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Ukraine drain: U.S. aims to hold West together as war slogs on

More than a month into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the White House is preparing for the possibility of a brutal, violent quagmire that could last several months or more and test the West’s resolve.

Western military and intelligence assessments that had believed Russia would quickly topple Kyiv and seize control of much of Ukraine were proven incorrect, as Ukrainian forces, backed by NATO weaponry, have shown surprising resistance. Russia’s military has suffered extraordinary losses in troops and equipment and is pulling back from its positions around the Ukrainian capital to lick its wounds and resupply.

The stunning stalemate has led to an inflection point in the conflict. Though officials are not giving out hope for a possible negotiated effort to end the war, President Joe Biden’s administration has expressed deep skepticism that Russian President Vladimir Putin harbors any intent of reducing the violence. Instead, there is a growing belief among U.S. officials that it may need to hold together its Western alliance — and prepare its citizens — for a war that could last for the foreseeable future.

“This is shaping up to be a real decision point for the administration,” said Wesley Clark, former Supreme Allied Commander Europe of NATO. “I don’t know what they’re going to do, but I do know the consequences if they don’t act.”

The ability of Ukrainian forces to fend off the Russian invasion has at once pleasantly surprised the administration and forced it to rapidly adjust its approach to ending the conflict. Questions over how to punish the Kremlin have turned into debates over what kind of Russia could or even should emerge at the end of the war.

Those debates will surely intensify after the grisly discoveries Saturday in Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, recently abandoned by Russian troops as part of their retreat. Ukranians retaking the city discovered a mass grave with nearly 300 bodies as well as found dozens of civilian corpses strewn in the streets, including men with their hands bound and children shot at close range.

Biden, at the conclusion of his trip to Europe last week, gave voice to what many around the world — and some, quietly, in his own administration — want, when he declared that Putin “cannot remain in power.” But the White House quickly clarified that the president was making a moral judgment and not calling for regime change. U.S. officials say they do not see a plausible path to removing Putin from power.

Instead, they are aiming for the next best thing: to weaken Russia’s ability to project power by isolating it diplomatically, crushing its economy and demonstrating the hollowness of its military. In just a month’s time, what was once perceived as Moscow’s mighty war machine has been exposed and humbled, while Putin’s aggression has strengthened a once-wayward NATO.

The growing concern is that Putin has something the Western alliance lacks: time. The Russian president has the political leeway to tolerate setbacks and absorb a prolonged, bloody engagement. He’s said that the West would’ve imposed these sanctions even without an invasion, so there’s no need to curb the “special military operation.” Despite certain touch-and-go moments throughout his two decades in power, the autocrat doesn’t have the same political challenges that Biden or other world leaders have.

On a tactical level, Russia’s attempted blitzkrieg to topple the government of Volodymyr Zelenskyy has failed to date and its advances have stalled outside Kyiv and several other major cities. And though Moscow has continued bombarding those cities, killing civilians and leveling neighborhoods, Western officials have seen Russian divisions pulling back from those regions in recent days amid strong Ukrainian advances.

But U.S officials say they’ve seen no evidence that the Russian troops are returning to their motherland. Instead, they believe that Russia may be looking to reinforce its gains in Ukraine’s south and east — where it has had more success — and may be looking to seize control of the Donbas region, home to Kremlin-backed separatists forces. If successful, that may be enough to allow Putin to claim a face-saving victory.

The “liberation” of that region was the initial Russian justification for the war and officials believe Putin may try to pressure Zelenskyy to formally surrender Donbas and recognize Russia’s ownership of Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014. The Ukrainian leader has also offered some compromises, namely holding a referendum on a final peace deal and ending the pursuit of joining NATO.

That could put the U.S. in a tough spot, as siding with Ukraine’s decision would also mean accepting that nations can take other countries’ territory by force. Biden surely remembers the global embarrassment of watching Russia take the Crimean peninsula while serving as vice president.

One scenario considered by U.S. officials involves Russia focusing its forces on the east and using long-range missiles to shatter other Ukrainian cities, potentially leading to a drawn-out conflict and an escalating death toll.

Decisions in Kyiv will matter as much as actions in Washington, D.C. It’s unclear how long Ukrainian forces can hold out during a war of attrition, especially if Russia concentrates resources in a specific region as opposed to fighting on multiple fronts at once. Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian officials have made urgent pleas in recent days to be reinforced with Western weapons, declaring that they are running dangerously low and could run the risk of losing momentum amid their counter-offensive.

Oleksandr Danylyuk, formerly a top national security official in Ukraine, said that Kyiv needs more advanced weapons, like air-defense missiles, to push Russia out of the country. To date, he suspects the West’s strategy is mainly to bog Russia down inside Ukraine — not help it ultimately defeat Moscow.

“The West is trying to exhaust Russia,” he told POLITICO, adding that he believed it was a missed opportunity. “A defeat of Russia in Ukraine would mean the change of regime in Moscow, which is pretty much another way of liberating Russia.”

Analysts advising and supporting the Biden administration’s game plan have, so far, mainly promoted a stay-the-course approach, believing that the president has struck the right balance of punishing Russia without overly provoking it.

“When it comes to security assistance, the administration first just needs to keep on doing what it is doing — surging weapons and ammo that can have immediate effect,” said Max Bergmann, senior fellow at the Washington-based, progressive-leaning Center for American Progress think tank. “That’s the top priority. Just help Ukraine sustain the fight. But now that the conflict has stabilized, and Russia has pulled back from the maximalist objectives, that creates some breathing space to expand the aperture of U.S. assistance.”

The U.S. clearly sees it that way, announcing Friday evening that it would send Soviet-made tanks to Ukraine and $300 million in additional assistance, including Puma drones.

The White House is also waiting to see what Zelenskyy is willing to accept in sputtering peace talks. Some officials believe that a deal to give up any territory, even if it would bring an end to the fighting, would be a tough sell for Zelenskyy at home because of the amount of Ukrainian blood that has been shed.

“The Ukrainians have a say in this,” said a senior administration official, one of several U.S. and European officials interviewed for this piece who were not authorized to speak publicly about sensitive deliberations. “It’s not up for us to declare victory … Zelenskyy will be the one who decides what is acceptable and what’s not.”

Danylyuk said he believes that the likelihood of imminent success in peace talks is low, namely because Ukrainian troops are regaining territory while Russia hopes a renewed, more concentrated offensive will bring it success.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials fear support for the war at home could wane over time, especially if fuel prices remain high as the nation barrels into the midterm elections. And while the administration has poured ample time and effort into stiffening the spines of transatlantic allies, it’s unclear countries will have the appetite for a long-term confrontation.

One pressure point: Europe is deeply reliant on Russian energy. While some steps have been taken to reduce that dependency, a prolonged conflict increases the likelihood of a fuel shortage that key European leaders have warned could plunge the continent into recession. Global food shortages are also possible.

“I hope they are preparing for the long grind, which means long-term security support for Ukraine,” said Alina Polyakova, president and CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis, “ensuring our ability to resupply weapons and equipment to Ukraine and European allies. Plus a permanent presence in the eastern flank.”

As U.S. officials gird themselves for the potential of a protracted conflict, there is another long-term concern with which officials are starting to grapple: How to deal with Putin when the war ends?

Though Russia seems likely to limp away from the conflict, whenever it does, even a diminished Putin would still control thousands of nuclear weapons pointed at U.S. cities, massive energy resources that hold leverage over Europe and disruptive cyberhackers he hasn’t been shy to unleash. Officials have not yet made a decision on pushing Russia out of the G20 ahead of this fall’s summit. Looking to isolate Moscow as much as possible, the United States has warned of consequences for other nations that help Russia but has watched with dismay as China — along with much of Asia, Latin America and the Middle East — have stayed neutral in the conflict.

It’s why Clark, the retired U.S. general who led NATO during Europe’s last land war, thinks the Biden administration must be bolder in the conflict’s next phase: “We’ve been reactive. We need to be proactive to see what’s coming.”

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