As war in Ukraine bogs down, US assessments come under scrutiny

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The changing nature of the war in Ukraine has caused a split among US analysts and lawmakers, with some questioning whether US officials have portrayed the crisis in too rosy terms while others say the Kyiv government can win with more help from the West.

The growing speculation comes more than four months after Russia invaded and failed to capture the capital. Russian President Vladimir Putin has since scaled back his targets, focusing on capturing the industrial Donbass region in eastern Ukraine while unleashing thousands of artillery rounds a day on overwhelmed Ukrainian forces.

President Biden, speaking at a summit of NATO leaders on Thursday, said the United States “rally the world in support of Ukraine” and pledged to support the cause “as long as it will have to”.

“I don’t know…how it’s going to end,” the president said, “but it won’t end with Russia defeating Ukraine in Ukraine.

Biden and NATO send Russia a message of defiance

US officials acknowledge that as Russian forces built up firepower, they gradually seized territory to the east. This includes capturing the strategically important city of Severodonetsk in June and threatening to do the same to its neighboring sister city, Lysychansk.

US officials have played down the gains, calling them halting and gradual, while pointing to the large number of Russian military deaths that have resulted.

But the Ukrainians also suffered heavy losses. Independent estimates indicate that each side saw tens of thousands of soldiers killed and wounded. The Pentagon has largely declined to publicly discuss its death and injury tolls.

The Defense Ministry’s overriding concern with the Ukrainian military discussion is to balance what can be said at an unclassified level and not provide an “involuntary assessment” that Putin can use to his advantage, said Pentagon spokesman Todd Breasseale.

“We’re just not going to do the BDA or the Russian intelligence work for them,” Breasseale said, using a military acronym for battle damage assessment. “However, I think we have discussed what we can, when it is knowable, demonstrable and objective.”

The scrutiny is fueled by US government assessments of other wars, notably in Afghanistan, where US officials have a history of glossing over widespread dysfunction and corruption and avoiding questions about whether successes on the battlefield were not only feasible but durable. Successive administrations have insisted that Afghan forces were “in the lead,” even if their performance was often deeply flawed – and their survival depended on US logistical support and air power.

The Biden administration has committed more than $6.9 billion in weapons and other security aid to Ukraine since the Feb. 24 Russian invasion, while encouraging other Western allies to provide similar aid . Weapons have become increasingly sophisticated, with recent packages including the M142 high-mobility artillery rocket systems, surface-to-air missile defense systems and Harpoon anti-ship missile launchers.

Several observers have said what the Biden administration says about the war in Ukraine appears to be accurate. but that the Pentagon sometimes withholds information that would be unflattering to Ukrainian partners or underline the limits of American support.

Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said that with Ukraine as opposed to Afghanistan, the Pentagon lacks the motivation to “permanently” say that the army he supports takes a turn. There are no known U.S. troops involved in the conflict, limiting the administration’s interest in making such statements, she said.

But Schake criticized what she called Pentagon officials “welcoming” the type and amount of weapons they are providing while ignoring the fact that the United States could send more, sooner. .

“Our sense of complacency, complacency and trust is actually doing Ukraine a disservice,” she said, calling such complacency “practically and morally suspect.”

Schake opined that Ukrainian forces are capable of winning the war and likely stockpiling weapons ahead of a major counteroffensive that cannot begin until they have enough to repel the Russians.

“We just need to slam the gas pedal on the floor and help them get there as quickly as possible,” she said.

A Ukrainian lawmaker, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, shared similar concerns. The flow of US weapons is often not fast enough, the official said, noting that the pace of howitzer artillery fire, in particular, may soon exceed supply.

“We need a lot of that for yesterday, not even for tomorrow,” he said. “We are losing the most precious thing: our soldiers and our officers. That’s why we need heavy weapons faster and as much as possible.

Others, more suspicious of US involvement in Ukraine, see Washington’s assessments as incomplete for different reasons.

Benjamin Friedman, director of policy at Defense Priorities, said Ukraine’s stated goal of repelling Russian forces looks “increasingly unrealistic” and the Biden administration must do more to pressure Ukraine. to negotiate with Russia and try to reach a political settlement.

“Nobody wants them to give up territory, or almost nobody wants them to give up territory,” Friedman said. “But you have to assess the situation honestly and say that you are trading peace for territory. I think we should be doing more to put pressure on them, and I think we’re kind of doing a disservice not only to ordinary Ukrainians, but to a lesser extent to Americans and everyone who is suffering economic problems because of the war.

Friedman said the US government is “turning for Ukraine for the obvious reason that we are in favor of them” and because a more candid assessment of Ukrainian losses or liabilities could help Russia.

“It’s natural,” he said, “not to criticize the people you fight with, and certainly not in public.”

Feelings are also mixed on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) said he doesn’t think the administration is misrepresenting what is happening in Ukraine. Excessive success against Russia could undermine future congressional support, he said, as there has been “remarkably confident and sympathetic dialogue” about the war since it began.

Moulton, a former Marine Corps officer and veteran, said “the story of this conflict” is the extent to which the administration leaks copious amounts of detail about what is happening in Ukraine, and that it has been “remarkably open and frank”. in what is happening. »

“We didn’t tell the American public what ISIS was going to do next,” Moulton said, referring to the Islamic State terror group, “or what the insurgents in Afghanistan were going to do next. But that’s exactly what we did with Putin.

While US support for Ukraine has spawned a degree of bipartisanship rarely seen in Washington, Republicans still see challenges for the administration.

Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.) said the fighting now had a clear line of conflict, with territory slowly changing hands. It can be difficult, he said, to understand the nuance of what comes next as a result.

“I think that’s the fundamental challenge is that we don’t really know,” he said. “But we know it’s probably not going to be quick.”

The Pentagon’s role is to communicate what the Department of Defense is doing and why, Meijer said. The administration “doesn’t have the best track record of delivering accurate analytical statements to the American public that don’t quickly unravel when events change,” he said, alluding in part to early predictions by senior US officials that Putin’s military would quickly overthrow the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“Think about the prognosis on how long the Afghan government will stay after the August 31 withdrawal date,” Meijer said. “Think about the initial estimates of how quickly Kyiv would fall following a Russian invasion.”

Meijer, who served in Army intelligence units, said the truth can be “watered down, so as innocuous as possible” when intelligence is shared with senior US officials and presidential appointees.

Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) also pointed to the evacuation from Afghanistan last summer, saying that if administration officials emphasized the number of evacuee planes they could move per day , they often downplayed “the overall strategic debacle”. In the end, thousands of Afghan interpreters and other allies in the war were left behind.

“I think in Ukraine they’re very focused on how much stuff they move and how fast they move it – once it’s approved by the White House – and I think losing sight of the fact that Russia crushes the Ukrainian army,” he said.

Waltz said that while the Pentagon is looking at “the very narrow parameters of the mission” it received from the White House, it also has a responsibility to the American people “to see the forest through the trees.”

“They describe their success and their very narrow mission, but what they don’t explain is: does this mission meet American interests?” said Waltz.

Waltz said the United States is good at seeing where the front lines of war are and assessing where tanks, ships and planes are on the battlefield. It is more difficult, he said, to assess the accuracy of what the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense is telling the US military, how much US-supplied equipment is used, than how fast ammunition is thrown and whether any disappears on the black market. because of corruption.

As Biden faces criticism from Republicans, he’s also vulnerable to pressure from his party’s left flank, which is already looking for an exit strategy.

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-California) said while he applauds the administration’s goal of preventing Russia from seizing Kyiv, the United States cannot resign itself to “protracted conflict and endless wreaking havoc on the US economy and the global economy.”

“I believe we should declare victory to the President’s efforts to defend a sovereign Ukraine. We should say we won. The Russians lost. They have failed in their fundamental purpose,” he said.

Democrats, he said, are not resigned to supporting Ukraine at all costs.

“People don’t want to see a resigned attitude that this is going to continue as long as this is going to continue,” Khanna said. “What’s the plan on the diplomatic front?”

Alex Horton contributed to this report.

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