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As Ukraine war bogs down, U.S. assessments face scrutiny

The growing conjecture is fueled by previous assessments of other wars like Afghanistan

Coffins are carried to a cemetery during a mass funeral for Ukrainian service members in Dnipro. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
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The shifting nature of the war in Ukraine has prompted a split among analysts and U.S. lawmakers, with some questioning whether American officials have portrayed the crisis in overly rosy terms while others say the government in Kyiv can win with more help from the West.

The growing conjecture comes more than four months after Russia’s invasion and its failure to seize the capital. Russian President Vladimir Putin has since narrowed the objectives, focusing on capturing the industrial Donbas region in eastern Ukraine while launching thousands of artillery rounds each day at outgunned Ukrainian forces.

President Biden, speaking Thursday at a summit of NATO leaders, said the United States is “rallying the world to stand with Ukraine” and pledged to support the cause “as long as it takes.” Biden said he did not know “how it’s going to end, but it will not end with a Russian defeat of Ukraine in Ukraine.”

U.S. officials acknowledge that as Russian forces have massed firepower, they have gradually seized territory in eastern Ukraine. That includes capturing the strategically important city of Severodonetsk in June and pressing to do the same in its nearby sister city of Lysychansk. Russia claimed control of the latter city on Sunday, while Ukrainian officials acknowledged their military had withdrawn.

U.S. officials have downplayed the gains, calling them halting and incremental, while highlighting the significant number of Russian military fatalities that have come as a result. But the Ukrainians have also sustained heavy casualties. Independent estimates indicate each side has seen tens of thousands of soldiers killed and wounded. The Pentagon has largely declined to publicly discuss its assessments of those figures.

Biden and other Western leaders send Russia their defiant message

The Defense Department’s overriding concern about discussing the Ukrainian military is balancing what can be said at an unclassified level and not providing an “unintended assessment” that Putin can use to his advantage, Pentagon spokesman Todd Breasseale said.

“We are simply not going to do” the battle damage assessment or intelligence work for Russia, Breasseale said. “However, I think we have discussed what we can, when it is knowable, demonstrable and objective.”

The scrutiny is fueled by U.S. government assessments of other wars, notably in Afghanistan, where officials habitually glossed over widespread dysfunction and corruption and sidestepped questions of whether battlefield successes were not only achievable but sustainable. Successive administrations insisted Afghan forces were “in the lead” even as their performance was often deeply flawed and their survival depended on U.S. logistical support and air power.

The Biden administration has committed nearly $7 billion in weapons and other security assistance to Ukraine since Russia invaded in February while encouraging other Western allies to provide similar aid. The weapons have become increasingly sophisticated, with recent packages including the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, surface-to-air missile defense systems and launchers for Harpoon cruise missiles.

Several observers said what the Biden administration claims about the war in Ukraine appears to be accurate but that the Pentagon sometimes withholds information that would be unflattering to Ukrainian partners or highlight limitations on U.S. support.

Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said that with Ukraine as opposed to Afghanistan, the Pentagon lacks the incentive to “perennially” say the military that it is supporting is turning a corner. There are no known American troops involved in the conflict, limiting the government’s interest in making such pronouncements, she said.

But Schake criticized what she characterized as Pentagon officials “congratulating themselves” about the type and amount of weapons they are providing while leaving out that the United States could send more weapons faster. “Our sense of self-satisfaction and complacency and confidence is actually a disservice to Ukraine,” she said, calling such complacency “practically and morally suspect.”

Schake assessed that Ukrainian forces are able to win the war and are probably in the process of accumulating arms ahead of a major counteroffensive that cannot begin until they have enough to repel the Russians. “We just need to slam the gas pedal on the floor and help them succeed as fast as possible,” she said.

A Ukrainian lawmaker, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, shared similar concerns. The flow of American weapons often is not fast enough, the official said, noting that the rate of howitzer artillery fire, in particular, could soon outpace supply. “We need a lot of this for yesterday, not even tomorrow,” he said. “We are losing the most valuable thing, our soldiers and officers. That is why we need heavy weapons faster, and as much as possible.”

Others more wary of U.S. involvement in Ukraine see Washington’s assessments as incomplete for different reasons. Benjamin Friedman, a policy director at Defense Priorities, said that the stated objective of Ukraine to push Russian forces out seems “increasingly unrealistic” and that the Biden administration must do more to press Ukraine to negotiate with Russia and strive for a political settlement.

“Nobody wants them to cede territory, or hardly anyone wants them to cede territory,” Friedman said. “But you have to assess the situation honestly and say that you’re trading peace for territory. I think we should be doing more to pressure them, and I think we’re sort of doing a disservice not just to regular Ukrainians, but to a lesser extent Americans and everyone else who is suffering economic problems because of the war.”

Friedman said the U.S. government is “spinning for Ukraine for the obvious reason that we are rooting for them” and because a more blunt assessment of Ukrainian losses or liabilities might assist Russia. “It’s natural not to criticize the people you’re fighting with,” he said, “and certainly not in public.”

Feelings are similarly split on Capitol Hill. Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) said he does not think the administration is spinning what is happening in Ukraine. Overselling success against Russia could undermine future support from Congress, he said, when there has been “a remarkably trusting and congenial dialogue” about the war since it began.

Moulton, a former Marine Corps officer and combat veteran, said that “the story of this conflict” is the degree to which the administration is disclosing large amounts of detail about what is happening in Ukraine, and that it has been “remarkably open and candid in what is going on.” He added, “We didn’t tell the American public what ISIS was going to do next,” referring to the Islamic State terrorist group, “or what the insurgents in Afghanistan were going to do next. But that’s exactly what we’ve done with Putin.”

While U.S. support for Ukraine has engendered a degree of bipartisanship seldom seen in Washington, Republicans still see challenges for the administration. Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.) said the fighting now has a well-defined line of conflict, with territory changing hands slowly. It can be difficult, he said, to understand the nuance of what is coming next as a result. “I think that’s the fundamental challenge, is we don’t really know,” he said. “But we know it probably is not going to be quick.”

The key role for the Pentagon is to tell the public what the Defense Department is doing and why, Meijer said. The administration does not “have the greatest track record of communicating accurate analytical statements to the American public that don’t quickly collapse when events change,” he said, alluding in part to early predictions from top U.S. officials that the Russian military would quickly topple the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“Think of the prognosis on how long the Afghan government would hold after the August 31st withdrawal date,” Meijer said. “Think of the initial estimates of how quickly Kyiv would fall in the wake of a Russian invasion.” Meijer, who served in Army intelligence units, said the truth can be “watered down, so it’s as inoffensive as possible” when intelligence is shared with senior U.S. officials and presidential appointees.

Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) also pointed to the evacuation of Afghanistan last summer, saying that while administration officials highlighted how many planes of evacuees they were able to move per day, they often downplayed “the overall strategic debacle.” In the end, thousands of Afghan interpreters and other allies in the war were left behind.

“I think in Ukraine, they’re very much focused on the amount of stuff that they’re moving and the speed with which they’re moving it, once it’s approved by the White House, and I think losing sight of the fact that Russia is grinding the Ukrainian military down,” he said.

Waltz said that while the Pentagon is looking through “the very narrow parameters of the mission” it has received from the White House, it also has a responsibility to the American people “to see the forest through the trees.” He added, “They’re describing their success and their very narrow mission set, but what they’re not explaining is, does that mission set meet American interests?”

Waltz said the United States is good at seeing where the front lines of the war are and assessing where tanks, ships and planes are on the battlefield. It is more difficult, he said, to assess the accuracy of what the Ukrainian Defense Ministry tells the Pentagon, how well the weapons the United States provides is being used, how quickly ammunition is being launched and whether any is disappearing onto the black market because of corruption.

As Biden faces criticism from Republicans, he also is vulnerable to pressure from the left flank of his party, which is looking for an exit strategy. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said that while he applauds the administration’s objective in stopping Russia from seizing Kyiv, the United States cannot resign itself to a “prolonged never-ending conflict that is wreaking havoc on the American economy and the global economy.”

“I believe we should declare victory for the president’s efforts in standing up for a sovereign Ukraine. We should say we won. The Russians lost. They did not achieve their fundamental objective,” Khanna said. Democrats, are not resigned to support Ukraine at all costs, he said. “People don’t want to see a resigned attitude that this is just going to go on as long as it’s going to go on. What is the plan on the diplomatic front?”

Alex Horton contributed to this report.

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