U.S. expects months of intense fighting in Ukraine-Russia war

A Ukrainian serviceman sits inside a tank at a position near a frontline, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Donetsk region, Ukraine on Friday.

Despite Ukrainian forces’ startling gains in the war against Russia, the Biden administration anticipates months of intense fighting with wins and losses for each side, spurring U.S. plans for an open-ended campaign with no prospect for a negotiated end in sight.

The surprise success by Ukrainian forces in areas of the country occupied by Russian troops during the weekend generated euphoria among Ukrainians sapped by months of fighting. It also fueled hopes among many of Kyiv’s foreign backers that its scrappy military might be able to expel Russia’s larger, better-armed force.

President Volodymyr Zelensky, raising his country’s blue-and-yellow flag Wednesday over the liberated city of Izyum, promised it would be “definitely impossible to occupy our people, the Ukrainian people.”

Officials in Kyiv said forces recaptured some 3,000 square kilometers in the Kherson and Kharkiv regions. Meanwhile, Russia’s Defense Ministry described its forces’ disorderly withdrawal as a tactical “regroup.”

U.S. officials, providing a quiet check to Ukrainian exuberance, said that while Ukraine troops have performed better in offensive operations than even their American backers had anticipated, those forces will encounter a period of intense fighting in the lead-up to winter as part of what they expect to be a “nonlinear” trajectory for the war.

A senior State Department official, who like other officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning, said Thursday that while Ukrainian forces had proven they can reverse advances made by Russia following President Vladimir Putin’s Feb. 24 invasion, Russia retained a potent force.

“They have significant equipment and arms and munitions positioned in the occupied territories, not to mention what they have in Russia,” the official said. “And so it is far from over, despite the momentum.”

Those expectations undergird a U.S. strategy of attempting to hold together international support and gradually expanding American military aid without the immediate injection of heavier weaponry that might trigger a wider war.

The advances in Izyum and other areas – which allowed shellshocked local residents to venture out of their homes, sharing stories of occupation and abuse – were all the more rousing following Ukrainian setbacks, including the withdrawal from the city of Lysychansk in July. After the weekend advances around Kherson, Russia hit electricity plants and other infrastructure, illustrating its willingness to strike civilian targets in an attempt to weaken Ukrainian resolve.

U.S. officials expect intense fighting for the remainder of the fall, as both sides attempt to put themselves in the best possible position before the onset of winter makes transport and combat more difficult.

Russian forces still control vast sections of Ukraine – including the cities of Kherson, Melitopol, Mariupol abd Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014 – and U.S. officials anticipate Putin may use the coldest months to refit his spent, demoralized military before launching a renewed campaign in the spring.

Putin has remained defiant, threatening to cut off gas supplies to Europe even as hints of public dissent raise questions about how long he can keep Russia behind what the Kremlin has dubbed its “special military operation.”

Pentagon officials have said they are looking at ways to assist Ukraine’s evolving defense needs, focusing on areas including air defenses, surveillance and fighter capability. So far, the total of U.S. security aid to Ukraine amounts to some $15 billion since Russia’s invasion.

Despite Ukraine’s ongoing calls for new, more sophisticated military hardware, U.S. officials don’t plan to immediately expand the array of weaponry they are providing, which has included High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems armed with midrange Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems. So far, the officials have stopped short of authorizing systems with much longer ranges, including the Army Tactical Missile Systems.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry illustrated the stakes of such decisions on Thursday when it warned that supplying longer-range missiles to Ukraine would cross a red line for Russia and make nations providing them a “party to the conflict,” reinforcing earlier suggestions that Russia could strike NATO nations if they authorized shipments of more potent arms.

Russia’s setback in Kharkiv has prompted speculation about whether Putin would be forced to resort to a general mobilization to fuel his war – a possibility the Kremlin has dismissed for now – or even use a nuclear device as Russia seeks to compensate for its defeat.

Samuel Charap, a Russia expert at the RAND Corporation, said the counteroffensive success was shaping the dynamics around the conflict, in part by illustrating Ukraine’s ability to successfully conduct complete offensive operations.

“We had no evidence of that before,” Charap said. “That very fact is likely to disincentivize them to seeking compromise because they think they can do more of that.”

To date, the U.S. strategy has been informed partly by what U.S. officials see as the remoteness of any possible negotiations to halt the fighting. A flurry of attempts to kindle substantive talks early in the fighting fizzled out as each side embraced a harder line.

“Right now the Ukrainians do not have a viable map from which to negotiate. Twenty percent of their territory has gone; something like 30 percent of their industrial and agricultural potential is gone,” a senior State Department official said last week. “That’s why we’re supporting this counteroffensive.”

U.S. officials expect it would be difficult for Zelensky to negotiate a settlement even if he wanted to do so, after Russian abuses have hardened public opinion against possible concessions to Moscow’s war aims. Moreover, officials say, Russia remains a untrustworthy negotiating partner and Putin’s war aims have shifted repeatedly as the tactical situation has evolved.

The U.S. goal remains helping Ukraine make battlefield advances that will strengthen its negotiating position should eventual negotiations with Russia occur.

The current moment draws attention to a tension that underlies America’s strategy for the war, as officials channel massive military support to Ukraine, fueling a war with global consequences, while attempting to remain agnostic about when and how Kyiv might strike a deal to end it.

President Joe Biden has vowed to support Ukraine in asserting its independence and sovereignty, promising in an opinion piece this spring to do so without pressuring Kyiv to make territorial concessions. He did not, however, explicitly back the goal of recovering all territory occupied by Russia, including areas taken or contested since 2014.

The first senior State Department official said another key part of the Biden administration’s plan for propelling the conflict toward a settlement was its efforts to weaken Russia’s economic and technological edge through sanctions and other means.

“But telling a sovereign country what success looks like for them, or what a negotiated solution looks like, that just isn’t where we want to be,” the official said.

So far, U.S. officials appear to have kept to that pledge, taking a hands-off approach that marks a sharp contrast to U.S. actions in places where officials have at times adopted a much more expansive approach in dealing with foreign leaders supported by U.S. aid.

“For both political and strategic reasons, they’ve been uninterested in drawing lines on the map and I think they’re absolutely justified in that reluctance,” Daniel Fried, a veteran diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to Poland, said this week.

Biden will attempt to stiffen international support for Ukraine’s self-defense at the United Nations next week, seizing the annual General Assembly meetings as a chance to smooth over friction caused by global inflation and food insecurity linked to the war. The resolve of European nations in particular, which have been among Ukraine’s biggest backers, will be tested this winter by high energy prices.

But experts including Alexander Vershbow, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia and deputy secretary general of NATO, say that tension may eventually come to a head, for example if Ukraine faces a choice between settling for territory it controlled before Feb. 24 and embracing a longer conflict with the goal of recapturing all areas under Russian control since 2014.

“The Ukrainians are right now adamant that they would say we won’t concede one inch, but at some point difficult choices will be needed,” Vershbow said Thursday. Right now, however, “the administration doesn’t want to take a position.”

Fried said the Biden administration was right to approach the months ahead with caution, but said Ukraine was different than other recent U.S. conflicts.

“We’ve been so traumatized by our failures in Afghanistan and, partially, in Iraq. This is a situation where an actual success is possible – not inevitable – and it’s not a long shot,” Fried said. “Leaning into that prospect is in our national interest.” ​