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Biden: Zelensky ‘didn’t want to hear’ warnings

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy meets with U.S. President Joe Biden in the Oval Office at the White House on Sept. 1, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Biden told Zelenskyy the U.S. intends to provide Kyiv with advanced medium- and long-range air defense capabilities.  (Doug Mills/Tribune News Service)
By Ellen Francis, Victoria Bisset and Timothy Bella Washington Post

President Joe Biden said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy “didn’t want to hear it” when U.S. intelligence officials raised warnings of a looming Russian attack before the Feb. 24 invasion, according to the Associated Press.

Biden, who along with Congress has deepened U.S. involvement in the global effort to reject the Russian invasion by recently finalizing more than $40 billion in new military and humanitarian assistance, spoke at a Democratic fundraising event in Los Angeles on Friday night, according to the AP and Bloomberg News. The president spoke about the American commitment to supporting Ukraine four months into the invasion, saying, “Nothing like this has happened since World War II.”

During his talk, Biden also mentioned how U.S. intelligence had warned Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian government before the invasion began.

“I know a lot of people thought I was maybe exaggerating,” the president said, according to the AP.

Biden said he “knew we had data to sustain” that Russian President Vladimir Putin “was going to go in, off the border.”

“There was no doubt, and Zelenskyy didn’t want to hear it, nor did a lot of people,” Biden said, according to Bloomberg. “I understand why they didn’t want to hear it, but (Putin) went in.”

Ukrainian officials, however, rejected Biden’s account.

Serhiy Nykyforov, a spokesman for Zelenskyy, told Ukrainian news website that Zelenskyy had three or four telephone conversations with Biden in the period before the invasion, in which the two leaders discussed the situation. He added that Ukraine had called for preventive sanctions to de-escalate the situation.

“Therefore, the phrase ‘did not want to hear’ probably needs clarification,” Nykyforov said.

Zelenskyy adviser Mykhailo Podolyak echoed Nikiforov, telling that Ukraine knew Russia was planning an invasion but that questions had remained over the scale of any attack.

“It is absurd to accuse a country of resisting the aggressor for more than 100 days, which prevails if key countries have failed to stop Russia as a precaution,” he said.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment early Saturday.

Biden’s remarks come as Ukraine is on the brink of losing the eastern region of Luhansk to Russia, warning that its outgunned military desperately needs faster Western arms deliveries. Fierce street fighting is continuing in the strategic city of Severodonetsk, but “most of the city is controlled by Russians,” the Luhansk governor said Saturday.

Kyiv’s European allies have vowed to step up military aid – even as many appear hesitant about Ukraine’s bid for European Union membership. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen arrived in Kyiv on Saturday to discuss Ukraine’s E.U. candidacy with Zelenskyy ahead of an expected recommendation from the commission on Ukraine’s status next week.

As the United States and its allies have pivoted to planning for a longer war in Ukraine, Biden has made it no secret that Americans would continue to support Zelensky and the Ukrainian people through aid and weaponry. The Senate recently passed a bill that features a combined $20 billion in military aid and is expected to finance the transfer of advanced weapons systems, such as Patriot antiaircraft missiles and long-range artillery. Also included in the bill is more than $8 billion in general economic support for Ukraine, nearly $5 billion in global food aid to address potential food shortages sparked by the collapse of the Ukrainian agricultural economy, and more than $1 billion in combined support for refugees.

Biden recently confirmed that his administration was sending medium-range advanced rocket systems to Ukraine, responding to a top request from Ukrainian officials who say the weapons are necessary to curb the advance of Russian forces in the east. Biden’s announcement triggered an angry response from Kremlin officials, who said they “believe that the United States is deliberately and diligently ‘pouring fuel on the fire.’”

But before the invasion, some questioned whether Zelensky was prepared for the Russian attack.

As top U.S. and European officials raised the alarm in January that Putin could send troops and tanks across the border, the Ukrainian leader had appealed for calm and implored his citizens not to give in to panic. Zelensky had said – repeatedly – that he was not convinced that a Russian assault was imminent.

“Take a breath,” he said in a video posted to his official website on Jan. 19. “Calm down.”

When acknowledging a potential Russian attack earlier this year, Zelensky attempted to avoid, as he put it, “panic in the markets, panic in the financial sector,” knowing a possible war would be unsettling to the Ukrainian economy.

On Friday night, Biden again took aim at Putin, whom he has blamed for some of the historic inflation in the United States. Biden accused the Russian president of “trying to obliterate the [Ukrainian] culture, not just the nation, but the culture,” according to Bloomberg.

Podolyak told Interfax that the Ukrainian government did recognize the possibility of an invasion.

“Ukraine understood the intentions of the Russians, expected one or another aggressive scenario, prepared for it,” he said.

He added that Zelensky had “high-quality intelligence” ahead of the invasion, and that the scale of the attack surprised not just Ukraine but the world.

“The president also responded carefully to all the words and warnings of our partners. The question was always what will be the scope of the invasion?” Podolyak said. “Undoubtedly, the volume of the invasion, which we saw on Feb. 24, shocked many countries, including our partners.”