Biden’s ‘escalation’ paralysis on winning the Ukraine war

Escalation paralysis continues to inhibit the Biden administration’s willingness to squarely get behind Ukraine and help it to win the war against Russia. It is as though the Pentagon’s Russian military capabilities intelligence assessment has not changed since Feb. 24, 2022, despite 14 months of devastating Russian setbacks on the battlefield, including substantial losses in personnel and equipment, dismal battlefield performances, and most significantly, loss of experience. Inexplicably, the Kremlin’s conventional military, in the eyes of Washington, is still the towering Cold War bogeyman that must be contained but not dared to be defeated.

One possible explanation for not green-lighting Ukraine to win would be concern for a post-Vladimir Putin Russia — the likelihood that a civil war potentially could tear the Russian Federation apart and destabilize global markets, as competing factions fight to secure Russian natural resources and their nuclear arsenal.

Yet, Biden’s alternative “just enough” calculus is predicated on Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky coming to the negotiating table. Neither is likely to do so. Net result? Transitioning of the war into what Biden told the American public he would not get the country into: a “forever war,” and a bottomless money pit.

It is past time someone in the Pentagon, Foggy Bottom or the White House arrive at the conclusion that Ukraine can and must win this war. If enabled, Kyiv is remarkably on the cusp of fulfilling NATO’s defining founding principle by itself — defending Western Europe from Russian aggression. Unfathomable one year ago, Ukraine now has the opportunity to defeat Russian ground forces and expel them from their country, and possibly topple Putin’s regime in the process. 

Taking the winning shot never seemed more obvious than now. Yet, maddeningly, Biden appears to be surrounded by “Doubting Thomases.” The same crowd that “doubted” Kyiv could survive 72 hours in February 2022, including Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Even more troubling, based on the Pentagon documents purportedly leaked by a 21-year-old Air National Guardsman, Biden’s naysayers now appear more concerned about Ukraine winning, and may be slow-rolling offensive weapons systems and an end-state to the war to avoid Putin’s losing and, possibly, the Russian Federation burning out of control

Biden’s White House appears gripped by a “Ukraine can win, but they must not win” looping mentality. Therein lies the crux. What are we to make of Ukraine’s looming springtime counteroffensive? Washington’s goal — and thereby the Pentagon’s restrictions — might well be for the end of Putin in Ukraine, but not the end of Putin in Russia.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s recent tepid characterization of it, while testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, was not exactly the inspiring Knute Rockne speech Ukraine yearned to hear as they are preparing to forcibly evict the Russian army from their territory. Austin said, “Ukraine has a very good chance of launching a successful counteroffensive.” While Austin spoke in terms of Ukrainian “advances,” he failed to define those advances in the context of winning the war, nor in the context of repatriating all of Ukraine’s territory, including Crimea. 

If the substance of the leaked documents is true, we now know why. According to those leaks, Austin’s Pentagon purportedly believes that “Ukraine’s challenges in massing troops, ammunition and equipment could cause its military to fall well short of Kyiv’s original goals for an anticipated counteroffensive aimed at retaking Russian-occupied areas this spring.” If so, Austin’s public assessment seems hypocritical at best.

The leaks also appear to generally fall in line with Milley’s bleak comments in January. Speaking at the U.S. Ramstein Air Base in Germany, he asserted, “From a military standpoint, I still maintain that for this year it would be very, very difficult to militarily eject the Russian forces from … every inch of Russian-occupied Ukraine.” If they do, the question then is why. Are Ukraine’s potential “difficulties” by Washington’s design, due to Biden’s weapons and ammunition-range restrictions, to nudge Kyiv to the negotiating table? Or is it because the Pentagon failed to adequately plan for a protracted war in Ukraine?

It is likely the latter. Milley hinted as much when he said it was “very possible … for the Ukrainians to run a significant tactical [or] even operational-level offensive operation to liberate as much Ukrainian territory as possible.” Washington, in this vein, keeps playing for a negotiated end-state to the war, despite Zelensky repeatedly saying no — especially with respect to Crimea. 

All this suggests the U.S. continues to overestimate the Russian army’s capabilities and underestimates those of Ukraine — especially Zelensky’s resolve to retake Crimea. By following the path of least resistance, the U.S. is giving Putin time to regroup and live to fight another day. Biden’s calculus also fails to recognize that Putin is in this war to win, as evidenced by his surprise visit sometime this past week to the Russian-occupied Kherson Oblast.

The Kremlin is fortifying defensive positions and erecting obstacles in Crimea. Washington’s paralysis is allowing the Russian army and the Wagner Group’s paramilitary forces to continue “meat grinder” assaults in Bakhmut, exhausting Ukrainian ammunition supplies and degrading weapon systems. Thus, the Biden administration’s playing for a stalemate is only affording Putin and his generals time to build combat power, activate mobilized reservists and conscripts, and keep filling the trenches. 

Launching a successful counteroffensive and winning the war are not the same. Taking Crimea would be — as retired Army Lt . Gen. Ben Hodges, the former commander, U.S. Army Europe, repeatedly has stated. Denying Ukraine the weapons they need to liberate Crimea only contributes to Milley’s prophecy that it is “unlikely that Ukraine will score a decisive victory over Russia.”

It is time to put aside the escalation paralysis. Yes, Putin retains a nuclear-capable arsenal; however, conventionally, his military is running on empty. The Kremlin can ill afford to escalate to a nuclear standoff that Moscow cannot win.

To win, Ukraine needs the precision deep-strike capabilities that ATACMS and F16s afford that are necessary to make the Crimean Peninsula “untenable” and eventually “winnable.” Condition setting, interdicting troop formations and supplies, striking military headquarters, airfields, and ballistic missile/drone launch sites are all critical to liberating Crimea and winning the war.

Austin and Milley, both Ranger qualified, would be well-served to remember the fifth stanza of the U.S. Army Ranger Creed, which emphatically captures the Ukrainian soldier’s resolve: “Energetically will I meet the enemies of my country. I shall defeat them on the field of battle for I am better trained and will fight with all my might.” Against overwhelming odds, they have “shocked the world.” We expect that from the U.S. Army soldier; why not support that attribute to the fullest extent when demonstrated by the Ukrainian soldier?  

Zelensky’s forces are a capable military. The once vaunted Russian military has lost a step and is vulnerable. Superior Ukrainian weapons systems and “shock-and-awe” tactics, combined with precise intelligence, surprise, speed and proper battlefield condition-setting can and will conquer Russian force ratios and defensive fortifications — if only Washington overcomes its self-inflicted paralysis. 

Jonathan Sweet, a retired Army colonel, served 30 years as a military intelligence officer. His background includes tours of duty with the 101st Airborne Division and the Intelligence and Security Command. He led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012-14, working with NATO partners in the Black Sea and Baltics. Follow him on Twitter @JESweet2022.  

Mark Toth is a retired economist and entrepreneur who has worked in banking, insurance, publishing, and global commerce. He is a former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis, and has lived in U.S. diplomatic and military communities around the world, including London, Tel Aviv, Augsburg, and Nagoya. Follow him on Twitter @MCTothSTL.

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.