Over the course of a year, Ukraine’s fortunes have been upended. Moscow has the advantage on the battlefield, support from the West is waning and Israel is taking up all of the US’ attention. While Washington is busy blaming Kyiv, this has all the makings of a classic US foreign policy disaster—one which may irremediably damage its reputation.
First: The state of war
Since it’s been a while since many of us paid close attention to Ukraine, here's a snapshot of where we are—and how we got here.
The great Kyiv resistance: In 2022—the first year of the war—everything went Ukraine’s way on the battlefield. Kyiv endured and prevailed in the face of relentless Russian bombing—and a full-on ground offensive. Vladimir Putin’s boys suffered unexpected and severe casualties. And Ukraine even took back territory conquered by Russia. In an interview, President Volodomyr Zelensky boasted:
He [Putin] opened his mouth like a python and thought that we’re just another bunny. But we’re not a bunny and it turned out that he can’t swallow us — and is actually at risk of getting torn apart himself.
The failed counter-offensive: The tide turned when Ukraine decided to go on the offensive—in June 2023… and hit a Russian brick wall. The goal was to liberate Crimea from Moscow—and cut the Russian supply lines. Instead, Ukraine found itself mired in a crippling stalemate. In 2022, its troops liberated almost 75,000 sq km—an area the size of the United Arab Emirates. By November 2023, the momentum had turned. Kyiv had ceded 487 sq km—with Russians steadily shaving off territory on the frontlines.
World War I again! Kyiv is now fighting a war of attrition—which offers enormous advantage to the side with more manpower and resources—i.e Russia. This is an old-fashioned battle in the trenches—rats and disease included. Ukrainian generals admit: “Just like in the first world war we have reached the level of technology that puts us into a stalemate. There will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough.”
Earlier this month, New York Times and Wall Street Journal published morose postcards from the front—painting a gloomy picture of exhausted soldiers stuck in a bloody game of ping pong: “There is a portion of 100 to 200 metres of ground always being taken and retaken.”
Next: Pinning the blame
As they say, success has many fathers but failure is an orphan. All discussion of the failed counter-offensive has now deteriorated into finger-pointing.
It’s all Kyiv’s fault: As always, the Pentagon has been quick to blame the once-beloved Zelensky for not taking their sage advice. The various accusations include:
- Ukraine attacked on three fronts—rather than concentrate on one—as advised by the Americans.
- When the US military pressed for an early counter-offensive in April, Kyiv hesitated—allowing the Russians to regroup—and strengthen their frontline.
- Ukrainian troops lost their nerve—after suffering severe casualties early in the counter-offensive.
- Even though it got “everything they were promised, on time,” from the US—“Ukraine failed to deploy equipment critical to the offensive, holding it in reserve or allocating it to units that weren’t part of the assault.”
In other words, Ukraine bungled its military strategy—and refused to take good advice. FYI: This is pretty much the Pentagon’s explanation for why things went south in Afghanistan—and why Israel won’t stop bombing Gaza. Nobody listens to us.
It’s all Washington’s fault: Critics argue that the US withheld military assistance when it would have mattered most—in the early days of the war. Wall Street Journal’s foreign correspondent Yaroslav Trofimov writes:
[T]he United States and its partners held back from supplying Ukraine with Western-made capabilities at a time when they would have had the biggest effect, and prohibited Kyiv from using Western weapons to strike military targets on Russian soil. By the time many of these Western systems did arrive, in the second year of the war, Russia had built up defences, mobilised hundreds of thousands of troops and switched its industries to wartime footing. The best window of opportunity for a clear and quick Ukrainian victory had disappeared.
The reason for Washington’s ‘go slow’ policy: fears that Moscow would retaliate with a nuclear attack. As one Pentagon official piously put it: “The Ukrainians are already fighting for their existence. But the United States has a special obligation to avoid a nuclear war that would end all life on Planet Earth forever.”
Point to note: As with Israel, Washington insists that military strategy is entirely controlled by Kyiv—painting itself as a relatively powerless ‘advisor’. And as with Israel, it has refused to acknowledge the immense clout that military aid offers—a whopping $111 billion, in this case. And that influence did not prove to be all that helpful:
The 2023 counteroffensive was built around remaking Ukraine’s army in the image of America’s. It was, critics said, the approach the United States had tried in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, largely unsuccessfully.
The original sin: While there’s much hand-wringing over the counter-offensive, the real damage may have been done very early in the war. According to top Ukrainian officials, the war could have ended within two months—if the West had not encouraged Kyiv to dig in its heels. Zelensky was ready to consider a deal in April 2022. Kyiv would abandon its plans to join NATO if Moscow withdrew its troops. Experts claim “they had 98% of a peace agreement ready.” But it was torpedoed by the then UK PM—who “travelled to Kyiv to inform Ukrainian officials the West would not sign any agreement with Moscow, instead urging Ukraine ‘let’s just fight’.”
Up next: Pulling the rug
Whoever is to blame, Ukraine now finds itself stuck in a war that is slowly grinding its troops down. It has been outmatched by an enemy that has both the manpower and resources to simply “wait out the Ukrainians and bleed them dry, rather than the other way round.”
Oops, we did it again! Towards the end of 2023, the US experienced a sudden change of heart. In 2022—when the peace negotiations fell apart—President Biden grandly declared that the West would support Kyiv for “as long as it takes” to defeat Moscow. In December 2023, he merely pledged to back Ukraine for “as long as we can”—even as Congress refused to approve a $60 billion aid package.
The reason: Fifty percent of Republicans have lost interest in funding Ukraine’s war with Russia—and so have their representatives in Congress. Military support is now being held tied to hot button domestic issues—like immigration—and will remain so as the US heads toward a presidential election. And if Donald Trump wins in November, then all bets are off.
A Christmas gift for Putin: Washington has, in essence, given Putin the ultimate gift—of time:
“Putin can draw a certain line,” Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, told me. “In Putin’s understanding, the counter-offensive has failed, and the West won’t be able to provide the level of military aid that would fundamentally change the situation on the front going forward.” A period of uncertainty, going back to the unravelling of Russia’s initial invasion plans in 2022, appears to have ended, and one of stability has begun. All Russia has to do now is wait. “Putin thought all along that support for Ukraine was temporal and that he would outlast it,” a U.S. defence official told me.
We support Ukraine or Ukraine loses the war. It really is that stark… If we cut Ukraine off and abandon Ukraine the way we abandoned Afghanistan, ultimately the same thing will happen.
The EU cannot hope to make up for any shortfall in US military aid. And a loss of nerve in Washington is likely to trigger panic on the continent:
The U.S. has also played an important leadership role in organising some 50 countries to provide aid to Kyiv through the Ukraine Defense Contact Group… “The alliance is unlikely simply to trundle forward under its own steam as if we hadn’t been there,” [military expert Fred] Kagan said. “This will, of course, also be a massive betrayal of the allies who have also leaned forward in incurring Putin’s wrath,” he said.
Just hold the line: The Biden White House is trying to put a happy spin on the dire situation—claiming that the Pentagon is teaching Kyiv how to fight with fewer resources. The primary aim is to “avoid losing any more territory than the one-fifth of the country now occupied by Russia.” But even that modest goal will require US aid, say experts:
So in that regard, we’ve now reached a tipping point between whether Ukraine continues to win in terms of having sufficient fighting power to stave Russia off, or whether it actually starts to lose because it doesn’t have the equipment, the heavy weaponry, the ammunition. That external support is going to be determinative.
The big picture: Sending the wrong message
There is a real risk that Ukraine will be left hanging by Washington—to face a Putin intent on avenging not just Kyiv's defiance but his humiliation on the global stage by the US and its allies. That outcome has consequences far beyond a single war.
A desperate Ukraine—shorn of aid—will send a unmistakable message to US allies in Europe:
It is causing this gloom to descend across Europe and European capitals. They see this not as some tempest in a teapot or standard political fight in Congress, but as representative of where the U.S. is really going on foreign policy in the future.
It will offer a golden opportunity to Moscow:
After all, as Putin has always seen it, his real interlocutor is not the government in Kyiv but its Western backers, the U.S. most of all. [Tatiana] Stanovaya encapsulated the Russian leader’s appeal for the coming year: “Either you abandon your support of Ukraine and reach a deal with us, or we take Ukraine anyway, and destroy a lot of lives and billions in your military equipment in the process.”
And it will confirm every nation’s worst suspicion about the United States:
[A]n even deeper, broader shock wave would be triggered by the growing realisation that the United States is not just an unreliable ally, but an unserious ally. A silly ally… By abandoning Ukraine in a fit of political incompetence, Americans will consent to the deaths of more Ukrainians and the further destruction of the country. We will convince millions of Europeans that we are untrustworthy. We will send a message to Russia and China too, reinforcing their frequently stated belief that the U.S. is a degenerate, dying power.
The bottomline: Zelensky knows that Washington’s attention span—always limited—has already shifted to its other BFF Israel (which has no problem getting its military aid approved, btw). As he says, Ukrainians understand "that we also need to fight for attention for the full-scale war. We must not allow people to forget about the war here." That’s both sad and true.
New Yorker, CNN and The Atlantic (splainer gift link) are best on the risks of losing US aid–and what it signals. Wall Street Journal (splainer gift link) lays out the risks of settling for a stalemate. VOA reports on rising war fatigue in Ukraine. CNN looks at the risk of the EU’s aid to Kyiv—posed by Hungary. Washington Post reveals the mistakes and disagreements that led to the failed counteroffensive. Financial Times and Washington Post are best on Pentagon’s new strategy for 2024. BBC News and CNBC lay out the possible direction the war could go in 2024. The Diplomat argues the war is all about who controls the future world order.