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‘There’s only Plan A’: Defense leaders fear failure in Ukraine

MUNICH — Four American senators recounted a story Ukrainian officials told them at the Munich Security Conference: A soldier in a muddy trench with Russian artillery exploding nearby, scrolling on his phone for signs the U.S. House would approve military aid.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), leader of one of the congressional delegations, said it was “heartbreaking” to hear the tale. “For young Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines, this is a persistent topic of conversation,” the senator relayed, a somber tone in his voice.

The episode highlighted the pall over this weekend’s gathering of transatlantic-minded officials and dignitaries in the Bavarian capital. Ukraine’s worsening prospects on the battlefield and questions about America’s commitment to Kyiv dominated the annual event. The gloom was amplified by news of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny’s death, which hit just as leaders were arriving on the event’s first day.

Many politicians and officials used the moment to press that Ukraine would lose the war without the $60 billion more in U.S. military aid currently awaiting a vote in the House. But they also sounded far from certain about what a victory might look like for Ukraine even with that boost.

The conference comes as confidence in whether President Joe Biden can deliver for Ukraine is particularly low and as former President Donald Trump, the Republican frontrunner, works to undermine the package.

The plan now, as detailed or lamented in interviews with eight U.S. lawmakers and five foreign officials, is to just keep the Ukrainian military from collapsing.

Many sidestepped the question of what a Ukrainian victory would look like, or when it might happen.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the aid package would be a “game changer” for Ukraine. But he declined to say that the support would ensure a Ukrainian triumph, simply stating American assistance was Kyiv’s last, best hope.

“I am not aware of any other way for, in the short term, the Ukrainians to get the arms and ammunition and tools they need, other than from the United States,” added Warner — one of 44 U.S. lawmakers at Munich.

The range of battlefield possibilities remains enormous, with or without more weapons flowing to Ukraine. “Somewhere between Afghanistan, driving the Russians out with essentially partisan guerrilla warfare, and great-armies conflict, like we have right now, is where it ends up,” Whitehouse said.

Ukraine is low on ammunition and infantry. The decade-long stronghold of Avdiivka fell to the Russians over the weekend, giving the Kremlin its first major conquest since May. Before Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy changed leadership at the top of his country’s military, generals insisted the president had to mobilize 500,000 more troops to keep pace with a larger, still-stronger Russian force that appears willing to take massive casualties to gain just a few yards of ground.

“When a citizen of Europe reads that Ukraine retreated from Avdiivka, he should realize one single fact: Russia has got a few kilometers closer to his own home,” said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in an interview. “Every advance Russia makes in Ukraine brings Russian weapons closer to the home of a middle-class European.”

Senior administration officials insist America’s commitment to Ukraine’s cause hasn’t diminished. “Putin is not going to stop unless he is stopped,” said U.S. Army Secretary Christine Wormuth, who arrived in Munich fresh from watching U.S. troops train a new Ukrainian battalion at an American base in Germany. “And for adversaries who are watching what’s happening in Ukraine, and what it says about American will, I would not want them to draw the conclusion that we’ll let a leader like Putin do whatever he wants.”

The best — and only — option to prevent that, they argue, is still the one on the table: Congress passing the military assistance. “Pass the supplemental. That’s it. Let’s destroy Putin’s army. The Ukrainians know how to do that, so let’s help them do it,” added Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo).

Lawmakers from both parties in Munich assured ally after ally that the House would eventually greenlight the aid, with some predicting passage as soon as March. They insisted the majority of representatives would support the bill once on the House floor. But Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) feared an X factor: the Republican party’s leader, former President Donald Trump.

“Former President Trump appears to be trying to derail support for the current bipartisan supplemental passed in the Senate,” the House Armed Services Committee member said in an interview.

Zelenskyy, clearly worried about that prospect, used public opportunities to plead his nation’s case. “For us, this package is vital. We do not currently look into alternatives because we are counting on the United States as our strategic partner,” he said at a news conference with Vice President Kamala Harris on Saturday.

There’s no Plan B if the lawmakers fail to greenlight the package, Harris confirmed. “There’s only Plan A.”

Confidence in what Ukraine can accomplish — and in President Joe Biden — is seemingly at its lowest point in two years. “The U.S. wants a photo op of happy allies working together,” one NATO official, who like some others in this story was granted anonymity to offer candid views, said on the sidelines of the event. “But without that real American support, without that leadership, this is going to be very difficult.”

Ukrainian officials aren’t talking about alternatives, insisting that they need the arms and ammunition — particularly Taurus and the long-range Army Tactical Missile System — to fend off Russia. One Ukrainian parliamentarian said there’s worry in Kyiv about the lack of leadership shown by Washington both in passing the supplemental and in sending — and nudging allies along — to send more long-range munitions to Ukraine. The official had just come from the frontlines in the south and said that the lack of munitions are directly resulting in Ukraine losing ground, and losing soldiers.

At the Munich Security Conference last year nerves were visible, but were not as all-consuming. The U.S. and its allies had rallied to Ukraine’s defense, taking back seized territory from Russia and preparing for a decisive counteroffensive. There was a long road ahead, but the fight trended in a positive direction. It was just days afterward that Biden stood in Warsaw, after a surprise visit with Zelenskyy in Ukraine, announcing that “Kyiv stands proud, it stands tall, and most important, it stands free.”

But the counteroffensive failed and the ground campaign stalled, causing both Ukrainian and Russian forces to play a game of artillery ping pong across the 600-mile front. Kyiv has seen more success in the Black Sea, sinking several Russian ships in the strategic waterway, but it didn’t do much to improve the optics of a war that’s trudging along. No one on either side of the Atlantic — and especially in Kyiv and Moscow — can predict what’s to come.

“We will have a Russia problem no matter how the war ends,” said Adm. Rob Bauer, chair of NATO’s Military Committee, who also warned that while the West “might have been overly optimistic in 2023” about the war, “but we have to guard against being overly pessimistic in 2024.”

The uncertainty has empowered Ukraine skeptics. They insist the U.S. cut off the tap and focus on the homefront instead. Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), who arrived in Munich to offer a countering viewpoint, said he was supportive of Kyiv’s fight but that America couldn’t produce enough weapons to arm Ukraine and protect the U.S. at the same time.

“Europe has to be a little more self-sufficient” in defending itself” he insisted in a solo news conference outside the conference venue. “You guys have to step up. There’s going to be a pivot in American policy focused in East Asia. Given that reality, the Europeans have to take a more aggressive role.”

Most lawmakers, though, didn’t want to leave Munich without offering hope. Time and again, they pushed back on the idea that Ukraine was irreversibly on the ropes.

“I don’t see how Russia ever wins this war. Their definition of winning is taking over the country and occupying it. They are never going to occupy Ukraine,” said Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Wars end when one or both sides have fought to the point of exhaustion, and then they sit down and talk. Neither side is there.”

And Whitehouse argued Ukraine would never stop resisting against Russia, even if it doesn’t receive more support: “There is literally zero chance that the Ukrainians will peacefully abide Russian occupation.”

Suzanne Lynch and Josh Posaner contributed to this report.

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Author: POLITICO