As the war in Ukraine falters, US assessments are put to the test

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The changing nature of the war in Ukraine has caused division among analysts and US lawmakers, with some questioning whether American officials have been overly rosy about the crisis, while others say the government in Kyiv is offering more aid the West can win.

The growing suspicion comes more than four months after Russia invaded and failed to capture the capital. Russian President Vladimir Putin has since narrowed his goals, focusing on conquering eastern Ukraine’s industrial Donbass region while firing thousands of artillery shells a day at outnumbered Ukrainian forces.

President Biden told a NATO leaders’ summit on Thursday that the United States would “call the world together to stand by Ukraine” and pledged to support the cause “for as long as necessary.”

“I don’t know… how it will end,” the president said, “but it will not end with a Russian defeat of Ukraine in Ukraine.”

Biden and NATO are sending a defiant message to Russia

US officials concede that Russian forces using the combined firepower have gradually captured areas to the east. That includes capturing the strategically important city of Severodonetsk in June and threatening to do the same in its nearby twin city of Lysyhansk.

US officials have downplayed the gains, calling them tentative and gradual, while highlighting the significant number of Russian military deaths it has resulted in.

But the Ukrainians also suffered heavy casualties. Independent estimates place tens of thousands of soldiers killed and wounded on each side. The Pentagon has largely refused to publicly discuss its estimates of the dead and wounded.

The Defense Department’s overriding concern in discussing Ukraine’s military is to balance what can be said at a non-classified level and not provide “unintentional assessment” that Putin can use to his advantage, Pentagon spokesman Todd Breasseale said .

“We’re just not going to do Russia’s BDA or intelligence work for them,” Breasseale said, using a military acronym for combat damage assessment. “However, I think we’ve talked about what we can do if it’s recognizable, verifiable and objective.”

The scrutiny is fueled by US government assessments of other wars, particularly in Afghanistan, where US officials have routinely glossed over widespread dysfunction and corruption and dodged questions about whether successes on the battlefield were not only achievable but sustainable. Successive governments have insisted that Afghan forces are “on top”, even when their performance has often been deeply flawed – and their survival depended on US logistical support and air power.

The Biden administration has pledged more than $6.9 billion in arms and other security assistance to Ukraine since Russia’s February 24 invasion, and has encouraged other Western allies to provide similar assistance. Weapons have become more sophisticated, with recent packages including the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, surface-to-air missile defense systems and Harpoon anti-ship missile launchers.

Several observers said what the Biden administration is saying about the war in Ukraine appears to be correct but that the Pentagon sometimes withholds information that would be unflattering to Ukrainian partners or reveal limitations in US support.

Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said that with Ukraine as opposed to Afghanistan, the Pentagon lacks the incentive to “constantly” say that the army it supports is turning the corner. No US troops are involved in the conflict, which limits the government’s interest in such statements, she said.

But Schake criticized what she described as Pentagon officials “congratulating themselves” on the types and quantities of weapons they are providing, while omitting that the United States could send more and more quickly.

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

Schake assessed that the Ukrainian armed forces are capable of winning the war and are probably in the process of amassing arms ahead of a major counteroffensive, which cannot begin until they have enough to hold off the Russians.

“We just have to step on the gas pedal and help them succeed as quickly as possible,” she said.

A Ukrainian lawmaker, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, shared similar concerns. The flow of American guns is often not fast enough, the official said, noting that the rate of fire of howitzer artillery was high, in particular, could soon exceed supply.

“We need a lot of it for yesterday, not even for tomorrow,” he said. “We are losing what is most valuable: our soldiers and officers. Therefore we need heavy weapons faster and as much as possible.”

Others, more skeptical about US involvement in Ukraine, see Washington’s assessments as incomplete for a variety of reasons.

Benjamin Friedman, policy director at Defense Priorities, said that Ukraine’s stated goal of pushing out Russian forces appears “increasingly unrealistic” and that the Biden administration needs to do more to push Ukraine to negotiate with Russia and seek a political solution.

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

Friedman said the US government is “slinging for Ukraine for the obvious reason that we cheer them on” and because a more outspoken assessment of Ukraine’s losses or liabilities might help Russia.

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

Feelings are similarly divided on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) said he did not believe the government was distorting what was happening in Ukraine. An overblown success against Russia could undermine future support from Congress, he said, as there has been “a remarkably trusting and congenial dialogue” about the war since the war began.

Moulton, a former Marine Corps officer and combat veteran, said that “the history of this conflict” is the extent to which the government is disclosing vast amounts of detail about what is happening in Ukraine and that it has been “remarkably candid and forthcoming.” be in what is going on.”

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

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

Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.) said the fighting now has a well-defined line of conflict, with territory slowly changing hands. It can be difficult, he said, to understand the nuance of what’s coming next.

“I think that’s the fundamental challenge, we don’t really know,” he said. “But we know it probably won’t 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 greatest track record of delivering accurate analytical statements to the American public that don’t quickly collapse as events shift,” he said. partly in reference to early predictions by senior US officials that Putin’s military would quickly overthrow the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

“Consider the projection of how long the Afghan government would hold out after the August 31 withdrawal date,” Meijer said. “Consider the first estimates of how quickly Kyiv would fall after a Russian invasion.”

Meijer, who served in army intelligence units, said the truth can be “watered down to make it as benign as possible” when information is shared with senior US officials and presidential appointees.

Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) also pointed to last summer’s evacuation of Afghanistan, saying that while government officials stressed how many planes carrying evacuees they could move per day, they often downplayed “the overall strategic debacle.” In the end, thousands of Afghan interpreters and other allies stayed behind in the war.

“I think in Ukraine they’re very focused on the amount of material they’re moving and the speed at which they’re moving it – once it’s approved by the White House – and I think that’s the fact of the matter too losing Russia is wearing down the Ukrainian military,” he said.

Waltz said that while the Pentagon sees through “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 set, but what they don’t explain is: Does this mission set serve American interests?” said Walz.

Waltz said the United States is good at recognizing the front lines of war and judging where tanks, ships and planes are on the battlefield. It is more difficult to assess the accuracy of what Ukraine’s Defense Ministry is telling the US military, how well US-supplied equipment is being used, how quickly ammunition is being fired, and whether any is disappearing onto the black market due to corruption.

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

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said that while he applauds the administration’s goal of preventing Russia from capturing Kyiv, the United States cannot come to terms with a “protracted, never-ending conflict that is devastating Damage to the American economy and the United States is wreaking havoc on the global economy.”

“I believe we should declare a victory for the President’s efforts to advocate for a sovereign Ukraine. We should say we won. The Russians lost. They have not achieved their basic goal,” he said.

The Democrats are not resigned to supporting Ukraine at any cost.

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

Alex Horton contributed to this report.

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