Decision time in Ukraine — will Biden make the right choice?


Contrary to recent arguments presented by John Mearsheimer and retired U.S. Army Col. Douglas Macgregor, Ukraine’s counteroffensive has not failed. But it has reached a transition point, and decisions must be made.

We are now 20 months into a war that then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told us would last three days. Russian planners estimated 10 days. 

A Ukrainian military once considered inferior to Russia’s has militarily succeeded, defeating Russians on every battlefield in Ukraine. They have killed more than 300,000 Russian soldiers, and according to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, “recaptured half the territory that Russia initially seized in its invasion.” That is not failure.

Brussels and Washington still have time to ensure Ukrainian sacrifices and victories on the battlefield remain relevant, but Washington’s current strategy to help defend Ukraine will not defeat the Russian military. Moscow can continue to generate more manpower through mobilizations, conscription, mercenaries and foreign fighters to feed into the Ukraine meat grinder. It has turned to North Korea to sustain its insatiable appetite for artillery munitions. 

This is becoming the war of attrition many feared it would evolve into, and now the term “stalemate” is creeping into the conversation.

We have long cautioned that the Biden administration’s “just enough” strategy to sustain Ukraine is a losing strategy. And politics, namely a presidential election cycle, appears to be undermining President Biden’s promise that the U.S. will “stand by Ukraine for as long as it takes.”

“Win now” must be Washington’s new mantra. As former National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster emphasized in late September when he addressed the 30 M1 Abrams tanks being delivered to Ukraine, “I mean, like, 30 tanks? How about 300 tanks! I think it’s silly the way these capabilities are being dribbled in.” Winning is giving Ukraine what it needs to defeat the Russian military.

Initially, the multi-domain counteroffensive that Ukraine employed against Russia was having success. Ukrainian ground forces were pushing south towards Melitopol and the Sea of Azov. Empowered with cluster munitions, they had breached through Russia’s main defensive belts and were penetrating secondary positions. Trent Maul, director of analysis at the Defense Intelligence Agency, commented, “there is a realistic possibility that Ukrainian forces can break through the remaining Russian defensive lines on the southern front by the end of 2023.”  

Deep strikes into Crimea with Storm Shadow and SCALP cruise missiles were continuing to make the peninsula untenable; the Russia Black Sea Fleet was forced to abandon its headquarters in Sevastopol. Ukraine was decimating Russian artillery, counter battery and ammunition storage depots. Special operations and partisan forces were wreaking havoc in Russian rear areas, and drones were striking airfields deep within the Russian interior — to include Moscow.

But then Iranian-backed Hamas militants launched their surprise terrorist attack on Israel, killing about 1,400 Israelis and foreigners and kidnapping nearly 250.

The world turned its collective attention to Israel and Gaza. Russian President Vladimir Putin took advantage of the distraction, and launched — arguably by design — a major offensive to encircle and capture the town of Avdiivka in the Donetsk Oblast on Oct. 9.  

The Ukrainian counteroffensive has not failed, but it has lost momentum. Ukraine’s commander-in-chief, General Valery Zaluzhny, was forced to reallocate his forces to repulse the offensive in Avdiivka. 

They did succeed in that. Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense reports that between Oct. 9 and Nov. 7, 24,230 Russian soldiers were killed, 470 tanks, 848 armored personnel carriers, 704 artillery pieces and 61 multiple launch rocket systems were destroyed.

One Russian milblogger described the offensive in his post on Telegram as “a lack of coordination and leadership [that] left troops in the area exposed to mines and extreme Ukrainian shelling, resulting in major losses.” Another said the human wave attacks were a “meat assault” — an “assault by infantry forces without artillery support, without suppressing enemy firing points.” The carnage was on the scale of World War I, but they kept coming, wave after wave, day after day.

Ukraine expended vast amounts of munitions to defeat the assaults, depleting its stockpiles. While they focused their efforts in Avdiivka, Russian forces in the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson Oblasts were able to fortify their defensive positions. So when Ukraine resumes its offensive, it will be like assaulting the main defensive belt all over again — minefields and trenches in-depth. It will require a significant effort to regain momentum.

Ukraine needs a commitment from the West to regain that momentum. That means ATACMS, German Taurus cruise missiles, fighter aircraft, engineering equipment, cluster munitions, tanks and more conventional artillery rounds. 

In their combined arms offensive, they must establish air superiority, bring overwhelming fire support and outmaneuver the Russian defenders — just like U.S. and NATO doctrine dictates. They must win the close fight, win the deep fight and interdict Russian forces before they arrive on the battlefield.

A negotiated conclusion to Putin’s “special military operation” would be a death sentence for Ukraine, as it would simply kick the can down the road for the next Russian attempt to seize control of the entire country. The Kremlin will not honor its word — as in Chechnya, it will rearm, refit and attack again. 

Moldova and Georgia will follow, and then, as Putin described in his manifesto, the Baltic States and Poland — NATO countries. Better to enable Ukraine to defeat a weakened Russia now than to fight the Russians ourselves after they reset and incorporate lessons learned from Ukraine into their playbook.

Ukraine is at a perilous crossroad of Biden’s making. It is high time for his administration to choose the path of victory and decisively empower Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his generals to win. Anything less, and Putin will emerge victorious — and Europe and the west will be imperiled.

Jonathan Sweet, a retired Army Colonel and 30-year military intelligence officer, led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012 to 2014. Mark Toth is an economist, entrepreneur, and former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis. 

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