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Ukrainian troops retreat from Severodonetsk city in the eastern Luhansk Oblast after weeks of fighting.
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The situation on the ground in the Donbas “is reminiscent of Verdun,” says Brown University visiting professor Lyle Goldstein. The casualty estimates that have come out of Kiev in recent weeks, which have 700 Ukrainian soldiers wounded or dead each day, are, says Goldstein, “probably in the realm of accurate.”
Low morale and command dysfunction are coupled with what is said to be an overwhelming disadvantage in artillery ammunition, and quickly evaporating stocks of Soviet-era weaponry are creating an “unsustainable situation” for the Ukrainian forces holding on in the Donbas.
The deteriorating situation in eastern Ukraine has caught the attention of Washington. Over the past week, reports have surfaced that might be taken as signs that Washington is planning to cut bait and perhaps drive its client, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, to the negotiating table.
On June 8, The New York Times quoted former Central Intelligence Agency official Beth Sanner as expressing frustration with the lack of candor about the actual situation on the ground coming out of Kiev. This was followed by a Newsweek report that President Joe Biden himself, speaking at a fundraiser in Los Angeles, seemed to be backing away from his full-throated support for the Ukrainian leader.
Biden reportedly said that in the run-up to the February 24 invasion,” I know a lot of people thought I was maybe exaggerating and Zelensky didn’t want to hear it.”
Yet former high-ranking US intelligence officials I spoke to this week cautioned against reading too much into these reports.
Christopher Chivvis, who served as national intelligence officer for Europe from 2018 to 2021, tells me that the Biden administration is unlikely to change its approach to Ukraine in the near term, “especially on deferring to Ukraine on war aims and how far they want to push – as long as they don’t hit targets inside Russia.”
Other than that “there are almost no caveats on Ukraine,” says Chivvis, “especially in light of the pressure the administration is under from the expert community here in Washington, which remains extremely hawkish and is lobbying hard for the administration not to put pressure on Zelensky.”
Paul Pillar, who served as national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia during the George W Bush administration, tells me, “None of us who are not privy to information that is currently flowing through classified government channels (and that includes those of us who are former intelligence officers) should be very confident about what is or is not known in those channels about the Ukraine side of the war.”
Pillar says he “suspects that US intelligence agencies and especially DIA [the Defense Intelligence Agency] have a better handle on this than one might suspect from the comments in the June 8 New York Times story.”
Pillar, like Chivvis, sees few indications that the Biden administration is planning on changing course any time soon. That gap between what the Ukrainian leadership is claiming to be happening on the ground and the reality is not so large, according to Pillar, that it “will have much effect on the US administration’s policy decisions.”
“Most of the status of the war and the Ukrainian war effort is an open book. The range of uncertainty involved is between Ukraine suffering heavy losses or very heavy losses, and between Ukraine holding on in the east or barely holding on in the east. US policy decisions are unlikely to hinge on exactly where along those dimensions the detailed truth lies,” Pillar said.
Chivvis also noted that “it can be difficult to get information at any level of precision but it is crucial for the Ukrainians to maintain Western support and send a message they are winning. So it was significant for them to admit that their losses are as big as they are.”
So where are we now? Goldstein, who is also a scholar at the realist think-tank Defense Priorities, tells me that in his view “the propaganda is now running aground on the shoals of stark reality.”
“My interpretation is that Ukraine won Phase 1. Russia is now winning Phase 2. But we don’t know how Phases 3 and 4 will turn out,” Goldstein says. Part of the rude awakening of which the New York Times and Newsweek stories were manifestations has to do perhaps with a misunderstanding of what really happened during Phase 1, in which the Russian advance on Kiev was repelled.
Chivvis, now director of the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment, tells me that Phase 1, in addition to being a story of Ukrainian courage and determination, was “also a story of poor Russian performance. It was less evidence of Ukrainian fighting prowess than it was of Russian mistakes.”
Right now, says Goldstein, “Ukraine faces the possibility of defeat across the board. Their best forces were in Donbas and Mariupol. It will be interesting to see if Russia tries again for Kharkiv. I would be surprised to see the Russian army stop at the Donbas and say ‘we’re done.’”