The U.S. Role in Ukraine’s Success
It's much bigger than it appears.
In their report “Ukrainian Officials Drew on U.S. Intelligence to Plan Counteroffensive,” Julian E. Barnes and Helene Cooper of NYT detail the degree to which we’ve helped steer Kyiv’s success.
Senior Ukrainian officials stepped up intelligence sharing with their American counterparts over the summer as they began to plan the counteroffensive that allowed them to make dramatic gains in the northeast in recent days, a shift that allowed the United States to provide better and more relevant information about Russian weaknesses, according to American officials.
Throughout the war, the United States has provided Ukraine with information on command posts, ammunition depots and other key nodes in the Russian military lines. Such real-time intelligence has allowed the Ukrainians — who U.S. officials acknowledge have played the decisive role in planning and execution — to target Russian forces, kill senior generals and force ammunition supplies to be moved farther from the Russian front lines.
But earlier on, American intelligence officials said they often had a better understanding of Russia’s military plans than of Ukraine’s. Concerned that sharing their operational plans could highlight weaknesses and discourage continued American support, the Ukrainians were closely guarding their operational plans even as American intelligence was gathering precise details on what the Kremlin was ordering and Russian commanders were planning.
But as Ukraine laid its plans to strike back against the Russians, senior leaders in Kyiv decided that sharing more information with the United States would help secure more assistance, American officials said.
Senior U.S. officials declined to say how much details from the counteroffensive plan Ukraine had shared and how much advice the United States had offered. But one official said Americans had “constantly” discussed with Kyiv ways that Ukraine could blunt the Russian advance in the country’s east.
The gains in the northeast, including the recapture of Izium, a key railway hub, were the most important advances Ukraine has made so far, senior American officials said.
It is not yet clear how much broad strategic importance those gains will have, but there are signs that the current offensive could be the early stages of a drive that could push back the Russian front line significantly, military experts and former intelligence officials said.
As I’ve emphasized before, the Ukrainians themselves deserve all the credit for their success. They’ve risked everything and fought bravely. At the same time, it’s been obvious since the beginning that they’ve had world-class ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) that they themselves couldn’t bring to the table.
While President Biden rightly drew the line at direct kinetic involvement by U.S. forces, he’s been pretty much all-in otherwise in a way that, to put it mildly, a President Trump most certainly wouldn’t have. I think he’s genuinely outraged by Putin’s transgressions of the norms of the past century-plus in invading a sovereign state with an intent of conquest.* At the same time, he’s absolutely taking advantage of the situation to fight a de facto proxy war against the regime our National Defense Strategy proclaims as our number two adversary.
It’s perfectly understandable that President Zelensky was simultaneously happy to take whatever help we would offer yet wary of sharing too much of his strategy with us, given our mixed motivations. Clearly, though, we’ve built enough trust that he’s willing to help us help him. Whatever our shortcomings, we’re pretty good at operational planning.
“I have thought for several months that Ukraine was going to push Russia back to the 23 February lines by the end of the year,” said retired Lt. Gen. Frederick B. Hodges, a former top U.S. Army commander in Europe, referring to the eve of the Russian invasion. “I watch the Russian logistics, and it just looked to me that they cannot sustain this. Their morale and discipline and all their manpower issues — it’s just not sustainable for them to do what they were trying to do.”
General Hodges said the recent success indicated that Ukraine’s efforts to retake land in the south and east could unfold more quickly than he had previously assessed, even setting the stage for an attempt to retake Crimea next year. Other experts agreed that the tide might be turning for Ukraine.
“The Ukrainian military’s counteroffensive is moving faster and taking terrain even faster than expected,” said Mick Mulroy, a former Pentagon official and C.I.A. officer. “Now is the time for the Ukrainian army to exploit every opportunity they have to degrade and destroy the Russian capacity to fight.”
These folks have a lot of experience but I have no idea how much insight they have into current operations. Let us hope they’re right.
Current and former U.S. officials praised the sophistication of the Ukrainian preparations for the counteroffensive. The decision by Ukraine to tout its counteroffensive in the south before striking in the northeast is a standard technique for misdirection used by the American Special Operations troops, who have been training the Ukrainians since the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
“These guys have been trained for eight years by Special Ops,” said Evelyn Farkas, the top Pentagon official for Ukraine and Russia in the Obama administration. “They’ve been taught about irregular warfare. They’ve been taught by our intelligence operators about deception and psychological operations.”
Even though messaging around the push in the south may have been something of a feint, officials say that strike also has importance. Even small gains in the south will make it far more difficult for Russian forces to capture the port city of Odesa, a wartime goal of President Vladimir V. Putin.
My strong surmise—based on zero inside information—is that, in addition to years of being trained by our folks, their current planning is being done in concert with U.S. and NATO planners.
Nevertheless, current U.S. officials were reserved on Saturday, saying it was too early to determine whether the Ukrainian military could keep up its drive.
The offensive will strain the Ukrainians, who have suffered from shortages in supply, particularly artillery rounds. Their army, too, has taken tough casualties. Going on the offensive is harder and more difficult to maintain than a defense. Some American officials believe the more successful Ukraine is in the next few days, the more Russia will look for ways to strike back.
But the new offensive has demonstrated how the Russian forces have not been able to overcome the fundamental problems laid bare in the opening days of the conflict, American officials said.
The Russian military continues to struggle to get its secure communications to work and to solve its logistics problems. It has also not been able to ramp up its industrial base to meet the demands of the war, multiple officials said. Ukrainian air defenses still threaten Russian aircraft, hampering Moscow from using the full potential of its military.
In addition to underestimating Ukrainian resolve, I think we’ve all been surprised by how far their capabilities have come since the 2014 putsch of Crimea. And, again, while I think the Ukrainians themselves deserve the credit, it’s also true that they’ve had a lot of help. Help that, thanks to the nature of bureaucratic inertia, continued even during the four years of a President willing to sell them out.
Further, as The Intercept‘s Alice Speri notes, this is not only a bigger investment than most Americans realize but a long-term one.
Because the assistance is drawn from a variety of sources — and because it’s not always easy to distinguish between aid that’s been authorized, pledged, or delivered — some analysts estimate the true figure of the U.S. commitment to Ukraine is much higher: up to $40 billion in security assistance, or $110 million a day over the last year.
Analysts estimate that Ukraine, already the largest recipient of U.S. security assistance in Europe since 2014, is well on track to become the largest recipient of U.S. security assistance of the century altogether. From World War II Britain to South Vietnam, to the more recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. government has long conducted foreign policy by supporting, and in some cases building up from scratch, the military capabilities of its allies — often with mixed results.
There is little precedent for the breakneck pace and scale of U.S. spending on Ukraine. “It’s more than the peak it paid to Afghanistan by a long shot and many times more than aid to Israel,” William Hartung, director of the arms and security program at the Center for International Policy, told The Intercept. “And it’s somewhat unique that they’ve been arming a country where there are two nation states at war.”
The most recent U.S. military assistance announcements also marked a significant shift in the scope of the U.S. commitment to Ukraine. Earlier packages mostly involved the Defense Department drawing from preexisting stock to quickly equip Ukrainian forces in the face of urgent need — to the tune of $8.6 billion worth of equipment over the last year. The $675 million drawdown announced by Blinken this week marked the 20th time the administration invoked this authority to support Ukrainian defense. The $3 billion package announced by Biden last month, however, involves new contracts with defense manufacturers to produce equipment that will be delivered to Ukraine over months and years, in order to, according to officials, “build the enduring strength of their forces to ensure the continued freedom and independence of the Ukrainian people.”
In other words, as Under Secretary of Defense for Public Policy Colin Kahl put it, this aid is not intended to support Ukraine in “today’s fight” but “for years to come.”
Ukraine will almost certainly not become a member of NATO any time soon. But we’re very much treating it as though it were one.
*While there’s a strong argument that the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq was in violation of international law, it’s simply an entirely different animal than what’s going on here. First, Saddam Hussein was in long and repeated violation of multiple UN Security Council Resolutions. Second, we made it clear immediately after toppling Saddam’s regime that the Iraqi people were sovereign and went overboard to support a democratic Iraq and bolster its government. That we did it poorly and naively doesn’t change that fact.