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WASHINGTON — Allied governments have been discussing how to secure the line of succession in Ukraine in the event President Volodymyr Zelensky is captured or killed by Russian forces, according to officials from multiple governments.
The concerns are primarily about making sure there is still an independent Ukrainian government in some form, even if Russia finds a way to install a puppet leadership in Kyiv, the capital. Having an independent leader to recognize, Western officials said, will help prevent any Russian-backed leaders from gaining legitimacy.
Mr. Zelensky’s presence and motivational speeches have been key factors in keeping up the morale of the Ukrainian military and people, and the officials said it was important that continued.
The focus on securing succession comes, in part, because Ukraine’s Constitution is unclear on the issue and because Mr. Zelensky has said he does not want to be evacuated. He memorably quipped “I need ammunition, not a ride.” Despite news reports, American officials deny they ever offered to evacuate the president or advised him to leave. And Western governments have applauded his resolve to stay and fight as Russian troops try to advance across the country.
The United States, Britain and the European Union would not recognize a government set up by Russia. Nevertheless, undermining a Moscow-controlled government in Kyiv will be easier for the United States and its allies if there is a legally recognized leader of a free Ukraine, rather than competing politicians vying for that role.
Some practical and legal issues are at play as well. The European Union and NATO countries have been largely making their military and economic donations public as a way to show support for Ukraine. European countries have sent automatic weapons, Stinger antiaircraft weapons, various anti-tank missiles and protective equipment to demonstrate that allies are intent on bolstering Ukraine’s ability to damage Russian military forces.
Continuing such public support is far easier with a functional government to accept the aid, even if it is operating in western Ukraine or as a government-in-exile in Poland or Romania.
The United States has a long history of covertly providing arms to insurgent groups around the world. Such a program for Ukraine — which would require a formal but secret finding from President Biden — remains a possibility. But the longer the organized military leads the fight against Russia, the more likely Ukraine will be able to keep control of all or part of the country.
Over the last week, intense discussions in the White House and in closed-door meetings on Capitol Hill have focused on how to provide aid to Ukraine should Russia take over the capital. In that situation, the administration currently plans to continue overtly supplying weaponry to the Ukrainians.
The strong public signal of support, opposed to secret weapons programs, should help strengthen Ukraine’s morale and demonstrate to Russia that the supply of weapons to the Ukrainian military was not going to stop, according to a person briefed on the discussion, who like others interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive conversations with the Ukrainian government.
American officials have pushed the Ukrainians to not allow senior officials in the line of succession to remain in the same place for long periods, and have also urged that they be moved to safer locations outside Kyiv, said a person briefed on the conversations.
U.S. and allied officials would like the Ukrainian government to set up a location for the leadership to use should Kyiv fall, according to multiple officials. A presidential retreat in the Carpathian Mountains in western Ukraine could possibly be used, but Ukrainian officials have not said if the facility is outfitted with bomb shelters and hardened communications capabilities.