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WASHINGTON — Moonfish and Juice, the two Ukrainian fighter pilots who visited Washington, D.C., last week with their representatives, had a simple message for the elected leaders, defense officials and journalists they met: We can win this war, and have to. Because if Russia wins, there is no telling where it will stop.
“If it’s not stopped right now, right here in Ukraine on the ground, the rest of the democratic world could find itself in a much, much worse situation,” says Moonfish — Yahoo News is not using his real name — who has been flying missions over eastern Ukraine, where Russia has been making steady gains in recent weeks.
On Sunday, rockets hit Kyiv, a reminder that the setbacks Russia suffered throughout the winter and early spring have hardly convinced the Kremlin to negotiate a compromise.
Nor is it clear that such a compromise would be palatable to Ukraine, which was initially invaded by Russia in 2014 in a bid to reclaim its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. Asked by Yahoo News what victory would look like, Juice said that Ukraine must return to the borders established in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. His handlers hasten to point out that Kyiv’s official position is not quite so ambitious, but Juice is not concerned with the finer points of diplomacy.
“So it’s the position of politicians,” he says insistently. “But the position of soldiers is the borders of 1991.”
American policymakers have insisted that it is for Ukrainians to decide when they are ready to negotiate, but there is little secret that the foreign policy establishment in Washington is nervous about just how much longer the U.S.-European coalition will hold.
“NATO policy appears to be that, to keep the alliance together, we will give them enough to fight, but we won’t give them enough to win,” Mark Kimmitt, a former senior policy official at the departments of Defense and State, told Yahoo News. “Such a policy often leads to a lowest common denominator, held captive by the more conservative alliance members.”
When the invasion first started, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his top generals thought they might take Kyiv within three days. A ferocious Ukrainian defense repelled the Russian assault, giving hope to a victory by the much smaller nation. But now, several months later, the war has entered a grinding phase that has seen Russia take smaller cities like Severodonetsk but hardly consolidating its gains in the Donbas region to any extent that would allow Putin to claim victory.
“Russians are just eking out inch by inch of territory,” a senior Pentagon official told reporters on Friday.
Last week, the U.S. announced it was sending $450 million in military equipment — including four advanced rocket systems — to Ukraine. But it might not be enough.
“The Ukrainian air defense capacity was gutted in the opening few days of the war in February,” Daniel L. Davis, a military expert with Defense Priorities and a combat veteran, told Yahoo News. “Latest reports are that Russia is able to fly somewhere between 200 and 300 sorties per day. Most reliable assessments suggest Russia has had around 30 combat fixed-wing aircraft shot down during the war — which means thousands of jets fly each month and only six or seven get shot down in any given month.”
And until Ukraine can knock out Russian air defense systems, Davis warns, sending it Western fighter jets and helicopters is not likely to do much good, since those will simply be shot out of the sky.
The Ukrainians are appreciative that they have not been forgotten by the West. But the uncomfortable reality is that they are up against one of the most powerful militaries in the world, commanded by a Kremlin leadership that is fixated on proving its might to the rest of the world. Gratitude is thus followed by the question of what will come next, and when.
“We need all the help we can get,” says Yulia Marushevska, who works with the Ukrainian military in securing Western aid and who traveled to Washington with Moonfish and Juice.
The two pilots say they simply need more Western equipment: air defenses that can take down Russian missiles, jets more nimble and advanced than the Soviet-era MiGs that have been supplied to the Ukrainians thus far.
“We need to do better. We need to save more lives,” Juice says. “We are trying to do our best, but it’s old equipment.”
Both pilots say Russian rockets and missiles have hit civilian targets along with military ones. “They don’t care about hospitals or schools,” Juice says of Russia. “They are not real professionals” who follow Western standards of conduct.
“They don’t have enough technical training, enough real-fire training,” says Juice, who was involved in the initial defense of Kyiv. “So that’s why they’ve suffered such great losses.”
Moonfish, usually the more subdued of the pair, jumped in. “They’re no match for us. They’re no match for American pilots. I am 100% sure of that.” He says that even with superior aircraft like the Sukhoi Su-30, poor training blunts Russia’s advantage, as does a command-and-control structure at once chaotic and despotic.
“They’re afraid to speak up,” Moonfish says, an assessment he bases on interrogation of captured Ukrainian pilots.
Fear of speaking up is endemic in Russian society, which has been cowed by two decades of Putin. “Yeah, it was disappointing,” Moonfish says of how quickly protests in cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg ended, to be replaced by acquiescence to Kremlin propaganda. “We believed that something actually might have happened, especially in the first month,” when Putin’s grip on power seemed as fragile as it had in years. Now, though, the war is popular with ordinary Russians, who have adjusted to international sanctions and widespread condemnation.
“Shit like that would never have happened in Ukraine,” Moonfish says.
Now he is preparing for a war that could go on for years. Even if Putin is replaced, it will likely be by an understudy eager for decisive military victory — the very kind that Putin enjoyed in Chechnya when he first came to power in 1999.
“We are all set for a long-term confrontation with Russia,” Moonfish says. “And because of that, we need more weapons to free our territories. To at least make them think twice before invading again.”