By Daniel DePetris
On Aug. 24, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivered an inspirational speech in Kyiv’s St. Sophia Square to mark Ukraine’s Independence Day. His message was familiar to anyone who has heard or read a Zelenskyy speech since he became a wartime president. “We are fighting the enemy,” he told the crowd. “And we know what we are capable of. We are capable of winning! And we will prevail!”
Nearly 5,000 miles away, U.S. President Joe Biden is exhibiting clarity of his own. The White House has stated time and again that the U.S. will support Ukraine “for as long as it takes,” which if defined literally would mean his administration is prepared to arm and finance Ukraine’s war effort against Russia until Kyiv’s total and complete military victory. It’s a pledge Biden reaffirmed during his phone call to Zelenskyy on the same day the Ukrainian president gave his Independence Day speech.
Lofty aspirations, however, are often blunted by cold, hard reality. And the reality is that the Biden administration’s Ukraine strategy is increasingly being tested by political, policy and resource constraints.
In the weeks and months after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his full-scale invasion, the administration was able to tap into the deeply ingrained, justifiable outrage expressed on Capitol Hill to get Ukraine the military assistance it needed to defend itself. About three weeks after the first Russian missiles fell, Congress tacked on $13 billion in emergency aid for Kyiv to the 2022 omnibus. In total, Congress has appropriated $113 billion in aid to Ukraine in four tranches — about 60%, or $67 billion, was earmarked for military assistance.
But what was possible yesterday might not be possible today. Having passed the war’s 18-month mark, a growing crop of lawmakers are questioning whether the U.S. can keep up the current level of support in perpetuity.
Ukraine aid is a major topic of debate within the Republican Party writ large. While GOP congressional leadership remains largely onboard, the rank and file are either opposed to writing more checks or are tying additional aid to more stringent accountability measures such as the formation of a special inspector general.
Fifty-five percent of Americans surveyed by CNN in July said Congress shouldn’t authorize more war funding, while 51% said the U.S. has already done enough for Ukraine.
Battlefield dynamics need to be considered as well. While the war has never been easy on Ukrainian forces at the front, 2022 was a year when the Ukrainian Army vastly outperformed expectations. Helped by consistent U.S. weapons supplies and a bumbling Russian military that couldn’t shoot straight or maintain its supply lines, Ukrainian troops were able to accomplish repeated tactical successes.
In April 2022, Russian units were forced to abandon their drive toward Kyiv after weeks of being bogged down by a lumbering, poor logistical system. In September, Ukrainian forces humiliated the Russian Army in Kharkiv; two months later, in Kherson, Russian commanders concluded it was better to organize a retreat from the Dnieper River’s western bank than keep investing manpower and equipment into tenuous positions.
But this year is proving to be far harder and more complicated for Ukrainian troops. The 10-weeklong Ukrainian counteroffensive along three points of the 600-mile front line can best be described as grueling. Anybody who anticipated a replay of the Kharkiv episode set themselves up for disappointment. The days when whole chunks of Ukrainian territory could be reclaimed are likely long gone, replaced with a highly intense combat environment in which those on the offensive reclaim tiny bits of land at a high cost in men and materiel.
While it’s too early to say that Kyiv’s counteroffensive has failed, neither can one assume it will eventually succeed. The Ukrainian Army has to find a way to break through three layers of Russian defensive fortifications and, just as importantly, hold those positions without atrophying its forces or degrading its ability to defend against Russian counterattacks. The U.S. intelligence community is skeptical this can be done this year, if ever.
To date, the Biden administration has managed to accomplish two objectives:
- Assist Ukraine as it resists Russia’s aggression.
- Ensure NATO isn’t dragged into the conflict, preventing escalation with a nuclear-armed Russia.
It’s a fine balancing act that could quickly unravel depending on how the war evolves. Straddle back the aid, and Russia’s prospects on the ground improve; outsource U.S. policy to Ukraine’s maximalist objectives, particularly in Crimea, and run the risk of a desperate Putin making even more desperate, dangerous decisions.
Biden, therefore, will have to be prepared for a scenario in which Russia’s defensive lines are simply too strong to break through. This is more likely than the full Russian troop withdrawal the Ukrainian government has been aiming for over the last year and a half.
The U.S. should adjust its policy accordingly, now, by dropping its support for maximalist Ukrainian war aims and pivot toward support for armed neutrality: consistent U.S. defensive support for the Ukrainian Army so it can keep the territory it presently holds and ensure Kyiv’s deterrent against Russian aggression is intact over the long haul.
Such a pivot will require compromises, but it’s the best way of bolstering Ukraine’s defensive needs in the least costly way possible. Meanwhile, Europe, which has more of a security imperative in boosting Ukraine’s victory or at least preventing its defeat, should use the time to exhibit primary leadership over this issue.
Tough but necessary choices are around the corner.