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As the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nears, US officials tell Ukrainian leaders they face a critical moment to change the course of the war, increasing pressure on Kiev to make significant gains on the battlefield score while arms and aid are deployed from the United States and his allies rise.
Despite promises to support Ukraine “for as long as necessary,” Biden officials say the latest aid packages from Congress and America’s allies represent Kiev’s best chance to decisively change the course of the war. Many conservatives in the Republican-led House of Representatives have vowed to withdraw support, and Europe’s long-term appetite for funding the war effort remains unclear.
Noting the strong bipartisan support that has accompanied every Ukraine package, several officials added that Congress had given the White House more than it asked for, but acknowledged that it was doing so under a Democrat-led House and Senate may be.
“We will continue to try to persuade them that we cannot do anything and everything forever,” said a senior government official, referring to the Ukrainian leadership. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic matters, added that it is the administration’s “very strong view” that it will be difficult to continue to have the same level of security and economic support from Congress to obtain.
“‘As long as it lasts’ refers to the scale of the conflict,” the official added. “It’s not about the amount of aid.”
The war of recent months has turned into a slow grind in eastern Ukraine, with neither side gaining the upper hand. Biden officials believe the critical juncture will come this spring, when Russia is expected to launch an offensive and Ukraine to launch a counteroffensive to retake lost territory.
Underscoring the importance of the moment for the administration are Vice President Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas en route to a major security summit in Germany this week, and President Biden is traveling to Poland next week for a speech and meetings marking the first anniversary.
The Biden administration is also working with Congress to approve an additional $10 billion in direct budget support for Kiev and is expected to announce another major military aid package next week and the imposition of more sanctions on the Kremlin around the same time.
Harris navigating the 2022 Munich Security Conference
The critical nature of the next few months has already been bluntly conveyed to Kyiv by senior Biden officials — including Deputy National Security Adviser Jon Finer, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Deputy Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl, all of whom visited Ukraine last month.
CIA Director William J. Burns arrived in the country a week before these officials, where he briefed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on his expectations for Russia’s military plans in the coming months and stressed the urgency of the moment.
At the same time, Biden and his aides are keen to avoid any sign of a defection or weakening of Western allies’ resolve ahead of the Feb. 24 anniversary, hoping to signal Russian President Vladimir Putin that support for Ukraine is not waning .
However, some analysts warned that neither Russia nor Ukraine will gain a decisive military advantage any time soon.
“It feels like we’re playing into a long war,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “I think it goes against what so many people would hope that we’re actually trying to help Ukraine achieve a military victory.”
She added, “It feels like a moment of really high uncertainty.”
Biden and his top aides say they are committed to supporting Ukraine as long and as fully as possible. But they warn that the political path will become more difficult once Ukraine exhausts the current congressional package, which could happen as early as this summer.
Some Western leaders have expressed reservations about sending certain types of heavy weapons to Ukraine because of concerns about a direct confrontation with Russia, particularly after Putin signaled his readiness to use nuclear weapons.
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But Zelenskyy’s vociferous public lobbying, followed by behind-the-scenes quiet deals by US officials, has changed the dynamic. Biden and Blinken spent much of December and January convincing allies to help Ukraine with the tanks and missiles his administration had refused for months.
Biden aides, for example, encouraged the Netherlands to help the United States deploy critical air defense systems. On Dec. 20, National Security Council officials met with senior Dutch officials and stressed the importance the United States places on air defenses, according to a senior administration official familiar with the meeting, who spoke on condition of anonymity to reveal details of private conversations .
What officials didn’t know was that the United States was working to bring Zelensky to Washington the next day, where Biden would announce he would approve a Patriot missile battery, Zelensky’s main request, to help defend against Russian attacks to help the civilian infrastructure.
The battery needed a launcher – ideally one already in Europe – so Dutch officials were working over the holidays to see how they could help the United States, the official said. In January, Biden invited Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte to visit the White House, and the Dutch found a solution. When Rutte visited on January 17, he said the Netherlands would provide Ukraine with two Patriot missile launchers and rockets.
But Biden faced challenges on other fronts as well. While Britain had announced it would supply tanks to Ukraine, Germany refused to send its own Leopard 2 tanks or authorize other countries to transfer their own Leopards unless the United States agreed to ship their prized M1 -Send Abrams tanks to Ukraine.
For much of January, Pentagon and White House officials insisted that the M1 Abrams tanks were not well suited for Ukrainian troops because they were so complicated to operate and maintain. But Biden wanted to avoid creating a rift in the western alliance.
In late January, Biden’s cabinet presented a plan for the United States to announce the deployment of M1 Abrams tanks, which would placate Germany, although the US tanks would not arrive for several months at the earliest. The following day, Biden gave the green light.
While the United States prepares to send 31 of the lead tanks in the medium term, Europe is assembling two Leopard tank battalions – the equivalent of at least 70 tanks – in the short term, in a move that could significantly shift the balance of power on the battlefield.
But the public show of unity belies underlying tensions over how Ukraine should focus its resources in the coming months.
Open discussions in Kyiv last month reflected the Biden administration’s efforts to reconcile Ukraine’s goals with what the West can sustain as the war nears its one-year mark. It hasn’t always been easy to get Ukraine on the same page, said people familiar with the discussions, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.
For months, Ukraine has mobilized significant resources and troops to defend Bakhmut in the eastern Donbass region. American military analysts and planners have argued that it is unrealistic to simultaneously defend Bakhmut and launch a counteroffensive in the spring to retake what the United States sees as a more critical area.
However, Zelenskyi attaches symbolic importance to Bakhmut, two senior administration officials said, and he believes losing the city would be a blow to Ukraine’s morale. On Friday, Zelenskyy said his country’s armed forces would “fight as long as we can” to hold the embattled city that Russia is poised to capture.
While US officials have said they respect that Zelenskyy knows how best to mobilize his country, they have expressed concern that if Ukraine fights wherever Russia deploys troops, it will work to Moscow’s advantage. Instead, they have urged Ukraine to prioritize the timing and conduct of the spring counteroffensive, especially as the United States and Europe train Ukrainian fighters on some of the more complex weapons making their way onto the battlefield.
“In general, we think they should give themselves enough time to benefit from what we have provided in terms of materials and training,” said a senior administrator. If Russia captures Bakhmut, the official said, “it will not result in any significant strategic shift on the battlefield. The Russians will try to claim it as such, [but] It’s a spot on the map that they’ve expended an extraordinary amount of blood and treasure on.”
Beyond Bakhmut, Zelenskyy has repeatedly rallied his country behind a military campaign to retake all of Russian-held Ukraine, including Crimea, the peninsula Russia annexed in 2014.
Last month, Zelenskyi’s top adviser, Andriy Yermak, reiterated that defeating Russia means restoring Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders, “including Donbass and Crimea.” Anything else is “absolutely unacceptable,” he said at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
But US intelligence officials have concluded that retaking the heavily fortified peninsula is currently beyond the Ukrainian army’s capabilities, according to officials familiar with the matter, who are speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues. This sobering assessment has been repeated in several committees on Capitol Hill in recent weeks.
This mismatch between goals and capabilities has raised concerns in Europe that the Ukraine conflict will continue indefinitely, leaving the West straining as it grapples with other challenges, including stubbornly high inflation and unstable energy prices.
Against this backdrop, Biden’s advisers say they are on the best course of action: authorize Ukraine to retake as much territory as possible in the coming months before sitting down at the negotiating table with Putin.
This effort will benefit from an influx of Patriot missiles, HIMARS launchers, and a range of armored vehicles. Optimists see a way for Ukraine to repel further Russian incursions in the east, reclaim territory in the south and force Russia to negotiate an end to the war by the end of the year.
But skeptics fear time is not on Ukraine’s side as Russia dumps hundreds of thousands of new troops, including convicts, on the battlefield ahead of the expected spring offensive.
Western and Ukrainian intelligence officials estimate that Russia currently has over 300,000 armed forces in Ukraine, up from 150,000 initially, with plans to add hundreds of thousands more. Russia’s spring campaign could see forces pour across the Belarusian border and cut supply lines in western Ukraine that Kiev has been using to bolster its military.
Even seasoned military experts see a variety of possible outcomes in the coming months, underscoring just how tense the situation is.
“It’s not clear how this will end. Will it end with a negotiated solution? Will it just be protracted and we’ll see a version of the frozen conflicts that we see elsewhere?” said Seth Jones, director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“They have enough support now and the Ukrainians are ready to fight, so there’s a strong logic to get Ukraine as much as possible,” Jones said. “How long you can do that is an open question.”