Another day, another weapons shipment: On Friday, the Pentagon announced a new transfer of precision-guided shells and multiple rocket launchers to Ukraine, the latest armaments heading east. But will there come a day when that system begins to slow?
More than four months after Russia invaded Ukraine, a war that was expected to be a Russian blitzkrieg only to turn into a debacle for Moscow has now evolved into a battle of inches with no end in sight, a geopolitical stamina contest in which President Vladimir V. Putin is gambling that he can outlast a fickle, impatient West.
President Biden has vowed to stand with Ukraine for “as long as it takes,” but neither he nor anyone else can say how long that will be or how much more the United States and its allies can do over that distance, short of direct military intervention. At some point, officials acknowledge, U.S. and European stocks of weapons will run low; while the United States has authorized $54 billion in military and other assistance, no one expects another $54 billion check when that runs out.
So Mr. Biden and his team are searching for a long-term strategy at a time when the White House sees the dangers of escalation increasing, the prospect for a negotiated settlement still far-off and public weariness beginning to set in at home and abroad.
“I think we need to be determined and continue to support Ukraine,” said Mr. Coons, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Exactly how long this will go, exactly what the trajectory will be, we don’t know right now. But we know if we don’t continue to support Ukraine, the outcome for the U.S. will be much worse.”
“I worry about the fatigue factor of the public in a wide range of countries because of the economic costs and because there are other pressing concerns,” said Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware and a close ally of Mr. Biden’s who attended the NATO summit meeting in Madrid last week.
While the fighting lately has focused mainly on a crescent in eastern and southern Ukraine, the White House worries it could easily spiral out of control. A recent missile strike on a shopping center in central Ukraine suggested that Moscow was running low on precision weaponry and increasingly turning to less sophisticated armaments that could hit unintended targets — potentially even across the border, in NATO allies like Poland or Romania. And American officials worry that Mr. Putin may resort to tactical nuclear weapons to break out of the box he faces on the battlefield.
Indeed, the Biden administration has concluded that the Russian leader still wants to widen the war and try again to seize Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. “We think he has effectively the same political goals that we had previously, which is to say that he wants to take most of Ukraine,” Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence, said at a conference last week.
Mr. Putin almost seemed to confirm that on Thursday, when he warned that he had more expansive options available. “Everybody should know that, largely speaking, we haven’t even yet started anything in earnest,” he told parliamentary leaders in Moscow.
“We are hearing that they want to defeat us on the battlefield,” Mr. Putin added. “Let them try.”
U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy deliberations, are urging the Ukrainians to consolidate their forces at the front. But Ukraine’s leaders want to go further and mass enough personnel to mount a counteroffensive to retake territory, a goal that American officials support in theory even if they are dubious about the Ukrainians’ capacity to dislodge the Russians. President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine told Group of 7 leaders last week that he wanted the war over by the end of the year. But there are serious doubts in Washington about whether that is possible militarily.
The Biden administration does not want to be seen pressuring Mr. Zelensky to negotiate a deal with the Kremlin at the risk of rewarding armed aggression, but officials and analysts said it would be hard to sustain the same level of material support as war fatigue grows on both sides of the Atlantic. Military aid passed by Congress is expected to last into the second quarter of next year, by some estimates, but the question is how long current supplies of weapons and ammunition can last without degrading the military readiness of the United States.
American officials have encouraged other countries to provide leftover stores of Soviet-made weaponry that Ukrainians are more familiar with — an item on Mr. Biden’s agenda for a trip to the Middle East next week, when he is scheduled to meet with leaders of Arab states that were once clients of Moscow.
“There is a lot of running room, but clearly there is this sense that the next six months are really critical,” said Ivo H. Daalder, the president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO. “In the next six months, we’re going to find out one or both sides are too exhausted, and they’re going to look for a way out.”
The Biden administration is also focusing on winning over the swing states, as some call them: Brazil, China, India and other countries that have not joined the campaign by the United States and Europe to isolate Moscow. A diplomatic effort would seek to show them that Ukraine and the United States would be open to a negotiated settlement as long as there are no territorial concessions, making the point that it is Russia that refuses to end the war.
As uncertain as the next few months are, the administration argues that it has met or will meet some of the strategic objectives it set in the spring. The first was to make sure that a “vibrant, independent, democratic Ukraine” emerged that would be able to survive over the long term. Officials are convinced that the country will survive — but they also believe that unless Ukraine develops a way to export grain and other agricultural products, its economic future could be in jeopardy.
The second objective was to make sure the invasion was a “strategic failure” for Russia. U.S. officials believe the country is now so isolated, and under such heavy economic sanctions, to put that goal within reach. But the worry is that Mr. Putin will have time to regroup, launch new attacks and seek to carve off another part of Ukraine.
The third objective was to keep the war from escalating into a direct superpower conflict. On that score, U.S. officials said they were succeeding — and that all the evidence showed that Mr. Putin was being careful, at least so far, to avoid military engagement with NATO allies.
The fourth objective was the hardest: to strengthen the international order around Western values. NATO is being strengthened, officials argue, both because it has remained unified and because it is now all but certain to expand to include Finland and Sweden. But so far, Mr. Biden has not talked much about what that new American-centric order might look like.
Some officials, including Mr. Biden, cringed when Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said in April that “we want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.”
The president called Mr. Austin to remonstrate him for the comment, then directed his staff to leak the fact that he had done so. But officials acknowledged that was indeed the long-term strategy, even if Mr. Biden did not want to publicly provoke Mr. Putin into escalation.
“Everything the administration has done in terms of providing support has been fantastic,” said Evelyn N. Farkas, the executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership and a former Obama administration official. “All I can say is we need more of it faster.”
She said Mr. Biden should not limit his ambitions to keeping the Russians in the east. “We need to help the Ukrainians actually launch an offensive,” she said, “not just hold some ground and keep them away from Kyiv.”
In the administration, significant tension remains over whether Mr. Biden is being too cautious in the kinds of weapons he is sending to Ukraine and how quickly. The decision to provide HIMARS rocket launchers was much debated because of fears that it would lead to escalation.
American intelligence assessments suggest that it will take several years for the Russians to rebuild the equipment that has been destroyed in the war, and that export controls on chips and other technologies will slow, if not stymie, that effort.
That concern was heightened when the Ukrainians declared several days ago that they had used the system to strike an arms depot in Russian territory; it is not clear whether that occurred as described, or if it did, whether it violated commitments made to Washington to use the system only within Ukrainian borders.
Mr. Coons said the West needed to be as patient as Mr. Putin.
“As long as we stay the course, our European allies will stay the course,” he said. “But this is a long way from over.”