Has the War in Ukraine Reached Its Climax?

On January 25, the US announced that it would send 31 M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine. The M1 Abrams is the US’ primary battle tank and is among the most advanced and powerful tanks in the world. The Biden administration’s decision will be perceived as a serious escalation and as a commitment by the US to help Ukraine go on the offensive and drive Russia out of all of Ukraine. The reality is more nuanced and complicated.

Last week, game changing articles on the war in Ukraine were published in each of America’s two leading newspapers. But the big story was not in either of them. It was in the conjunction of the two.

A January 19 article in The Washington Post got a lot of attention for its breaking report that CIA Director William Burns secretly met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kiev to brief him on U.S. expectations for Russian military plans. But that is not a breaking story. It has long been known that the US is sharing intelligence with Ukraine.

The game changing story was the message Burns brought Zelensky that was revealed in a line that received much less attention. "People familiar with the meeting" told The Post that "Burns emphasized the urgency of the moment on the battlefield and acknowledged that at some point assistance would be harder to come by."

Though The Post headline frames the meeting as an opportunity for Burns to share intelligence, "[t]op of mind for Zelensky and his senior intelligence officials during the meeting was how long Ukraine could expect US and Western assistance to continue. . . ." After being briefed by Burns, "Zelensky and his aides came away from last week’s meeting with the impression that the Biden administration’s support for Kyiv remains strong and the $45 billion in emergency funding for Ukraine passed by Congress in December would last at least through July or August." But "Kyiv is less certain about the prospects of Congress passing another multibillion-dollar supplemental assistance package as it did last spring."

The window to make advances on the battlefield is closing. Burns brought Zelensky a warning of the time limit on Western military aid. If Ukraine is to improve its position via the battlefield, there will have to be a counteroffensive before the current window closes.

So, according to a senior official in the Biden administration, the US has advised Ukraine to end its focus on defending Bakhmut, where it is losing an alarming "three-digit number of soldiers every day," and take the time to train on the new weapons that are on their way before launching a counteroffensive.

That counteroffensive could involve “the kinds of weapons”, according to the second game changing article, reported in The New York Times on January 18, that are intended to “align [with] Ukraine’s battle plans” to attack Crimea. Those weapons will include fifty-nine Bradleys on top of the fifty already announced as well as ninety Strykers, German Leopard 2 tanks and US Abrams M1 tanks, although the US tanks may or may not be a factor as they could take months or even years to arrive on the battlefield. The armored personnel carriers and tanks could help Ukraine in a counteroffensive aimed at severing the land bridge to Crimea.

The report by The Times’ anonymous sources that the US is considering allowing, and coordinating weapons with, a Ukrainian offensive on Crimea is confirmed publicly by Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh who said at a January 20 press conference that US support for Ukraine "includes an operation in Crimea." She said that "If they decide to conduct an operation within Crimea, they’re well in their bounds. That is a sovereign part of their country. . . ."

US support for a counteroffensive that includes Crimea, however, is not because the US thinks Ukraine can win that counteroffensive. If The Times’ sources were only willing to admit anonymously that the US does not believe Ukraine can take Crimea militarily, that was confirmed most publicly by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley who said on January 21 that "for this year, it would be very, very difficult to militarily eject the Russian forces from all-every inch – of . . . Russian occupied Ukraine." According to reporting by David Ignatius in The Washington Post, that view is shared by Ukraine: "There is a widespread view in Washington and Kyiv," Ignatius reports, "that regaining Crimea by military force may be impossible."

The intent of an attack on Crimea is not to win it, according to The Times’ sources, but to panic Russia that Crimea is vulnerable in order to win Ukraine a stronger position at the inevitable negotiating table.

Anatol Lieven of the Quincy Institute told me that "These reports suggest that the Biden administration does understand not just the great difficulty of a real Ukrainian attempt to capture Crimea, but the acute dangers of Russian escalation this would bring. The problem is that threatening Russian hold on the peninsula without actually doing so would require both fine calibration and an ability to hold the Ukrainian army in check – and there is no certainty at all that Washington would be able to achieve either of these things.”

The conjunction of the stories in The Post and The Times suggests, perhaps for the first time, that Ukraine has been informed that there is a limit to the lifespan of the flow of weapons. They have been advised to surrender Bakhmut and focus on a counteroffensive that could include an assault on Crimea, not to win it, but to put Ukraine in the strongest possible position at the negotiation table that would follow.

If correct, this conjunction of reports suggests that the war is approaching its climax and the beginning of the end of the military stage of the conflict. The climax will likely be a Ukrainian attack on the southeast of Ukraine, and possibly even Crimea, that will lead either to peace talks or to a catastrophic escalation.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.