Clad in his trademark fatigues, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy hit all the notes one would expect in his speech to a joint session of Congress. Ukraine is on the front line of a global battle against authoritarianism. Failure to defeat Vladimir Putin now will leave the US and its allies to face an even more dangerous future. “Your money is not charity,” Zelenskiy said. “This is an investment in global security.” At the very least, Zelenskiy has appealed for more American aid, as the conflict in Ukraine becomes a fierce contest of economic and military endurance—and as the prospects for U.S. aid grow slimmer. certainly
Zelenskiy seeks Victory. Will the US Pay the Price?
Wars have phases, even if the divisions between them are messy. The first phase of this war saw Ukraine preserve its independence by surviving a multipronged Russian attack. The second phase saw Ukraine begin to remove Russian forces from its territory, with major gains in the east and south.
At both stages, US support probably provided the critical margin of victory, by anticipating Russian attacks, providing much-needed money and weapons, and even helping the war-game Kyiv attacks around Kharkiv in September. Now another phase is coming, and foreign aid will be less important.
This stage is dark, for the moment: It is not clear which side will have the initiative or the advantage. Ukraine hopes that the liberation of Kherson is a start, rather than a culmination — that it can continue to hurt Russian forces that are, in some cases, woefully underequipped for the winter.
But the Russians, under General Sergei Surovikin, were preparing layered defenses and increasing their numbers with new recruits. Moscow may mount new offensives in the new year; until then, it sought to crush Ukraine’s economy and national will by destroying its energy infrastructure. It’s a strategy of slow, relentless brutalization: After months of insisting that victory is imminent, Putin now admits that his war will be long, and insists that Russia has “no limits” on military spending for here.
Indeed, this conflict defies the neat distinction between wars of movement and wars of attrition, between the kind of wars we can expect in the 21st century and those the world has experienced in the -20. Ukraine’s eastern counter-offensive resembles the blitzkrieg style of World War II; the ongoing Russian campaign around Bakhmut looked more like Passchendaele or the Somme. The war featured high-tech drones, HIMARS, and now Patriot missiles; it also involved mountains of relatively low-tech artillery shells. No one knows how this will end, but the coming year will tax the stamina of both sides.
Russia must maintain its isolated and sanctioned economy, in part by relying more on the rest of the world’s rogues. Ukraine must prevent strikes on Russian infrastructure from crippling its economy and draining its air defense, which means more money and military aid from the West.
Ukraine also needs more advanced weapons to liberate more territory – larger armed drones and longer-range missiles that can tear through Russia’s rear echelon, heavy tanks that can penetrate ready-made frontline defenses. And both sides will need more artillery to sustain existing operations, let alone conduct new ones. To some degree, the war hinged on whether the Russians could produce more 152-millimeter shells than the West could produce 155-millimeter shells — making the battle a battle of industrial bases.
Kyiv has decent prospects in this battle. Russia started with a massive advantage in artillery, but sanctions and export controls weakened its defense industry, while America ramped up production. Thanks to the just-passed National Defense Authorization Act, the Pentagon can now enter into multiyear contracts for the ammunition Ukraine needs, instead of raiding its own stockpiles.
But Zelenskiy is not in Washington if everything is copacetic. Rumors of a Russian diplomatic trap — a peace proposal meant to stop the war and prevent the next Ukrainian offensive — are in the air. “It is naive to wait for steps towards peace from Russia,” said Zelenskiy, “which enjoys being a terrorist state.” Some Pentagon officials are reportedly nervous that aid for Ukraine is depleting weapons intended for America’s own war plans. The longer this conflict drags on, the more its demands will compete, in the minds of US policymakers, with other contingencies Washington may face. Putin knows this, which may be why he seems so confident after a terrible year.
There is little sign of aid fatigue today: The White House greeted Zelenskiy with pledges of another $1.85 billion in military equipment, and Congress is set to appropriate another $45 billion to see Ukraine through in the coming months. But the influence of Ukraine skeptics in the new Republican-led House of Representatives should make Kyiv nervous about what will happen next: It’s not clear today’s standing ovations will translate into an open checkbook next year.
Putin’s dream is Zelenskiy’s nightmare — that America will fall short as the war in Ukraine drags on.
More From Bloomberg Opinion:
• Attack on Russia Test the Limits of the US-Ukraine Alliance: Hal Brands
• No, Not Time for Ukraine to Talk to Putin: Tobin Harshaw
• Drone Strikes Show Putin His Homeland Is Not Safe: James Stavridis
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. The Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, he is co-author, most recently, of “Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China” and a member of the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board.
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