US officials are increasingly critical of Ukraine’s counter-offensive strategy and pessimistic about its prospects for success, deepening tensions between Kiev and Washington at the most critical point in the war since Russia’s full-scale invasion.
Kiev launched its counter-offensive against Russian forces earlier this summer, with strong backing from the United States, but progress has been slow and analysts say Ukraine will struggle to win back important territory before the maneuvers are hampered by muddy ground or its fighting power runs out.
The pessimism about the counterattack in Washington comes just weeks before a $43 billion package of US funding for Ukraine expires, requiring the Biden administration to secure congressional approval for more aid for the country.
“I don’t think you’ll hear an argument from anyone that this is going well right now or that this is heading to a place that people consider good, but there’s not much going for it as a Plan B,” Samuel Schrab, senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation.
The United States and Ukraine originally planned a spring offensive that would quickly eliminate the Russian occupation forces in the summer. But slow progress on the ground has prompted Kiev to revert to conventional tactics rather than the combined-arms maneuvers that the United States and its Western allies learned in Europe earlier this year.
“We are doing everything we can to support Ukraine in its counterattack,” Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, said on Friday. We will not hinder the outcome. We will not predict what will happen because this war is by its very nature unpredictable.”
The Ukrainians continued to make some small gains this week, including the liberation of the village of Orozhin. But US officials are preparing privately for what increasingly looks like a war of attrition that will drag on into next year, while publicly reiterating their continued support for Kiev.
“I’ve advanced about 10 kilometers at most no matter where you look in this attack,” said Michael Kaufman, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and principal research scientist at the Center for Naval Analytics.
One point of tension between U.S. and Ukrainian officials centered on how Kiev deployed its military forces. U.S. officials encouraged Ukraine to be less risk-averse and fully commit its forces to the main axis of the counterattack in the south so that it would have a chance to cut through Russian lines to reach the Sea of Azov, effectively severing Russia’s land bridge in southern Ukraine to Crimea, An important military center.
Washington has also urged Ukraine to send more combat power to the south, and stop focusing on the east, where nearly half of its forces are involved. But Ukraine instead deployed some of its best combat units in eastern Ukraine in the battle to retake Pakhmut.
Officials in Kiev, including President Volodymyr Zelensky and some critics of the Biden administration, have called on the West to provide heavy weapons to Ukraine, and said the counterattack’s progress will remain slow unless Washington sends more long-range fire and air power to back it up.
But US officials say the US is not producing enough tactical ballistic missiles to provide the numbers that would make a significant difference on the battlefield. They also said they were blocking advanced long-range missiles sought by Kiev because of concerns that supplying them could lead to an escalation of conflict with Russia.
Some analysts say Kiev’s focus on long-range weapons is misplaced, given its modest influence in a war increasingly fought by artillery, including cluster munitions that the United States recently sent to Ukraine to replace dwindling supplies of other munitions.
“There is no magic wand,” said Charap. “It’s hard to prove that long-range hit [missiles] He could fix the problem with minefields or all of these defences.”
“This will complicate Russian logistics, but this is not the main or only problem that Ukrainians face today,” he added.
US President Joe Biden included planned funding of another $13 billion in lethal aid to Ukraine in a supplemental budget request to Congress earlier this month. The money will last through the end of the year.
But the additional funding faces a difficult road to navigate on Capitol Hill amid a broader battle over levels of government spending that could shut down federal operations as soon as October.
“A blockage or downgrade is unlikely, but a political battle is inevitable, given growing concerns on both the left and the right,” Marc Cancian, a senior advisor at CSIS, a Washington think tank, wrote in a note this week.
So far, the opposition has not halted or even cut aid in the face of strong bipartisan support. What is new is the disappointing results of the Ukrainian counterattack so far.
Even if Congress authorizes the latest Ukrainian funding package requested by the White House, some U.S. officials and analysts say it is unlikely that Washington will be able to provide the same level of lethal aid to Ukraine next year, given the looming presidential election and the ammunition. The long-term schedule for manufacturers to increase production.
While Biden has remained staunch in his support of Ukraine, Donald Trump, his predecessor and front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, has vowed to end the war immediately if elected, while other Republican candidates for the 2024 nomination have expressed ambivalence.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis walked back a comment earlier this year in which he dismissed the war as a “territorial conflict,” but he didn’t talk much about Ukraine while campaigning. Vivek Ramaswamy, an anti-ESG businessman who has been rising in national opinion polls, suggested that the US force Kiev to strike a deal with Vladimir Putin.
according to CNN poll Released this month, 55 percent of Americans now oppose more funding for Ukraine from Congress, while 45 percent support it, a significant reversal from the overwhelming support for Kiev early in the conflict.
Republican Congressman Andy Harris, co-chair of the Ukraine Caucus, has been a consistent supporter of Kiev’s efforts, but told a town hall meeting in Maryland this week that the counterattack had “failed,” saying aid to Ukraine must now be eliminated.
“Is this over [of] impasse? Should we be realistic about it? I think maybe we should, Harris told voters in Abingdon, Maryland, about 25 miles northeast of Baltimore. “I’ll be honest, I failed.”
He was also pessimistic about the course of the war, saying, “I’m not sure it can be won any more.”
While no one in the Biden administration has ruled out a breakthrough before winter sets in, few expect much optimism.
“I think the jury is still out,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the Washington Post recently.
“I don’t think we will know about it… at least a month and maybe more whether the counter-offensive will bring significant strategic gains to Ukraine in terms of recapturing territory,” he said.
Additional reporting by James Politi in Washington
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