Biden admin isn’t fully convinced Ukraine can win, even with new aid

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Despite the time and political capital spent on the $60 billion aid for Ukraine, some Biden administration officials are skeptical it’s enough for Ukraine to win its two-year war with Russia.

Battlefield dynamics have shifted a lot in the last few months, partly because Ukraine ran low on weaponry and ammunition while Congress debated authorizing more aid, according to three U.S. officials, all granted anonymity to detail sensitive internal thinking. During that period, Ukraine struggled to maintain eastern territory, though Russia didn’t make significant gains, either.

Russia maintains a manpower and weapons advantage, and it would take a lot to reverse months and years of territorial losses. U.S. officials also ask questions about Ukraine’s own tactics and priorities, especially after Kyiv’s counteroffensive failed, sapping forces of materiel and morale.

“The immediate goal is to stop Ukrainian losses and help Ukraine regain momentum and turn the tide on the battlefield. After that, the goal is to help Ukraine begin to regain its territory,” said one of the officials. “Will they have what they need to win? Ultimately, yes. But it’s not a guarantee that they will. Military operations are much more complicated than that.”

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are also expressing concerns about whether more U.S.-provided weapons can lead to a Ukrainian defeat of Russia or if it’s just enough to temporarily fend off the invasion. “That’s the question,” said a senior Democratic Senate aide.

The answer matters greatly. Winning against Russia means Ukraine will get most or all of its territory back after 10 years of war, the last two featuring Vladimir Putin’s all-out assault. Not losing, by contrast, signals Ukraine can hold its lines and advance some but fail to claw back what Russia seized.

Biden, upon signing the aid package for Ukraine on Wednesday, stressed that Russia uses its military to target civilian infrastructure, highlighting the need to boost Kyiv’s firepower. They’ve killed tens of thousands of Ukrainians,” Biden said, “bombed hospitals … kindergartens, grain silos, tried to plunge Ukraine into a cold dark winter.”

Rep. Bill Keating (D-Mass.), who met with Zelenskyy in Kyiv this week, echoed the worries that Ukraine is going to have difficulty advancing against Russia: “There'll be a period where I don't think there's going to be any major shifts.”

National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby hinted Tuesday that Ukraine still doesn’t have a fully formed plan to defeat Russia, though the U.S. would be in talks to help crystalize one. “We’ll be able to continue to have conversations with the Ukrainians about what their longer-term strategy is for pushing back Russian aggression and then tailoring the [future] packages to meet those needs,” he told reporters aboard Air Force One.

The Biden administration has long maintained Kyiv will decide how the war will end, whether by pushing Russian forces back across the border or a favorable deal at the bargaining table. But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy insists his nation must fight until the Crimean peninsula, the eastern Donbas territory and other parts of the country are back under his control. Whether posturing or not, that stance commits the United States to a much longer conflict with no guarantee Zelenskyy will achieve his goals.

“There’s lots of debate about what a winning endgame for Ukraine looks like at this point,” said the senior Democratic Senate staffer.

The Biden administration laments that months of congressional deliberation deprived Ukraine of weaponry to push back on Russia, placing it on the backfoot during crucial months of war. “It is certainly possible that Russia could make additional tactical gains in the coming weeks," Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, said Wednesday. "It's going to take some time for us to dig out of the hole that was created by six months of delay."

The most immediate package headed to Ukraine will total $1 billion and include long-range Army Tactical Missile System weapons that Kyiv has long wanted. Democrats and Republicans suggest Ukraine’s future depends much more on what Biden delivers than the dollar amount.

“The administration needs to send high quality weapons like the ATACMS so Ukraine can tip the scales,” said Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), a House Armed Services Committee member.

Biden administration officials expect the $60 billion will last at least through the end of this presidential term. Should Biden win reelection against former President Donald Trump, it’s unclear if he would need to ask Congress — which could see Republicans lead both the Senate and House — for another authorization.

In the six months it took the Republican-led House to pass the Ukraine aid, senior members of Biden’s team — from CIA Director Bill Burns to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin — asserted that Ukraine would lose the war in 2024 without additional offensive and defensive materiel from the West. Without that support, the most Ukraine could do was defend its dug-in positions, though the U.S. expected better-equipped Russian forces would eventually push through the lines to take more land.

What wasn’t clear in the messaging was if Ukraine could win with what the U.S. sought to provide. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) sidestepped that question when POLITICO asked about it during the Munich Security Conference in February. Instead, the Senate Intelligence Committee chair said, “I am not aware of any other way for, in the short term, the Ukrainians to get the arms and ammunition and tools they need, other than from the United States.”

European officials, who recently approved 50 billion euros in economic assistance, expressed optimism about Ukraine’s cause and democracy writ large after the American package passed through both congressional chambers.

“The Russian war of aggression against Ukraine is challenging the global order and our way of life. In times like these, it is crucial that we as democracies with shared values stand up united to authoritarian systems – as we do today, as we will tomorrow,” Andreas Michaelis, Germany’s ambassador in Washington, posted to X on Wednesday.

Many analysts of the conflict insist the win-or-not-lose dichotomy is contrived. The aid tranche should be judged by whether it improves Ukraine’s fighting and negotiating position against Russia, the RAND Corporation’s Samuel Charap said.

“Importantly it could reduce Russian optimism about the long game and thus make Moscow more inclined to compromise,” he continued, “so rather than a win-lose binary we’re talking about a spectrum of more to less favorable conditions for the endgame. This gives the Ukrainians an important leg up to improve those conditions.”

Keating, who is also a member of the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committee, said the new aid package will also boost the morale of a spent Ukrainian fighting force. “Now they can get back in the ring on a more equal footing,” he said.

Zelenskyy on Sunday told NBC News’ “Meet the Press” program that the new aid “will really strengthen the armed forces of Ukraine, and we will have a chance for victory.”