As Ukraine first anniversary approaches, U.S. officials are urging Ukrainian leaders to make significant battlefield gains while weapons and aid from the US and its allies increase.
Biden officials say Congress and America’s allies’ recent aid packages are Kyiv’s best chance to change the war’s course. The Republican-led House’s conservatives have pledged to withdraw support, and Europe’s long-term war funding appetite is unclear.
Several officials noted the strong bipartisan support that has accompanied every Ukraine package, adding that Congress gave the White House more than it asked for under a Democratic House and Senate.
“We will continue to attempt to impress them that we can’t do anything and everything forever and,” one top administration official said of Ukraine’s authorities. The official, who spoke anonymously to discuss sensitive diplomatic matters, added that the administration’s “very strong view” was that Congress would struggle to provide the same security and economic assistance.
“As long as it takes” refers to conflict, the official said. “It’s not about assistance.”
As it has throughout the war, the Biden administration will request as much funding as it believes Ukraine needs, but Congress may not approve those requests, according to a senior administration official. Republicans took control of the House in January, and while many key lawmakers support continued funding, the party must also deal with a hard-right flank that opposes war funding.
Eastern Ukraine’s war has stalled in recent months. Biden officials expect a critical moment this spring when Russia launches an offensive and Ukraine counterattacks to reclaim lost territory.
Vice President Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas are attending a major security summit in Germany this week, and President Biden will speak in Poland on the first anniversary next week.
In addition, the Biden administration is currently working with Congress to approve $10 billion in direct fiscal support to Kyiv. Furthermore, it is anticipated that an additional major military assistance package as well as additional Kremlin sanctions will be announced in the next week.
Top Biden officials, including deputy national security advisor Jon Finer, deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman, and undersecretary of defense Colin Kahl, visited Ukraine last month and warned Kyiv of the vital next few months.
One week before those officials arrived, CIA Director William J. Burns briefed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on his expectations for Russia’s military plans in the coming months and stressed the importance.
Biden and his aides want to show Russian President Vladimir Putin that Western allies’ support for Ukraine is not diminishing before the Feb. 24 anniversary.
However, several analysts warned that neither Russia nor Ukraine will gain a decisive military advantage soon.
“It feels like we are playing for a protracted war,” said Center for a New American Security Transatlantic Security Program director Andrea Kendall-Taylor. “It goes against what so many people want, that we’re actually helping Ukraine win militarily.”
“It feels like incredibly high uncertainty,” she said.
Biden and his advisers said they will support Ukraine as long as feasible. However, after Ukraine exhausts the congressional package, which might happen this summer, the political path will get harder.
After Putin threatened to use nuclear weapons, some Western leaders were wary about providing heavy armament to Ukraine.
Zelensky’s noisy lobbying and U.S. officials’ discreet dealmaking have transformed the equation. Biden and Blinken spent December and January persuading allies to provide Ukraine tanks and missiles that his administration had resisted deploying for months.
Biden advisers urged the Netherlands to give vital air defense equipment to the US. According to a senior administration source who spoke on the condition of anonymity, National Security Council officials met with senior Dutch officials on Dec. 20 and underscored the importance of air defense to the US.
The Dutch officials didn’t know that the US was trying to get Zelensky to Washington the next day, when Biden would approve a Patriot Missile battery, Zelensky’s top priority to defend civilian infrastructure from Russian strikes.
The battery needed a launcher, ideally one in Europe, so Dutch authorities worked through the holidays to help the US, the official said. Biden summoned Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte to the White House in January, and the Dutch found a solution. When Rutte arrived on Jan. 17, he claimed the Netherlands will send two Patriot Missile systems and missiles to Ukraine.
But Biden faced hurdles on other fronts as well. While Britain had said it would deploy tanks to Ukraine, Germany refused to send its own Leopard 2 tanks or to enable other countries to transfer their own Leopards — unless the United States agreed to send its coveted M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine.
For much of January, Pentagon and White House officials maintained the M1 Abrams tanks were not well-suited for Ukrainian troops because they are so hard to operate and maintain. Biden avoided a Western alliance split.
Biden’s Cabinet decided in late January to announce the provision of M1 Abrams tanks to appease Germany, even though they wouldn’t arrive for months. Biden approved the next day.
As the US prepares to send 31 of the best tanks in the medium term, Europe is fast creating two Leopard tank battalions, which might upset the combat balance of power.
The apparent show of togetherness masks underlying disagreements regarding Ukraine’s resource allocation in the coming months.
The forthright discussions in Kyiv last month indicated an effort by the Biden administration to bring Ukraine’s ambitions in line with what the West can sustain as the war near its one-year mark. According to anonymous sources, Ukraine hasn’t always been on the same page.
For months, Ukraine has invested substantial resources and troops defending Bakhmut in the eastern Donbas region. American military experts and planners have warned that it is unrealistic to simultaneously defend Bakhmut and undertake a spring counteroffensive to reclaim what the United States considers as more crucial terrain.
Two top administration officials claimed Zelensky values Bakhmut symbolically and thinks losing it will hurt Ukrainian morale. On Friday, Zelensky pledged to “fight as long as we can” to defend the besieged city.
U.S. officials respect Zelensky’s ability to unify his country, but they worry that fighting everywhere Russia deploys troops will benefit Moscow. Instead, they have advised Ukraine to concentrate the timing and execution of the spring counteroffensive, especially as the US and Europe train Ukrainian forces on more advanced equipment.
“Generally, our position is they should take enough time that they can benefit from what we’ve supplied in material and training,” a senior administration official said. Russia taking Bakhmut “will not result in any substantial strategic adjustment in the battlefield,” the official said. Russians will try to claim it as such, [but] it’s a dot on the map for which they have devoted an unbelievable amount of blood and treasure.”
Beyond Bakhmut, Zelensky has frequently galvanized his country behind a military campaign to reclaim all of Russian-occupied Ukraine, including Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.
Andriy Yermak, Zelensky’s top adviser, stated last month that defeating Russia requires restoring Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders, “including Donbas and Crimea.” He called anything less “totally unacceptable” at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
However, U.S. intelligence officials, speaking anonymously to discuss sensitive subjects, have assessed that Ukraine’s army cannot currently retake the highly fortified peninsula. Over the past few weeks, Capitol Hill committees have repeated that bleak conclusion.
That disparity between intentions and capabilities has fueled concerns in Europe that the Ukraine conflict may continue indefinitely, burdening the West as it struggles with rising inflation and uncertain oil costs.
Biden’s advisers said they are enabling Ukraine to recapture as much territory as possible before meeting with Putin.
Patriot missiles, HIMARS launchers, and armored vehicles will help. Optimists believe Ukraine can stop Russian invasions in the east, recapture territory in the south, and force a peace deal before year’s end.
Skeptics worry that Ukraine is running out of time as Russia deploys hundreds of thousands of extra troops, including prisoners, ahead of the spring attack.
Western and Ukrainian intelligence authorities estimate that Russia has over 300,000 forces in Ukraine, up from 150,000, with plans to add hundreds of thousands more. The spring Russian campaign might limit Kyiv’s military supply lines in western Ukraine by crossing the Belarusian border.
Even seasoned military experts envision a wide variety of possible outcomes in coming months, highlighting how precarious the situation is.
“The outcome is unclear. A negotiated settlement? Will it merely drag on and become another frozen conflict? said CSIS International Security Program Director Seth Jones.
Read More: A New Russian Offensive in Ukraine?