U.S. war plans for Ukraine don’t foresee retaking lost territory

Still smarting from last year’s failed counteroffensive in Ukraine, the Biden administration is putting together a new strategy that will de-emphasize winning back territory and focus instead on helping Ukraine fend off new Russian advances while moving toward a long-term goal of strengthening its fighting force and economy.

The emerging plan is a sharp change from last year, when the U.S. and allied militaries rushed training and sophisticated equipment to Kyiv in hopes that it could quickly push back Russian forces occupying eastern and southern Ukraine. That effort foundered, largely on Russia’s heavily fortified minefields and front line trenches.

“It’s pretty clear that it will be difficult for them to try to mount the same kind of major push on all fronts that they tried to do last year,” a senior administration official said.

The idea now is to position Ukraine to hold its position on the battlefield for now, but “put them on a different trajectory to be much stronger by the end of 2024 … and get them on a more sustainable path,” said the senior official, one of several who described the internal policymaking on the condition of anonymity.

Miscalculations, divisions marked offensive planning by U.S., Ukraine

The U.S. planning is part of a multilateral effort by nearly three dozen countries backing Ukraine to pledge long-term security and economic support — both out of necessity, given the disappointing results of last year’s counteroffensive and the conviction that a similar effort this year would likely bring the same outcome, and as a demonstration of enduring resolve to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Each is preparing a document outlining its specific commitments spanning up to a decade in the future. Britain made its 10-year agreement with Ukraine public last week, signed by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv. It outlined contributions to “Maritime Security, Air, Air Defense, Artillery and Armor” as well as fiscal support and access to its financial sector. France is expected to be next, with an upcoming visit to Ukraine by President Emmanuel Macron.

But the success of the strategy depends almost entirely on the United States, by far Ukraine’s largest donor of money and equipment, and coordinator of the multilateral effort. This spring the administration hopes to release its own 10-year commitment, now being compiled by the State Department with the blessing of the White House — assuming that President Biden’s $61 billion request for supplemental Ukraine funding is approved by a recalcitrant Congress.

The shaky ground on which that assumption currently rests — with House Republicans appearing to dig in ever deeper in refusing the money — has worried both Western allies and Ukraine itself.

“Definitely the leadership and the engagement of the U.S. in the long term, but also in this very important phase, is paramount,” a senior European official said. “The supplemental is a must-have to continue … not only on the ground, but as a show of Western resolve … to make [Putin] understand that he will not win.”

“We wouldn’t survive without U.S. support, it’s a real fact,” Zelensky said in a television interview last week.

Future-proofing Ukraine against Trump

According to U.S. officials, the American document will guarantee support for short-term military operations as well as build a future Ukrainian military force that can deter Russian aggression. It will include specific promises and programs to help protect, reconstitute and expand Ukraine’s industrial and export base, and assist the country with political reforms needed for full integration into Western institutions.

Not incidentally, a U.S. official said, the hope is that the long-term promise — again assuming congressional buy-in — will also “future-proof” aid for Ukraine against the possibility that former president Donald Trump wins his reelection bid.

As the White House continues to try to persuade lawmakers, a second senior administration official emphasized that the strategy doesn’t mean that the Ukrainians are just going to build their own defensive trenches “and sit behind them” all year. “There is still going to be swapping of territory” in small cities and villages with minimal strategic value, “missile launches and drones” from both sides, and Russian “attacks on civilian infrastructure,” this official said.

Rather than the massive artillery duels that dominated much of the fighting in the second half of 2022 and much of 2023, the West’s hope for 2024 is that Ukraine will avoid losing any more territory than the one-fifth of the country now occupied by Russia. Additionally, Western governments want Kyiv to concentrate on tactics where its forces have had greater recent success — longer-distance fires, including with French cruise missiles promised for delivery within the next few months; holding back Russia’s Black Sea Fleet to protect naval transit from Ukraine’s ports; and tying up Russian forces inside Crimea with missile strikes and special operations sabotage.

Zelensky insists that Ukraine remains on the offensive. Plans for 2024 are “not just defense,” he said in a recent video address. “We want our country to retain the initiative, not the enemy.”

But U.S. policymakers who have met recently with him in private say Zelensky has doubts about how ambitious to be in the coming year without clarity about U.S. aid.

“We get asked what’s our plan, but we need to understand what resources we’re going to have,” Ukrainian lawmaker Roman Kostenko said. “Right now, everything points to the possibility that we will have less than last year, when we tried to do a counteroffensive and it didn’t work out. … If we will have even less, then it’s clear what the plan will be. It will be defense.”

“Nobody is taking offensive actions out of the equation,” said Serhii Rakhmanin, another member of parliament. “But in general … it’s very hard to imagine a serious, global strategic offensive operation in 2024. Especially if we look at the general state of foreign aid, not just from the U.S.”

Even those who believe that Ukraine could eventually beat back Russia concede that 2024 will be lean and dangerous. “Most probably there are not going to be huge territorial gains,” Latvian President Edgars Rinkevics said in an interview. “The only strategy is to get as much as you can to Ukraine to help them first of all to defend their own cities … and second to help them simply not to lose ground.”

“We are a little taken hostage by time,” agreed Kusti Salm, permanent secretary of the Estonian Defense Ministry. “It’s just a question of whether we can walk through this valley of death.”

‘You have to have something to fight with’

Along the front line, the Ukrainian military has started preparing accordingly, aiming to replicate Russia’s layered defenses of trenches and minefields in the southeastern Zaporizhzhia region that hampered last year’s counteroffensive.

“Normal soldiers aren’t very interested in [Ukrainian] politics and foreign politics,” said a Ukrainian commander in the eastern Donetsk region, who was not authorized to speak publicly. “But when you feel for yourselves that it’s not enough, like now with ammunition, mortars, shells, that immediately triggers worry. You can fight, but you have to have something to fight with.”

U.S. policymakers say they expect the war will eventually end through negotiations — but also that they don’t think Putin will be serious about talks this year, in part because he holds out hope that Trump will win back the presidency in November and dial back support to Kyiv.

Trump, who has long touted a special relationship with Putin, said months ago that if he is returned to the White House, he “will have that war settled in one day, 24 hours.” Zelensky, in last week’s television interview, called that claim “very dangerous” and invited Trump to Kyiv to share whatever plan he might have.

The long-term strategy to transform Ukraine for the future has its roots in a G-7 declaration of support last summer in which Western leaders promised to build a “sustainable” military force interoperable with the West, and to strengthen Ukraine’s “economic stability and resilience.”

Even so, the policy holds risks, including political ones, if Ukrainians begin to blame their government for stagnant front lines. Likewise, in Western capitals, officials are keenly aware that their citizens’ patience with funding Ukraine’s war is not infinite.

Amid the planning, Washington also seems to be readying the argument that, even if Ukraine is not going to regain all of its territory in the near term, it needs significant ongoing assistance to be able to defend itself and become an integral part of the West.

“We can see what Ukraine’s future can and should be, irrespective of exactly where lines are drawn,” Blinken said earlier this month at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “And that’s a future where it stands strongly on its own two feet militarily, economically, democratically.”

‘No silver bullet’ for arming Ukraine

In conversations with lawmakers, administration officials have emphasized that only about half of the requested $61 billion is targeted at the current battlefield, while the rest is directed toward helping Ukraine undergird a secure future without massive Western aid.

The U.S. document, according to U.S. officials closely involved in the planning, is being written with four phases in mind: fight, build, recover and reform.

What is needed most immediately for the “fight” phase is “artillery ammunition, some replacement of vehicles” lost in the counteroffensive, “a lot more drones,” said Eric Ciaramella, a former CIA intelligence analyst and now a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who has consulted with administration officials. “A lot of electronic warfare and counter-drone technology — where the Russians have achieved an edge. They need more air defense systems to cover more cities.”

Although Ukraine is still anxiously awaiting the promised delivery of fighter aircraft and more armored vehicles this year, these are “expensive systems with single points of failure,” Ciaramella said. “I think the Ukrainians are realizing there is no silver bullet, having seen a million-dollar tank destroyed by a $10,000 mine” during the counteroffensive.

The “build” phase of the strategy is focused on pledges for Ukraine’s future security force on land, sea and air, so that the Ukrainians “can see what they’re getting from the global community over a 10-year period and … come out of 2024 with a road map to a highly deterrent military,” the first senior administration official said. At the same time, some of the requested supplemental money is targeted at developing Ukraine’s industrial base for weapons production that, along with U.S. and allied increases, can “at least keep pace with Russian” production.

The plan also includes additional air defense to create protective “bubbles” around Ukrainian cities beyond Kyiv and Odessa and to allow key parts of the Ukrainian economy and exports, including steel and agriculture, to recover. Biden last fall named former commerce secretary Penny Pritzker as U.S. envoy to lead an effort to rebuild Ukraine’s economy and mobilize public and private investment.

Enticing foreign investment back into Ukraine will also require additional efforts to stem corruption, U.S. officials acknowledge. Zelensky has taken some steps, including firing and in some cases arresting allegedly corrupt military procurement officials and judges; other initiatives have been demanded by the European Union as it considers eventual E.U. membership for Ukraine.

But as conversations and planning for the future continue, not every Ukraine backer thinks this is the right moment to shift focus away from sending Ukraine what is necessary to confront the Russians as quickly and decisively as possible on the battlefield this year.

“Whatever strategy you use, you need all the weapons you can think of,” former NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen said during a visit last week to press Republican lawmakers to approve Ukraine funding.

“You cannot win a war by pursuing an incremental step-by-step approach,” he said. “You have to surprise and overwhelm your adversary.”

Khurshudyan reported from Kyiv and Rauhala from Brussels. Kamila Hrabchuk and Anastacia Galouchka in Kyiv contributed to this report.

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