Republicans are complaining that neither the Biden administration nor Zelensky could tell them how Ukraine could win the war with Russia or what plan the administration had for Ukraine going forward. Nor were the Republicans happy that no progress was made with the administration on their demand for strong border security. So far the result is that the measure in both houses of Congress is stalled. Legislation won’t be taken up again until after the Christmas and New Year’s break, if then.
The Biden administration Ukraine problem, however, goes deeper than just funding. Legislators now understand that the war cannot be won and are wondering whether the administration has not got itself in a trap by supporting Zelensky.
In a nutshell, supporting Zelensky in a no-win scenario seems a bad idea to many.
No serious military leader has advanced the thesis that Ukraine can win against Russia, despite saying for months that it could. Lawmakers who listened to these arguments for the past two years now realize that the administration duped them. The defining moment happened over this past summer when the Ukrainian offensive heavily supported with US arms and US and NATO training, not to mention massive intelligence support, yielded huge losses and only a few tiny, reversible victories.
Zelensky was still running around in the US claiming that Ukraine had won many victories in the offensive and had broken through the Surovikin defense line put up by the Russians. These days that argument is no longer credible, if it ever was.
There is big turbulence ahead. The Pentagon has dispatched Lt. General Antonio Aguto, Jr. to Ukraine. His job will be the shadow commander of Ukraine’s army, basically replacing Zaluzhny and putting Aguto over land army commander Oleksandr Syrskyi. His instructions are contradictory. On the one hand, he is supposed to direct the Ukrainians on a “hold and build” strategy. On the other he is to tell Zelensky to freeze the conflict, at the latest by this coming Spring.
Hold means to not try and advance but hold onto territories under Ukraine’s control. This idea is already undermined by the fact that the Russians are advancing across most of the line of contact. They have already entered Marinka, a small city in Donetsk that was under Ukrainian control. The Russians are also progressing around Avdiivka, and control parts of the city with more to follow. Around Bakhmut, the Russians are in the process of taking back some villages that the Ukrainians grabbed during the big battles over Bakhmut. It looks as if they will soon get them back and threaten Chasiv Yar, a key Ukrainian logistics hub. Similarly in the Zaphorize front the Russians are now pressuring Robotyne, a small village in the so-called Bradley Square area that the Ukrainians actually took in their offensive when they tried to push toward the actual Surovikin defenses. Whether Russia will be successful here depend on how many lives the Ukrainians want to spend on holding onto a small village of no strategic significance.
The idea of “Hold” therefore is not really a coherent strategy. Ukrainian general Valery Zaluzhny, Commander of Ukraine’s armed forces and a key competitor to Zelensky, proposed pulling back Ukraine’s army and forming a real defensive line. But where would that line be? And how would it stop a Russian advance? Zelensky himself seems to endorse the idea while insisting on keeping up the battles around Bakhmut and Avdiivka.
The idea of “Build” is a US idea to rebuild Ukraine’s army that has been very badly mauled by the ongoing fighting. Build means bringing in new manpower on the one hand, and emphasizing rearmament and training.
Ukraine has a severe manpower problem, and for Ukraine to find recruits it has to use clumsy and draconian tactics. Some of the untapped manpower is in the bigger cities and mostly has been protected by the regime in Kiev because they are the sons and daughters of what in Russia is called the nomenklatura. Just because communism is gone does not mean that there isn’t a highly pampered elite in Ukraine, any more than there is in Russia. When you put pressure in this class of people you cause serious internal political problems. While there will not be any elections in Ukraine, there is dissatisfaction. In the past week MP David Arakhamia, Zelensky’s party leader says that there is a revolt in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament which is largely a mouthpiece for Zelensky. Many of the MPs have signaled they want to get out of Ukraine, as soon as possible. Some of them already are gone. This is a sign of a sinking ship and a loss of confidence in the maximum leader. (Ukrainians are not leaving the country now because they are not allowed to leave. Even former President Petro Poroshenko, who got a valid exit permit from the Rada, was stopped at the border and turned around, because Zelensky did not want him talking to western leaders.)
It is hard to see how Aguto can fix the manpower problem or repair the loss of confidence internally in the Ukrainian government.
If the Biden administration really wants to freeze the conflict they should explain how that can be done. Without negotiations and some sort of settlement, the war will continue if the Russians determine they want to stay in the fight.
Meanwhile, Aguto looking over the shoulder of Ukraine’s military commanders and telling them what to do is bound to cause problems.
There is, too, another problem with Aguto sitting in Kiev. Not only is this highly embarrassing for Ukraine’s military leaders, but it also changes the war into an American war. Aguto is not by himself –he brings a team of Army guys with him. That small team is bound to grow. It bears a resemblance to sending US “advisors” to Vietnam that soon morphed into a war that, in the end, the US lost.
There is no evidence that the Aguto plan, if one can call it that, is convincing or will accomplish either of its objectives (hold and build). It will bring the possibility of war in Europe even closer to reality, because the Russians may decide that they can’t pretend that the war can be confined only to Ukraine’s borders.
It is quite true that the Russians have their own problems, including multiple attempts by Ukraine, the UK and the United States to kill Putin. Biden’s decision to use Zelensky in his latest bid to get money also risks sticking Biden with a guy unwilling to negotiate until the Russians leave and Putin is replaced. That is not a recipe to bring an end to the ongoing conflict.