American and Ukrainian military leaders are searching for a new strategy that they can begin executing early next year to revive Kyiv’s fortunes and flagging support for the country’s war against Russia, according to U.S. and Ukrainian officials.
The push for a fresh approach comes after Ukraine’s monthslong counteroffensive failed in its goal of retaking territory lost to the invading Russian army and after weeks of often tense encounters between top American officials and their Ukrainian counterparts.
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine arrived in Washington on Monday for hastily arranged meetings this week with President Biden and Congress to discuss the way forward. The two presidents will attempt to demonstrate solidarity and bolster support for Ukraine at a critical moment, both on the battlefield and on Capitol Hill.
Ukraine’s setbacks have come as Republican support for continuing American financial assistance for Kyiv has eroded. Even some senior U.S. officials have expressed worries that if the war falls into a long stalemate next year, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia will gain the advantage.
“We can’t let Putin win,” Mr. Biden said last week as he pressed Congress for a new round of funding for Ukraine. “It’s in our overwhelming national interest and international interest of all our friends. Any disruption in our ability to supply Ukraine clearly strengthens Putin’s position.”
The Russian military, after its own failed drive to Kyiv in 2022, has begun to reverse its fortunes and is rebuilding its might. Moscow now has more troops, ammunition and missiles, and has increased its firepower advantage with a fleet of battlefield drones, many of them supplied by Iran, according to American officials.
The United States is stepping up the face-to-face military advice it provides to Ukraine, dispatching a three-star general to Kyiv to spend considerable time on the ground. U.S. and Ukrainian military officers say they hope to work out the details of a new strategy next month in a series of war games scheduled to be held in Wiesbaden, Germany.
The Americans are pushing for a conservative strategy that focuses on holding the territory Ukraine has, digging in and building up supplies and forces over the course of the year. The Ukrainians want to go on the attack, either on the ground or with long-range strikes, with the hopes of seizing the world’s attention.
The stakes are huge. Without both a new strategy and additional funding, American officials say Ukraine could lose the war. Administration officials argue that Mr. Putin is betting on diminished American support, pointing to his recent statements that if Ukraine runs out of NATO-provided ammunition, Russia would prevail in days.
The United States has given vast military and economic support to Ukraine, more than $111 billion over the past two years. But a significant number of Republicans now say they oppose further spending, and others are demanding to see a new strategy before they vote for any additional funds.
Many Ukrainian leaders do not realize how precarious continued U.S. funding for the war is, American officials said. These Ukrainian generals and senior civilian officials have unrealistic expectations about what the United States will supply, they said. They are asking for millions of rounds of artillery, for example, from Western stockpiles that do not exist.
American officials say Ukraine will have to fight on a tighter budget.
Some in the U.S. military want Ukraine to pursue a “hold and build” strategy — to focus on holding the territory it has and building its ability to produce weapons over 2024. The United States believes the strategy will improve Ukraine’s self-sufficiency and ensure Kyiv is in a position to repel any new Russian drive.
The goal would be to create enough of a credible threat that Russia might consider engaging in meaningful negotiations at the end of next year or in 2025.
At the same time, Ukrainian officials are examining strategies that build on their successful deep strikes on Crimea last fall. They are searching for creative ways to keep Russia off balance with attacks against arms factories, weapons depots and train lines for moving munitions, and to score symbolic victories. One Ukrainian former senior military official declined to discuss the proposals but said the new plan is being refined and is “very daring.”
American officials say that without a change in strategy, 2024 could be akin to 1916, the deadliest year of World War I, when thousands of young men lost their lives and battle lines changed very little.
Ukrainian hospitals are already filled with injured soldiers. Ambulances moved back and forth from the front throughout this year’s counteroffensive. Ukraine has not released official numbers of its war dead, but the losses, officials concede, have been steep.
The 2023 counteroffensive was built around remaking Ukraine’s army in the image of America’s. It was, critics said, the approach the United States had tried in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, largely unsuccessfully.
But there are some signs of compromise. Senior American officials said they are open to some of Ukraine’s new ideas. U.S. officials said that Ukraine’s deep strikes into Crimea this fall proved deadly to Russia and were a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing counteroffensive. American strategists believe the Ukrainians can build on that success next year, even if much of their energy is spent on rebuilding their forces.
Gen. Christopher G. Cavoli, the top American commander in Europe, has been taking a bigger role in coordinating with Ukrainian officials.
The Pentagon has also decided to dispatch Lt. Gen. Antonio A. Aguto Jr., who commands the support of Ukraine from a base in Germany, to spend lengthy periods of time in Kyiv. General Aguto will work more directly with the country’s military leadership to improve the advice the United States is offering, American officials said. While the White House has opted not to have U.S. military advisers in the country permanently, General Aguto’s frequent rotations in and out of Kyiv would inch toward the end of that restriction.
The battle of Robotyne encapsulates the dashed hopes of Ukraine’s counteroffensive.
By August, the U.S.-trained mechanized forces approached the small village, after fighting for months to move just several miles to its outskirts. By the end of the month, Ukrainian officials claimed they had recaptured the hamlet, about 50 miles from Ukraine’s southern coast.
U.S. and Ukrainian officials said the victory was small but significant, a step toward cutting through Russian lines and pushing to the Black Sea, splitting the Kremlin’s supply routes.
In Washington, U.S. officials said the Ukrainians had almost broken through the first layer of Russian defenses and would push on in an assault meant to test the strength of the other defensive layers.
But Russia’s defenses proved far stronger than the United States had assessed. And rather than a victory, Robotyne turned into a bloody slog.
The 47th Brigade, one of nine trained by the United States, took huge losses: scores of soldiers hurt or killed. Their Bradley fighting vehicles, and other units’ Stryker armored personnel carriers and German Leopard tanks, were destroyed. Videos posted on social media highlighted smoldering wreckage and mounting Ukrainian casualties.
The town itself was in ruins: Satellite footage taken over the summer shows a moonscape of craters.
As winter approaches, Ukrainian forces are still pinned down on Robotyne’s outskirts, with little hope they can break through the next line of Russian defenses anytime soon.
The United States and its allies spent millions to send tanks and other armored vehicles to Ukraine and to train newly formed units on advanced military tactics. But despite Ukraine’s push through the summer and into the fall, Russian forces have largely held on to the nearly 20 percent of the country they hold.
For three months, U.S. and allied military personnel trained the nine brigades, 36,000 Ukrainian troops, in the basics of maneuver warfare. The theory, advanced by American strategists, was that only a heavy force could punch through hardened Russian lines and retake Ukraine’s southeastern coastline.
But while the United States taught Ukraine how to use the weaponry, the Russians dug in and prepared for the coming fight.
U.S. and Ukrainian strategists did not initially realize how much more Russians were strengthening their defenses. Ukrainian troops training in Germany practiced breaking through defenses far less strong than what they would eventually face.
The deep Russian defenses included more formidable minefields than seen anytime since the Korean War, an old technology that slowed and then stopped the advancing Ukrainian Army. But it was also Russia’s use of a variety of drones, including Chinese-made commercial drones, that fundamentally changed the nature of mechanized maneuver warfare.
In the past, breakthroughs along the front line could be exploited, allowing advancing forces to gain an advantage before their enemy could respond. Now, with the battlefield under observation almost constantly, it is difficult for either side to capitalize without being detected and stopped with either artillery or a counterattack.
Russian drones were able to cut communications between frontline troops and Ukraine’s command post. Other drones were used to spot Ukraine’s mine-sweeping teams, allowing Russia to send attack helicopters to strike them.
Compounding Ukraine’s problems were sharp disagreements with U.S. generals on how and where to employ the new mechanized forces. Ukrainian officials, including Mr. Zelensky, concluded that the eastern part of the country was the most important theater as Russian forces focused their efforts there.
Washington saw Ukraine’s east, including the Donbas region, as strategically less important than the occupied southern coastline.
Americans wanted the Ukrainians to focus on the south, to break or threaten Moscow’s hold on the strip of Ukrainian land between Crimea and the Russian border. Ukraine’s command believed those defenses were just too stiff to penetrate, and that pushing through the land mines there would lead to immense casualties.
As a result, Ukraine kept its forces divided between the east and south, refusing to commit to one main avenue of attack. And instead of a decisive breakthrough, a grinding stalemate developed.
Ukrainian military leaders have said they believe the American expectations were unrealistic, especially given the fact they had no air power with which to protect their ground units.
“There are a lot of reasons why the counteroffensive failed, but the Ukrainian critique has some truth to it,” said Eric Ciaramella, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “There was kind of a collective expectation inflation.”
The 2023 campaign was not a complete failure. U.S. officials point to Ukraine’s successful and damaging attacks on Russia’s Black Sea fleet and military command posts in Crimea.
It was, some officials said, a major naval victory by a country without a navy.
Longer-range British Storm Shadow missiles significantly damaged targets in Crimea. On Sept. 22, a hail of Storm Shadow missiles struck the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol. Days later, Russia withdrew the fleet from Crimea.
The operations allowed Ukraine to export grain from Odesa and kept some shipping lanes open, a critical victory, but they changed little in the overall course of the war and did not allow Ukraine to retake any territory.
At U.S. Army Europe headquarters in Wiesbaden, Germany, senior American military leaders, including General Cavoli and General Aguto, met with two top Ukrainian officials last week to discuss the broad strokes of the strategy in the next year.
Neither U.S. nor Ukrainian officials would disclose details of the conversations or of the new plan. But whatever the final agreement, changing the dynamic is critical. The longer the war is perceived to be a stalemate, the harder it will be to secure additional American funding, analysts said.
“I don’t think it’s overstating it to highlight how important the U.S. assistance is,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a scholar at the Center for a New American Security. “If the assistance doesn’t continue, then this war takes on a radically different nature moving forward.”
Ukraine does not need to claw back all of the nearly 20 percent of the country it has lost to win the war, American officials say.
Scoring some strategic and symbolic victories, while strengthening their defenses and building up their own abilities to produce more weaponry, could be enough to strengthen Ukraine’s hand when calls for peace talks to end the war inevitably restart.
American officials are trying to prepare the Ukrainians for next year, telling them that whatever aid Congress approves is not likely to match the kind of funding that Washington provided in the first two years of the war.
“They have to fight smartly and efficiently,” said Michael Kofman, a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who recently visited Ukraine. “If Ukraine and the West make the right investments in pursuit of a long-term strategy, then Ukraine may retake the advantage.”
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