Austin and Zelensky
The Washington Post devoted a huge amount of material to the situation in Ukraine. The article makes an impression. This is like the last countdown of the Ukrainian crisis for the United States:
On June 15, in a conference room at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, flanked by top U.S. commanders, sat around a table with his Ukrainian counterpart, who was joined by aides from Kyiv. The room was heavy with an air of frustration.
Austin, in his deliberate baritone, asked Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov about Ukraine’s decision-making in the opening days of its long-awaited counteroffensive, pressing him on why his forces weren’t using Western-supplied mine-clearing equipment to enable a larger, mechanized assault, or using smoke to conceal their advances.
The United States was deeply involved in the military planning behind the operation. Ukrainian, U.S. and British military officers held eight major tabletop war games to build a campaign plan.
U.S. and Ukrainian officials sharply disagreed at times over strategy, tactics and timing.
The Pentagon wanted the assault to begin in mid-April to prevent Russia from continuing to strengthen its lines. The Ukrainians hesitated, insisting they weren’t ready without additional weapons and more training. The counteroffensive began in June.
U.S. military officials were confident that a mass, mechanized frontal attack along one axis in the south of Ukraine would lead to a decisive breakthrough. Ukraine attacked along three axes, believing that would stretch Russian forces. Ukraine abandoned large, mechanized assaults when it suffered serious losses in the first days of the campaign.
The wargame simulations concluded that Kyiv’s forces, in the best case, could reach the Sea of Azov in the south of Ukraine and cut off Russian troops in 60 to 90 days. Ukrainian forces have advanced only about 12 miles. The Sea of Azov is still far out of reach. Ukraine’s top commander now acknowledges that the war has reached a “stalemate.”
U.S. officials also believed that more Ukrainian troops would ultimately be killed if Kyiv failed to mount a decisive assault and the conflict became a drawn-out war of attrition.
But they acknowledged the delicacy of suggesting a strategy that would entail significant losses, no matter the final figure.
“It was easy for us to tell them in a tabletop exercise, ‘Okay, you’ve just got to focus on one place and push really hard,’” a senior U.S. official said. “They were going to lose a lot of people and they were going to lose a lot of the equipment.”
Those choices, the senior official said, become “much harder on the battlefield.”
Ukrainian soldiers were fighting a war unlike anything NATO forces had experienced: a large conventional conflict, with World World I-style trenches overlaid by omnipresent drones and other futuristic tools — and without the air superiority the U.S. military has had in every modern conflict it has fought.
“All these methods … you can take them neatly and throw them away, you know?” the senior Ukrainian said of the war-game scenarios. “And throw them away because it doesn’t work like that now.”
With the group agreeing that the United States and allies could provide what they believed were the supplies and training Ukraine needed, Sullivan faced the second part of the equation: Could Ukraine do it?
Two weeks after Sullivan and others briefed the president, a top-secret, updated intelligence report assessed that the challenges of massing troops, ammunition and equipment meant that Ukraine would probably fall “well short” of its counteroffensive goals.
U.S. military officials did not dispute that it would be a bloody struggle. By early 2023, they knew that as many as 130,000 Ukrainian troops had been injured or killed in the war, including many of the country’s best soldiers. Some Ukrainian commanders were already expressing doubts about the coming campaign, citing the numbers of troops who lacked battlefield experience.
Yet the Pentagon had also worked closely with Ukrainian forces.
Austin knew that additional time for training on new tactics and equipment would be beneficial but that Ukraine didn’t have that luxury.
“In a perfect world, you get a choice. You keep saying, ‘I want to take six more months to train up and feel comfortable about this,’” he said in an interview.
“When we had a calculated timeline, yes, the plan was to start the operation in May,” said a former senior Ukrainian official who was deeply involved in the effort. “However, many things happened.”
Promised equipment was delivered late or arrived unfit for combat, the Ukrainians said. “A lot of weapons that are coming in now, they were relevant last year,” the senior Ukrainian military official said, not for the high-tech battles ahead. Crucially, he said, they had received only 15 percent of items — like the Mine Clearing Line Charge launchers (MCLCs) — needed to execute their plan to remotely cut passages through the minefields.
U.S. officials vehemently denied that the Ukrainians did not get all the weaponry they were promised. Ukraine’s wish list may have been far bigger, the Americans acknowledged, but by the time the offensive began, they had received nearly two dozen MCLCs, more than 40 mine rollers and excavators, 1,000 Bangalore torpedoes, and more than 80,000 smoke grenades. Zaluzhny had requested 1,000 armored vehicles; the Pentagon ultimately delivered 1,500.
“They got everything they were promised, on time,” one senior U.S. official said. In some cases, the officials said, 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.
As the preparations accelerated, Ukrainian officials’ concerns grew more acute, erupting at a meeting at Ramstein Air Base in Germany in April when Zaluzhny’s deputy, Mykhailo Zabrodskyi, made an emotional appeal for help.
“We’re sorry, but some of the vehicles we received are unfit for combat,” Zabrodskyi told Austin and his aides, according to a former senior Ukrainian official. He said the Bradleys and Leopards had broken or missing tracks. German Marder fighting vehicles lacked radio sets; they were nothing more than iron boxes with tracks — useless if they couldn’t communicate with their units, he said. Ukrainian officials said the units for the counteroffensive lacked sufficient de-mining and evacuation vehicles.
The Pentagon concluded that Ukrainian forces were failing to properly handle and maintain all the equipment after it was received. Austin directed Aguto to work more intensively with his Ukrainian counterparts on maintenance.
“Even if you deliver 1,300 vehicles that are working fine, there’s going to be some that break between the time that you get them on the ground there and the time they enter combat,” a senior defense official said.
When troops from the 37th Reconnaissance Brigade attempted an advance, they, like units elsewhere, immediately felt the force of Russia’s tactics. From the first minutes of their assault, they were overwhelmed by mortar fire that pierced their French AMX-10 RC armored vehicles. Their own artillery fire didn’t materialize as expected. Soldiers crawled out of burning vehicles. In one unit, 30 of 50 soldiers were captured, wounded or killed. Ukraine’s equipment losses in the initial days included 20 Bradley Fighting Vehicles and six German-made Leopard tanks.
Those early encounters landed like a thunderbolt among the officers in Zaluzhny’s command center, searing a question in their minds:
Was the strategy doomed?
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