Biden officials doubt Ukraine will get all of its territory back

(CNN) — White House officials are losing confidence that Ukraine can ever regain all the territory it has lost against Russia during the last four months of the war, US officials told CNN, even with the heaviest and most sophisticated weaponry the United States and its allies plan to send.

The president’s advisers Joe Biden have begun to debate internally how and if Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky should change his definition of a Ukrainian “victory,” adjusting for the possibility of his country being irreversibly reduced.

US officials stressed to CNN that this more pessimistic assessment does not mean the United States plans to pressure Ukraine to make formal territorial concessions to Russia to end the war. There is also hope that Ukrainian forces could recapture significant parts of the territory in a likely counter-offensive later this year.

A congressional adviser familiar with the deliberations told CNN that a smaller Ukrainian state is not inevitable. “Whether Ukraine can recover these territories depends largely, if not entirely, on how much support we give them,” the adviser said. He noted that Ukraine has formally asked the United States a minimum of 48 rocket systems multi-launch, but to date only eight have been promised from the Pentagon.

And not everyone in the administration is so concerned: some believe Ukrainian forces could once again defy expectations, as they did in the early days of the war when they repelled a Russian advance on the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has remained highly engaged with his Ukrainian counterparts, spending hours on the phone last week discussing Ukraine’s efforts to recapture territory with Ukraine’s defense chief and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, officials familiar with the call told CNN.

Territory Ukraine

In this photo appear, in a working session at the G7, in the castle of Elmau, in the south of Germany, the chancellor of Germany, Olaf Scholz; the president of the United States, Joe Biden; the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Boris Johnson; the Prime Minister of Japan, Fumio Kishida; the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen; the President of the European Council Charles Michel; the Prime Minister of Italy, Mario Draghi; Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and French President Emmanuel Macron. In addition, in videoconference, the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky. Photo from June 27, 2022.

Why are there doubts in the White House about the territory of Ukraine?

The growing pessimism comes when Biden meets with US allies in Europewhere he will seek to convey strength and optimism about the trajectory of the war while rallying leaders to remain committed to arming and supporting Ukraine amidst brutal fighting.

“We have to stay together. Putin has been counting from the beginning that NATO and the G7 would somehow split up, but we haven’t and we won’t,” Biden said Sunday during the G7 summit in the Bavarian Alps. .

The administration announced another $450 million in security assistance for Ukraine last week, including additional rocket launch systems, artillery ammunition and patrol boats. The United States is also expected to announce this week that it has purchased an advanced surface-to-air missile defense system, called NASAMS, for Ukrainian forces. Biden indicated in an op-ed earlier this month that he is committed to helping Ukraine gain an edge on the battlefield so it can have leverage in negotiations with Russia.

However, the mood has changed in recent weeks, as Ukraine has struggled to repel Russian advances in Donbas and has suffered staggering troop losses, reaching 100 soldiers per day. Ukrainian forces are also burning their equipment and ammunition faster than the West can provide and train Ukrainian troops in NATO’s new standard weapon systems.

A US military official and a source familiar with Western intelligence agreed Ukraine was unlikely to be able to muster the force needed to recapture all the territory lost to Russia during the fighting, especially this year. as Zelensky said this Monday that it was his goal. A substantial counteroffensive could be possible with more weapons and training, the sources said, but Russia may also have a chance to replenish its force at that point, so there are no guarantees.

“Much depends on whether Ukraine can regain territory at least up to the February 23 lines,” said Michael Kofman, a Russian military expert at the Center for Naval Analysis. “The prospect is there, but it is contingent. If Ukraine can go that far, then they can probably take the rest. But if they can’t, then they will have to reconsider the best way to achieve victory.”

G7 puts pressure on Russia’s economy 1:00

Russian forces gain ground in Ukraine

Russian forces now control more than half of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, Pavlo Kyrylenko, head of the Donetsk region’s military administration, said on Thursday. Ukrainian forces withdrew from the key eastern city of Severodonetsk on Friday. after weeks of bloody battles.

Last week, Russian forces also seized ground around Lysychansk, the last town in the eastern Luhansk region still under Ukrainian control. Ukrainian military commanders are now grappling with the reality that they may have to withdraw from the area to defend territory further west.

Meanwhile, Russia’s oil revenue has only been rising as oil prices have soared, even amid harsh sanctions imposed by the West. US officials said Monday that the United States and its allies will try to limit the price of oil so that Russia no longer benefits from it, but how and when that limit will take effect remains to be seen.

Internally, some in the Biden administration feel that Zelensky will need to start tempering expectations of what Ukrainian forces can realistically achieve. Zelensky said late last month that he “would consider it a victory for our state, starting today, to advance to the February 24 line without unnecessary losses.”

Russian airstrike pulverizes a shopping mall in Ukraine 0:37

And he reiterated that goal last week.

“We are left with no choice but to go ahead, move to liberate all of our territories,” he said in a Telegram post. “We need to expel the invaders from the Ukrainian regions. Although the width of the front lines is more than 25,000 kilometers, we feel that we have the strategic initiative.”

And this Monday, he set a timetable: He wants the war to end and Ukraine to win by the end of 2022, he told G7 leaders.

Russia is also suffering heavy combat losses, losing up to a third of its ground force in four months of war, US intelligence officials estimate. Officials have also said publicly that Russia will have a hard time making serious gains further west, using the Donbas region as a staging ground, without a full mobilization of its reserve forces.

But Russia believes it can keep up the fight, eroding Ukrainian and Western resolve as the global economic effects of the war become more severe, officials told CNN.

The difficult search for weapons of the Soviet era

As previously reported by CNNRussia is looking in particular to exploit the gap between how much Soviet-style munitions Ukraine and its allies have in stockpiles, and how long it will take for the West to provide Ukraine with modern, NATO-standard weapons and ammunition that require a time-consuming training.

A senior defense official acknowledged to CNN that Soviet-era munitions are “decreasing” but have not yet bottomed out. The official said some Eastern European countries still have more they could provide, but only if they continue to be replaced by allies with more modern equipment.

Meanwhile, the United States and its allies have been searching the world for the kind of Soviet-era ammunition that fits the equipment Ukraine already has, including 152mm artillery ammunition. Standard NATO weapons fire larger 155mm rounds. But another US defense official told CNN that the effort is effectively coming to an end, as almost everything available that countries are willing to provide has already been used in Donbas: “Weapons from the Soviet era are being cleared from the ground,” the official said.

— CNN’s Katie Bo Lillis contributed to this report.

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