Biden officials privately doubt Ukraine can reclaim all of its territory


A congressional aide familiar with the deliberations told CNN that a small Ukrainian state was not inevitable. “Ukraine’s ability to retake these territories largely, if not entirely, depends on our support for them,” the aide said. He noted that Ukraine had officially requested a minimum of 48 multiple rocket launcher systems from the United States, but so far the Pentagon had only promised eight.

The growing pessimism comes as Biden meets with US allies in Europe, where he will try to convey strength and optimism about the war’s trajectory as he rallies leaders to remain committed to arming and supporting Ukraine. in the midst of brutal struggle.

“We have to stick together. Putin was counting from the start that NATO and the G7 would somehow break up, but we haven’t and we’re not going to.” , Biden said Sunday at the G7 summit in Bavaria. Alps.

The administration last week announced an additional $450 million in security assistance to Ukraine, including additional rocket launchers, artillery munitions and patrol boats. The United States is also expected to announce as early as this week that it has purchased an advanced surface-to-air missile defense system, called NASAMS, for Ukrainian forces. Biden indicated in an op-ed earlier this month that he was determined to help Ukraine gain the upper hand on the battlefield so that it would have leverage in negotiations with Russia.

The mood has changed in recent weeks, however, as Ukraine has struggled to repel Russian advances in the Donbass and suffered staggering troop casualties, reaching as many as 100 troops a day. Ukrainian forces are also burning their equipment and ammunition faster than the West can supply them and training them on new weapons systems to NATO standards.

A US military official and a source familiar with Western intelligence agreed that Ukraine was unlikely to be able to muster the force needed to reclaim all of the territory lost to Russia in the fighting – especially this year, as Zelensky said on Monday. objective. A substantial counter-offensive might be possible with more weapons and training, the sources said, but Russia might also have the chance to replenish its forces then, so there are no guarantees.

“A lot depends on Ukraine’s ability to retake territory at least to the February 23 lines,” said Michael Kofman, a Russian military expert at the Center for Naval Analysis. “The prospect is there, but it’s contingent. If Ukraine can get that far, then they can probably take the rest. But if they can’t, they may have to reconsider the best way to achieve victory. .”

Russian forces gain ground

Russian forces now control more than half of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, Pavlo Kyrylenko, head of the Donetsk region’s military administration, said Thursday. On Friday, Ukrainian forces withdrew from the key eastern town of Severodonetsk after weeks of bloody fighting.

Last week, Russian forces also captured ground around Lysychansk, the last town in the eastern Luhansk region still controlled by Ukraine. Ukrainian military commanders are now grappling with the reality that they may have to withdraw from the region to defend territory further west.

Meanwhile, Russian oil revenues have only increased as oil prices soared, even amid harsh Western sanctions. US officials said on Monday that the United States and its allies will try to cap the price of oil so Russia no longer benefits, but it remains to be seen how and when that cap will take effect.

Internally, some in the Biden administration feel that Zelensky will have to start to moderate expectations about what Ukrainian forces can realistically achieve. Zelensky said late last month that he “would consider it a victory for our state, starting today, to advance to the February 24 line without unnecessary losses.”

He reiterated that goal last week.

“We have no choice but to move forward – to act to liberate all our territories,” he said in a Telegram post. “We must expel the invaders from the Ukrainian regions. Although the width of the front lines exceeds 2,500 km, we believe that we hold the strategic initiative.”

And on Monday, he set a timetable: he wants the war to be over and Ukraine to win, by the end of 2022, he told G7 leaders.

Russia is also suffering heavy combat losses, losing up to a third of its ground forces in four months of war, US intelligence officials estimate. Officials have also publicly stated that Russia will struggle to make serious gains further west, using the Donbass region as a staging ground, without a full mobilization of its reserve forces.

But Russia believes it can keep the fight going, draining Ukrainian and Western resolve as the global economic effects of the war grow more severe, officials told CNN.

Soviet-era gun hunting

As CNN has previously reported, Russia is particularly looking to exploit the gap between the amount of Soviet-style munitions Ukraine and its allies have in their stockpiles, and how long it will take the West to provide Ukraine with modern NATO-compliant weapons and ammunition that require time-consuming training.

A senior defense official admitted to CNN that Soviet-era stockpiles are “dwindling”, but have not yet reached “bottom”. The official said some Eastern European countries still had more to provide, but only if they continued to be replaced by allies with more modern equipment.

The United States and its allies, meanwhile, have searched the world for the kind of Soviet-era ammunition that matches the equipment Ukraine already has, including 152mm artillery ammunition. NATO standard weapons fire larger 155mm shells. But another U.S. defense official told CNN the effort was indeed coming to an end, with almost everything countries willing to provide already available.

Considering the prodigious speed at which the Ukrainians used up their old ammunition during the deadly artillery fight in the Donbass, the official said: “The weapons of the Soviet era are being erased from the earth” .

CNN’s Katie Bo Lillis contributed to this report.

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