Since the start of the Russian invasion, the Biden Administration has provided valuable intelligence and increasingly powerful weaponry—a risky choice that has paid off in the battle against Putin.
In early September, Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s defense minister, travelled from the center of Kyiv to a U.S. airbase in Ramstein-Miesenbach, Germany, where NATO officials were gathering to discuss military support for Ukraine. The trip, a distance of about twelve hundred miles, roughly the equivalent of travelling from New York to Minneapolis, lasted the better part of a day. Because there are no flights out of Ukraine, Reznikov had to take a car to the border and a plane the rest of the way. As he set off from the capital, he couldn’t help but hope for good news. Ukrainian forces had opened a second flank in an ambitious counter-offensive, a surprise operation in the direction of Russian-occupied territory in the Kharkiv region. “I learned not to raise my expectations too high,” Reznikov said, “especially in wartime.”
Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, appointed Reznikov defense minister last November, just three months before the Russian invasion. Reznikov is a lawyer and a longtime fixture of Kyiv politics, a veteran of the Soviet Air Force and an avid skydiver. He now serves as a lead negotiator securing the Western arms his country needs to continue its fight. “I get a certain request from the generals,” he said.“Then I explain to our partners the need for it.”
At the time of Reznikov’s trip to Ramstein, the war was in what he called its third phase. “The first phase was simply to hold off the enemy in those places where they managed to break through,” he said. This was the battle for Kyiv and for Ukraine’s survival as a sovereign state, which Russia effectively lost. “The second was to stabilize the front and achieve something resembling an equal opposition of forces on the battlefield.” Russia, which had occupied a number of key cities in Ukraine’s south and east, retained a sizable advantage in terms of heavy weapons; its long-distance missiles could rain down terror and death across the battlefield and beyond, clearing the way for its troops to advance. But Ukraine received enough artillery systems and munitions from the U.S. and other NATOstates to mount an adequate response. “This allowed the country’s military and political leadership to think seriously about the third phase,” Reznikov said. “That is, launching an offensive operation.”
Vladimir Putin had effectively embraced the stalemate of the war’s second phase, wagering that, as the front lines held and the conflict increasingly disrupted global energy and food supplies, the Ukrainian public would tire of the war and the West’s commitment would wane. There was some basis for questioning the durability of U.S. and NATO support—it seemed to strengthen in proportion to Ukraine’s ability to repel Russian forces. “We have seen U.S. arms supplies contribute to real success on the battlefield, which has in turn consolidated support for providing more,” a Biden Administration official involved in Ukraine policy told me. “But one could imagine things reversed: if the former were not the case, then maybe the latter wouldn’t be, either.”
As spring turned to summer, Reznikov sensed a growing weariness in some Western capitals. The attitude, he said, was, “O.K., well, we helped Ukraine resist, we kept them from being destroyed.” Reznikov and other officials wanted to demonstrate to their partners in the West that the Ukrainian Army could reclaim large swaths of Russian-occupied territory. “The counter-offensive would show that it’s one thing to take part in helping the victim,” Reznikov said, “another to realize you can punish the aggressor.”
In July, military officials from Ukraine, the United States, and the United Kingdom converged at a base in Europe to plot out possible scenarios. The Ukrainians’ starting point was a broad campaign across the southern front, a push to liberate not only the occupied city of Kherson but hundreds of square miles in the nearby Mykolaiv and Zaporizhzhia regions. The military planners met in three rooms, divided by country, where experts ran the same tabletop exercises. They often worked twenty hours a day, with American and British military officials helping to hone the Ukrainians’ strategy. “We have algorithms and methodologies that are more sophisticated when it comes to things like mapping out logistics and calculating munitions rates,” a senior official at the Defense Department said. “The idea was not to tell them what to do but, rather, to give them different runs to test their plans.”
The initial tabletop exercises showed that a unified push across the southern front would come at a high cost to Ukrainian equipment and manpower. It looked ill advised. “They ran this version of the offensive many times and just couldn’t get the model to work,” the Defense official said.
In the south, Ukraine had been battering Russian positions with American-provided precision rocket systems. In response, Russia’s generals had moved a considerable number of units out of the Kharkiv region, in the northeast, to back up forces near Kherson. The assembled planners settled on an idea that would take advantage of this vulnerability: a two-front offensive. Shortly afterward, Reznikov was informed of the plans. “It wasn’t the first time I was struck by our military’s ability to come up with unexpected solutions,” he said. “I understood it was up to me to get them the necessary weapons.”
In late August, Ukrainian ground forces started their push toward Kherson. It was a slow, grinding operation, with both sides suffering heavy losses. A week later, troops dashed toward Russian lines in the Kharkiv region, a move that clearly caught Russian military leaders off guard. With so many units relocated to the south, a number of territories in the northeast were guarded by under-equipped Russian forces and riot police with little combat experience. Many of them simply abandoned their positions and ran off, leaving behind crates of ammunition, and even a few tanks. Ukrainian troops sped through one town after another, often on Western-supplied fighting vehicles, such as Humvees and Australian Bushmaster armored personnel carriers.
Reznikov was still en route to the Ramstein Air Base when he first received a text message about the breakthrough near Kharkiv. The Ukrainian armed forces had retaken Balakliya, a key gateway city in the region. Reznikov pictured the map in his head, counting the next towns likely to be liberated. He was travelling with a small delegation that included top officials from the general staff and military intelligence, who were also receiving updates from the front. They began comparing notes. Ukrainian units moved east, toward Kupyansk, an important logistics hub, then spread north and south, retaking key roads and rail junctions. By the time Reznikov landed in Germany, on September 8th, paratroopers had reached the Oskil River, thirty miles behind what had been the Russian front line just hours before. Within days, the Ukrainian military recaptured more than seven hundred square miles of territory.
The next morning, Reznikov met with Lloyd Austin, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, and Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They had been briefed on the counter-offensive, and joined Reznikov in tracking the military’s progress on a map. Both maintained their composure, Reznikov noted, but they were clearly excited. “Their faces were glowing,” he said. “They knew what was happening, and what this meant.”
In the afternoon, Reznikov addressed a group of thirty NATO defense ministers. “The success of Ukraine’s counterattack is thanks to you,” he said.
He later told me, “Of course, I meant the U.S. most of all.”
Prior to this year’s invasion, officials in Kyiv often felt as if the political establishment in Washington viewed their country as little more than a bit player in a geopolitical game. “Ukraine was not considered to have its own agency,” Mykhailo Podolyak, a top adviser to Zelensky, said, “but rather as just one of the many elements in managing the relationship with Russia.”
In 2014, Putin had ordered Russian troops with no insignia—the so-called little green men—to Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula in the Black Sea, and sparked a separatist conflict in the Donbas, in eastern Ukraine. At the time, Ukraine retained a largely Soviet-style military, with a baroque bureaucracy and Cold War hardware. Zelensky’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, appealed to Barack Obama for more and better weapons. Obama’s concern, according to the senior Defense official, was that, “if we escalated, the Russians would counter-escalate, and the conflict would spiral.” Joe Biden, then the Vice-President, was more inclined to provide arms. The Defense official said, “He had the position that if Putin had to explain to Russian mothers why caskets were coming back home, that could affect his calculus.”
Ukrainian officials were particularly adamant in their requests for one weapon: the shoulder-fired Javelin anti-tank missile, which takes its name from the similarity of its flight path to that of a spear—the missile arcs nearly five hundred feet into the air, then back down, striking a tank or armored vehicle from above, where it’s most vulnerable. “The Javelin was the one thing the Ukrainians understood they really needed,” Ben Rhodes, a deputy national-security adviser in the Obama White House, said. “It was also a purely defensive weapon, which, they hoped, could make it relatively easier for us to supply.”
Obama declined to provide any lethal arms at all. Instead, the Administration focussed its efforts on training Ukrainian forces. At a base near Yavoriv, in western Ukraine, fifteen miles from the Polish border, instructors from the U.S. and other NATO countries taught the principles of small-unit tactics and trained a new branch of Ukrainian special forces. Still, Carol Northrup, who was then the U.S. defense attaché at the Embassy in Kyiv, said, the Ukrainians “were much more interested in our stuff than our advice. They would say, ‘We want stuff.’ And we’d answer, ‘We want to train you.’ ”
Donald Trump came into office promising improved relations with Russia, which alarmed officials in Kyiv. But his Administration approved the Javelins. The first shipment—about two hundred missiles and thirty-seven launchers—arrived in Ukraine in the spring of 2018. The following year, an anonymous whistle-blower revealed that, during an official phone call with Zelensky, Trump had implied that future Javelin sales could be linked to a “favor.” The President wanted Zelensky to look into an obscure conspiracy theory suggesting that the Ukrainian government, not Russia, had interfered in the 2016 Presidential election, and to order the investigation of a case involving the work of Biden’s son Hunter on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company. The exchange led to Trump’s first impeachment trial. It also unlocked U.S. military aid for Ukraine: Congress, with bipartisan support, insured that a package worth two hundred and fifty million dollars was released.
Zelensky saw Biden’s election as a chance to re-start relations with the U.S. In the spring of 2021, Russia began assembling troops and equipment on the Ukrainian border. That September, during a meeting with Zelensky at the White House, Biden announced an additional sixty million dollars in security assistance, including more Javelins. The two Presidents projected an air of mutual interest and bonhomie, but Zelensky left Washington without commitments on two key issues, both of which he had raised with Biden: creating a path for Ukraine’s admittance to NATO, and preventing the startup of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would allow Russia to circumvent Ukraine in supplying natural gas to Germany and the rest of Europe.
That fall, intelligence data showed that Russia had positioned more than a hundred thousand troops along the Ukrainian border. “At that point, we weren’t yet sure if Putin had made the ultimate decision to invade,” a person familiar with White House discussions on Ukraine said. “But it was without doubt that he was giving himself the capability to do so.”
In November, Biden dispatched the director of the C.I.A., William Burns, on a secret trip to Moscow. Burns had previously served as the U.S. Ambassador to Russia and had often dealt with Putin personally. In the course of two days, Burns met with Putin’s inner circle of advisers, including Alexander Bortnikov, the director of Russia’s Federal Security Service, and Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the Kremlin’s Security Council. He also had an hour-long phone call with Putin, who, wary of COVID and increasingly isolated, was hunkered down in his Presidential residence in Sochi. Burns thought that Putin sounded cool and dispassionate, as if his mind was nearly made up. Upon returning to Washington, Burns relayed his findings to Biden. The message, according to Burns, was that “Putin thought Zelensky a weak leader, that the Ukrainians would cave, and that his military could achieve a decisive victory at minimal cost.”
In January, Burns made a trip to Kyiv to warn Zelensky. The Orthodox Christmas had just passed, and a festive atmosphere lingered in Ukraine’s capital, with decorations lining the streets. Zelensky understood the implications of the intelligence that Burns presented, but he still thought it was possible to avoid a large-scale invasion. For starters, he was reluctant to do anything that might set off a political and economic crisis inside Ukraine. He also worried that mobilizing the military could inadvertently provide Putin with a casus belli. Burns was sympathetic with the dilemma, but he emphasized that the looming danger was not hypothetical. Burns specifically told Zelensky that Russian forces planned to seize the Hostomel airport, twenty miles from the capital, and use it as a staging point for flying in troops and equipment.
At the White House, a “Tiger Team,” made up of experts from the State Department, the Defense Department, the Joint Chiefs, and intelligence agencies, carried out exercises to anticipate the shape of a Russian attack. After Putin came to power, two decades ago, the Kremlin leadership had advertised a wide-scale effort to modernize its armed forces. The C.I.A. and other Western intelligence agencies concluded that Russia’s military would overwhelm Ukraine. Intelligence assessments at the time were that Putin expected Russian forces to seize Kyiv within seventy-two hours. “We thought it might take a few days longer than the Russians did,” the Defense Department official said, “but not much longer.”
Outwardly, Zelensky acted as if war were not inevitable. “The captains should not leave the ship,” he said near the end of January. “I don’t think we have a Titanic here.” But he did take the prospect of a Russian invasion seriously. “There’s a difference between what you articulate with the public and what you are actually doing,” Oleksiy Danilov, Zelensky’s national-security adviser, said. “We couldn’t allow for panic in society.”
Behind the scenes, Zelensky and other top Ukrainian officials were asking the U.S. for a significant infusion of weapons. “At each phase, they just said give us everything under the sun,” an Administration official said. “We tailored what we provided to the actual situation they were facing.” In late January, the Administration announced that it was sending a two-hundred-million-dollar package of military aid, which included three hundred more Javelins and, for the first time, Stingers, the man-portable anti-aircraft systems, or MANPADs, that had played a key role in the mujahideen’s defeat of the Red Army in Afghanistan. “You can’t take over a country with MANPADs,” the Defense Department official said. “But you can defend an airport from an airborne assault.”
U.S. Air Force transport planes, carrying crates of arms, began landing several times a week in Kyiv. The Biden Administration had also declassified summaries of its intelligence assessments, issuing public warnings that a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine was imminent. Many U.S. officials believed that Zelensky wasn’t ready to accept the urgency of the threat. In multiple conversations with Biden, Zelensky brought up the negative impact that the talk of war was having on Ukraine’s stock market and its investment climate. “It’s fair to say the fact that those issues remained a priority item as late as they did raised some eyebrows,” the person familiar with the White House’s Ukraine policy said.
Six months earlier, the Taliban had seized power in Afghanistan within days of the U.S. withdrawal. The Biden Administration had wagered that the U.S.-backed Afghan Army could fight the Taliban to a stalemate over the course of several months. When it came to the Russian threat in Ukraine, U.S. defense and security officials erred on the side of alarmism. “I think in some ways we transposed the Afghan experience onto the Ukrainians,” the senior Defense Department official said. Podolyak, Zelensky’s adviser, felt that the warnings coming from Washington and elsewhere were incomplete: “They would say, ‘The Russians will attack!’ O.K., then, what’s the next step? Are you with us? And it felt like there was no answer.”
Another underlying source of unease was that U.S. officials had little understanding of the Ukrainian plan to defend the country, or even if such a plan existed. General Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was speaking several times a week with his counterpart in Kyiv, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces. Milley pressed Zaluzhnyi for information about how Ukraine would defend itself, including a request for detailed inventories of weapons stockpiles. Milley also offered his own strategic vision—an emphasis on dispersed mobile units, multiple lines of defense across the country, and a mixture of conventional forces and partisan warfare. “Our message was not, ‘You guys are about to get steamrolled, so you should just sue for peace,’ ” a U.S. military official said. “Rather, the message was that you are about to get steamrolled, so you have to get your defenses majorly shored up.”
Zaluzhnyi seemed hesitant to provide any details. Not only was he protective of his plans, he refused to share the placement of arms caches, which he was constantly moving and camouflaging to keep them from being destroyed or captured by the Russian Army. Some U.S. officials worried that Zaluzhnyi, like Zelensky, didn’t fully believe the U.S. intelligence. “Others were convinced he believed it, and had war plans on hand,” the military official said, “but wanted to keep them secret from Zelensky.”
Given Zelensky’s reluctance to put the country on a war footing, there was speculation that Zaluzhnyi may have been trying to avoid the possibility of being asked to scale down his preparations. If this was the case, the U.S. military official said, it’s possible that Zaluzhnyi didn’t want to share them with Milley because he was afraid that Milley would then brief the White House, which would in turn say something to Zelensky.
Finally, in February, Zaluzhnyi agreed to share his plan for defending Ukraine. A defense attaché from the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, an Air Force colonel, was summoned to a meeting at the general-staff headquarters and shown a one-page sketch of Ukrainian positions and defensive schemes. She was not given a copy, and was permitted to take only handwritten notes. Even having stipulated these conditions, Zaluzhnyi was less than forthcoming. His subordinates showed the attaché a false version of the plan, masking the full scope of the defensive campaign.
Ultimately, Zaluzhnyi’s strategy was to prevent the capture of Kyiv at all costs, while, in other areas, letting Russian forces run ahead of their logistics and supply lines. The idea was to trade territory in the short term in order to pick off Russian units once they were overextended. “We trusted no one back then,” a senior Ukrainian military official said. “Our plan was our one tiny chance for success, and we did not want anyone at all to know it.”
In the war’s early days, Biden told national-security officials at the White House and the Defense Department that the U.S. had three main policy interests in Ukraine. “One, we are not going to allow this to suck us into a war with Russia,” a senior Biden Administration official recalled. “Two, we need to make sure we can meet our Article 5 commitments with NATO.” (Prior to the invasion, the Biden Administration had sent several thousand additional soldiers to NATOmember states in Eastern Europe and the Baltic region, to show that the U.S. military was prepared to defend them.) “And, three, we will do what we can to help Ukraine succeed on the battlefield,” the official continued. “The President was clear: we do not want to see Ukraine defeated.”
From a bunker in Kyiv’s government quarter, Zelensky led a conference call with Ukrainian officials twice a day, at ten in the morning and ten at night, on the subject of arms supplies. The U.S., along with the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Poland, and the Baltic states, was sending anti-tank weapons, MANPADs, and small arms. But to the Ukrainians, who were suddenly in a fight for survival, these shipments seemed trivial. They wanted more powerful weaponry, including fighter jets, tanks, air defenses, and long-range artillery and rockets. “The deliveries were not so big, not like we would have liked to see,” Danilov said. “No one believed that we could hold out.”
Zelensky displayed tremendous courage by remaining in Kyiv. According to Reznikov, the country’s security services were tracking three Chechen hit squads sent to assassinate the Ukrainian President and other top politicians. Zelensky also proved an adept leader, projecting an air of defiance to promote cohesion at home and support internationally. Two days into the invasion, the Associated Press reported that Zelensky had rejected a U.S. offer to evacuate him from Kyiv, saying, “I need ammunition, not a ride.” A senior U.S. official said, “To the best of my knowledge, that never happened.” The official added, “But hats off to Zelensky and the people around him. It was a great line.”
Ukrainian forces managed to keep Russian transport planes from landing at the Hostomel airport. In the countryside around Kyiv, Russian armored convoys were stranded beyond the reach of their supply lines and became easy targets for ambushes and drone strikes. Washington’s fears about the country’s armed forces now seemed misplaced. “Obviously, it turned out they had a plan,” the U.S. military official said. “Because you don’t whip the Russians like that and expertly execute a mobile defense in depth without one.”
The Ukrainians benefitted from another factor that the U.S. had not considered: Russian hubris and disorganization. Putin had planned the invasion with a small circle of trusted advisers, who settled on a lightning-fast raid to overthrow Zelensky and his cabinet. Ukrainians were finding dress uniforms inside the Russian military vehicles that they captured—the invading forces had thought that within a matter of days they would be marching victorious down the streets of central Kyiv. Instead, they found themselves deep in Ukrainian territory without access to basic necessities like food and water. As the Defense Department official put it, “We presumed they had their shit together, but it turns out they didn’t.”
Ukraine’s early success changed attitudes in Washington. “The Ukrainians were putting up a good fight, which helped open the floodgates for a lot more military assistance,” the Defense Department official said. Even so, the Biden Administration did not give Kyiv everything it wanted. One wish list circulating around Washington said that Ukraine needed five hundred Javelin missiles per day; at the start of the war, the production of Javelins was only around two thousand per year. Other proposals aired in public by Zelensky and top Ukrainian officials, such as a no-fly zone maintained by NATO aircraft and air defenses, were non-starters. “Our interests highly overlap, but they are not identical,” the Defense official said. “When we say things like ‘That is escalatory and could draw NATO into the fight,’ they are, like, ‘Yeah, good. How could it get any worse for us? It’s already existential.’ Frankly, if I were them, I’d have the same view.”
A moment of tension erupted between Milley and Zaluzhnyi. Ukraine wanted more MIG-29s, a Soviet-designed plane that Ukrainian pilots had flown since the eighties. Kyiv reached a tentative deal with Poland, in which Poland would deliver two dozen jets, and the U.S. would give American-made F-16s to Poland as a replacement. The Biden Administration worried that flying aircraft from NATO territory into Ukraine’s contested skies would be seen as a clear escalation. U.S. officials were also skeptical of the planes’ usefulness to Ukraine. The MIG-29 is primarily an air-to-air-combat interceptor—not a ground-attack plane that might, say, provide aerial support to infantry or attack a tank column—and Russia’s more advanced fighter, the Sukhoi Su-35, could easily outmaneuver it. Zaluzhnyi told Milley that Ukraine had almost no fighter jets left. Milley insisted that Ukraine still had plenty. The two did not speak for more than a week. “Early on, their conversations were formal and matter-of-fact,” the U.S. military official said. “One would say his long piece, and the other would say his. Now the tone is more familiar, warmer, friendlier. They talk about their families.”
No one knew for sure how Russia would respond to Western arms shipments. U.S. officials believed that Putin would escalate given one of three scenarios: if the Russian military faced utter collapse on the battlefield, if Putin felt an immediate threat to his own rule, or if the U.S. or NATO militaries directly intervened in Ukraine. As for Putin’s likely response, officials in Washington forecast a range of worrying possibilities, from carrying out a nuclear-bomb test in the Arctic to detonating a low-yield tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine. But the assessment was also that, in the end, Putin could be deterred. A senior U.S. intelligence official said, “It’s not like he wants World War Three, either.”
In early April, the Russian military announced a full pullout from the Kyiv region, essentially an admission that its initial combat aims had failed. Now it was shifting tactics to an artillery assault in the Donbas, using missile strikes to level cities and towns before sending in ground forces to seize the rubble. This meant that Ukraine required heavy artillery of its own. “There’s not much a unit with some Javelins can do if you have two hundred tanks coming at you,” the senior Ukrainian military official said.
At the time, according to Ukrainian generals, the Army had enough artillery ammunition to last for two weeks of intensive fighting. Ukraine used 152-millimetre shells, a family of ammunition that many former Warsaw Pact member states inherited from the Soviet Union. NATO forces use 155-millimetre shells, and the two systems are not interchangeable. The problem was not merely the depleting stocks of Soviet-calibre munitions inside Ukraine—they were becoming increasingly hard to find anywhere in the world. At the start of the war, Western governments and private arms dealers had negotiated transfers from places such as Bulgaria and Romania. Among the largest caches were those the U.S. and NATO had designated for Afghan security forces, which had been sitting unclaimed in warehouses in Eastern Europe since the Taliban takeover. Belarus, where Russian troops had amassed before the invasion, had sizable stores of artillery ammunition, but Russia’s ally certainly wasn’t going to give it to Ukraine. Rear Admiral R. Duke Heinz, the director of logistics for the U.S. Army’s European Command, said, “We were seeing fewer and fewer countries raise their hands to say they had munitions to donate.”
That left another option: Ukraine would have to switch to NATO-calibre weaponry. On April 26th, defense ministers from more than forty countries, including all the NATO member states, met at the U.S. airbase in Ramstein. Austin, the U.S. Defense Secretary, opened the proceedings. “Ukraine clearly believes that it can win, and so does everyone here,” he said. “I know we’re all determined to do everything that we can to meet Ukraine’s needs as the fight evolves.”
Prior to the summit, the U.S. had agreed to transfer ninety M777 howitzers to Ukraine, the first time it would be providing the country with heavy artillery. The M777, which was designed to support infantry operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, was more powerful and more accurate than Ukraine’s existing howitzer-style artillery. “Austin called and said the decision has been taken,” Reznikov said. “I understood we crossed a certain Rubicon.”
Within days, the first contingent of Ukrainian soldiers—two-man teams made up of a gunner and a section chief—arrived at a U.S. Army training facility in Grafenwöhr, in southern Germany. Over six days, U.S. instructors taught them how to set up and move the M777, how to manually line up a target, and how to maintain the gun’s levels of nitrogen and hydraulic fluid. As one U.S. trainer put it, “This isn’t a gun you can beat the crap out of and will keep humming along.”
The Ukrainian soldiers in Grafenwöhr struck their American counterparts as highly motivated. During one lunch break, a Ukrainian soldier reported that his village had just come under Russian shelling; the rest of the Ukrainian troops stood up without finishing their meal and returned to their training. “They’re not here for R. and R.,” Brigadier General Joseph Hilbert, who oversees the facility, said. “They want to get back and put these things to use.”
By the end of the month, eighteen M777s were flown to bases in Eastern Europe and brought to the border with Ukraine. Under the cover of night, the howitzers were transferred to small convoys of unmarked trucks driven by Ukrainian teams. As the war has progressed, U.S. defense officials have opened other routes, shipping equipment on rail lines across Europe and through ports on the North Sea, in Germany. Putin and other Russian officials have threatened to target these transfers. But, according to Heinz, not one has come under fire. “Russia is aware of how security assistance gets into Ukraine,” the senior Defense Department official said. “But, so far, they have refrained from attacking those hubs, because they don’t want a war with NATO.”
The M777s allowed Ukraine to mount a defense in the Donbas. “In any war, of course, it’s not only about quantity, but quality,” Roman Kachur, the commander of Ukraine’s 55th Artillery Brigade, said. “There’s a difference when you’re fighting with a modern weapons system or one that hasn’t been significantly updated since the days of the Second World War.” For weeks, his forces had faced heavy artillery fire from a fortified Russian position near Donetsk, a Russian-occupied city in the Donbas. “We couldn’t knock the enemy out of there, because we simply couldn’t reach him,” Kachur told me. Then the M777s arrived. “Within three or four days, the Russians had pulled all their artillery out of there,” he said. “It’s a new situation. We are dictating their behavior to a certain degree.”
The U.S. does not have the ability to monitor the howitzers’ locations and conditions from afar, or electronically limit where they could be used. “Once this equipment gets to them, it belongs to them,” the senior Biden Administration official said. “We don’t have a scorecard.” Occasionally, bad news arrived from the field. In one case, forces in eastern Ukraine moved a number of M777s from a firing position to a barn, and within minutes a Russian missile hit the location, destroying both the guns and the trucks used to transport them.
Even as another seventy-two systems arrived—along with dozens of NATO-compatible howitzers from France and Germany—Ukrainian generals estimated that Russian artillery pieces outnumbered Ukraine’s by seven to one; each day, Russian forces were shooting some twenty thousand shells, pummelling cities such as Severodonetsk and Lysychansk. Zelensky said that, in June, as many as a hundred Ukrainian soldiers were being killed every day. It was the most difficult moment in the war for Ukraine, with Russia—fitfully and at great cost to its own forces—blasting through Ukrainian defenses and capturing territory one metre at a time.
Washington encouraged Ukraine to rely on judicious planning and the efficiency of Western weaponry rather than try to outshoot the Russian military. NATO had chosen a similar strategy in the latter stages of the Cold War, when it found itself with far fewer tanks and artillery than the Soviet Union. “We told the Ukrainians if they try and fight like the Russians, they will lose,” the senior Defense Department official said. “Our mission was to help Ukraine compensate for quantitative inferiority with qualitative superiority.”
Ukraine has a fleet of reconnaissance drones and a loose network of human sources within areas controlled by the Russian military, but its ability to gather intelligence on the battlefield greatly diminishes about fifteen miles beyond the front line. U.S. spy satellites, meanwhile, can capture snapshots of troop positions anywhere on earth. Closer to the ground, U.S. military spy planes, flying along the borders, augment the picture, and intelligence intercepts can allow analysts to listen in on communications between Russian commanders. Since the invasion, the U.S. and other Western partners have shared a great deal of this information with Ukraine. Mykola Bielieskov, a defense expert at the National Institute for Strategic Studies, in Kyiv, said, “That’s a major field where the U.S. is helping us.”
One evening in April, at an intelligence-coördination center somewhere in Europe, Ukrainian military officers asked their American and NATOcounterparts to confirm a set of coördinates. This had become a common practice. Ukrainian representatives might ask for verification of the location of a Russian command post or ammunition depot. “We do that, fair game,” the senior Biden Administration official said. In some cases, U.S. intelligence and military officers provide targeting information unsolicited: “We do let them know, say, there’s a battalion moving on Slovyansk from the northwest, and here’s roughly where they are.” But, the official emphasized, Ukrainian forces choose what to hit. “We are not approving, or disapproving, targets.”
The Biden Administration has also refused to provide specific intelligence on the location of high-value Russian individuals, such as generals or other senior figures. “There are lines we drew in order not to be perceived as being in a direct conflict with Russia,” the senior U.S. official said. The United States will pass on coördinates of a command post, for example, but not the presence of a particular commander. “We are not trying to kill generals,” the senior Biden Administration official said. “We are trying to help the Ukrainians undermine Russian command and control.”
Still, Ukraine has so far killed as many as eight generals, most of them at long range with artillery and rocket fire. The high death toll is partially a reflection of Russian military doctrine, which calls for top-down, hierarchical operations. In most cases, mid-ranking Russian officers and enlisted soldiers are not empowered to make decisions, creating a need for generals to be positioned closer to the front. “They were depending on them to control and direct troops,” the U.S. military official said. “It’s a huge operational catastrophe.”
The Ukrainian request in April concerned the suspected location of the Moskva, a Russian naval cruiser and the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet. Could U.S. intelligence confirm that the ship was at a certain set of coördinates south of the Ukrainian port city of Odesa? The answer came back affirmative. Soon, officials in Washington began to see press reports that the ship had suffered some sort of explosion. On April 14th, the Moskva disappeared into the Black Sea.
Kyiv said that two Ukrainian-made Neptune anti-ship missiles, fired from onshore near Odesa, had hit the Moskva —a statement that was confirmed by U.S. intelligence agencies. Russia never admitted that the strike took place, instead blaming an onboard fire and stormy seas for the loss of the ship. Some forty Russian sailors are reported to have died.
After the arrival of the M777s, the Ukrainian Army increasingly shared information with the U.S. about the condition of its weaponry on the battlefield, something it had not always been eager to do. Reznikov described it as a “mirror reaction” to Washington’s initial approach to the war. “You see they don’t trust you with serious weapons,” he said, “so why should you trust them?” But, as the U.S. and other Western powers increased their commitments, the relationship improved. According to Reznikov, “When we received one package of assistance after another, and we could see there was a real desire to help, it allowed us to come to an agreement and reach a genuine dialogue.” A Western diplomat in Kyiv told me, “It’s a common story here. You can be incredibly wary, until you’re not. Then you become trusting and open.”
When the U.S. military carries out operations with a partner force, such as a fellow NATO member state, it coördinates battle movements on a common operational picture, or COP, a single digitized display showing the location and composition of forces. “We don’t quite have that with Ukraine,” the military official said. “But it’s close.” Ukrainian commanders feed information to the U.S. military, which allows for an almost real-time picture of its weaponry in Ukraine. “These days we know similar information about what we have given to Ukraine as we know about equipment in our own military,” the official said. “How many artillery tubes are functioning, what’s down for maintenance, where the necessary part is.”
In May, Ukrainian artillery crews, using M777s along with some Soviet-era systems, fired on a large contingent of Russian forces that was trying to cross a pontoon bridge on the Siverskyi Donets River. Intelligence provided by the U.S. appeared to allow the Ukrainians to identify the moment of the Russian column’s crossing. It was one of the single biggest losses for the Russian Army since the war began. Dozens of tanks and armored vehicles were destroyed, left charred along the river’s swampy banks, and as many as four hundred Russian soldiers were killed.
For months, Ukraine had one U.S. weapons system at the top of its wish list: the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS. Whereas the M777 can hit artillery pieces, troop formations, tanks, and armored vehicles at what is known as tactical depth, around fifteen miles, HIMARS can reach an entirely different target set: ammunition depots, logistics hubs, radar systems, and command-and-control nodes, which tend to be situated considerably farther behind enemy lines. The HIMARS system is mounted on a standard U.S. Army truck, making it able to “shoot and scoot,” in military parlance. Colin Kahl, the Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy, has described HIMARS as the equivalent of a “precision-guided air strike,” delivered from the back of a truck.
The Ukrainian military could only take advantage of the HIMARS’ extended range if its soldiers had intelligence on where to strike. “Precision fires and intelligence are a marriage,” the U.S. military official said. “It’s difficult to have one without the other.” The dilemma for the Biden Administration was not whether to give HIMARS to Ukraine, but which munitions to send along with them. Each system can carry either a pod with six rockets, known as GMLRS, with a range of forty miles, or one surface-to-surface missile, or ATACMS, which can reach a hundred and eighty miles. “It’s not HIMARS that carries a risk,” the Defense Department official said. “But, rather, if it was equipped with long-range missiles that were used to strike deep in Russian territory.”
Putin is extremely paranoid about long-range conventional-missile systems. The Kremlin is convinced, for example, that U.S. ballistic-missile defense platforms in Romania and Poland are intended for firing on Russia. Even if Ukraine agreed not to use HIMARS to carry out strikes across the border, the mere technical capability of doing so might prove provocative. “We had reason to believe the ATACMS would be a bridge too far,” the Defense official said.
The battlefield realities inside Ukraine were another determining factor. “The imperative was ‘What does Ukraine need?’ ” the Defense official said. “Not what they are asking for—what they need. And we do our own assessment of that.” The Biden Administration asked for a list of targets that the Ukrainian military wanted to strike with HIMARS. “Every single grid point was reachable with GMLRS rather than ATACMS,” the Defense official said.
There was one exception: Ukraine expressed a more ambitious desire to launch missile strikes on Crimea, which Russia uses for replenishing its forces across the south and which is largely beyond the reach of GMLRS. During the war-game exercises held over the summer, when the possibility of ATACMS came up, it was clear that Ukraine wanted them to “lay waste to Crimea,” the Defense official said. “Putin sees Crimea as much a part of Russia as St. Petersburg. So, in terms of escalation management, we have to keep that in mind.”
In multiple conversations, U.S. officials were explicit that the HIMARS could not be used to hit targets across the border. “The Americans said there is a very serious request that you do not use these weapons to fire on Russian territory,” the Ukrainian military official said. “We said right away that’s absolutely no problem. We’ll use them only against the enemy on the territory of Ukraine.” As with other weapons platforms, there is no technical mechanism to insure compliance. Officially, the U.S. has signalled that all Ukrainian territory illegally occupied by Russia since 2014—not only that which it has taken since February—is fair game for HIMARS strikes. “We haven’t said specifically don’t strike Crimea,” the Defense official told me. “But then, we haven’t enabled them to do so, either.”
The first batch of HIMARS appeared on the battlefield late in June. Within days, videos circulated of Russian equipment and munitions depots outside Donetsk exploding in clouds of fire and smoke. Reznikov announced that the military had used HIMARS to destroy dozens of similar Russian facilities. In response, the senior Biden Administration official said, Russian forces “have had to adjust their tactics and maneuvers,” moving command posts and munitions depots out of range—which also diminishes their utility in battle. “They are very mindful of the presence of HIMARS,” the official said.
Each launcher costs roughly seven million dollars. According to some calculations, Ukraine could fire more than five thousand GMLRS missiles per month, whereas their manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, was only producing nine thousand a year. “We said straightaway, ‘You’re not going to get very many of these systems,’ ” the Defense Department official said. “ ‘Not because we don’t trust you but because there simply isn’t an unlimited quantity of these on planet Earth.’ ”
In July, Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, instructed commanders in Ukraine to “prioritize the targeting of the enemy’s long-range rocket artillery weapons with high-precision strikes.” Two weeks later, Russia claimed to have destroyed six HIMARS systems. At the time, the U.S. had provided a total of sixteen launchers; Germany and the United Kingdom had given nine similar systems. U.S. officials insist that all of them remain intact and functional.
In preparation for its counter-offensive this summer, Ukraine used HIMARS to repeatedly strike Russian command posts and ammunition depots in the Kherson region. Several missiles hit the Antonivskyi Bridge, which connects the city to the eastern bank of the Dnipro River. Russian units inside Kherson risked being cut off from resupply lines and logistics support. “The use of HIMARS in the south contributed to a high attrition rate of Russian troops and hardware,” Bielieskov, the defense analyst in Kyiv, said. “The whole Russian group on the right bank of the Dnipro is dependent on a very small number of crossings.”
The U.S. had also begun to supply Ukraine with AGM-88 HARM missiles, launched from military aircraft, which home in on electronic transmissions from surface-to-air radar systems. The missiles are designed to be carried by U.S. fighters, such as the F-16, but the Ukrainian Air Force figured out a way to mount them on their MIG jets. The senior Defense Department official said, “It was pretty MacGyvery, and opens up the possibility to think of what other munitions could be adapted to Ukrainian platforms.” The HARM missiles created a dilemma for Russian forces. They could either turn on their radar batteries and make themselves vulnerable to HARM strikes, or keep them turned off and lose the ability to detect Ukrainian aircraft and armed drones, namely the Turkish-made Bayraktar.
U.S. military and intelligence circles have debated the reason that Putin has not yet attempted an escalatory move to discourage further arms shipments on Ukraine’s western border. “As we have gotten deeper into the conflict, we realized we could provide more weapons of greater sophistication and at greater scale without provoking a Russian military response against NATO,” the Defense Department official said. “Was it that we were always too cautious, and we could have been more aggressive all along? Or, had we provided these systems right away, would they have indeed been very escalatory?” The official went on, “In that scenario, Russia was the frog, and we boiled the water slowly, and Russia got used to it.”
The embarrassment of the Kharkiv retreat revealed a fundamental weakness of the Russian forces: they had been degraded, in terms of both personnel and equipment, to the point at which they could no longer hold on to captured territory while trying to carry out major offensive operations. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian military was receiving fresh waves of NATO-trained conscripts and Western arms. Throughout September and into October, Ukrainian forces pushed farther, reclaiming the entirety of the Kharkiv region and moving into towns and villages in the Donbas, the “protection” of which was Putin’s stated aim for the war. “We continue to see that Putin’s political objectives are not matched to what his military can achieve,” the senior U.S. intelligence official said.
This paradox is a potentially destabilizing factor. U.S. intelligence agencies had assumed that if Putin were to face what he regarded as an “existential” threat he would feel forced to escalate, possibly with chemical or nuclear weapons. “But seeing as how he understands his own legacy and place in history,” the senior U.S. official said, “a humiliating setback in Ukraine can also begin to look existential.”
After Kharkiv, with the momentum of the war shifting against Russia, Putin moved to double down on what increasingly appeared to be a losing hand. In a speech on September 21st, he announced a series of referendums to annex Russian-occupied territories in southern and eastern Ukraine and ordered a “partial” mobilization of conscripts in Russia. (It soon became clear that the draft could reach up to a million Russian men.) Putin said that Russia was not battling just the Ukrainian Army but “the entire war machine of the collective West.” In a final, ominous threat, he seemed to suggest a willingness to use nuclear weapons to defend the parts of Ukraine that he intended to annex. “If the territorial unity of our country is threatened, in order to protect Russia and our nation we will unquestionably use all the weapons we have,” he said. “This is no bluff.”
The annexation of these territories—which was finalized in Russia on October 5th and quickly refuted by the rest of the world—effectively announced a fourth phase of the war. Putin has now staked his rule on an ability to hold these lands, which he has declared, with great fanfare, to be inexorably a part of Russia. His wager is that the escalation will not deter Ukraine so much as its backers in the West. Will the U.S., for example, debate the use of its weapons in strikes on Russian targets in Kherson as it had about targets in Crimea? “We have not sorted all the way through that,” the U.S. military official said. “But it’s clear we’re not going to be bullied around by what Putin decides to call Russia.” The senior Biden Administration official said, “We monitor Russia’s nuclear forces as best as we can,” and “so far we haven’t seen any indication that Putin has made a serious move in that direction.”
In Kyiv, the prospect of a Russian nuclear attack is both horrifying and a nonfactor. “Ukraine has no choice but to liberate all its territories,” Podolyak, Zelensky’s adviser, said, “even if there exists the possibility of strikes with weapons of mass destruction.” Ukraine has no nuclear weapons of its own—it gave up its arsenal in 1994 in a treaty signed by the United States and Russia, among others—so any response would have to come from the West. “The question is not what we will do,” Podolyak said, “but what the world’s nuclear powers will do, and whether they are indeed ready to maintain the doctrine of deterrence.” He called on Western nuclear powers, particularly the U.S., to make their response clear up front: “Send a message to Putin now, not after he strikes—‘Look, any missile of yours will lead to six of ours flying in your direction.’ ”
In early October, Russia launched a series of missile strikes on Kyiv and a number of other cities, killing more than three dozen people and damaging civilian infrastructure across the country. The attacks, which came in response to a large blast that damaged the bridge connecting the Russian mainland to Crimea, offered renewed force to Ukraine’s calls for Western air defenses. According to the senior Defense official, the challenge in providing such weapons is more technical than political: “There aren’t that many spare air-defense systems to give.” The U.S. military is not going to pull its existing Patriot batteries or NASAMs—two ground-based air-defense systems Ukraine has been requesting—from, say, South Korea or the Middle East. They have to be manufactured and procured. However, the Defense official said, Ukraine should be receiving the first two NASAMS in late October or early November, with more to follow.
The Biden Administration has also announced a military-aid package worth more than a billion dollars, bringing the total amount the U.S. has spent on arming Ukraine over the past year to sixteen billion. Among the key items in this package were an additional eighteen HIMARS systems, more than doubling the number in Ukraine’s arsenal. Ukrainian officials are now eying a number of items that, they argue, would allow even more aggressive counter-offensives: modern NATO-standard battle tanks, fighter jets such as F-16s, and the long-range ATACMS for striking logistics and ammunition hubs in Crimea.
Reznikov is certain that such deliveries are inevitable. “When I was in D.C. in November, before the invasion, and asked for Stingers, they told me it was impossible,” he said. “Now it’s possible. When I asked for 155-millimetre guns, the answer was no. HIMARS, no. HARM, no. Now all of that is a yes.” He added, “Therefore, I’m certain that tomorrow there will be tanks and ATACMS and F-16s.”
With the help of the U.S. and NATO, he went on, Ukraine’s military has shown that Russia can be confronted. “We are not afraid of Russia,” he said. “And we are asking our partners in the West to also no longer be afraid.”
All Rights Reserved for Joshua Yaffa