Despite repeated assurances that the US will continue its support for Ukraine “for as long as it takes”, concerns are now emerging that America’s capacity and willingness to continue arming and financing Ukraine may soon be coming to an end.
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For many a commentator, strategic policy analysts, and policymakers across the Western world, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the greatest moral and strategic challenge of our time (well, at least to date).
Often likened to Hitler’s annexation of Austria or the Czech Sudetenland in the immediate years preceding the dictator’s invasion of Poland in 1939, which formally kicked off the Second World War (despite Imperial Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931), no matter what way you look at it, Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has the potential to fundamentally reshape the global balance of power.
Like the island democracy of Taiwan, the vast, grass steppes of Ukraine have become one of the dual epicentres of global geopolitical competition and great power competition as the United States-led world order and the newly emerging Russo/Chinese-led world order.
However, now more than 18-months into the devastating conflict, with momentum stalling on both sides, questions are beginning to surface about the enduring commitment of the United States to continue its materiel and financial support for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s impressive leadership and defiance in the face of Putin’s invasion.
This uncomfortable reality is reinforced by comments made by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on 22 December 2022, in which he highlighted concerns about the capacity of the United States to directly deter and engage a competing great power: “When it comes to Russia’s war against Ukraine, if we were still in Afghanistan, it would have, I think, made much more complicated the support that we’ve been able to give and that others have been able to give Ukraine to resist and push back against the Russian aggression.”
Secretary Blinken’s concerning statements were equally reinforced by US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, who in a testimony before the US House armed services committee, said, “If there was a war on the Korean peninsula or great power war between the United States and Russia or the United States and China, the consumption rates would be off the charts … So I’m concerned. I know the secretary is ... we’ve got a ways to go to make sure our stockpiles are prepared for the real contingencies.”
This only becomes more concerning when you get a true understanding of the amount of money and materiel the United States alone has donated, or invested (depending on who you ask) in Ukraine since the beginning of the Russian invasion, with the US donating US$113 billion (AU$174.36 billion) since January 2021.
Highlighting the growing concern about the Ukrainian situation is Daniel DePetris, a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist at the Chicago Tribune, writing for DefenseNews.com, who asks, Is the Biden administration’s Ukraine policy sustainable?, raising important questions for the broader implications of declining US interest.
Lofty aspirations v the reality on the ground
Despite continued reassurances from the Biden administration and across the broader Western alliance network about continuing its materiel and financial support for Ukraine, “for as long as it takes”, DePetris highlights that despite some seriously loft aspirations, these often fall flat in the face of the reality of industrial constraints, domestic political limitations, and broader geostrategic considerations.
DePetris states, “Lofty aspirations, however, are often blunted by cold, hard reality. And the reality is that the Biden administration’s Ukraine strategy is increasingly being tested by political, policy and resource constraints.”
Unpacking growing domestic challenges to sustained support for the Ukrainian resistance, DePetris adds, “Ukraine aid is a major topic of debate within the Republican Party writ large. While GOP congressional leadership remains largely onboard, the rank and file are either opposed to writing more checks or are tying additional aid to more stringent accountability measures such as the formation of a special inspector general.
However, this reluctance on the part of the Republican Party is equally reflected by the increasingly tired American public, particularly in the aftermath of the Biden administration’s disastrous response to the Maui wildfires with DePetris citing analysis by CNN, which revealed 55 per cent of Americans surveyed in July revealing they didn’t want Congress to authorise more war funding.
Further to this, as part of the same analysis, CNN reveals that 51 per cent of surveyed Americans believe the United States has already done enough to support Ukraine’s efforts.
These responses are further compounded by ongoing “battlefield dynamics” which DePetris explains, saying, “Battlefield dynamics need to be considered as well. While the war has never been easy on Ukrainian forces at the front, 2022 was a year when the Ukrainian Army vastly outperformed expectations. Helped by consistent US weapons supplies and a bumbling Russian military that couldn’t shoot straight or maintain its supply lines, Ukrainian troops were able to accomplish repeated tactical successes.
“In April 2022, Russian units were forced to abandon their drive toward Kyiv after weeks of being bogged down by a lumbering, poor logistical system. In September, Ukrainian forces humiliated the Russian Army in Kharkiv; two months later, in Kherson, Russian commanders concluded it was better to organise a retreat from the Dnieper River’s western bank than keep investing manpower and equipment into tenuous positions,” DePetris adds, seemingly conflicting with the previously cited reasoning for declining support in the US.
However, as we have no doubt come to realise, 2023 has presented some major challenges for the Ukrainian counteroffensive, despite Pregozhin’s failed “coup” which is resulting in slower-than-expected progress despite the immense amount of materiel, both of weapons, technical training, and in terms of financial aid that has transformed the Ukrainian Armed Forces from a Soviet-style force, into a far more capable Western-style combat force.
DePetris explains, “But this year is proving to be far harder and more complicated for Ukrainian troops. The 10-weeklong Ukrainian counteroffensive along three points of the 600-mile frontline can best be described as gruelling. Anybody who anticipated a replay of the Kharkiv episode set themselves up for disappointment. The days when whole chunks of Ukrainian territory could be reclaimed are likely long gone, replaced with a highly intense combat environment in which those on the offensive reclaim tiny bits of land at a high cost in men and materiel.
“While it’s too early to say that Kyiv’s counteroffensive has failed, neither can one assume it will eventually succeed. The Ukrainian Army has to find a way to break through three layers of Russian defensive fortifications and, just as importantly, hold those positions without atrophying its forces or degrading its ability to defend against Russian counterattacks. The US intelligence community is sceptical this can be done this year, if ever,” DePetris states.
Slow progress, a new US response and European leadership
This information seems to fly in the face of the information that the media, both in the US and even here in Australia, would have us believe, namely, that Russia’s defeat is a forgone conclusion and that Ukraine will be able to overcome Russia and regain its pre-2014 territorial integrity.
Reinforcing this now stark reality and the now grim prospects for Ukrainian victory as highlighted by DePetris, John Hudson and Alex Horton of The Washington Post, who state, “Ukraine launched the counteroffensive in early June ... But in the first week of fighting, Ukraine incurred major casualties against Russia’s well-prepared defences despite having a range of newly acquired Western equipment, including US Bradley Fighting Vehicles, German-made Leopard 2 tanks and specialised mine-clearing vehicles.”
Again, this uncomfortable reality presents significant challenges for the Biden administration and the broader Western alliance network in the face of declining Ukrainian progress and the domestic costs associated, with DePetris adding, “Biden, therefore, will have to be prepared for a scenario in which Russia’s defensive lines are simply too strong to break through. This is more likely than the full Russian troop withdrawal the Ukrainian government has been aiming for over the last year and a half.
“The US should adjust its policy accordingly, now, by dropping its support for maximalist Ukrainian war aims and pivot toward support for armed neutrality: consistent US defensive support for the Ukrainian Army so it can keep the territory it presently holds and ensure Kyiv’s deterrent against Russian aggression is intact over the long haul,” DePetris explains.
Expanding on this, Hudson and Horton added, “The Ukrainians have for months poured tremendous resources into Bakhmut, including soldiers, ammunition and time, but they have lost control of the city and have made only modest gains in capturing territory around it. And while the close-in, trench-line fighting is different in Bakhmut from the problem of mines in the south, the focus has left some in the Biden administration concerned that overcommitting in the east may have eroded the potency of the counteroffensive in the south.”
Ultimately, these challenges spell major dramas for the broader US global alliance network, with major implications for the future of Taiwan in the event of any major action by the People’s Republic of China and by extension, the post-Second World War order upon which Australia depends.
Recognising these challenges doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom, these challenges aren’t insurmountable, particularly when the solutions are shared across an aggregation of allied partners, with Australia uniquely positioned to maximise the opportunities presented both directly in terms of precision-guided munitions, but more broadly across a range of dual-use technologies and consumer goods as a result of the advanced manufacturing technologies developed in concert with responding to these challenges.
Yet despite the opportunities to learn from comparable nations, it appears as though Australia is falling back into its default position of “she’ll be right”, while nations across the globe, and in particular in the Indo-Pacific, double down on the disruption wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic and have actively begun to marshal their own national power and cohesively coordinate in preparation for the post-COVID-19, multipolar world order.
With this in mind, it is critical to understand that perhaps, unlike almost any other nation, Australia is at a precipice and both the Australian public and the nation’s political and strategic leaders need to decide what they want the nation to be: do they want the nation to become an economic, political, and strategic backwater caught between two competing great empires and a growing cluster of periphery great powers? Or do we “have a crack” and actively establish itself as a regional great power with all the benefits it entails?
While contemporary Australia has been far removed from the harsh realities of conflict, with many generations never enduring the reality of rationing for food, energy, medical supplies or luxury goods, and even fewer within modern Australia understanding the sociopolitical and economic impact such rationing would have on the now world-leading Australian standard of living.
Equally, we have to begin to confront the question of “What sort of region and world do we want to live in and hand down to our children?”, for if Australia does not embrace the opportunities presented by the Indo-Pacific and more broadly the era of competition that is coming to characterise the 21st century, we will have the world created for us by nations that hold their national interests as sacrosanct and put them before all other considerations.