'I don't need a ride, I need ammo': Zelenskyy's pivotal moment in European history

Ukrainian President's wartime leadership has inspired Ukrainians and spurred western military support

Ukrainian president vows to fight on as Russia advances towards Kiev

Ukrainian president vows to fight on as Russia advances towards Kiev
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The words “I don’t need a ride, I need ammo” will echo in history as much as the opening salvos of Russia’s bungled invasion of Ukraine.

Joining President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s words will be the 34-second video he shot in Maidan Square, the political heart of Kyiv, where 24 hours into the offensive, he stood shoulder to shoulder with key ministers proclaiming: “The President is here” — despite an offer from the US to fly him out.

It was a key moment in European history, in which a wartime leader stood defiantly, inspiring not only his people but the western world to back him.

With Russian tanks rumbling towards Kyiv and paratroopers seizing Hostomel international airport, Mr Zelenskyy’s personal survival was being measured in hours.

But rumours of Chechen assassination squads and Spetsnaz special forces “decapitating” the Ukraine government were instantly checked when he uploaded the video to Facebook.

Dressed in what would become his famous green fatigues, the President assured his people that “we are all here”, ending the clip with: “Glory to Ukraine. Glory to the heroes.”

It was a pivotal moment in the war, and the video was viewed three million times in the first hour after it was uploaded to social media.

History turns

“European history turned on that moment, it really did,” said leading military analyst Michael Clarke. “He went on to the streets and said, ‘I'm here and I’m not anywhere else’ and that he didn’t need a ride but ammo.

“I can't think of a wartime turning point that was quite so brief and dramatic as that.”

Western leaders — including US President Joe Biden — were among those who viewed the video, becoming convinced that their countries should robustly defend Ukraine against Russia.

The clip's imagery was “a reminder of the power of iconic leadership”, said Gen Sir Richard Barrons.

“Russia’s intent was to decapitate the regime, yet here was a figure who Ukraine in all its fractured glory could coalesce around,” said the former chief of Britain’s Joint Forces Command.

“But more than that, so many of the international community could identify with him. Foremost, Zelenskyy’s a naturally gifted communicator.”

His decision to stay in Kyiv, in addition to releasing the video, was a “masterstroke”, said Russian military expert Brig Ben Barry.

“Zelenskyy has been a very successful war leader in terms of messaging, not only the Ukrainian population but the global audience,” said the Land Warfare specialist at the IISS think tank.

Gen Barrons also contended that the words and video were “emblematic of the resistance” signalling “a spirit of fighting and defiance” in Ukraine.

“It was of course buttressed very early on by battlefield success, which meant he actually was never under any great pressure to run,” he added.

What if?

If Mr Zelenskyy had taken the US “ride” and decided to fight the war from Germany or Washington, then the consequences could have been very difficult.

Leaderless and without substantial western arms and financing, Ukraine’s army would likely have collapsed with significant geopolitical fallout, probably hastening America’s continued retreat from Nato, begun under President Donald Trump.

“If the United States was not fighting for Ukraine, then they certainly wouldn't be reinforcing Europe,” said Mr Clarke. “And instead of being a shot in the arm for Nato, a Russian takeover would have been a shot in the head to Nato,”

The alliance’s south-eastern European members would probably have struck deals with Russian President Vladimir Putin similar to what Hungary has done, knowing that they, too, were now vulnerable.

Ukraine would have been eviscerated as a state, denied any access to the Black Sea, “strangled as an independent country” and “turned into another Belarus client state”, said Mr Clarke.

Open intelligence

Aside from Mr Zelenskyy’s trailblazing war leader communication abilities, the part British and US intelligence played in the weeks and days leading to the war were highly significant.

Their security agencies openly predicted when the Russians would invade almost down the exact day and hour, and had warned of Mr Putin’s belligerent intent for months.

Until a few days before February 24, Kyiv had chosen to listen to French and other European intelligence, which proposed that the massed Russian armoured columns on the borders were no more than bluster.

Gen Barrons contended that Europe’s intelligence failure was “because they preferred not to think an invasion was going to happen”.

But the absolute clarity of US and UK intelligence finally persuaded Mr Zelenskyy of the peril ahead, allowing the military, the population and the wider world to prepare for the coming onslaught.

Mr Clarke described the intelligence move as “very usual but very successful” in that “took away the element of surprise” when Russia did attack.

“It also gave great credibility to everything that was then said after the invasion because what they said was going to happen actually happened,” said the former director of the Rusi think tank.

Brig Barry added: “Politically that was very important. It didn't change the Russian calculus but it did make it a lot easier as soon as the war started for America and Britain to tell Europe ‘well, we told you the Russians are serious, now let's work hard together to keep Ukraine in being’.”

But this could not hide “two great tragedies” of the war, said Gen Barrons: One was the West’s failure to adequately arm Ukraine after Mr Putin’s 2014 invasion and the other was that Europe’s denial of the intelligence “inhibited the sort of preparations that we are still trying to do now”.

“Since February, we're catching up with our failure to equip Ukraine and now we're doing it piecemeal,” he added.

Dumb Artillery

The intelligence warnings also galvanised the US and Britain to step up their arms supply from late 2021, with Ukraine receiving thousands of NLAWs — Next Generation Light Anti-Tank Weapon — alongside anti-tank Javelins and the man-portable Stinger air defence missiles.

Twitter and Telegram were filled with videos of these apparent wonder weapons shooting down helicopters or smashing into tank turrets.

Despite those images, Gen Barrons argued that it was “dumb artillery” rather than the NLAWs that broke the back of the Russian attack as well as the invaders’ “sheer incompetence”.

“They got a stuffing and there's a lot of talk about NLAWs but that’s massively overstated, “Gen Barrons said.

“By far the decisive weapon system that broke the Russian assault on Kyiv was dumb artillery because the Russians obliged by providing concentrations for which dumb artillery is the ideal weapon.

“So, for all the technology in this evolving orchestra of war, dumb artillery remains the decisive factor.”

Mr Clarke attached greater importance to the hurriedly shipped arms, suggesting that their portability and the previous training Ukraine had received from Nato countries meant they were able to operate in small units, picking off Russian armour and their vital fuel tankers.

“The Ukrainians used them very cannily, making those logistical problems worse for the Russians, which made them simply run out of steam and literally run out of food,” he said. “Without the NLAWs, the Russians would have encircled key cities.”

Brig Ben suggested that the imagery of NLAW attacks had a key impact, saying that “Ukrainians were fighting, but also making good use of the externally supplied equipment”.

That encouraged the West to provide even more advanced weaponry, culminating last month in heavy tanks, including German Leopards 2s.

Sluice gates

Perhaps it was his years as an actor and in particular in his role as Ukraine’s fictional president in the television series Servant of the People that allowed Mr Zelenskyy to craft an appealing and credible personality.

Clearly no acting was required with his country under attack, but his ability to say things in a powerful way has resonated with domestic opinion in the West to the point that he has persuaded Nato to send tanks against Russia.

“People want leaders who are decisive, bold and courageous because it helps them put up with very difficult circumstances,” said Gen Barrons.

And if he had taken that US “ride”, in a practical sense, it would have made it much harder to run the country, said Brig Barry, denying the necessary close co-ordination between government and military.

“With the government remaining in the capital, it could co-ordinate which bridges should be blown up or which sluice gates opened to allow water to be exploited as a defence and to help run the trains to get the refugees out,” Gen Barrons added.

“That would have been a lot more difficult if Zelenskyy had taken the ‘ride’.”

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Updated: February 22, 2023, 9:46 AM