Biden administration officials are trying to calm any overly optimistic expectations after Ukraine’s big gains against Russia in recent days.
Ukraine claims to have recaptured thousands of square kilometers of territory occupied by Russia in an offensive that began last week. Moscow acknowledged a “regrouping”, which others saw as a retreat.
“The road to victory is difficult, but we are sure of it: you are capable of it,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his late night speech on Sunday, hailing his country’s troops in what he considered victories. “You will see our borders and the backs of our enemies. You will see the eyes of our people shine and the heels of the occupiers shine.
But in Washington, Pentagon, White House and State Department officials urged caution. They were reluctant to endorse a sense of Ukrainian triumph so early in the battle.
“Clearly they are fighting hard to defend their country and reclaim territory,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday during a trip with President Biden to Boston. “We’re just going to continue to support their need to succeed on the battlefield. This has been our goal.
US officials said the back-and-forth of Russian and Ukrainian gains and withdrawals is likely to continue despite the Ukrainian push that appears to have reached a section of the country’s border with Russia.
Arms supplies, weather and determination in Moscow as well as in Washington and European capitals will determine how the rest of the war plays out.
“Early signs are positive and we see Ukraine making real and demonstrable progress in a deliberate way,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said. “But it will probably last for a significant period of time. There are a large number of Russian forces that are in Ukraine, and unfortunately, tragically, horribly, the president [Vladimir] Putin demonstrated that he would send a lot of people in there at a huge cost to Russia.
Blinken was speaking Friday at NATO headquarters in Brussels after an unannounced trip to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. But his comments reflected what continued to be the administration’s prevailing view on Monday.
Some Europeans who have backed the US-led effort to arm and support Ukraine have expressed optimism that this potential breakthrough could be when an arms buildup gives way to negotiations.
US officials, however, said negotiations remained unlikely. Most Russian offers to open negotiations, they said, begin with Ukraine’s full surrender – a clear failure.
In May, Biden signed a new $40 billion aid package for Ukraine. In the months that followed, US military aid to Ukraine included heavier weaponry, including howitzers, armed drones and sophisticated artillery rocket systems known as HIMARS.
A senior US military official said on Monday that the Pentagon had confirmed some Ukrainian gains over the weekend.
“We believe that Ukrainians are making progress in their struggle to liberate and recover territories in the south and east on the ground near Kharkiv,” the official said, telling reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss reports on the battlefield. “We believe Russian forces have largely ceded their gains to the Ukrainians and retreated north and east. Many of these forces have crossed the border into Russia. »
The measured response by U.S. officials to Ukraine’s new battlefield successes was consistent with the Biden administration’s approach to the conflict since the war began in February.
“We have been very consistent in not speaking on behalf of the Ukrainian military, either in current or future terms. They fight with courage and skill and should be allowed to speak for themselves,” a senior administration official said.
Biden administration officials, who less than two years ago oversaw the US pullout from the two-decade national war in Afghanistan, understand that the momentum of a war can change over time, and declare victory too soon can end up looking foolish in the long run.
Even though the United States has sent $13.5 billion in aid to Ukraine since January, the White House has said throughout the conflict that this is neither a US war nor a a proxy war between Putin and the West.
At first, Biden was hesitant to send Ukraine weapons that could be perceived as “offensive,” instead focusing on sets of Stinger and Javelin missile systems. It was only after Ukraine withstood the initial Russian onslaught and the conflict bogged down that the United States began to send in more advanced weapons, including the HIMARS rocket launchers that the Ukrainians have used it to devastating effect in recent days.
But US officials fear a fuller victory lap by Washington at this stage of an as yet unresolved conflict could undermine Zelensky, adding credence to Putin’s claim that he is waging a proxy war with the Organization. of the North Atlantic Treaty and the West.
At a time when the Russian leader is arguably frustrated by the failure of his army and an invasion that could prove to be one of the great blunders of the 21st century, any direct provocation to the still unpredictable Putin goes against of one of Biden’s intentions. primary objectives throughout the conflict: to avoid any direct confrontation between the United States and Russia.
Although Biden may be reluctant to poke Putin directly in the eye, Ukraine’s gains over the weekend change the math. The war “is not a one-sided fight” in which Moscow is destined to be the winner, said Samuel Charap, a Russia political scientist at the Rand Corp. “It gives political significance to the idea that Ukraine can win.”