The Depth of US Support to Ukraine
The collaboration has been even more robust than advertised.
Writing for the New Yorker, Joshua Yaffa takes us “Inside the U.S. Effort to Arm Ukraine.” While I had always assumed we were doing a lot more than advertised in terms of an “advise and assist” role, I had no idea how much.
This came as no surprise:
Russia, which had occupied a number of key cities in Ukraine’s south and east, retained a sizable advantage in terms of heavy weapons; its long-distance missiles could rain down terror and death across the battlefield and beyond, clearing the way for its troops to advance. But Ukraine received enough artillery systems and munitions from the U.S. and other NATO states to mount an adequate response. “This allowed the country’s military and political leadership to think seriously about the third phase,” Reznikov said. “That is, launching an offensive operation.”
And this has been a frequent topic of conversation here:
Vladimir Putin had effectively embraced the stalemate of the war’s second phase, wagering that, as the front lines held and the conflict increasingly disrupted global energy and food supplies, the Ukrainian public would tire of the war and the West’s commitment would wane. There was some basis for questioning the durability of U.S. and NATO support—it seemed to strengthen in proportion to Ukraine’s ability to repel Russian forces. “We have seen U.S. arms supplies contribute to real success on the battlefield, which has in turn consolidated support for providing more,” a Biden Administration official involved in Ukraine policy told me. “But one could imagine things reversed: if the former were not the case, then maybe the latter wouldn’t be, either.”
As spring turned to summer, Reznikov sensed a growing weariness in some Western capitals. The attitude, he said, was, “O.K., well, we helped Ukraine resist, we kept them from being destroyed.” Reznikov and other officials wanted to demonstrate to their partners in the West that the Ukrainian Army could reclaim large swaths of Russian-occupied territory. “The counter-offensive would show that it’s one thing to take part in helping the victim,” Reznikov said, “another to realize you can punish the aggressor.”
This, though, was eye-opening:
In July, military officials from Ukraine, the United States, and the United Kingdom converged at a base in Europe to plot out possible scenarios. The Ukrainians’ starting point was a broad campaign across the southern front, a push to liberate not only the occupied city of Kherson but hundreds of square miles in the nearby Mykolaiv and Zaporizhzhia regions. The military planners met in three rooms, divided by country, where experts ran the same tabletop exercises. They often worked twenty hours a day, with American and British military officials helping to hone the Ukrainians’ strategy. “We have algorithms and methodologies that are more sophisticated when it comes to things like mapping out logistics and calculating munitions rates,” a senior official at the Defense Department said. “The idea was not to tell them what to do but, rather, to give them different runs to test their plans.”
The initial tabletop exercises showed that a unified push across the southern front would come at a high cost to Ukrainian equipment and manpower. It looked ill advised. “They ran this version of the offensive many times and just couldn’t get the model to work,” the Defense official said.
In the south, Ukraine had been battering Russian positions with American-provided precision rocket systems. In response, Russia’s generals had moved a considerable number of units out of the Kharkiv region, in the northeast, to back up forces near Kherson. The assembled planners settled on an idea that would take advantage of this vulnerability: a two-front offensive. Shortly afterward, Reznikov was informed of the plans. “It wasn’t the first time I was struck by our military’s ability to come up with unexpected solutions,” he said. “I understood it was up to me to get them the necessary weapons.”
This isn’t simply the ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) support that I had always assumed we were providing. It’s full-on operational planning at the most elite level. The Ukrainians are ultimately making the decisions, of course, because it’s their skin in the game. But they’re very much doing so based on the best expertise we can provide.
The results speak for themselves:
In late August, Ukrainian ground forces started their push toward Kherson. It was a slow, grinding operation, with both sides suffering heavy losses. A week later, troops dashed toward Russian lines in the Kharkiv region, a move that clearly caught Russian military leaders off guard. With so many units relocated to the south, a number of territories in the northeast were guarded by under-equipped Russian forces and riot police with little combat experience. Many of them simply abandoned their positions and ran off, leaving behind crates of ammunition, and even a few tanks. Ukrainian troops sped through one town after another, often on Western-supplied fighting vehicles, such as Humvees and Australian Bushmaster armored personnel carriers.
Reznikov was still en route to the Ramstein Air Base when he first received a text message about the breakthrough near Kharkiv. The Ukrainian armed forces had retaken Balakliya, a key gateway city in the region. Reznikov pictured the map in his head, counting the next towns likely to be liberated. He was travelling with a small delegation that included top officials from the general staff and military intelligence, who were also receiving updates from the front. They began comparing notes. Ukrainian units moved east, toward Kupyansk, an important logistics hub, then spread north and south, retaking key roads and rail junctions. By the time Reznikov landed in Germany, on September 8th, paratroopers had reached the Oskil River, thirty miles behind what had been the Russian front line just hours before. Within days, the Ukrainian military recaptured more than seven hundred square miles of territory.
Naturally, success begets more success:
The next morning, Reznikov met with Lloyd Austin, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, and Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They had been briefed on the counter-offensive, and joined Reznikov in tracking the military’s progress on a map. Both maintained their composure, Reznikov noted, but they were clearly excited. “Their faces were glowing,” he said. “They knew what was happening, and what this meant.”
In the afternoon, Reznikov addressed a group of thirty NATO defense ministers. “The success of Ukraine’s counterattack is thanks to you,” he said.
He later told me, “Of course, I meant the U.S. most of all.”
Given that Putin quite reasonably sees US and NATO support to Ukraine as a de facto Western proxy war against Russia, being this visible about it comes with risk. But, given the degree of success it has spawned, continuing to double down is the likely result.
To say the least, this was not always the case.
Prior to this year’s invasion, officials in Kyiv often felt as if the political establishment in Washington viewed their country as little more than a bit player in a geopolitical game. “Ukraine was not considered to have its own agency,” Mykhailo Podolyak, a top adviser to Zelensky, said, “but rather as just one of the many elements in managing the relationship with Russia.”
In 2014, Putin had ordered Russian troops with no insignia—the so-called little green men—to Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula in the Black Sea, and sparked a separatist conflict in the Donbas, in eastern Ukraine. At the time, Ukraine retained a largely Soviet-style military, with a baroque bureaucracy and Cold War hardware. Zelensky’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, appealed to Barack Obama for more and better weapons. Obama’s concern, according to the senior Defense official, was that, “if we escalated, the Russians would counter-escalate, and the conflict would spiral.” Joe Biden, then the Vice-President, was more inclined to provide arms. The Defense official said, “He had the position that if Putin had to explain to Russian mothers why caskets were coming back home, that could affect his calculus.”
Ukrainian officials were particularly adamant in their requests for one weapon: the shoulder-fired Javelin anti-tank missile, which takes its name from the similarity of its flight path to that of a spear—the missile arcs nearly five hundred feet into the air, then back down, striking a tank or armored vehicle from above, where it’s most vulnerable. “The Javelin was the one thing the Ukrainians understood they really needed,” Ben Rhodes, a deputy national-security adviser in the Obama White House, said. “It was also a purely defensive weapon, which, they hoped, could make it relatively easier for us to supply.”
Obama declined to provide any lethal arms at all. Instead, the Administration focussed its efforts on training Ukrainian forces. At a base near Yavoriv, in western Ukraine, fifteen miles from the Polish border, instructors from the U.S. and other NATO countries taught the principles of small-unit tactics and trained a new branch of Ukrainian special forces. Still, Carol Northrup, who was then the U.S. defense attaché at the Embassy in Kyiv, said, the Ukrainians “were much more interested in our stuff than our advice. They would say, ‘We want stuff.’ And we’d answer, ‘We want to train you.’ “
Obama’s foreign policy was feckless by my tastes but understandable. He ran on a domestic agenda and on getting us out of stupid wars. While he doubled down on drone strikes and special operations raids on the artist formerly known as the Global War on Terror, he was reluctant to get involved in new wars. I can’t really fault him for that.
Donald Trump came into office promising improved relations with Russia, which alarmed officials in Kyiv. But his Administration approved the Javelins. The first shipment—about two hundred missiles and thirty-seven launchers—arrived in Ukraine in the spring of 2018. The following year, an anonymous whistle-blower revealed that, during an official phone call with Zelensky, Trump had implied that future Javelin sales could be linked to a “favor.” The President wanted Zelensky to look into an obscure conspiracy theory suggesting that the Ukrainian government, not Russia, had interfered in the 2016 Presidential election, and to order the investigation of a case involving the work of Biden’s son Hunter on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company. The exchange led to Trump’s first impeachment trial. It also unlocked U.S. military aid for Ukraine: Congress, with bipartisan support, insured that a package worth two hundred and fifty million dollars was released.
Trump, on the other hand, I absolutely fault. This wasn’t a policy calculation at all but simple self-dealing. He did what was best for his personal interest, whatever the hell it was, US national security interests be damned.
Biden has been something very different from Obama 2.0, much less Trump 2.0, on this:
Zelensky saw Biden’s election as a chance to re-start relations with the U.S. In the spring of 2021, Russia began assembling troops and equipment on the Ukrainian border. That September, during a meeting with Zelensky at the White House, Biden announced an additional sixty million dollars in security assistance, including more Javelins. The two Presidents projected an air of mutual interest and bonhomie, but Zelensky left Washington without commitments on two key issues, both of which he had raised with Biden: creating a path for Ukraine’s admittance to NATO, and preventing the startup of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would allow Russia to circumvent Ukraine in supplying natural gas to Germany and the rest of Europe.
That fall, intelligence data showed that Russia had positioned more than a hundred thousand troops along the Ukrainian border. “At that point, we weren’t yet sure if Putin had made the ultimate decision to invade,” a person familiar with White House discussions on Ukraine said. “But it was without doubt that he was giving himself the capability to do so.”
In November, Biden dispatched the director of the C.I.A., William Burns, on a secret trip to Moscow. Burns had previously served as the U.S. Ambassador to Russia and had often dealt with Putin personally. In the course of two days, Burns met with Putin’s inner circle of advisers, including Alexander Bortnikov, the director of Russia’s Federal Security Service, and Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the Kremlin’s Security Council. He also had an hour-long phone call with Putin, who, wary of COVID and increasingly isolated, was hunkered down in his Presidential residence in Sochi. Burns thought that Putin sounded cool and dispassionate, as if his mind was nearly made up. Upon returning to Washington, Burns relayed his findings to Biden. The message, according to Burns, was that “Putin thought Zelensky a weak leader, that the Ukrainians would cave, and that his military could achieve a decisive victory at minimal cost.”
In January, Burns made a trip to Kyiv to warn Zelensky. The Orthodox Christmas had just passed, and a festive atmosphere lingered in Ukraine’s capital, with decorations lining the streets. Zelensky understood the implications of the intelligence that Burns presented, but he still thought it was possible to avoid a large-scale invasion. For starters, he was reluctant to do anything that might set off a political and economic crisis inside Ukraine. He also worried that mobilizing the military could inadvertently provide Putin with a casus belli. Burns was sympathetic with the dilemma, but he emphasized that the looming danger was not hypothetical. Burns specifically told Zelensky that Russian forces planned to seize the Hostomel airport, twenty miles from the capital, and use it as a staging point for flying in troops and equipment.
Again, one understands Zelensky’s reluctance. A shooting war on one’s home territory is something to be avoided at almost all costs. But, once again, US intelligence was way out front on this one and Biden decided to do something his predecessors didn’t: lean forward.
At the White House, a “Tiger Team,” made up of experts from the State Department, the Defense Department, the Joint Chiefs, and intelligence agencies, carried out exercises to anticipate the shape of a Russian attack. After Putin came to power, two decades ago, the Kremlin leadership had advertised a wide-scale effort to modernize its armed forces. The C.I.A. and other Western intelligence agencies concluded that Russia’s military would overwhelm Ukraine. Intelligence assessments at the time were that Putin expected Russian forces to seize Kyiv within seventy-two hours. “We thought it might take a few days longer than the Russians did,” the Defense Department official said, “but not much longer.”
As we now know, we underestimated Ukrainian resolve and overestimated Russian competence. Still, one can’t help but think the administration leaning forward with intelligence support wasn’t a contributing factor to the early success.
Outwardly, Zelensky acted as if war were not inevitable. “The captains should not leave the ship,” he said near the end of January. “I don’t think we have a Titanic here.” But he did take the prospect of a Russian invasion seriously. “There’s a difference between what you articulate with the public and what you are actually doing,” Oleksiy Danilov, Zelensky’s national-security adviser, said. “We couldn’t allow for panic in society.”
Behind the scenes, Zelensky and other top Ukrainian officials were asking the U.S. for a significant infusion of weapons. “At each phase, they just said give us everything under the sun,” an Administration official said. “We tailored what we provided to the actual situation they were facing.” In late January, the Administration announced that it was sending a two-hundred-million-dollar package of military aid, which included three hundred more Javelins and, for the first time, Stingers, the man-portable anti-aircraft systems, or MANPADs, that had played a key role in the mujahideen’s defeat of the Red Army in Afghanistan. “You can’t take over a country with MANPADs,” the Defense Department official said. “But you can defend an airport from an airborne assault.”
In hindsight, we should have been a bit bolder. Still, given what we knew then, it was incredibly forward-leaning and risk-tolerant. If we’d given them what they were asking for and they still got rolled by the Russians, it would have been a disaster. Doubling down on a winning bet, hand by hand, has worked out pretty well.
U.S. Air Force transport planes, carrying crates of arms, began landing several times a week in Kyiv. The Biden Administration had also declassified summaries of its intelligence assessments, issuing public warnings that a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine was imminent. Many U.S. officials believed that Zelensky wasn’t ready to accept the urgency of the threat. In multiple conversations with Biden, Zelensky brought up the negative impact that the talk of war was having on Ukraine’s stock market and its investment climate. “It’s fair to say the fact that those issues remained a priority item as late as they did raised some eyebrows,” the person familiar with the White House’s Ukraine policy said.
Again, I’m not going to fault Zelensky here. Not only were his stakes considerably less conducive to unemotional assessment than they were from our vantage point but he was a neophyte politician. The speed at which he transformed himself into a heroic wartime leader when the invasion came will be the subject of history.
Six months earlier, the Taliban had seized power in Afghanistan within days of the U.S. withdrawal. The Biden Administration had wagered that the U.S.-backed Afghan Army could fight the Taliban to a stalemate over the course of several months. When it came to the Russian threat in Ukraine, U.S. defense and security officials erred on the side of alarmism. “I think in some ways we transposed the Afghan experience onto the Ukrainians,” the senior Defense Department official said. Podolyak, Zelensky’s adviser, felt that the warnings coming from Washington and elsewhere were incomplete: “They would say, ‘The Russians will attack!’ O.K., then, what’s the next step? Are you with us? And it felt like there was no answer.”
And, again, from the perspective of Kyiv, that’s hardly unfair.
Another underlying source of unease was that U.S. officials had little understanding of the Ukrainian plan to defend the country, or even if such a plan existed. General Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was speaking several times a week with his counterpart in Kyiv, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces. Milley pressed Zaluzhnyi for information about how Ukraine would defend itself, including a request for detailed inventories of weapons stockpiles. Milley also offered his own strategic vision—an emphasis on dispersed mobile units, multiple lines of defense across the country, and a mixture of conventional forces and partisan warfare. “Our message was not, ‘You guys are about to get steamrolled, so you should just sue for peace,’ ” a U.S. military official said. “Rather, the message was that you are about to get steamrolled, so you have to get your defenses majorly shored up.”
Again, US intelligence and military planning support was crucial here. But it’s hardly surprising it was received skeptically at first.
Zaluzhnyi seemed hesitant to provide any details. Not only was he protective of his plans, he refused to share the placement of arms caches, which he was constantly moving and camouflaging to keep them from being destroyed or captured by the Russian Army. Some U.S. officials worried that Zaluzhnyi, like Zelensky, didn’t fully believe the U.S. intelligence. “Others were convinced he believed it, and had war plans on hand,” the military official said, “but wanted to keep them secret from Zelensky.”
Given Zelensky’s reluctance to put the country on a war footing, there was speculation that Zaluzhnyi may have been trying to avoid the possibility of being asked to scale down his preparations. If this was the case, the U.S. military official said, it’s possible that Zaluzhnyi didn’t want to share them with Milley because he was afraid that Milley would then brief the White House, which would in turn say something to Zelensky.
Even among longstanding allies, such as the NATO allies, it’s really hard to trust others with such sensitive details. There’s a reason Five Eyes exists.
Finally, in February, Zaluzhnyi agreed to share his plan for defending Ukraine. A defense attaché from the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, an Air Force colonel, was summoned to a meeting at the general-staff headquarters and shown a one-page sketch of Ukrainian positions and defensive schemes. She was not given a copy, and was permitted to take only handwritten notes. Even having stipulated these conditions, Zaluzhnyi was less than forthcoming. His subordinates showed the attaché a false version of the plan, masking the full scope of the defensive campaign.
That’s either simply dumb or a test to see how it would be handled. Regardless, clearly not helpful given what we know now.
Ultimately, Zaluzhnyi’s strategy was to prevent the capture of Kyiv at all costs, while, in other areas, letting Russian forces run ahead of their logistics and supply lines. The idea was to trade territory in the short term in order to pick off Russian units once they were overextended. “We trusted no one back then,” a senior Ukrainian military official said. “Our plan was our one tiny chance for success, and we did not want anyone at all to know it.”
Again, unhelpful in hindsight but perfectly understandable.
In the war’s early days, Biden told national-security officials at the White House and the Defense Department that the U.S. had three main policy interests in Ukraine. “One, we are not going to allow this to suck us into a war with Russia,” a senior Biden Administration official recalled. “Two, we need to make sure we can meet our Article 5 commitments with NATO.” (Prior to the invasion, the Biden Administration had sent several thousand additional soldiers to NATO member states in Eastern Europe and the Baltic region, to show that the U.S. military was prepared to defend them.) “And, three, we will do what we can to help Ukraine succeed on the battlefield,” the official continued. “The President was clear: we do not want to see Ukraine defeated.”
As noted previously in this post and much discussed here over the last few months, success begat confidence and greater investment.
From a bunker in Kyiv’s government quarter, Zelensky led a conference call with Ukrainian officials twice a day, at ten in the morning and ten at night, on the subject of arms supplies. The U.S., along with the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Poland, and the Baltic states, was sending anti-tank weapons, MANPADs, and small arms. But to the Ukrainians, who were suddenly in a fight for survival, these shipments seemed trivial. They wanted more powerful weaponry, including fighter jets, tanks, air defenses, and long-range artillery and rockets. “The deliveries were not so big, not like we would have liked to see,” Danilov said. “No one believed that we could hold out.”
Zelensky displayed tremendous courage by remaining in Kyiv. According to Reznikov, the country’s security services were tracking three Chechen hit squads sent to assassinate the Ukrainian President and other top politicians. Zelensky also proved an adept leader, projecting an air of defiance to promote cohesion at home and support internationally. Two days into the invasion, the Associated Press reported that Zelensky had rejected a U.S. offer to evacuate him from Kyiv, saying, “I need ammunition, not a ride.” A senior U.S. official said, “To the best of my knowledge, that never happened.” The official added, “But hats off to Zelensky and the people around him. It was a great line.”
Ukrainian forces managed to keep Russian transport planes from landing at the Hostomel airport. In the countryside around Kyiv, Russian armored convoys were stranded beyond the reach of their supply lines and became easy targets for ambushes and drone strikes. Washington’s fears about the country’s armed forces now seemed misplaced. “Obviously, it turned out they had a plan,” the U.S. military official said. “Because you don’t whip the Russians like that and expertly execute a mobile defense in depth without one.”
The Ukrainians benefitted from another factor that the U.S. had not considered: Russian hubris and disorganization. Putin had planned the invasion with a small circle of trusted advisers, who settled on a lightning-fast raid to overthrow Zelensky and his cabinet. Ukrainians were finding dress uniforms inside the Russian military vehicles that they captured—the invading forces had thought that within a matter of days they would be marching victorious down the streets of central Kyiv. Instead, they found themselves deep in Ukrainian territory without access to basic necessities like food and water. As the Defense Department official put it, “We presumed they had their shit together, but it turns out they didn’t.”
Ukraine’s early success changed attitudes in Washington. “The Ukrainians were putting up a good fight, which helped open the floodgates for a lot more military assistance,” the Defense Department official said. Even so, the Biden Administration did not give Kyiv everything it wanted. One wish list circulating around Washington said that Ukraine needed five hundred Javelin missiles per day; at the start of the war, the production of Javelins was only around two thousand per year. Other proposals aired in public by Zelensky and top Ukrainian officials, such as a no-fly zone maintained by NATO aircraft and air defenses, were non-starters. “Our interests highly overlap, but they are not identical,” the Defense official said. “When we say things like ‘That is escalatory and could draw NATO into the fight,’ they are, like, ‘Yeah, good. How could it get any worse for us? It’s already existential.’ Frankly, if I were them, I’d have the same view.”
There is, believe it or not, a whole lot more to the piece. It’s definitely worth a read.