The stunning standoff has resulted in a turning point in the conflict. Although officials offer no hope of a possible negotiated solution to end the war, President Joe Biden’s administration has expressed deep skepticism about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions to reduce violence. Instead, there is a growing belief among US officials that they may need to hold their Western alliance together and prepare their citizens for a war that could continue for the foreseeable future.
“This is becoming a real decision point for the administration,” said Wesley Clark, former NATO Commander-in-Chief Allied Europe. “I don’t know what they will do, but I know the consequences if they don’t act.”
The ability of the Ukrainian armed forces to repel the Russian invasion immediately pleasantly surprised the government, forcing it to quickly adjust its approach to ending the conflict. How to punish the Kremlin has given way to debates about what kind of Russia could or should emerge at the end of the war.
Those debates are sure to intensify after Saturday’s grisly discoveries in Bucha, a Kyiv suburb recently abandoned by Russian troops as part of their retreat. Ukrainians who retook the city discovered a mass grave containing nearly 300 bodies, as well as dozens of civilian bodies strewn in the streets, including men with their hands tied and children who were shot at point-blank range.
Biden expressed what many around the world – and some, quietly, in his own government – want when he declared that Putin “cannot remain in power” at the end of his trip to Europe last week. But the White House was quick to make it clear that the president is making moral judgments and not calling for regime change. US officials say they see no plausible way to remove Putin from power.
Instead, they aim for the next best thing: weakening Russia’s ability to project power by diplomatically isolating it, crushing its economy and demonstrating the hollowness of its military. In just a month, what was once perceived as Moscow’s powerful war machine has been exposed and humiliated, while Putin’s aggression has bolstered a once wayward NATO.
The growing concern is that Putin has something the Western alliance lacks: time. The Russian president has the political space to accept setbacks and a prolonged, bloody engagement. He said the West would have imposed these sanctions even without an invasion, so there was no need to curb the “special military operation.” Despite some common ground during his two decades in power, the autocrat does not face the same political challenges as Biden or other world leaders.
At the tactical level, Russia’s attempted blitzkrieg to overthrow Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government has failed to date, and its advances have stalled outside of Kyiv and several other major cities. And although Moscow has continued to bomb these cities, killing civilians and leveling residential neighborhoods, Western officials have seen Russian divisions withdrawing from these regions in recent days in the face of heavy Ukrainian advances.
But US officials say they have seen no evidence that Russian troops are returning to their motherland. Instead, they believe Russia may seek to bolster its gains in southern and eastern Ukraine – where it has had more success – and possibly attempt to seize control of the Donbass region, home to Kremlin-backed separatist forces. If successful, it could be enough to give Putin a face-saving victory.
The “liberation” of that region was the original Russian justification for the war, and officials believe Putin may try to pressure Zelenskyy to officially abandon Donbass and recognize Russia’s ownership of Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014. The Ukrainian leader has also offered some compromises, namely holding a referendum on a final peace deal and ending a bid to join NATO.
This could put the US in a difficult position, because siding with Ukraine would also mean accepting that nations can take other countries’ territory by force. Biden certainly remembers the global embarrassment of watching Russia conquer the Crimean peninsula while he was serving as vice president.
One scenario being considered by US officials has Russia concentrating its forces east and using long-range missiles to destroy other Ukrainian cities, potentially leading to a protracted conflict and an escalating death toll.
Decisions in Kyiv will be just as important as actions in Washington, DC. It’s unclear how long Ukrainian forces can hold out in a war of attrition, especially if Russia is concentrating its resources in one particular region rather than fighting on multiple fronts at once. Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian officials have been urging in recent days to be reinforced with Western weapons, saying they could be dangerously low and risk losing momentum in their counteroffensive.
Oleksandr Danylyuk, formerly a senior national security official in Ukraine, said Kyiv needs more advanced weapons, such as anti-aircraft missiles, to drive Russia out of the country. To this day, he suspects the West’s strategy is largely to pin Russia in Ukraine – not to help eventually defeat Moscow.
“The West is trying to exhaust Russia,” he told POLITICO, adding that he believes this is a missed opportunity. “Russia’s defeat in Ukraine would mean regime change in Moscow, which is pretty much a different way of liberating Russia.”
Analysts advising and supporting the Biden administration’s game plan have so far mainly advocated a stay-the-course approach, believing the president has struck the right balance of punishing Russia without unduly punishing it provoke.
“First, when it comes to security support, the government simply has to keep doing what it’s doing — stockpiling weapons and ammunition that can take effect immediately,” said Max Bergmann, senior fellow at the Progressive Center for Washington, a Washington-based American Progress think tank. “That has top priority. Just help Ukraine keep the fight going. But now that the conflict has stabilized and Russia has backed away from maximalist goals, that creates some breathing space to expand the opening up of US aid.”
The White House is also waiting to see what Zelenskyy is willing to accept in stuttering peace talks. Some officials believe a deal to give up territory, even if it ended fighting, would be a hard sell for Zelenskyy back home because of the amount of Ukrainian blood spilled.
“Ukrainians have a say in this,” said a senior administration official, one of several US and European officials interviewed for this article who were not authorized to speak publicly about sensitive issues. “It’s not up to us to announce victory… Zelenskyy will be the one to decide what is acceptable and what is not.”
Danylyuk said he believed there was little chance of any immediate success in the peace talks because Ukrainian troops were retaking territory, while Russia hoped a renewed, more concentrated offensive would succeed.
Meanwhile, US officials fear domestic support for the war could wane over time, especially if fuel prices remain high as the nation plunges into midterm elections. And while the government has invested considerable time and effort in strengthening the backbone of transatlantic allies, it’s unclear whether the countries will have an appetite for a long-term confrontation.
One pressure point: Europe is heavily dependent on Russian energy. Although some steps have been taken to reduce this dependency, ongoing conflict increases the likelihood of a fuel shortage, which key European leaders have warned could plunge the continent into recession. Global food shortages are also possible.
“I hope they’re preparing for the long drudgery of what long-term security support means for Ukraine,” said Alina Polyakova, President and CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis, “to make sure we’re able to get weapons and equipment into to deliver to Ukraine and Europe allied. Plus a steady presence on the east flank.”
As US officials brace themselves for the potential of a protracted conflict, there’s another long-term concern officials are beginning to grapple with: How should they deal with Putin when the war ends?
Although Russia seems likely to be limping away from conflict, even a shrunken Putin would still control thousands of nuclear weapons aimed at US cities, massive energy resources influencing Europe, and destructive cyberhackers he is not afraid to unleash. Officials have yet to make a decision on ousting Russia from the G20 before the summit this fall. In a bid to isolate Moscow as much as possible, the United States has warned of consequences for other nations aiding Russia, but has watched with dismay as China — along with much of Asia, Latin America and the Middle East — has remained neutral in the conflict is.
That’s why Clark, the retired US general who led NATO during the last European land war, believes the Biden government needs to be bolder in the next phase of the conflict: “We have responded. We have to be proactive to see what’s coming.”
https://www.politico.com/news/2022/04/03/ukraine-u-s-west-war-biden-putin-00022545?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication Drain from Ukraine: US looks to hold West together as war rages on