Biden's Catch-22 in Ukraine

commentary

May 20, 2024

Ukrainian servicemen of the 21st Separate Mechanized Brigade fire a Leopard 2A6 tank during a military exercise near a front line in Donetsk region, Ukraine, May 12, 2024, photo by Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

Ukrainian servicemen fire a Leopard 2A6 tank during a military exercise near a front line in Donetsk region, Ukraine, May 12, 2024

Photo by Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on Foreign Policy on May 17, 2024.

On April 24, Ukraine and its supporters around the world breathed a sigh of relief when U.S. President Joe Biden signed a long-awaited foreign aid bill that provides more than $60 billion in aid to Ukraine. While the bill was ensnared for months in Washington politics, Ukraine's position on the battlefield was looking increasingly precarious, with its forces literally running out of ammunition as Russia was expected to launch a new offensive. The situation prompted a growing drumbeat of bleak assessments from senior security officials. “The side that can't shoot back loses,” NATO Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Christopher Cavoli warned. Internal White House assessments were even bleaker. Even the normally upbeat Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, predicted that Ukraine “will lose the war” without additional American support. With the aid, Ukraine now has a fighting chance.

Unfortunately, Ukraine's challenges go beyond mere resources. The recent fight over the aid package strikes at the heart of the strategic paradox plaguing Biden's strategy toward Ukraine. On the one hand, Biden has pledged that “our commitment to Ukraine will not weaken” and that U.S. support will be there “for as long as it takes.” At the same time, however, the Biden administration has been steadfastly concerned about escalation and the prospect of a direct confrontation with a nuclear-armed Russia. Judged independently, both are laudable goals—but put together, these objectives are increasingly working at cross purposes. Ultimately, Biden's balancing will become untenable.

Undergirding the Biden administration's Ukraine strategy was the idea that, at its core, Kyiv—backed by the collective might of the West—had time on its side. After Ukraine beat back the initial Russian invasion, this appeared to be true. Ukraine had fully mobilized its society to fight the war from the start, whereas Russia—at least initially—had not. Russian casualties were significant, mounting, and almost certainly higher than the Kremlin had anticipated. Hundreds of thousands of Russians were fleeing the country. And that was before Russia felt the bite of economic sanctions, hailed at the time as the “most impactful, coordinated, and wide-ranging economic restrictions in history.” With the situation seeming to favor Ukraine, the Biden administration believed that Kyiv could afford the precautions imposed by Washington in the name of escalation management—including restricting the types of weapons Ukraine received and the targets it was allowed to strike.

Ukraine's strategic position is becoming progressively more perilous.

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Fast-forward two years, and the assumption that time would favor Ukraine looks increasingly doubtful. As Cavoli recently testified, Russia is reconstituting its military “far faster than initial estimates suggested,” and its military is now larger than before the war. Despite the sanctions, the Russian economy posted modest growth in 2023 and is on track to do so again this year. And while Russia has lost tens of thousands of soldiers and seen hundreds of thousands injured, the casualties have not translated into unrest in Russia or visibly shaken the Putin regime.

On the other side of the equation, Ukraine's strategic position is becoming progressively more perilous. Starved of weapons and ammunition, Ukraine has been forced to cede ground on the battlefront—with Russia making its most significant advances since July 2022 and supposedly gearing up for a summer offensive. Even though U.S. weapons are now flowing again, it will take time for them to make their way to the front.

All the while, Ukraine is bleeding out. Although estimates differ widely, they all place the number of Ukrainians killed in the tens of thousands. The figures are especially significant given Ukraine's smaller population compared to Russia's. In fact, Ukraine recently had to lower its draft age, from 27 to 25, to replenish its ranks. In and of itself, that's neither catastrophic nor unusual. The United States used to draft men at even younger ages and still requires men aged 18 to 25 to register for potential military service. Still, Ukraine's change in its draft policy is a sign that the country is under increasing strain.

Perhaps even more pressing than the military situation are the political dynamics of the war. A year and a half ago, we wrote that the United States had more patience to back Ukraine than many commentators then believed. The fact that House Speaker Mike Johnson, a former Ukraine skeptic, put his job on the line to finally pass the aid bill reaffirms this point.

Nonetheless, there is no denying that any future Ukraine aid faces significant headwinds. In Gallup polling, Americans today are evenly split between those who believe the United States is doing too little to help Ukraine and those who think it is doing too much. Support for Ukraine aid among Democrats has risen sharply since the last such poll in the fall, whereas Republican support has lagged behind, so that future Ukraine aid may depend on who wins in the U.S. elections.

Ukraine also has fewer opportunities to reverse the strategic narrative. With another war in the Middle East and an upcoming U.S. presidential election, Ukraine does not attract the same level of media attention it once did. Whereas Ukraine sinking another ship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet or striking another Russian fuel depot used to make headline news, those same actions get less attention in major Western outlets today. Similarly, the American public does not seem as enthralled by Zelensky's speeches as it once did. All this means that if trends continue, the political fight over the next tranche of Ukraine aid—whenever that may be—may be even more intense than the past one.

Not all the news is bad. European support remains robust and has been steadily rising. Some countries—including France and Lithuania—have even signaled an openness to committing ground forces to the conflict, whereas others—such as Britain and Norway—are much more willing than the United States to let Ukraine strike targets in Russia. And $60 billion still gives Ukraine a lot of weapons, and with them, a lot of strategic time. Even former U.S. President Donald Trump's opposition to Ukraine aid has seemingly softened a little, potentially giving some room for Ukraine to regain some Republican support. In other words, Ukraine still has some strategic room to maneuver, but it will need to fight differently if it hopes to reverse this slow decline.

Ukraine can no longer afford to simply wait the Russians out. It will, instead, need to go on the offensive—and that involves some degree of escalation risk.

First, Ukraine will need to strike deeper inside Russia proper, for two reasons. Current reporting shows that Russia relies on its internal railway network to support its occupied portions of Ukraine. If Ukraine wants to impede Russian logistical networks, and by extension forestall further Russian advances, it needs to hit these hubs. The other reason is trickier. Even with all the air defenses that the United States, Germany, and others have provided Ukraine over the last two years, it is still far from having sufficient capacity to cover its vast size and intercept everything Russia throws its way. Instead of intercepting arrows, Ukraine needs the ability to shoot the archer—in other words, rather than just trying to intercept missiles and drones in flight, it needs to target Russian air bases, bombers, and missile launchers. That, in turn, means striking Russia.

Britain has already taken a step in this direction by allowing Ukraine to use British-supplied Storm Shadow cruise missiles to hit Russian territory. Now it's time for the United States to follow Britain's lead and give the same kind of permission to use the longer-range version of the U.S. Army Tactical Missile System (or ATACMS) to strike Russian operational support targets inside Russia.

Ukraine will also need some kind of air-power capability if it wants to succeed in a ground counteroffensive at some point in the future and evict Russian forces from its country. Russian air power—particularly its attack helicopters and drones—was one of the key reasons Ukraine's 2023 counteroffensive petered out. And in contrast to the considerable damage to Russia's ground forces and Black Sea Fleet, the Russian Air Force has lost only about 10 percent of its aircraft. Consequently, Ukraine needs not only air defense, but also its own air power to neutralize Russian air power, strike Russian bases, and stop Russian armor.

The F-16 fighter aircraft that some U.S. allies in Europe will be sending to Ukraine—after some initial reluctance from the Biden administration—will help in this regard, especially if they are equipped with the right munitions to target Russian forces and supported by sufficient maintenance capability to keep them in the air. Even so, as the commander of the U.S. Air Force in Europe, Gen. James Hecker, has noted, the F-16s are older aircraft that normally require years of training to master. They are unlikely to be a silver bullet for Ukrainian air power.

For Ukraine to get the air-power capability it needs, it will likely need a broader suite of capabilities, including higher-flying, sophisticated drones and electronic warfare capabilities from either ground or air-based platforms. This combination provides a way to create pulses of Ukrainian air superiority, in a given area, over Russian air and ground forces.

Finally, Ukraine will need to take more operational risk if and when it launches a counteroffensive. The long-range strikes against Russian military targets in Russia proper, combined with a pulsed air-power capability, can set the conditions for a ground counteroffensive to succeed. But the Ukrainians will need to accept operational risk and face a likely possibility that the initial days or weeks of this counteroffensive will cost them heavily in casualties and materiel in order to create the kind of operational breakthrough that might shatter Russian defensive lines.

The Ukraine war may look particularly grim at the moment, but the conflict's outcome is far from preordained. If Ukraine is to regain the operational momentum it has lost, it will need more equipment and munitions. Thanks to the most recent aid packages, Ukraine now has the resources to get them.

But more importantly, Ukraine and its Western backers will also need to change their overall approach. Ukraine can no longer afford to simply wait the Russians out, refrain from striking military and logistical targets inside Russia, and hope that the artillery duels in eastern Ukraine will eventually turn in their favor. It will, instead, need to go on the offensive—and that involves some degree of escalation risk. That's an easier sell for Ukraine, given that its very existence is on the line.

For the Biden administration, though, accepting such risk will mean abandoning a pillar of its strategy for the past two years, choosing a single path, and accepting the potentially escalatory consequences that might follow. That's a tough choice. Not choosing, however, may be even riskier.


Raphael S. Cohen is the director of the Strategy and Doctrine Program, RAND Project Air Force. Gian Gentile is the deputy director of the RAND Army Research Division.