Zelensky told NBC News that Russia would lose the war if Ukraine’s counterattack succeeded

KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky told NBC News Thursday that Russia is fighting a desperate fight against Ukraine’s counterattack, saying he believes that if the Kremlin loses this battle, it will eventually lose the war.

“Our heroic people, our front-line troops are facing stiff resistance,” he said in an interview in Kiev. “Because Russia losing this campaign for Ukraine, in my opinion, means actually losing the war.”

Zelensky said the news from the front lines was “generally positive but very difficult”.

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The interview comes days after the start of the long-awaited counter-offensive aimed at removing the forces of Russian President Vladimir Putin from the occupied territories.

Kiev has made incremental gains in the early stages of its campaign, but has yet to achieve a breakthrough against tough Russian defenses in southern and eastern Ukraine.

The destruction of the Kakhovka Dam last week added a stunning new dimension to the conflict, more than 15 months after the Kremlin invasion.

In Zelensky, Russia has found a valiant adversary whose refusal to leave the capital has boosted his international profile and helped secure billions of dollars in military aid, much of it from the Biden administration.

A counterattack would be crucial not only to Zelensky’s hopes of recapturing captured territory, but also to maintaining Allied support, which would be strained by the complexities of the battlefield and domestic politics.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Thursday that training of Ukrainian pilots to fly US-made F-16 fighter jets has already begun, a potentially powerful tool in defending the country’s skies that Zelensky has long coveted. But this will not be a quick fix, since any training is likely to take many months and come too late to undermine Russia’s dominance in the skies on the counterattack.

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Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday met NATO defense ministers in Brussels, in the first meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group since Ukraine launched its counteroffensive. The main question facing NATO is Ukraine’s strong desire to join the alliance, something that has divided its members and drawn fierce opposition from the Kremlin.

The issue of Ukrainian military aid itself is also likely to become a contentious issue in next year’s US presidential election.

Former President Donald Trump said he would end the war immediately but did not explain how, while complaining about the cost of aid. His main rival for the Republican nomination, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, walked back comments in which he downplayed the war as a “territorial conflict” in which the United States “needed no further involvement.”

Richard Engel and Gabe Yosilo reported in Kiev, and Alexander Smith in London.

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