Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, left, and German Defence Minister Boris...

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, left, and German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius, second left, greet German and Ukrainian soldiers during their visit to a military training area in the German state of Western Pomerania, Tuesday, June 11. Credit: AP/Jens Buettner

On my way to Europe on Thursday, I watched a video of an emotional exchange between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and a 99-year-old World War II veteran in a wheelchair during ceremonies for the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landing in Normandy, France.

The vet whipped off his hat, embraced the Ukrainian leader in a bear hug, and exclaimed: "You're the savior of the people. You're my hero. I pray for you." Zelensky, clearly moved, retorted: "No, you are our hero. You saved Europe."

Perhaps only a veteran of the battle against the Nazis can fully understand the danger to Western democracies of permitting an expansionist dictator like Russia's Vladimir Putin to get away with gobbling up territory in Europe.

Yet, the West may still let that happen.

So, I've come to Ukraine — via neighboring Moldova, since no civilian airports are operational in the country — and will continue on to Kyiv, the eastern front, and Kharkiv. All with a specific goal: to assess whether Kyiv can still win the war against Russian invaders. I still believe the answer is yes — followed by a big if.

Meantime, here in beautiful, historic Odesa, I'm waiting to hear the missile alert.

Russia fires drones and projectiles nightly into the port city to try to prevent Ukraine from exporting grain that is badly needed in Africa. Ukrainian cities are enduring rolling blackouts as Moscow targets the energy grid, so Odesa has already gone dark, although hotels and a few cafés operate on generators.

No one can be certain those drones won't also target civilian apartments, or, as I witnessed a year ago, destroy a spectacular Orthodox church in the city center. The past several months have been a gloomy time for Ukrainians. Russia took full advantage of the six-month, Trump-imposed delay in Congress on approving a new military aid package for Kyiv. Soldiers on the front often faced Russian artillery that had a 10-1 ammunition advantage.

The lack of weapons — and some Ukrainian military errors — enabled Russian troops to break through around Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, which sits only about 20 miles from the Russian border. Moscow's missiles deliberately target civilian buildings in Kharkiv — the normal mode of Kremlin warfare.

The Russian charge so unnerved the White House that it has finally permitted Ukraine to use precision U.S.-made missiles to attack Russian firing sites just across the border. Kyiv has pushed the Russians back, but could have saved lives had this permission come sooner.

"We lost many people, soldiers, and civilians," I was told by Ukrainian parliament member Oleksiy Goncharenko, "and that is difficult for us."

Similarly, had NATO nations provided Ukraine with the U.S.-made Patriot air defense systems it has begged for since 2022, it could have warded off Russia's current destruction of Ukraine's power grid. As it stands, next winter may be hell.

Seven more Patriot systems could protect those cities — in addition to the two donated barely a year ago by Germany and one by the U.S. that now help shield Kyiv. NATO allies together reportedly possess at least 100 Patriot systems. Yet, so far, only Germany has offered to cough up one more.

Ukraine's success depends heavily on whether the Biden administration finally adopts a strategy for victory, rather than the current reactive response of providing piecemeal aid "too little, too late." At best this enables an unsustainable stalemate. Kyiv's future further depends on whether Donald Trump wins the election and does what he's said he will do: cut off military aid to Ukraine unless it effectively capitulates to Putin.

Yet, the answer will also hinge on things Ukraine must do itself.

The beleaguered country needs to reform the structure and management of its military and develop a workable conscription system to provide desperately needed man power.

It also needs to sustain the incredible level of military innovations generated by its army of talented techies — many of whom joined up as soon as Russia invaded. That has given Kyiv an edge over the Russians, but they are catching up with help from Iran, North Korea, and China.

On this trip, I want to learn how Ukraine intends to scale up its production of drones, sustain military morale, and keep up the amazing level of civilian volunteerism that has backed up the army in the face of uncertain U.S. politics. I want to see firsthand why most Ukrainians consider this an existential war that cannot be settled by negotiations until Putin is convinced he can't win.

My visit will take me to Kyiv and the eastern front lines to witness the latest war crimes Putin has wreaked on civilians in defenseless cities, towns, and villages. These Russian war crimes are carried out deliberately, not as "collateral damage" of battle. This is part of Putin's genocidal — and imperial — goal: to force Ukraine to accept the end of its existence as a sovereign state.

I hope to interview escapees from the territories Moscow has occupied since 2022 and claims to have annexed. There, the Kremlin has reportedly forbidden the use of the Ukrainian language, the existence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and any celebration of Ukrainian culture. It is indoctrinating children to believe there is no such country as Ukraine, and that anyone who protests is tortured, killed, or deported to prisons inside Russia.

This is the stuff of the worst days of the Soviet Union's Iron Curtain. It is important for Americans to understand the ambitions of a dictator who wants to rebuild an extensive Russian empire.

I also hope to interview soldiers near the front lines and around Kharkiv about the impact on morale from the six-month delay of U.S. weapons and the worry about future U.S. abandonment. Is ammunition finally arriving?

Americans don't realize what a tremendous partner Ukraine would be if and when it is admitted to NATO, having battled the massive Russian army over two years to a standstill. That was before the unreliable American political system enabled recent Russian territorial gains.

In addition, I want to look at areas where the Ukrainian military has brilliantly succeeded, such as the production of many new varieties of drones that have reshaped the modern battlefield. I hope to see some private drone production operations and learn about efforts to scale them up with help from their government and from Western allies. I've heard NATO officials say that Ukraine's army is now the most sophisticated in Europe and that U.S. military officials are learning from its experience.

I also want to talk to Ukrainian security experts on their theory of winning. One key is undoubtedly using Ukrainian drones, along with newly arrived U.S. long-range missiles, to isolate Russian-occupied Crimea and make Moscow's troop presence there untenable.

I will be attending a conference on Black Sea security in Odesa that will look at the options for retaking Crimea, as well as continuing Kyiv's amazing success in driving Russian ships out of the Black Sea with sea drones and missiles. They have opened a corridor through which Ukraine can continue grain exports vital to the world, even though Ukraine does not have a navy.

"The Black Sea is the key to the war," said Goncharenko, whose district is in the Odesa region. "The Black Sea controls the future of Odesa and all of southern Ukraine. We can continue to degrade them in Crimea. But we are losing time, and every week, the possibilities are diminishing."

If Washington had given Kyiv long-range ATACMS a year ago, instead of just recently, Crimea might now be under Ukrainian control. This is the theme that sticks in my mind as I arrive in Ukraine.

Whether Kyiv can drive Russian soldiers out of every inch of occupied territory, there is no chance to negotiate so long as Putin thinks he is winning. And Crimea remains the best place to deal Putin a symbolic and strategic blow that would force him to reconsider the continuation of the war.

At a time when Western allies have just celebrated the 80th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy, which was the prelude to the triumph of democracies over the Nazis, it is time for the White House to develop a theory of victory that enables Kyiv to do likewise against Putin.

As former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst told me: "Absolutely, Ukraine can still win, but it depends especially on the United States. If we arm them properly, it would make it very hard for Putin to supply Crimea. What is necessary to open a way forward is a major defeat for Putin that is seen by the entire world."

At this perilous and decisive time, I am glad to be in Ukraine.

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