Biden administration officials are trying to temper overly optimistic expectations after Ukraine’s significant victories over Russia in recent days.
Ukraine claims to have recaptured thousands of square kilometers of Russian-occupied territory in an offensive that began last week. Moscow acknowledged a “regrouping,” which others saw as a retreat.
“The road to victory is difficult, but we are sure: you are capable,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his late-night speech on Sunday, greeting his country’s troops in what he saw as victories. “You will see our borders and the backs of the enemies. You will see the radiance of the eyes of our people and of the heels of the occupiers.”
But in Washington, the Pentagon, the White House and the State Department urged caution. They were reluctant to endorse a Ukrainian sense of triumph so early in the battle.
“Clearly they are fighting hard to defend their country and take back territory,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said during a trip with President Biden to Boston. “We just continue to support their need to succeed on the battlefield. That has been our goal.”
US officials said the back-and-forth trade of gains and withdrawals by Russians and Ukrainians would likely continue despite Ukrainian pressure that appears to have reached part of the country’s border with Russia.
Arms stocks, the weather and the determination in Moscow, as well as in Washington and the European capitals, will determine how the rest of the war will unfold.
“The first signs are positive and we see Ukraine making real, demonstrable progress in a conscious way,” said Foreign Minister Antony J. Blinken. “But this will probably continue for quite some time. There is a huge number of Russian troops in Ukraine, and unfortunately, tragically, horribly, President [Vladimir] Putin has shown that he will throw a lot of people into it at a huge cost to Russia.”
Blinken spoke at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Friday after an unannounced trip to the Ukrainian capital Kiev. But his comments reflected what was still the dominant view of the government on Monday.
Some Europeans who have supported the US-led effort to arm and support Ukraine expressed optimism that this potential breakthrough could be the moment when arms-building give way to negotiations.
However, US officials said negotiations remain unlikely. Most Russian opening bids on negotiations, they said, start with total Ukrainian capitulation — an obvious non-starter.
In May, Biden signed a new $40 billion aid package for Ukraine. In the months that followed, US military aid to Ukraine included heavier weapons, including howitzers, armed drones and advanced artillery rocket systems known as HIMARS.
A senior US military official said Monday that the Pentagon had confirmed some Ukrainian gains from the weekend.
“We assess that the Ukrainians are making progress in their struggle to liberate and reclaim territory in the south and east near Kharkiv,” the official said, while instructing reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss battlefield reports. . “We estimate that Russian troops have largely ceded their gains to the Ukrainians and withdrew to the north and east. Many of these troops have moved across the border to Russia.”
The measured response from US officials to Ukraine’s new battlefield successes was consistent with the Biden administration’s approach to the conflict since the war’s start in February.
“We have been very consistent in not speaking on behalf of the Ukrainian military, both in current and future terms. They fight bravely and skillfully and should be able to speak for themselves,” said a senior government official.
Officials in the Biden administration, who oversaw the U.S. withdrawal from the two-decade war in Afghanistan less than two years ago, understand that the momentum in a war can change over time and that it is too early declaring victory can look foolish in the long run.
Although the US has sent $13.5 billion in aid to Ukraine since January, the White House has said throughout the conflict that it is neither America’s war nor a proxy war between Putin and the West.
Early on, Biden was hesitant to send weapons to Ukraine that could be perceived as “offensive”, instead targeting packages containing Stinger and Javelin missile systems. Only after Ukraine withstood the initial Russian attack and the conflict stalled did the US begin to send more advanced weapons, including the HIMARS missile launchers that the Ukrainians have been using to devastating effect in recent days.
But US officials worry that a more complete Washington victory round at this point in a still unresolved conflict could undermine Zelensky, making Putin’s claim that he is waging a proxy war with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the West more credible. .
At a time when the Russian leader is undoubtedly frustrated by his military’s lack of success and an invasion that may prove to be one of the great blunders of the 21st century, any direct provocation from the still unpredictable Putin goes against one of Biden’s overarching goals during the conflict: to avoid any direct confrontation between the US and Russia.
While Biden may be reluctant to poke Putin directly in the eye, Ukraine’s gains over the weekend are shifting the calculus. The war “is not a one-sided battle” in which Moscow is destined to emerge victorious, said Samuel Charap, a political scientist specializing in Russia at the Rand Corp. “This gives political emphasis to the idea that Ukraine can win.”
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.