now,” Sullivan said in a press briefing after the call on Tuesday.

In early November, Ukrainian defense officials sought to downplay media reports of a renewed Russian military buildup near the country’s borders. Yermak declined to comment on the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense’s earlier statements, but he noted that intelligence sharing from partner countries had been instrumental in warning Ukraine of the threat of an armed attack from Russia, as well as efforts to destabilize the country internally. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken “distinctly” conveyed U.S. concerns during his meeting with Zelensky on the sidelines of the climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 2, said Yermak, speaking through a translator on Wednesday.

During a secure video call on Tuesday that lasted just over two hours, Biden warned Putin that the United States would boost military aid to Ukraine in the event of an invasion and bolster the capabilities of NATO allies in Eastern Europe, something Putin has long bristled against. And Kyiv will get another boost of military aid from the Pentagon’s annual defense bill, which appears set for final passage by the end of the year after drawn-out negotiations. Congress upped annual aid for the Ukrainian military to $300 million, a 20 percent jump from Biden’s initial request, and threw close to an additional $600 million into the European Deterrence Initiative, designed to help Europe deter Russian aggression.

But Biden’s call also raised concerns that the administration could seek a more accommodating approach with Russia, something that Congress has railed against. On Wednesday, Biden expressed optimism that the United States could have high-level talks with allies by Friday to discuss Russia’s concerns with NATO, including whether the sides could come to an “accommodation” along Ukraine’s eastern front. Putin warned against further eastward expansion of the NATO alliance in a speech last week. Speaking to the press after the call, Sullivan said Biden had not made any concessions to Putin regarding Ukraine’s NATO ambitions. “He stands by the proposition that countries should be able to freely choose who they associate with,” said Sullivan.

Washington is also taking belated aim at a big Russian project: the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline that bypasses Ukraine and threatens to increase Russia’s energy leverage over Europe. The State Department’s No. 3 official, Victoria Nuland, said in a Senate hearing on Tuesday that the pipeline could be considered dead in the water in the event of a Russian attack. But opponents of the project note that by then it may already be too late. Central and Eastern Europeans had urged Washington for years to take a harder stance against the pipeline, which will double Russia’s direct gas exports to the heart of Europe. Biden, instead, gave the project—and Russia—a pass earlier this year.

“We believe the [U.S.] administration’s decision to waive mandatory sanctions against NS2 AG in May contributed to [Russia’s] belief that it could expand its aggression against [Ukraine] at no cost,” Yuriy Vitrenko, the head of Ukraine’s state energy company Naftogaz, tweeted on Wednesday. As Europe is already in the throes of an energy crisis, with sky-high gas prices contributing to record-high electricity costs, he said it would only become more politically difficult to sanction the pipeline once it becomes operational. “Then one would have to explain to European consumers why they should be left without heating in the middle of winter because of some sanctions,” he told Foreign Policy

Debates between the Biden administration and congressional Republicans spilled out from behind closed doors on Tuesday as Republican Sen. Ted Cruz grilled Nuland, arguing that the U.S. decision to waive sanctions over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline emboldened the Russians.

Despite the beefed-up defense bill, the Biden administration has stopped short of approving Kyiv’s laundry list of weapons requests, which include air and naval defense and support against electronic warfare attacks that would likely accompany a Russian land invasion. Instead, the United States is looking to provide “more of the defensive lethal equipment that we have already given them,” Nuland told lawmakers on Tuesday. The Pentagon said on Wednesday it would finish delivering small arms and ammunition as part of a $60 million security assistance package granted to Ukraine under emergency authorities in September.

On Wednesday, Biden said the United States would not put more American troops on the ground to defend Ukraine, because the country is not a member of NATO. However, Foreign Policy reported on Monday that administration officials have weighed adding more training units, and that Ukraine has asked the Pentagon to move more National Guardsmen conducting military training closer to the front lines.

For now, the Biden administration has mostly focused on economic threats. Actions under consideration include removing Russia from the SWIFT bank messaging system—considered the backbone of global finance—if the Russian leader moves ahead with another invasion.

But where Western intelligence officials fear that Putin sees increasing opportunities to move Russian forces deeper into the Ukrainian heartland, Russian dissidents (and some U.S. officials) remember the zinc-lined caskets that capstoned the Soviet Union’s ill-fated lurch into Afghanistan. Putin has publicly lamented the fall of the Soviet Union in recent public comments, alarming U.S. officials, but they point to an unsteady economic recovery and ongoing fallout over the jailing of dissident Alexei Navalny as signs of political unease.

“This is what Putin’s own policies have wrought, and he needs to understand that,” Nuland told Congress on Tuesday. “The citizens of Russia don’t want a war with Ukraine. They don’t want body bags coming home.”

Update, Dec. 9, 2021: This article has been updated to include further comment from National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on the nature of Biden’s call with Putin.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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