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Did the US know the Ukraine offensive might fail, and if so, when?

Did the US know the Ukraine offensive might fail, and if so, when?

This also begs the question of whether Washington will recognize when it must start pushing for an armistice.

Analysis | Europe

According to a new report in The Wall Street Journal, the U.S. knew that Ukrainian forces lacked the training and weapons that would be needed to succeed in their counteroffensive, but this did not stop the campaign from going ahead. 

The report says that Western military officials “hoped Ukrainian courage and resourcefulness would carry the day,” but no matter how brave and resourceful an army may be it cannot go on the offensive and win if it has inadequate supplies and preparation.

If Ukraine’s counteroffensive was unlikely to make significant gains and Washington had good reason to expect this in advance, it raises the important question of why the U.S. did not do more to discourage the effort that now appears to be stalling. 

If “Kyiv’s troops lack the mass, training and resources” to launch a successful offensive, as the report says, that strongly suggests that the U.S. should have warned the Ukrainian government against making the attempt. The administration should now be actively seeking a ceasefire to help Ukraine lock in the gains that it has already made before Ukrainian forces suffer more losses in an effort that will achieve little. 

It is regrettable that the U.S. did not make better use of the last six months to lay the groundwork for negotiations, but it is better to start now than wait for another year or even longer until the situation becomes more precarious.

As the Quincy Institute’s Anatol Lieven has observed many times, Ukraine has already achieved a great victory that very few believed possible when the invasion occurred in February 2022. Russia has suffered staggering military losses, its international reputation is in tatters, and its forces have been stopped and pushed back far short of their original objectives. While the desire to continue the war until all Russian forces have been expelled is understandable, it is dangerous to risk all that has been preserved and gained.

The prudent and responsible move of compromising is never popular and carries its own political risks, but it is ultimately the smarter choice in a situation like this. 

An armistice like the one that halted the fighting in Korea seventy years ago has been held up as a model for how the current war could be brought to an end. The Korean War also offers us a cautionary tale of the perils of overreaching, as the advance towards the Chinese border led to Chinese intervention and the prolonging of the war at great cost to all parties. Trying to recapture all territory held by Russian forces runs the risk of both Russian escalation and Ukrainian exhaustion, and Ukraine might end up with less than what it has today. 

In an article for the June  issue of Foreign Affairs, RAND Corporation scholar Samuel Charap warned that the war in Ukraine is an unwinnable one. He laid out matter-of-factly that the war had become a grinding stalemate and that “neither side has the capacity — even with external help — to achieve a decisive military victory over the other.” Charap’s assessment seems accurate and much more realistic than many of his critics that insist that victory, not compromise, is the only solution. 

Victory defined as the recapture of all Ukrainian territory now in Russian hands cannot be won, barring some sudden and unexpected collapse of Russian defenses. It would be unwise to make any policy that relies on such an unlikely event. Instead, Charap recommended that the U.S. and its allies begin working on steering the war to a negotiated end sooner than later. As he put it, “If they decide to wait, the fundamentals of the conflict will likely be the same, but the costs of the war—human, financial, and otherwise—will have multiplied.”

Charap allowed that it is possible that the counteroffensive might “produce meaningful gains,” but that even if it did it would not lead to a “decisive” outcome. As we can see, there have not been meaningful gains so far, and that makes it even more important that policymakers heed what Charap argued. Securing an enduring armistice will take time, and that is why it is crucial that the work of negotiating one begins as soon as possible. The longer that an armistice is delayed, the worse conditions will become and the costlier the conflict will be for Ukraine. 

In his response to his critics, Charap says that they “seem to see diplomacy as a synonym for surrender rather than as an important tool of statecraft,” and this is unfortunately how many opponents of negotiations talk about it. Diplomacy is a necessary tool for securing one’s own interests, and it can often do more to secure those interests than years of armed conflict could. Negotiating an armistice to halt the fighting would benefit the Ukrainian people more than anyone else, as it would secure them and their country from further attacks for the foreseeable future. 

Refusing to negotiate with an adversary, whether out of pride or ideological hostility to diplomacy, is usually self-defeating. 

As Charap notes, “there is no plausible path to ending the war that does not entail engaging Moscow.” If the U.S. and its allies wish to see an end to the war, engagement is going to be the way forward. Waiting to begin that process is a waste of time and, far more important, a waste of human lives. The U.S. cannot force Ukraine to accept an armistice that it does not want, but it can appeal to the Ukrainian government’s self-interest and make the case that their country will be worse off if it chases after the goal of recapturing all lost territories. 

An armistice is not a panacea, and by definition it is not a permanent settlement of the conflict, but it would give Ukraine time and breathing space to recover and rebuild. It would also create an opportunity for the millions of Ukrainians that have sought refuge in Europe to return home. The longer that an active war drags on, the more difficult it will be for the country to recover from the wounds inflicted on it, and the less likely it is that the people that left the country will want to return. 

How the U.S. and its allies act now will help to decide whether Ukraine is consigned to the fate of becoming another Syria or not. Halting the fighting as soon as possible is the best way to keep Ukraine from suffering that outcome.

Analysis | Europe
Chris Murphy Ben Cardin

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