Russia’s failure in Ukraine fills the Pentagon with renewed confidence

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But a month after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, senior Pentagon officials are full of new discoveries Confidence in American might, spurred by the surprising effectiveness of US-backed ones Ukrainian forces, Russia’s heavy battlefield casualties, and the cautionary tales China says it is learning from the war.

“Let me put it this way,” a senior Pentagon official said of America’s standing in the world. “Who would you swap places with? Seriously, who would you swap places with?”

It’s a stunning change of tone for a department that ended a 20-year war in Afghanistan with a chaotic retreat in August when a rising Taliban returned to power. While the US military has not played the primary role in America’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, senior Pentagon officials are hailing the ongoing war as a testament to America’s economic, diplomatic, and military strength.

The senior official of the Pentagon, speak on condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy, said the past few weeks have shown that the United States can set up its “primacy in the global financial system” and its network of allies “in a way that attackers can absolutely beat up.”

The success of the US and NATO-trained Ukrainian forces has also boosted Pentagon confidence following the embarrassing collapse of US-trained militaries in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade. The Ukrainian military’s will to fight and ability to inflict heavy casualties on larger and more technologically advanced Russian forces has surprised many in the Pentagon.

“I think Ukraine was able to help the Russians largely because of what we’ve been able to do since 2014 to help them,” the senior defense official said, adding that the failure of Afghan forces to do “possibly” led to US -Officials underestimated the Ukrainian troops.

Mykolaiv is considered a military success story because it blocked the advance of Russian troops. But the air raid is relentless and the death toll mounts. (Video: Whitney Leaming, Erin Patrick O’Connor/Washington Post, Photo: Salwan Georges/Washington Post)

This optimism is not shared everywhere. Critics note that it has only been a month since the Russian invasion and that the Russians are already using their overwhelming firepower advantage to destroy Ukrainian cities in an attempt secure a brutal and bloody victory. Even a partial triumph would allow Russian President Vladimir Putin to say he has stood up to the world and the tide of arms from the West.

The United States also relied heavily on it European allies, who have often taken the lead by imposing crippling sanctions on the Russian economy at significant cost to them. It is still unclear whether the current unit will break up if the war drags on for months.

“We have to show ours [collective] Power every day and we can only demonstrate it if we all stand together,” said Ivo Daalder, President of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and former US Ambassador to NATO. “It’s something the US has traditionally not done well.”

Republicans in Congress have blamed President Biden‘s actions and “weakness” for giving Russia an opportunity to attack Ukraine. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: The Washington Post)

Some Republicans have charged that Putin’s perception of the United States and its allies as militarily weak or unwilling to fight gave him the confidence to invade Ukraine. Rep. Michael McCaul (Tex.), the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, this month compared Biden to Neville Chamberlain, the former British prime minister who tried to appease Hitler before World War II.

“Weakness invites aggression. It’s a historical axiom. And it’s true,” McCaul said in a news conference on Capitol Hill.

Pentagon officials claim they could do little to deter Putin, who expected a quick and easy victory in Ukraine, arguing that their broader strategy of “integrated deterrence” — using economic, diplomatic, and military power to target potential Deterring attackers – doing so has so far worked to prevent Putin from expanding the war into NATO territory. The Biden administration has made integrated deterrence the cornerstone of its soon-to-be-released National Defense Strategy, which was delayed as the threat of invasion grew.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that the integrated deterrence model is coming out pretty well,” the senior defense official said.

Others pointed to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as proof of the failure of the concept. Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) said in an interview that he “strongly and completely disagrees” with anyone citing Ukraine as an example of the success of integrated deterrence. “I don’t see how they can make that argument with a serious expression,” he said. “Their entire deterrence strategy was based on the idea that the threat of limited sanctions could deter Putin.”

Gallagher added that the Ukraine conflict “may yet escalate in ways that we do not currently foresee.”

Republicans’ biggest criticism has been that Biden and the Pentagon were too quick to rule out military options and too concerned that aggressive US efforts to arm the Ukrainians could spur Putin to escalate the war.

Greater US involvement “would be a guarantee that Russia would lose the war,” said Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “If the Ukrainian military can fight the Russian military to a standstill, imagine what it would be like if the United States and its allies joined?”

However, Biden’s concerns about triggering a major war against a nuclear power have not curtailed US ambitions over Ukraine. A few weeks ago, senior US military officials had serious doubts about whether Ukrainians could hold their country if Putin were determined to launch an all-out invasion. Now Pentagon officials are talking about the need to ensure that Putin suffers a “strategic failure.”

Such a result, these officials said, would have far-reaching ramifications in Moscow, but also in Beijing, where China’s Xi Jinping is almost certainly drawing lessons from Putin’s struggles.

“Amphibious landings are the toughest large-scale military operations in existence,” the senior Pentagon official said. Since the invasion of Ukraine began, Russia has parked its amphibious ships off the coast of Ukrainian cities, apparently for fear of coming ashore. At least one of those ships, believed to be carrying armored personnel carriers and tanks, was attacked by Ukrainian forces Thursday in the Black Sea port of Berdyansk, resulting in a massive fireball.

Compared to Ukraine, Taiwan is a “hellscape” for an invading force that combines open beaches, mountainous terrain and dense cities, the senior defense official said.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates made a similar assessment Wednesday in an online conversation with Michael Vickers, his former undersecretary for intelligence. Xi and Putin have both described the United States as “in decline,” politically paralyzed and eager to withdraw from the rest of the world.

“Xi has to worry about his own army at this point,” Gates said in the call, which was organized by the OSS Society. “Ukrainian resistance must make him ask himself, ‘Maybe I underestimated the consequences of a military attack on Taiwan?'”

Gallagher drew the opposite lesson, arguing that while China acknowledges Russia’s struggles, Putin’s gamble should inspire a greater sense of urgency about Taiwan. “All the evidence indicates that we are already in the window of maximum danger,” he said.

A longer-term challenge for the Pentagon, prone to its own bouts of military hubris, will be recognizing the limits of its power and the crucial role US allies will play in curbing Russia’s and China’s global ambitions to analysts and even some senior Pentagon officials. In the 1990s and early 2000s, when the United States was at the height of its power, US leaders often treated allies as an afterthought. Former President Bush launched the invasion of Iraq in 2003 against opposition from allies like Germany and France.

“We had this sense of where we could do anything and allies were a problem,” said Daalder, the former NATO ambassador.

More recently, Biden opted for a swift retreat from Afghanistan with little input from America’s NATO allies, who had fought alongside US troops for two decades. Now, Daalder said the challenge for the Biden administration, and possibly subsequent presidents, will be to hold together the global coalition of democracies that have come together to support Putin “not just for a month or a year, but for more than a decade” when the United States and its allies are working to detach their economies from Russia and eventually from a resurgent and increasingly authoritarian and aggressive China.

Such an approach would require a new kind of humility and respect for allies in both military and economic matters.

“If strong economic, political and military competition with Russia and China is a priority,” Daalder said, “we cannot do it alone.”

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