WASHINGTON — Senior officials in the Biden administration say they believe the next four weeks will determine the ultimate outcome of Russia’s war in Ukraine, with long-lasting ramifications that will influence the drawing of the map of Europe for decades to come.
While officials still expect the war to be long and painful, they say it is imperative to rush Ukraine with as many new weapons as possible — especially long-range artillery and anti-artillery radar — to counter Russia’s new advance in eastern Donbas. to penetrate region.
Reflecting the renewed sense of urgency, President Biden announced Thursday that the United States would send Ukraine an additional $800 million in military aid, the second package in just over a week.
Biden said the latest aid package sent “an undeniable message” to Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin: “He will never succeed in dominating and occupying all of Ukraine.”
In comments to the White House, Mr. Biden said that while the United States would announce many details about the weapons it ships to Ukraine, some of the weaponry would be kept secret. The president borrowed and modified a famous line from Theodore Roosevelt, saying that the United States would “speak softly and carry a large spear,” a reference to the anti-tank weapon the Ukrainians have effectively used against Russian armor.
Determined to act quickly, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and General Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke this week with allies around the world and characterized the next month as pivotal.
If Russia can push through in the east, Putin will be better able to sell his so-called “military special operation” as a limited success and claim he has been given protection for Ukraine’s pro-Russian minority, US officials said. He could then push for a ceasefire, but would be encouraged to use the Donbas as leverage in any negotiations, they said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss operational matters.
But if Ukraine’s military can stop Russia’s advance into the Donbas, officials will say Mr Putin will face a grim choice: deploy more fighting power for a battle that could drag on for years or seriously negotiate peace talks.
The first option could mean full national mobilization, officials say, and is politically risky for the Russian leader.
The next phase of the war “will be critical,” said Peter Maurer, the chairman of the International Committee of the Red Cross, who visited Ukraine in March. “The escalation of hostilities in Donbas and all areas affected by the armed conflict is of great concern.”
At the Pentagon this week, both Mr. Austin and General Milley have had nonstop phone calls and meetings with allies on one topic: weapons. Mr Austin spoke with his Romanian counterpart on Monday and with the Spanish defense minister on Tuesday. On Wednesday he met the Polish defense minister and on Thursday he met his Czech counterpart.
With all four, the discussions were the same, officials said: how to send more powerful weapons to Ukraine in the coming weeks.
After weeks of focus on anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons such as Javelins and Stingers, last week’s new shipments included long-range artillery, tactical vehicles and mobile radar systems to help Ukrainians locate and destroy Russian artillery positions.
Other countries are sending tanks, more artillery and anti-ship missiles.
General Milley’s phone log this week looks like a roll call from countries with heavy artillery and weapons: Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Turkey.
A senior Defense Ministry official described the next month as a crucial turning point for both Russia and Ukraine. This phase of the battle is ostensibly beneficial to Russia to some extent, as Russian forces move across more open ground rather than being bogged down in cities.
But the official said the Pentagon believed that with the right weapons and a continuation of high morale and motivation, Ukrainian forces could not only stop but also push back the Russian advance.
“The Russians are in a weakened state from which they may be able to recover if they have enough time and new conscripts,” said Evelyn N. Farkas, the Pentagon’s top policy official for Russia and Ukraine during the Obama administration, when Russia annexed Crimea. . Peninsula. “That is why it is of the utmost importance to attack them now with everything we can give the Ukrainians.”
Current and former US military commanders with experience in Ukraine and Europe agreed.
“It’s make or break for Ukraine because they have to stop the Russian advance to capture all of Donbas,” Major General Michael S. Repass, a retired former commander of the US Special Operations forces in Europe who has been involved in the Ukraine defense affairs since 2016, wrote in an email.
If Mr Putin manages to conquer the east and establish a land corridor to Crimea, General Repass said Moscow would be in a stronger position in any negotiated settlement.
“In another month I expect exhaustion on both sides with no military decision/outcome anyway,” General Repass wrote. “A stalemate means Putin wins, and if Putin ‘wins’ we are in for a tough ride.”
To prevent such an outcome, current and former US commanders say the Ukrainian military will try to disrupt the Russian military build-up around the eastern city of Izium and other key staging areas with long-range artillery and armed drone strikes.
“It’s also about disrupting the Russians while they are still in reconstruction and preparation mode before they can really get back on their feet,” said Lt. Gen. Frederick B. Hodges, a former top US military commander in Europe. who is now at the Center for European Policy Analysis.
Even as Moscow narrows its targets and consolidates its military in southern and eastern Ukraine, the outcome of the war remains unclear at best, military analysts said. Indeed, the underlying weaknesses in Russia’s armed forces, exposed in the early weeks of the conflict, have not necessarily disappeared, they said.
For example, the thousands of Russian reinforcements pouring into Ukraine — including mercenaries, conscripts and troops from Russia’s far east and Georgia — have not trained together, analysts say.
The battered units that withdrew from northern Ukraine will also need time to regroup. Some will be replenished and sent back to combat. But others are so damaged that their remaining pieces will be patched together into one new unit, analysts said.
“They don’t have many options for generating new troops if the current units are too exhausted,” said Rob Lee, a Russian military specialist at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and a former US Marine officer.
“Once this offensive really starts, Russia will suffer more losses,” Lee said. “At some point, the attrition will be too great and limit the ability of the Russian military to conduct effective offensive operations.”
As Russian forces penetrate the Donbas, they will expand their supply lines and face the same logistical shortcomings that had hampered them before, officials said.
“We will see in the coming weeks how much they have learned and how much they have solved,” General Hodges said.
Even if Russian forces prevail over the next month, the specter of that army then advancing into western Ukraine or beyond Ukraine’s borders — a real fear at the start of the war — now seems far-fetched, several officials said.
“Win, lose or draw, the Russian military will likely be a depleted force after this next phase,” said Michael Kofman, the director of Russia studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Virginia. “Russia would have a hard time continuing any campaign outside the Donbas.”
But the senior Defense Ministry official warned that for Putin, all of Ukraine — not just the Donbas — has always been the ultimate prize.