Republicans hold up Ukraine aid and ask painful questions

Republicans are complaining that neither the Biden administration nor Zelensky could tell them how Ukraine could win the war with Russia or what plan the administration had for Ukraine.

Republicans are complaining that neither the Biden administration nor Zelensky could tell them how Ukraine could win the war with Russia or what plan the administration had for Ukraine going forward. Nor were the Republicans happy that no progress was made with the administration on their demand for strong border security. So far the result is that the measure in both houses of Congress is stalled. Legislation won’t be taken up again until after the Christmas and New Year’s break, if then, notes Stephen Bryen, a former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense and is a leading expert in security strategy and technology.

The Biden administration Ukraine problem, however, goes deeper than just funding. Legislators now understand that the war cannot be won and are wondering whether the administration has not got itself in a trap by supporting Zelensky.

In a nutshell, supporting Zelensky in a no-win scenario seems a bad idea to many. No serious military leader has advanced the thesis that Ukraine can win against Russia, despite saying for months that it could.  Lawmakers who listened to these arguments for the past two years now realize that the administration duped them.  The defining moment happened over this past summer when the Ukrainian offensive heavily supported with US arms and US and NATO training, not to mention massive intelligence support, yielded huge losses and only a few tiny, reversible victories.

Zelensky was still running around in the US claiming that Ukraine had won many victories in the offensive and had broken through the Surovikin defense line put up by the Russians.  These days that argument is no longer credible, if it ever was.

There is big turbulence ahead. The Pentagon has dispatched Lt. General Antonio Aguto, Jr. to Ukraine. His job will be the shadow commander of Ukraine’s army, basically replacing Zaluzhny and putting Aguto over land army commander Oleksandr Syrskyi. His instructions are contradictory. On the one hand, he is supposed to direct the Ukrainians on a “hold and build” strategy. On the other he is to tell Zelensky to freeze the conflict, at the latest by this coming Spring.

Hold means to not try and advance but hold onto territories under Ukraine’s control. This idea is already undermined by the fact that the Russians are advancing across most of the line of contact.  They have already entered Marinka, a small city in Donetsk that was under Ukrainian control.

The idea of “Hold” therefore is not really a coherent strategy. Ukrainian general Valery Zaluzhny, Commander of Ukraine’s armed forces and a key competitor to Zelensky, proposed pulling back Ukraine’s army and forming a real defensive line. But where would that line be? And how would it stop a Russian advance? Zelensky himself seems to endorse the idea while insisting on keeping up the battles around Bakhmut and Avdiivka.

Ukraine has a severe manpower problem, and for Ukraine to find recruits it has to use clumsy and draconian tactics.  Some of the untapped manpower is in the bigger cities and mostly has been protected by the regime in Kiev because they are the sons and daughters of what in Russia is called the nomenklatura.  When you put pressure in this class of people you cause serious internal political problems.  While there will not be any elections in Ukraine, there is dissatisfaction.

In the past week MP David Arakhamia, Zelensky’s party leader says that there is a revolt in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament which is largely a mouthpiece for Zelensky.  Many of the MPs have signaled they want to get out of Ukraine, as soon as possible.  Some of them already are gone. This is a sign of a sinking ship and a loss of confidence in the maximum leader. (Ukrainians are not leaving the country now because they are not allowed to leave. Even former President Petro Poroshenko, who got a valid exit permit from the Rada, was stopped at the border and turned around, because Zelensky did not want him talking to western leaders.)

It is hard to see how Aguto can fix the manpower problem or repair the loss of confidence internally in the Ukrainian government.

There is, too, another problem with Aguto sitting in Kiev.  Not only is this highly embarrassing for Ukraine’s military leaders, but it also changes the war into an American war.  Aguto is not by himself –he brings a team of Army guys with him.  That small team is bound to grow.  It bears a resemblance to sending US “advisors” to Vietnam that soon morphed into a war that, in the end, the US lost.

There is no evidence that the Aguto plan, if one can call it that, is convincing or will accomplish either of its objectives (hold and build). It will bring the possibility of war in Europe even closer to reality, because the Russians may decide that they can’t pretend that the war can be confined only to Ukraine’s borders, Stephen Bryen writes.

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