On Ukraine, Biden needs to listen to these US generals

President Biden’s support for the Ukrainian war effort continues to be just enough for Ukraine to survive, but not enough for it to win. For Ukraine, this is like treading water wearing a 25 lb. life preserver. All your energy is required just to stay afloat; nothing is left to swim ashore.

When will the president start listening to his generals — his own military advisers? One can only assume the advice he is acting on is coming from the likes of national security advisor Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken or former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice. 

Biden has a history of not taking the advice of his military advisers — Secretary of Defense and retired Army four star General Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff General Mark Milley. He has been accused of being “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”

Three of America’s finest retired general officers — former commanders who have led U.S. soldiers in combat — are speaking out. Their message is consistent: Give Ukraine the weapons it needs and let the Ukrainians fight their fight. They do not need any more “West-splaining” from the Biden administration.

As former Commanding General, U.S. Army Europe Ben Hodges stated, “I’d trust the judgement of the Ukrainian commanders actually in the fight.”

Jack Keane, retired four star general and former-vice chief of staff of the Army, opined in the Wall Street Journal last Sunday that “The U.S. should be focused on helping Ukraine fight the war the way it wants to fight, not chirping from the sidelines.”

Missing from the $43 plus billion in U.S. assistance to Ukraine are the weapons and munitions they need to win the war — fighter aircraft to gain air superiority and provide close air support, precision deep strike capability to interdict targets on the opposite side of the border in Russia and engineering assets needed to clear minefields, trenches and obstacles. 

The cost of their absence can be measured in the speed of the counteroffensive, and the number of lives lost and casualties. The New York Times recently cited U.S. officials as estimating Ukrainian casualties as “close to 70,000 killed and 100,000 to 120,000 wounded.” This figure does not include the loss of civilian life — the result of the Kremlin deliberately targeting residential neighborhoods, schools, hospitals and bomb shelters with drones, artillery and missile attacks. 

In comparison, Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense reports that 261,840 Russian soldiers have been killed in action.

Neither side is going to negotiate a peaceful solution, given each side’s dictated terms, meaning this war will continue its slow, murderous grind. The aforementioned New York Times article states that Ukraine has 500,000 troops, “including active-duty, reserve and paramilitary troops, according to analysts.” 

Russia has nearly three times that, with 1.33 million “active-duty, reserve, and paramilitary troops.” Although outnumbered, Ukraine enjoys the advantage of superior weapons systems and advanced technology provided by the U.S. and NATO. Technology beats mass on today’s battlefield.

General Milley is correct in his most recent assessment of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, “So [Ukraine’s] fighting the fight. I had said a couple of months ago that this offensive was going to be long, it’s gonna be bloody, it’s going to be slow. And that’s exactly what it is: long, bloody and slow, and it’s a very, very difficult fight.” 

This is a direct result of the Biden administration denying and slow-rolling to Ukraine the tools it needs to fight the fight as the U.S. and NATO doctrine dictate.

White House indecision is making conditions on the battlefield more difficult as well. Retired U.S. Army General and former CIA Director David Petraeus recently commented that even the U.S. military would be unable to win this fight (“the truth is we could not have done this”) given the same constraints that the White House has imposed upon the Ukrainian Army — namely the absence of air superiority and ability to shape the battlefield for a combined arms operation.

Petraeus also noted in a Washington Post opinion he co-authored with Frederick W. Kagan that “Ukraine has none of the advantages the United States had in [Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom]. In both Iraq-related cases, coalition forces benefited from air supremacy, while Ukrainian aircraft cannot operate over Russian lines and cannot prevent Russian aircraft and helicopters from hitting their own advancing troops. And Ukraine has been given too few armored breaching systems.”

Petraeus added that “Ukraine needs long-range precision-strike capabilities such as ATACMS. It needs cluster munitions for its rockets, not just its artillery rounds. It needs more ammunition to sustain the offensive. And it needs the accelerated delivery of F-16s. In truth, Ukraine needed these capabilities months ago.”

How can we expect Ukraine to advance rapidly through successive Russian defensive belts without precision deep-strike capability and air superiority?

With the addition of U.S. precision deep-strike munitions, an accelerated timeline for the introduction of fighter jets, intelligence and engineering assets to clear minefields and obstacles rapidly, Ukraine can attack Russia’s ability to wage war in Ukraine through interdiction — the deep fight, strike back at drone and missile launch sites targeting civilians by defeating the weapon system at the point of origin versus the missile in flight, and expedite the close fight and breakthroughs of Russian defensive belts.

Ukraine is on the correct glidepath to win this war, and Crimea will be the determining factor. It is the “decisive terrain.” They can push Russian forces out of the Ukraine mainland and the Crimean Peninsula, but Biden must listen to his military experts — his commanders, SECDEF, CJCS and the plethora of retired general officers at his disposal.

Biden must enable Ukraine to win. That means getting the weapons, munitions and intelligence they need now, not six to 12 months from now. We developed a vaccine for the COVID-19 virus in four months, but such things require one’s heart to be in it. Right now, Biden’s is not.

Biden must therefore relinquish control of what Hodges called the “8,000-mile screwdriver from [the] Pentagon to [the] Ukrainian front lines” and let Zelensky and his generals fight their fight. Support the war effort — do not dictate from the Oval Office or defer to Foggy Bottom. 

Biden must stop cowering at Putin’s “red lines,” overcome his “escalation paralysis,” and push ahead for the decisive knockout blow. To echo Keane, “America should stop the criticism about what Ukraine is doing and focus instead on helping Ukraine achieve our common aims as rapidly as possible. That would be sound strategy.”

Col. (Ret.) Jonathan Sweet served 30 years as a military intelligence officer. He led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012 to 2014. Mark Toth, an economist and entrepreneur, is a former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis.

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