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Zelenskyy has a bigger and more alarming appetite for risk than we thought

Zelenskyy has proposed risky plans that could trigger a U.S.-Russia war.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Leaks indicate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has proposed military operations within Russian territory.Alessandra Tarantino / AP

The Washington Post reported some big news this weekend: Classified U.S. intelligence documents leaked last month show that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy proposed to top Ukrainian officials that Ukraine attack Russia within its borders. He also floated the idea of blowing up an oil pipeline to Hungary, a member of NATO. 

This is hugely disturbing news. The report underscores the tremendous risks of endlessly arming Zelenskyy with an increasingly powerful array of weapons. If Zelenskyy were to lead an offensive operation in Russia while armed with weapons from NATO, there’s a good chance Russia would interpret it as a U.S.-backed action. That, in turn, could trigger a direct military confrontation between Russia and the U.S. and heighten the chance of a catastrophic nuclear exchange. It’s yet another sign that showing restraint when it comes to assisting Ukraine against Russia’s invasion isn’t weakness, but wisdom.

The Washington Post obtained the intelligence documents, which chronicle intercepted digital communications, from a broader leak of U.S. government secrets on Discord in April. The documents indicate Zelenskyy had been contemplating military strategies that go well beyond what the U.S. has described as a red line for Ukraine: attacks on Russia on its own territory. Proposing a plan isn’t the same as pursuing it, but the intelligence still provides a window into Zelenskyy’s state of mind and highlights the ease with which the war could spiral out of control into a global conflict.

The problem is that Ukraine isn’t acting alone in this war.

According to the Post, in a January meeting Zelensky “suggested Ukraine ‘conduct strikes in Russia’ while moving Ukrainian ground troops into enemy territory to ‘occupy unspecified Russian border cities.’” In another meeting in February with Ukraine’s top military commander, Zelenskyy “expressed concern” that “Ukraine does not have long-range missiles capable of reaching Russian troop deployments in Russia nor anything with which to attack them,” the Post reported — and he floated the idea of using drones to attack deployments in Rostov, Russia. And in a meeting with the deputy prime minister, Zelenskyy mentioned the possibility of blowing up an oil pipeline between Russia and Hungary to cripple Hungary’s economy. The Pentagon did not dispute the accuracy of the reports; Zelenskyy told the Post that the intelligence claims were “fantasies” — but defended the use of  “any tricks” to defend Ukraine. 

It is typical for political leaders to discuss a wide range of policy options for dealing with a problem in order to settle on the optimal approach to it. But this wasn't idle theorizing. Ukrainian drones have struck targets on Russian soil — and are suspected of having been used in the same area that Zelenskyy proposed in his February meeting. More broadly, these scenes provide a window into Zelenskyy’s mindset. While Zelenskyy has pledged publicly not to attack Russia within its borders using weapons from the West, some of the leaks suggest that he was yearning to conduct operations that could involve doing that.

It’s understandable that Zelenskyy would feel that way. Russia launched a war of aggression on his country. Russia has killed, tortured and kidnapped tens of thousands of Ukrainians and continues to illegally occupy a huge chunk of Ukrainian territory with no end in sight. Zelenskyy might be wagering that a risky, high-profile attack on Russian troops in Russia could change Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assessment of how costly the war could be for his country and his own political position in Moscow. If the war turns decisively in favor of Russia in the coming months, Zelenskyy could determine that Ukraine is more entitled to hit military targets in Russia as a tactic of self-defense. If so, such a line of thinking would be completely understandable. 

The problem is that Ukraine isn’t acting alone in this war. Its astonishing performance in protecting itself against Russia since February 2022 is inextricable from the massive military equipment, strategic counsel and intelligence assistance it has received from NATO — and, in particular, the U.S. Should Ukraine take any action that puts Russia's territory more definitively in the theater of war, Moscow could very well interpret such an action as a strike from the U.S. That could quickly change the tenor of the war.

Putin could frame escalating the war is necessary for Russia’s freedom, a stance that could lead to a dangerous standoff between Russia and the U.S. in a sphere where Russia can compete more aggressively with the U.S.: nuclear weapons.  

The leaks vindicate some of the Biden administration’s reluctance to ship long-range missiles and certain kind of vehicles to Ukraine lest they be used for offensive strikes or interpreted by Russia as a U.S.  endorsement of such a strike. But Britain has recently supplied Ukraine with Storm Shadow cruise missiles, which have a 155-mile range. That’s exactly the kind of weapon that could change Ukraine’s strike capacity within Russia's borders if Zelenskyy wanted to be more aggressive.

Throughout this war, a certain sect of advocates for Ukraine’s liberation have portrayed any attempts to regulate the volume and size of weapons to Ukraine as cruel to Ukrainians or as pro-Putin. But the new intel is a reminder that thinking carefully about how to arm Ukraine isn't just rational, but driven out of a concern for human life.