Ukraine’s widely hyped spring counteroffensive was cast as a potential turning point in the war with Russia, a game-changer that would reclaim lost territory and give Kyiv and its Western allies vital new leverage in future peace talks with the Kremlin.
Instead, with the season drawing to a close, the campaign has yet to begin as both sides edge toward a stalemate, with Russian forces reinforcing defensive positions in eastern Ukraine and leaving the Biden administration in a delicate holding pattern as patience with a seemingly endless war in eastern Europe grows thin in Washington and inside NATO.
Administration officials told The Washington Times this week that the overarching U.S. goal is still to put Ukraine in the strongest possible negotiating position with Russia, though they stressed that any such negotiations would unfold solely on Ukraine’s terms and timeline. The spring offensive — building off a successful campaign last fall that drove back invading Russian forces in the south and east — was seen as a key marker in that broader effort to put Ukraine in the driver’s seat, with the hope that Russian forces might even forced out of the territory entirely, and left with little choice but call off the invasion altogether.
Instead, analysts say, the U.S and its NATO have been forced to wait and watch even as the ground has thawed and mobility restored. If the counteroffensive falls short, or never even truly gets off the ground, the dynamics on the ground — and in Washington and capitals across Europe — could change rapidly. Ukraine could suddenly be left with few good options, specialists say, and could find itself facing private pressure from the West to begin looking for a way to end the fighting with large swaths of Ukraine still in the Kremlin’s control.
“Reality will dictate what actually happens,” Jim Townsend, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy during the Obama administration, told The Washington Times this week.
“If Ukraine has that offensive, if it bogs down, or doesn’t achieve much, it won’t be the administration telling them [to pursue peace talks]. It will be fate saying it, reality saying it,” he said. “And then the administration will say, ‘We gave you everything, and it only went so far. So what do you think about [peace] discussions now?’”
“It’s a game of time and space and political will,” Mr. Townsend said. “The administration doesn’t come out and say anything definitive because time, space and political will will be dictated by others, not by them.”
Inside the White House and Pentagon, there is a wait-and-see approach with respect to Ukraine’s offensive push in the Donbas, an area which remains the epicenter of the war. Administration officials in the early days of the conflict talked openly about how the fight would at some point end at the negotiating table, and their belief was that Ukraine needed to be in a favorable bargaining position when that day arrived.
But the public talk of negotiations has grown quieter over the past nine months, especially after Ukraine’s counteroffensive last fall recaptured key cities such as Kharkiv and Kherson, and dealt major, high-profile defeats to a Russian military that suddenly seemed vulnerable and ill-equipped for a modern 21st-century war. The failures of the Russian military seemed to change the calculus across the West, with the possibility of a clear Ukrainian victory no longer seeming as far-fetched as it did when the conflict began.
Officials insist that the U.S. position has not changed. In conversations with Ukrainian leaders, U.S. officials say, the focus is on providing support, not pushing Kyiv to the negotiating table or proposing any specific terms for a peace deal.
“We’re not here to tell them you should change your position,” an administration official told The Times this week. The official was granted anonymity to speak candidly about the White House’s thinking on the war.
“We don’t see our role as telling Ukraine what to do,” the official said.
Ukrainian leaders insist the counteroffensive is coming — and reject the idea that they trying to manage expectations or downplay its importance to the outcome of the war.
“Like it or not, we are approaching a landmark battle for the recent history of Ukraine,” Kyrylo Budanov, chief of the intelligence directorate for Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense, told the news outlet RBC-Ukraine in an interview published Tuesday.
“This is a fact, everyone understands it,” he said. “When it will start is a mystery. But everyone understands that we are getting closer to it.”
But the Russian military also knows that the offensive is on the horizon. Russian forces reportedly have ceased making any major forward advances across eastern or southern Ukraine, with the exception of Bakhmut, a city that has been largely reduced to rubble after months of fierce fighting between the two sides. Ukrainian troops are still holding on in the western side of the city, with neither side so far having claimed total control.
A muted Russian offensive that began in March failed to make appreciable gains, and Russian forces have concentrated instead on building up fortifications in the areas still in their possession.
The shift in Russia’s approach has paid dividends, foreign analysts say. After months of heavy casualties and embarrassing battlefield setbacks, observers say that Moscow has now ordered its military commanders to focus on defensive positions throughout the Donbas and surrounding areas.
As a result, British intelligence officials say Russia’s daily average casualties have plummeted from an estimated 776 in March to 568 this month.
“Russia’s losses have highly likely reduced as their attempted winter offensive has failed to achieve its objectives, and Russian forces are now focused on preparing for anticipated Ukrainian offensive operations,” the British Ministry of Defense said in a Twitter post Tuesday.
Biden administration officials have voiced both public and private doubts that Ukraine’s forces — which have consistently outperformed expectations in the fighting — have the firepower and resources to rout Russian forces in the next offensive, and are likely to fall far short of driving the invaders from all Ukrainian territory.
“That is a significant military task. Very, very difficult military task,” Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley told the publication Defense One last month. “You’re looking at a couple hundred thousand Russians who are still in Russian-occupied Ukraine. I’m not saying it can’t be done. I’m just saying it’s a very difficult task.”
And recent U.S. intelligence assessments allegedly leaked online by a National Guard airman offered a pessimistic take on the spring offensive’s chances for a breakthrough success. One February report warned that “force generation and sustainment shortfalls” in the Ukrainian military mean Kyiv can likely expect only “modest territorial gains” from the campaign.
Ukrainian generals have kept their plans close to the vest, refusing to give a target date or signal whether the attack will strike east into the dispute Donbas or make a feint toward the Sea of Azov to the south, effectively cutting off the Kremlin’s vaunted “land bridge” connecting Crimea to Russia proper. A successful drive to the south in the Zaporizhzhya region would divide Russia’s occupied lands in two and put Crimea, the Russian naval base in Sevastopol and the Kerch Strait bridge all within range of Ukrainian artillery.
Journalists have been largely banned from staging areas in the region, further cutting off information flows on where Ukrainian forces are being gathered and what the offensive’s prime targets are.
Fight for Crimea?
Nowhere are those Russian defenses stronger than in Crimea, which Moscow forcibly annexed in 2014, years before the current conflict began. Russia has used the Crimean peninsula — still formally a part of Ukraine — as a staging ground throughout the war.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian leaders have signaled that their definition of victory includes recapturing all territory from Russia, including Crimea.
But such a goal will be exceedingly difficult. U.S. military officials have said retaking Crimea would be an uphill climb for the Ukrainian military, even if its offensive succeeds in pushing Russian troops out of the Donbas.
There may be a secondary motivation for Kyiv’s focus on Crimea, analysts say, one that could suggest Ukraine is at least open to the idea of negotiations with the Kremlin.
“If public pronouncements about retaking Crimea help cement Ukrainian national unity, that too is a positive,” Stephen Sestanovich, a senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in an analysis last week. “And by reiterating territorial claims that the overwhelming majority of the world’s governments recognize, Kyiv’s leaders make Crimea into, at a minimum, a major bargaining chip in any negotiations down the road.”
Indeed, other specialists say that Ukraine — and by extension, its U.S. and NATO allies — must stick to that theoretical goal of liberating Crimea from Russian control. Abandoning that goal, they say, could be crushing for Ukrainians’ fighting spirit.
“It’s important for morale, it’s important for the Ukrainian people, that they’re going to recover every inch of Ukraine,” Mr. Townsend said.
“I don’t think you’re going to have anyone saying, ‘Well, we’ll do part of it.’ They have to present a positive face, that we’re going to do this.”
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