As Ukraine launches its long-awaited counteroffensive against entrenched Russian occupiers, both Kyiv and its backers are hoping for a rapid retaking of strategically significant territory. Anything less will present the United States and its allies with uncomfortable questions they are not yet prepared to answer.

With this year’s flow of billions of dollars’ worth of advanced Western weaponry to Ukraine, “everybody’s hopeful that, you know, you’d see overwhelming success,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters last week. But, he said, adding a note of caution, “I think most people have a realistic outlook on this.”

Western officials claim not to know Ukraine’s exact plans. Ideally, Pentagon officials have indicated, the Ukrainians will use their newly supplied tanks and training to cut through Russia’s land bridge between occupied eastern and southern Ukraine, or take control of the land and sea gateways to the Crimean Peninsula. Such gains would break the current narrative of a stalemate and quell any calls for reconsidering current policy.

The administration is reluctant to say what would constitute a Ukrainian success against formidable Russian defenses, but the stakes for President Biden are high.

As he heads into next year’s reelection campaign, Biden needs a major battlefield victory to show that his unqualified support for Ukraine has burnished U.S. global leadership, reinvigorated a strong foreign policy with bipartisan support and demonstrated the prudent use of American military strength abroad.

Allies in NATO and beyond have bought heavily into Biden’s case. “Let no one doubt U.S. leadership — and resources — are the decisive contribution,” visiting British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said Thursday at a news conference in Washington with Biden.

Biden, Sunak and leaders of the more than 50 other countries backing Ukraine have couched their support as part of an apocalyptic battle for the future of democracy and the international rule of law against autocracy and aggression that the West cannot afford to lose.

“I asked people to picture what would happen if we were not supporting Ukraine,” Biden said, with Sunak at his side last week. “Do we think Russia would stop in Kyiv? Do you think that’s all there would be happening? I think not.” China, a Russian partner with its own aims of world dominance, is watching, he and others have warned.

In Washington, months of anticipation over Kyiv’s counteroffensive have overshadowed political criticism from those who say that sending tens of billions of dollars in U.S. assistance to Ukraine has been too much in a time of domestic economic uncertainty. Others argue that slow deliveries and the administration’s refusal to supply weapons such as longer-range missiles and fighter jets have not given Ukraine the tools it needs to win.

Whether too much or too little, both sides will have rhetorical ammunition if Kyiv fails to capture significant territory in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, even the measured pace of supply has severely depleted allied arsenals, a problem seen as particularly dangerous amid growing Chinese saber-rattling and the possibility that Ukraine’s counteroffensive will be less than decisive.

Experts and Pentagon officials say support for the war has exposed defense manufacturing delays that are the product of long-ingrained weapons development and acquisition practices, along with pandemic-exacerbated supply-line and workforce deficits.

Despite a 2020 revamping of its acquisition policies “in an effort to deliver more timely and effective solutions to the warfighter,” the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) assessed last week in a report to Congress, the Defense Department “continues to face challenges quickly developing innovative new weapons” and meeting military demands.

A muddled outcome of limited gains in Ukraine would provide grist for all of those critiques and further cloud the already murky waters of NATO and European Union debate over future posture toward both Ukraine and Russia. A less than “overwhelming” success would probably also increase pressure in the West to push Kyiv to negotiate a territorial settlement that may not be to its liking.

“The collective West must decide what it wants,” said Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Action Center and a member of the public oversight council of the country’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau. “Ukraine knows what it wants.”

The prize of NATO membership

What Ukraine wants is to regain all of its occupied territory, including Crimea and the eastern Donbas region, first seized in 2014 — with little substantive Western response — along with everything Russia else has taken since its February 2022 invasion. The government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky seeks full membership in Western institutions as a way of permanently thwarting Russian aggression, not just as a reward for rebuffing it.

“There is no chance for Ukraine to survive if it is not a part of NATO,” Kaleniuk said, reflecting the Zelensky government’s own views.

What happens on the battlefield in the coming weeks will weigh heavily on Western leaders at July’s NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania. Though united in rejecting the invasion and supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty, alliance governments have disparate views among, and within, them on when — or even if — Kyiv should be on a path to membership.

The Biden administration advocates a measured approach to NATO ascension, and has neatly sidestepped the question of peace negotiations with Russia. While assuring unfailing U.S. support for Kyiv’s defense and economic needs, and declaring that Russian President Vladimir Putin has “already failed” in his attempts to “erase Ukraine from the map,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday that when it comes to ending the war, “where exactly this settles and under what conditions and when, that does remain to be determined.”

In the meantime, while the administration still says it sees no sign Putin is planning to use nuclear weapons, the war has been one of steady and increasingly rapid escalation on both sides.

A long road to a summer showdown

Until this year, security aid to Kyiv was designed largely for defensive purposes. Initial shipments of small arms and short-range defensive weapons kept Russian troops from taking the capital. When Moscow regrouped and refocused its objectives to the east and south, expanding its 2014 occupation zone to a solid 600-mile front deeper inside the country, a hesitant West eventually sent heavy artillery and precision rockets that stopped the advance.

In August of last year, with Russian troops concentrated farther south, Kyiv’s forces launched a surprise attack in the northeast. The Russians fell back in disarray, allowing Ukraine to reclaim a significant swath of territory around Kharkiv. By early November, the Ukrainians had retaken the southern city of Kherson after the Russians evacuated to occupied territory across the Dnieper River.

The victories were a morale boost for both Ukraine and its backers. But front lines remained largely static through the winter and much of the spring, with fighting concentrated around the eastern town of Bakhmut, a highly symbolic prize for Kyiv but considered by Western militaries of limited strategic value. More than anything, the grinding Bakhmut combat ate up troops and munitions at an alarming rate for both sides.

With a stalemate came debates about what would happen next. In his fury, Putin began targeting Ukrainian civilians and infrastructure deep inside the country with self-destructing drones purchased from Iran and standoff cruise missiles fired from aircraft behind his front lines. Western attention became focused on providing increasingly sophisticated air defense systems to stop the destruction.

For Kyiv, the answer was to go on offense and drive the Russians out. Zelensky’s government began a concerted campaign to persuade the West to radically step up its assistance with tanks, longer-range missiles and aircraft that the United States — by far the biggest donor — had steadfastly declined to provide.

Russian forces on the ground were seen as degraded, with significant casualties among both poorly trained troops and commanders, dwindling supplies and crippled equipment. Ukraine’s imperative was to strike back before the Russians had time to regroup. The time had long passed, Kyiv argued, for withholding the weapons systems the West worried would provoke Russian nuclear escalation.

Time has never been on Ukraine’s side in the war. For nearly 16 months, it has been fighting an aggressor that boasts many times more people and a larger industry, with an air force and navy still largely held in reserve. But winter was well underway before Austin and Biden were persuaded at least of the need for tanks, training and the logistics support Kyiv would require for a comprehensive counterattack.

That decision effectively set a countdown in motion. As the Russians built extensive defensive lines of trenches and tank traps, the West hustled to ship hundreds of armored vehicles and bring thousands of Ukrainian troops to Europe for training. Ukraine’s counteroffensive was coming, all parties agreed, as soon as the winter snow disappeared and the mud of spring dried up.

To liberate territory, Ukraine must smash fortified Russian defenses

‘We’ll see what happens’

The counteroffensive has now begun, although it remains unclear whether scattered new Ukrainian attacks, primarily in the east and southeast, signal a principal line of offense or are only feints to distract Moscow’s attention and draw resources away from bigger prizes farther south.

“I would defer to the Ukrainian leadership ... to explain exactly where they are in the preparation and their execution of a planned offensive,” Austin said. Despite their fortifications, the Russians have to defend “across a pretty significant area,” he said. “They probably can’t be strong, you know, in every place. So it’s incumbent upon the Ukrainians to find those points of advantage where they can leverage and exploit. ... We’ll see what happens.”

“I remind people that there’s no certainty in any of this, and so we need to be prepared to continue to support Ukraine for as long as it takes,” Austin said another day last week.

Britain has now sent long-range cruise missiles, and Biden has finally agreed not to stand in the way of other allies transferring U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets from their own arsenals, although they will not arrive in time for this round of fighting.

But “as long as it takes” means different things to different donor governments. U.S. and European officials will find it far easier to continue support at the current level or beyond, to reassure domestic public and political opinion, and perhaps even to convince Putin to rethink his goals, if Ukrainian advances look like a strong beginning on a possible road toward victory.

The Western narrative remains that all decisions are Ukraine’s to make. “In terms of my level of confidence,” Austin said, “I think what really matters is how the Ukrainians feel about this. ... I think we’re all sensing that Ukrainian leadership is increasingly confident.”

“Does that mean, you know, we’re going to expel every Russian out of every corner of Ukraine? Probably doesn’t,” he said. “But I think ... it may have the opportunity to begin to change the dynamics on the battlefield, and that’s really what you’re looking for.”

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