Hard Lessons Make for Hard Choices 2 Years Into the War in Ukraine

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Two years after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the United States has the capacity to keep Kyiv supplied with the weapons, technology and intelligence to fend off a takeover by Moscow. But Washington is now perceived around Europe to have lost its will.

The Europeans, in contrast, have the will — they just committed another $54 billion to reconstruct the country — but when it comes to repelling Russia’s revived offensive, they do not have the capacity.

That is the essence of the conundrum facing Ukraine and the NATO allies on the dismal second anniversary of the war. It is a stunning reversal. Only a year ago, many here predicted that Ukraine’s counteroffensive, bolstered by European tanks and missiles and American artillery and air defenses, could push the Russians back to where they were on Feb. 24, 2022.

Now, some harsh lessons have emerged. The sanctions that were supposed to bring Russia’s economy to its knees — “the ruble almost is immediately reduced to rubble,” President Biden declared in Warsaw in March 2022 — have lost their sting. The International Monetary Fund’s prediction that the Russian economy would shrink considerably was only briefly true; with the huge stimulus of military spending, it is growing faster than Germany’s. Income from oil exports is greater than it was before the invasion.

With the setbacks, and the failure of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, hope has just about collapsed that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia will conclude anytime soon that he can make no further gains and should enter a serious negotiation to end the war.

American and European intelligence officials now assess that Mr. Putin is determined to hold on, even at the cost of huge casualties, in the hope that a failure in Congress to fund Ukraine’s effort sufficiently or a victory by former President Donald J. Trump in November will make up for the Russian leader’s many early mistakes.

Biden administration officials still insist that Mr. Putin has already suffered a “strategic defeat.” His military is humiliated by its early failures and huge casualties, and Russia can count on only China, Iran and North Korea as reliable suppliers.

At the same time, NATO has enlarged. Sweden is set to become the 32nd member state within a few days, after the addition of Finland last year, and two-thirds of its members will each spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense this year, a significant increase.

For the first time since NATO was founded in 1949, Europeans are finally taking seriously the need for a defense infrastructure independent of the United States.

Still, as recent intelligence reports in Europe indicate that NATO nations might be Mr. Putin’s target in the next three to five years, the question remains: Without a durable American commitment, can Ukraine and Europe defend against a new Russian threat?

At the core of the current strategic stalemate is the absence of any serious prospect of a negotiated settlement.

As recently as last summer, senior members of the Biden administration held out hope that Ukrainian advances on the battlefield would force Mr. Putin to find a face-saving way out. The most commonly discussed possibility was a negotiated settlement that left unclear the future of the parts of Ukraine seized or annexed by Russia, but which would at least end the fighting.

At the same time, at a NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, Mr. Biden and his aides were discussing with President Volodymyr Zelensky putting together an “Israel model” of aid for Ukraine. Even if short of actual membership, the plan aspired to provide a decade-long guarantee of the arms and training that Ukraine would need to keep Russia at bay.

But even hope for those muddled outcomes has been cast aside amid the congressional debate over renewing short-term help for Ukraine, and as pessimism sets in that Ukraine can hold out long enough to think about the long term.

As isolationism rises in a Republican-controlled Congress beholden to Mr. Trump, Mr. Biden has shifted from promising to give Ukraine “whatever it needs, for as long as it takes” to last December’s less ambitious “as long as we can.”

At the Munich Security Conference last weekend, Senator J.D. Vance, Republican of Ohio, struck an even more sober note: Ukraine would have to learn how to fight on a tight budget.

Even if the “$61 billion of supplemental aid to Ukraine goes through, I have to be honest with you, that is not going to fundamentally change the reality on the battlefield,” he said. “The amount of munitions that we can send to Ukraine right now is very limited.”

Mr. Vance went on to make a second point: Those limited resources should be saved for competing with China and defending Taiwan.

“There are a lot of bad guys all over the world,” he said. “And I’m much more interested in some of the problems in East Asia right now than I am in Europe.”

Mr. Vance’s assessment was met with a stony silence. Shortly afterward, a senior American military official who declined to speak on the record said that the Republican debate in Washington and the mood among Ukraine’s ground forces were reinforcing each other, “and not in a positive way.”

In the view of Charles A. Kupchan, a Georgetown University professor who served as a national security official in the Obama administration, that means the United States should be exploring ways to get negotiations started to end the war.

“Even if Russia can stay the course, I don’t think Ukraine can,” he said. After two years of war, Mr. Kupchan said, “there is no foreseeable pathway toward a battlefield victory for Ukraine,” even with the imminent arrival of long-range missiles or F-16s.

Mr. Zelensky faces a stark choice, he said: whether to keep every inch of sovereign Ukrainian territory, or find a way to secure an economically viable state, with a democratic future, Western security guarantees and eventual membership in the European Union and in NATO.

In private, some senior Biden administration officials say they have been trying to nudge Mr. Zelensky in that direction. But Mr. Biden has instructed his staff not to deviate from the slogan it used at the beginning of the war: “Nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine.”

The result is that American military officials in Europe, led by Gen. Christopher G. Cavoli, have been quietly warning that the best the Ukrainians can hope for is a largely frozen conflict.

General Cavoli rarely speaks publicly, but officials emerging from recent briefings with him described a downbeat assessment, one in which, at best, the Ukrainians use 2024 to defend, rebuild and attempt another counteroffensive next year.

Even in Europe, where support for Ukraine has been strongest, public opinion is shifting, too. In a recent opinion poll conducted in January for the European Council on Foreign Relations in 12 countries, only 10 percent of Europeans said they believed Ukraine would win the war, though what would constitute a win was not clearly defined. Twenty percent said they believed that Russia would win, and a plurality, 37 percent, thought the war would end in some kind of settlement.

But if the United States withdraws support from Ukraine and presses Kyiv for a deal, 41 percent of Europeans polled said their governments should either increase support to try to replace Washington or continue support at the current level. Roughly a third said that European countries should follow Washington and pressure Kyiv to settle.

“Things are not going well,” Gabrielius Landsbergis, the foreign minister of Lithuania, said bluntly as he left the Munich Security Conference last week.

“Ukraine is starved of ammunition and forced to pull back, Europe is facing challenges which might test Article 5, and global instability emerges because autocrats are emboldened by Russia’s action and our cautious response,” Mr. Landsbergis said on the social media platform X, in a reference to the section of the NATO treaty that calls for each member to come to the aid of any member under attack. “This is not pessimism. This is fact.”

For years, American officials have urged Europe to spend more on its defense. Now, Europeans are beginning to confront the cost of complacency.

No matter who Americans elect as their next president in November, the United States may no longer be willing to take its traditional lead in deterring Russia or defending the West. That will inevitably place more of the burden on a Europe that is not yet fully prepared.

Germany’s military is better equipped, but it is not of the size or skill level needed to face the challenges ahead, its defense secretary, Boris Pistorius, has warned. Finland adds considerable technological capability to NATO, but Sweden’s military, American officials say, will need to be rebuilt.

Meanwhile, Europe is piecing together packages of help for Ukraine that were first meant to supplement, but now may be intended to replace, aid from the United States.

This month, European Union leaders pledged another 50 billion euros, about $54 billion, in new aid to Ukraine over the next four years. In aggregate, European countries have outpaced the United States in aid provided to Ukraine.

To date, said Victoria Nuland, the under secretary of state for political affairs, the United States has provided $75 billion in security, economic, and humanitarian assistance. But, she said, “Europe and our global partners have provided even more, $107 billion, in addition to hosting 4.5 million Ukrainian refugees in countries across Europe.”

Yet to fully replace American military assistance this year, according to an assessment by the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, Europe would still have “to double its current level and pace of arms assistance.”

And European efforts to provide another 5 billion euros, about $5.4 billion, over each of the next four years to buy arms for Ukraine have stalled because of objections by Germany and France.

The Germans say they are paying too much into the fund, given their large bilateral funding of aid to Ukraine, the second largest in the world after the United States.

The French are, as ever, insisting that weapons purchased with European money should be made or at least partly made in Europe — though Europe doesn’t have the capacity to provide them.

And European promises to deliver one million artillery shells to Ukraine by March have fallen well short.

Still, European arms production has been increasing, with senior European officials saying that the continent should be able to produce a million shells a year by the end of this year, compared with about 350,000 shells 18 months ago.

While Europeans point proudly to the changes they have made, it remains far from certain that those changes are happening as fast as the world demands, especially when it comes to Ukraine.

“Strategically the goal should be to change Putin’s calculations,” said Mr. Kupchan, the former Obama administration official. “Disrupt the field. I know it’s not easy, but it is better to admit mistakes and chart a new path forward rather than to engage in empty self-congratulation.”

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