MADRID — President Joe Biden and European leaders are converging on the Spanish capital Wednesday for a show of support for Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s invasion. But beneath the surface of unanimity, there is tension in planning the next steps in the war.
Despite NATO’s upcoming expansion and continued commitments to funnel massive amounts of weapons into Ukraine, there is a growing public divergence as to how long the war will last and to what extent the Western governments supporting the effort are willing to commit to helping Ukraine win — even what victory might look like.
Ukrainian leaders are eying the calendar as they ask allies for more weapons, fearful that without a major push this summer, Russia will be able to use the winter months to solidify captured ground in the eastern Donbas region.
At the same time, Western leaders are increasingly settling in for the long haul, talking about building up Ukrainian stocks of ammunition and training programs for what they see as a drawn-out struggle that will last well into next year, at the least.
One Western diplomat told a group of reporters before the Madrid summit that “we need to think longer term, beyond just what’s in front of us right now. We’re very much into that stage of thinking about next year and beyond, what Ukraine needs to recapture some of the initiative” by next spring.
“The sooner that the Ukrainians can turn the Russian tide, the better,” the diplomat said, but there isn’t a clear time frame for when that might happen. “Whether that’s before the winter or not we can’t predict, but what we are seeking to do is get them the weapon systems now that they need — including before the winter — but also help them to build during those winter months” for renewed offensives once the weather warms up.”
That scenario is exactly what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned against on Monday. Speaking virtually to the leaders of the G-7, Zelenskyy said that he needs more military support — now — to push the Russians back before winter, a plea that was met with approving nods but no new commitments.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan appeared to have heard the message, telling reporters after the G-7 gathering in Bavaria that Zelenskyy “was very much focused on trying to ensure that Ukraine is in as advantageous a position on the battlefield as possible in the next months as opposed to the next years, because he believes that a grinding conflict is not in the interest of the Ukrainian people, for obvious reasons.”
Zelenskyy’s strategy centers on “pushing the pace of both assistance and operations on the battlefield,” Sullivan said, “as opposed to letting things just drag out indefinitely.”
But while U.S. and allied leaders at the NATO summit in Madrid may have acknowledged Zelenskyy’s urgent requests, they aren’t biting on Kyiv’s timeline. Although Russia has suffered massive losses of troops and equipment in the four-month-old war, Ukraine’s forces have also been severely bloodied, leaving both sides hard-pressed to launch any troop-heavy offensives or gain much ground.
The Russian capture of Severodonetsk in Ukraine’s east came after weeks of devastating artillery barrages and vicious street fighting that netted the Kremlin the husk of a city, but did very little to actually move the front lines by any significant margin. The defending Ukrainian forces retreated across the Donets river to the city of Lysychansk on the far bank, where they’re digging in on higher ground.
“The war can go on for a long time,” Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hulqvist told POLITICO at the Madrid summit. “We must be sustainable in our support to Ukraine because if they don’t get this support they will be in a very problematic situation. It’s of interest for all of us that Ukraine be successful because there is a big risk that Russia will continue to attack other countries” in Europe.
The slower pace being described by European leaders belies the reality that stocks of weapons are limited, and NATO and its partner nations have yet to publicly clearly outline an endgame in Ukraine. Officials in Kyiv have stuck to the maximalist position of ejecting Russian forces from every inch of occupied territory to include Crimea, which Moscow has held since 2014. Western leaders have not gone that far, and have spoken in more general terms of defeating and deterring Russia.
Some countries, like France and Germany, have also pushed for a negotiated settlement, an idea that both Kyiv and Moscow have rejected as each jockeys for advantages on the battlefield before going to the negotiating table.
Other Western countries are also looking long-term, as Moscow’s forces move to entrench themselves in captured areas in Ukraine’s east and south. Analysts say that Russia’s troops will be difficult to dislodge, given their continued artillery superiority and the difficulty of mounting offensive operations against established positions stacked with heavy armor and artillery.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who serves as president of NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly, said it would be foolish for anyone to predict how long the war will or should last, noting that few people ever thought that Russia would actually invade Ukraine in the first place.
But, Connolly said in an interview, while a drawn-out conflict in the east and south could favor Ukraine in the long-term, Russia has historically demonstrated an ability to “absorb enormous losses and come back from them.”
“The Ukrainians have shown enormous creativity, bravery, courage, commitment, that clearly has taken the Russians by surprise,” he added. “And if we can combine that with training and highly sophisticated weapons systems to push the Russians back, in the long run, I am hopeful that the Ukrainians will prevail. I just think it’s way too early to predict [whether] it’s months vs. years.”
Ukraine’s government has been resistant to the idea that it would accept surrendering territory to the Russians as a compromise for peace, or even as a starting point for negotiations.
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said doing so would incentivize Russian President Vladimir Putin to launch an aggression against other Eastern European countries, eventually triggering “the next World War.”
“So let’s stop in Ukraine,” Klitschko told reporters at the NATO summit as world leaders were arriving. “We cannot continue … making some deals that won’t make sense. Bully the bully. There’s no other way to stop it. And in this case Putin is the bully.”