Deep Dive

Biden Is Running Out of Time to Help Ukraine Fend Off Russia

Kyiv’s pleas for more U.S. guns to hold off Moscow have prompted a political knife fight in Washington.

A U.S. soldier prepares Ukrainian soldiers for an exercise in ambush tactics at the Yavoriv Combat Training Center in Starychi, Ukraine, on July 26. The advisors from Task Force Raven are working to improve Ukraine's defense capabilities against a potential military threat from Russia.
A U.S. soldier prepares Ukrainian soldiers for an exercise in ambush tactics at the Yavoriv Combat Training Center in Starychi, Ukraine, on July 26. The advisors from Task Force Raven are working to improve Ukraine's defense capabilities against a potential military threat from Russia. Timothy Fadek/Redux Pictures

Ukraine Border Crisis

A week before the Thanksgiving holiday last month, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov came to his American counterpart Lloyd Austin’s third-floor Pentagon office with an unusually large request: He needed weapons systems, including many that the United States had never before provided to Ukraine, and he needed them fast.

Ukraine was, and still is, asking the Biden administration for a wide range of capabilities that officials hope could change Russia’s calculus about launching another invasion of the country. The list, which was first detailed by Reznikov to Austin in mid-November and has not been previously reported in detail, includes support for air and naval defense and electronic warfare—a potential shield against devastating bombings and electromagnetic attacks that would likely accompany any forward march across Ukraine by Russian mechanized forces.

Kyiv is also seeking some of the U.S. military equipment earmarked for Afghanistan before the fall of Kabul, including U.S.-owned Soviet-era Mi-17 helicopters undergoing maintenance in Ukraine and munitions that were initially intended to be sent to the Afghan army, according to a Ukrainian defense official speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive bilateral talks.

A week before the Thanksgiving holiday last month, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov came to his American counterpart Lloyd Austin’s third-floor Pentagon office with an unusually large request: He needed weapons systems, including many that the United States had never before provided to Ukraine, and he needed them fast.

Ukraine was, and still is, asking the Biden administration for a wide range of capabilities that officials hope could change Russia’s calculus about launching another invasion of the country. The list, which was first detailed by Reznikov to Austin in mid-November and has not been previously reported in detail, includes support for air and naval defense and electronic warfare—a potential shield against devastating bombings and electromagnetic attacks that would likely accompany any forward march across Ukraine by Russian mechanized forces.

Kyiv is also seeking some of the U.S. military equipment earmarked for Afghanistan before the fall of Kabul, including U.S.-owned Soviet-era Mi-17 helicopters undergoing maintenance in Ukraine and munitions that were initially intended to be sent to the Afghan army, according to a Ukrainian defense official speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive bilateral talks.

There’s more reason for alarm this time around. According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, Russia has stacked approximately 115,000 troops at Ukraine’s borders, in the occupied Crimean peninsula, and in two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine where Moscow-backed separatists have waged war since 2014. U.S. intelligence has warned that Russia could be planning a multifront offensive into Ukraine in early 2022 with up to 175,000 troops, as the Washington Post reported on Friday. And the Kremlin’s rhetoric on Ukraine has noticeably hardened in recent months, with Russian President Vladimir Putin asserting that Ukraine belongs in Russia’s sphere of influence and bristling at the Ukrainian government’s deepening ties with the West. “In the worst-case scenario, Russia may try to undermine the entire post-Cold War security architecture in Europe and redraw borders by force again,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told reporters on Nov. 29.

U.S. officials aren’t sure what Russia is up to, but they are trying to prepare and deter.

An officer in the Ukrainian army gestures to a map

An officer in the Ukrainian army describes a map dedicated to the military exercise Three Swords, involving troops from Ukraine, Poland, and Lithuania, at the Yavoriv Combat Training Center in Starychi, Ukraine, on July 26.Timothy Fadek/Redux

“We’ve seen this playbook before in 2014, when Russia last invaded Ukraine,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Dec. 2 while visiting Stockholm. “Despite uncertainty about intentions and timing, we must and we will prepare for all contingencies, while working to see to it that Russia reverses course.”

While Putin’s intentions remain unclear, Washington is mulling Kyiv’s request for greater military support and a bevy of other policy options including punitive economic sanctions. U.S. State Department and Treasury officials were dispatched in recent weeks to European capitals to lay the groundwork for coordinated sanctions, according to American officials familiar with the matter. Meanwhile, U.S. defense officials have been dispatched to Kyiv in the wake of Reznikov’s visit to assess the country’s air defense needs, the Ukrainian defense official said.

The Pentagon declined to provide details on Ukraine’s request for more military assistance or U.S. deliberations. “We continue to work closely with Ukraine to evaluate the specific capability requirements of Ukraine’s forces,” Lt. Col. Anton Semelroth, a Pentagon spokesman, told Foreign Policy in a statement. Neither the State Department nor the National Security Council provided comment for this article.

This story is based on interviews with nearly two dozen U.S., Ukrainian, and European officials, as well as congressional aides and regional experts. They describe how the Biden administration is forced to reckon with the specter of full-fledged war in Europe, with some U.S. officials fearful that Washington and its allies are making the same miscalculations they made in 2014, when Russia shocked the West with its most recent invasion of Ukraine.

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, Ukraine has become the focal point of pitched political battles over President Joe Biden’s policy on a controversial Russian gas pipeline project and his response so far to the Russian military buildup. Top Republicans on the House and Senate armed services committees sent a private letter to Biden obtained by Foreign Policy voicing concern. “Respectfully, we do not have the confidence that enough is being done and that the White House would rather make concessions to Putin than support U.S. partners and allies,” they wrote.


A map provided by a Ukrainian defense official used to brief allies highlights the locations of Russian forces massed near the country's borders.

A map from Nov. 21 provided by a Ukrainian defense official used to brief allies highlights the locations of Russian forces massed near the country’s borders and details other hybrid warfare tactics used in an attempt to destabilize Ukraine.Ukraine defense official

In early November, U.S. President Joe Biden personally dispatched CIA Director William Burns to Moscow to meet directly with Russian officials and warn off Putin from any attempts to further destabilize Ukraine. The high-profile trip was a rare move for a top U.S. intelligence official and underscored the growing alarm with which the Biden administration viewed Russia’s activities.

Behind the scenes, U.S. officials began sharing intelligence with European allies, warning that a renewed Russian invasion of Ukraine could be imminent. American and British officials have, unusually, shared intelligence about the threat with European partners outside the Five Eyes intelligence network, whose only European member is the United Kingdom. Ukraine has been practically shouting warnings from the rooftops, detailing Moscow’s 115,000 troops, tanks, artillery, and more huddled near the borders in a flurry of briefings for U.S. and European officials in recent weeks.

When the buildup began in the spring, Moscow tried to shrug it off as an exercise, but tens of thousands of troops were left in the region. Satellite imagery showed that Russian troops and military equipment sent forward remained staged there over the summer, including major combat elements normally based thousands of miles away. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu insisted the equipment would stay in place for exercises later in the year.

A satellite view of Russian ground forces equipment in Yelnya, Russia.

A satellite view of Russian ground forces equipment in Yelnya, Russia, on Nov. 9. Elements of the 41st Combined Arms Army, usually based in Siberia, were moved to Pogonovo training grounds during the spring buildup and were transported to Yelnya in late October without explanation, sparking alarm among U.S. officials. Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies

A satellite view shows Russian troops some 100 miles from the border with Ukraine.

A satellite view shows Russia’s 2nd battle group at the Pogonovo training area in Voronezh, Russia, some 100 miles from the border with Ukraine, on Nov. 26. Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies

Both U.S. and European officials are worried time is working against them. Much of Ukraine’s flat terrain will be frozen over by January, allowing Russia’s powerful mechanized forces to roll through more easily. With Europe already in the throes of an energy crisis, a chilly winter could also give Russia another point of leverage with the West.

“I don’t expect that President Putin will turn off the gas, but I think the threat that he could is meant to be a deterrent against Europe considering taking harsh steps should he expand the already existing kinetic conflict in Ukraine,” said Ben Hodges, a former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe.

There are some signs of a bigger buildup than what’s needed for any exercise, including field hospitals, radio jamming equipment, modifications to Russian tanks to defend against drones and Javelin anti-tank missile systems, and even military ambulances to evacuate dead and wounded. But the Ukrainian defense official said that the full logistics trail required to support a ground invasion hasn’t been seen yet.

The buildup comes as Moscow, which once had and again wants a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, is shifting its redlines. On Dec. 1, as NATO foreign ministers met in Latvia, Putin said Russia wanted legal guarantees that would curb any expansion of the military alliance further east.

In 2008, NATO promised membership to Ukraine and Georgia, though this remains far from becoming reality for both. While the alliance has no obligation to defend either country, it views Ukraine as an important partner, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned on Dec. 1 that Moscow has no right to dictate to Kyiv. ​​​​“So this idea that NATO support to a sovereign nation is a provocation is just wrong,” he said. “It’s to respect the sovereignty of, the will of, the Ukrainian people.”

There remains a glimmer of hope in the Biden administration that the situation can be defused. The White House announced on Saturday that Biden and Putin will hold a video call on Tuesday. Biden will make clear a range of U.S. responses to a Russian invasion, a senior administration official said on Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity. Biden is set to speak with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in the coming days to give him a readout of the Putin call, the official said.

In the meantime, the Biden administration is warning Russia it will face severe economic consequences if it invades. In recent weeks, a team of diplomats and sanctions experts, including the State Department’s Molly Montgomery and Erik Woodhouse, went to Europe to lay the groundwork for punishing new joint U.S. and European sanctions on Moscow if the Kremlin doesn’t back down, current and former officials told Foreign Policy. The most extreme contingency U.S. officials are discussing include cutting off Russia from SWIFT, the financial messaging system that is the backbone of global finance. Officials described this so-called economic nuclear option as a last resort.

After Blinken met with Kuleba and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in separate meetings in Stockholm on Dec. 2, he called for Moscow to honor the terms of the 2015 Minsk agreement on Ukraine. After the meeting, Blinken said he’d warned Lavrov of “serious consequences” including “high-impact economic measures that we’ve refrained from taking in the past.”

“I think Moscow knows very well the universe of what’s possible,” he said.


Soldiers storm a building during the Three Swords military exercise

Soldiers storm a building during a drill held as part of the Three Swords military exercise in Starychi on July 24.Timothy Fadek/Redux

A fierce debate on how and how far the United States should go to support Ukraine is playing out in the hallways and op-ed pages of Washington, reflecting a wider conversation underway in Western capitals. Unilaterally attacked by Russia, Ukraine cuts a sympathetic figure and has long received strong bipartisan support in Washington. U.S. officials have repeatedly reassured Kyiv of America’s “ironclad” commitment to Ukraine, but some analysts have noted the limits of this promise.

“The rhetoric is writing checks that in reality our policy can’t cash,” said Samuel Charap, a senior political analyst with the Rand Corp. who has advocated for the United States to push Ukraine to compromise. “The war is so much worse than these kinds of compromises that I think we should be proposing,” he said.

Others push back just as hard in the other direction. “I get sick and tired of the realists willing to sacrifice somebody else’s country,” said Daniel Fried, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland. “You’re going to give him [Putin] the fruits of a victory in a war without making him fight the war? How’s that going to work out for you?”

Biden, focused on the challenge of an aggressive and rising China, has sought to avoid provocation of Russia by pulling punches over Russia’s new gas pipeline, which Ukraine sees as an existential threat, and over the poisoning of the Russian dissident Alexei Navalny. “You are seeing the interagency organs of the DoD and State doing all the right things, then the process goes into the black hole of the NSC and it stops there,” said a congressional aide who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal policy deliberations.

Privately, the Biden administration is looking at a number of steps to beef up Ukraine’s military against a Russian assault, most of which would fall short of Reznikov’s wish list. The State and Defense departments are negotiating with Congress to provide Ukraine with more anti-tank weapons, such as Javelin missiles, under an emergency legal authority that’s capped at $100 million annually. The United States is also considering boosting its presence of 44 active-duty troops in the country, though additional forces would only serve in noncombat roles advising and assisting Ukrainian troops. Ukraine has also requested that the United States send National Guardsmen—who have restricted their training of Ukrainian troops to districts in the far west of Ukraine—to other parts of the country.

A U.S. soldier stands at attention framed by two Ukrainian singers

A U.S. soldier stands at attention framed by two Ukrainian singers in traditional clothing at the closing ceremony of the Three Swords military exercise in Starychi on July 30.Timothy Fadek/Redux

Yet the Biden administration is under pressure from Republicans on Capitol Hill to do more—and quickly—to make Ukraine a pricklier target by providing high-tech defensive weaponry that could make Russia think twice. A Senate Republican aide said that in addition to anti-tank systems, some in Congress are encouraging the administration to provide Ukraine with counterbattery, counterartillery, and countermortar radars, as well as ammunition for small arms, grenade launchers, Javelins, and mortars. ​​Officials have worried that the Ukrainians, who have kept most of their existing Javelin stockpiles in storage, would not be able to quickly train on new equipment that’s not already in their arsenal.

Yet experts cautioned that there could be a political price for Putin to pay, especially because an invasion would likely be much bloodier than Moscow’s interventions in Syria and Crimea and would rob Russia of any veneer of plausible deniability.

“Today’s Ukrainian military isn’t the barely organized force it was back in 2014,” said Samuel Bendett, an advisor with the CNA think tank and a member of the organization’s Russia Studies Program. “Should actual hostilities break out, Russia is likely to win, but not without casualties on both sides. Such bloodshed would go against Putin’s own message that Ukraine is a brotherly nation with fellow Slavs that should be on friendly terms with Moscow.”

Support could extend offshore; Kuleba has said that intelligence indicated any Russian offensive could include substantial operations in the Black Sea. In November, the U.K. and Ukraine struck a deal that will let Kyiv seek up to $1.7 billion in financing to buy British warships and missiles, which would help build up its naval capacity. The Tomahawk missile-equipped destroyer USS Porter lurked in the Black Sea for much of November.


U.S. military advisors from Task Force Raven train Ukrainian soldiers

U.S. military advisors from Task Force Raven train Ukrainian soldiers in Starychi on July 26.Timothy Fadek/Redux

In the eyes of some critics, part of the Biden administration’s failure to mount a quick response has also been structural. The United States has had no Senate-confirmed ambassador in Kyiv for more than two years, after career diplomat Marie Yovanovitch was driven out in a smear campaign orchestrated by the Trump administration in May 2019.

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s unprecedented hold on all State Department nominees over his disagreement with the Biden administration on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline has also prevented other senior officials from joining the administration for months. Biden’s top Europe envoy, Assistant Secretary of State Karen Donfried, took office in October—five months after Biden first nominated her—due to the backlog of nominees stuck in the Senate. Biden is expected to choose Bridget Brink, a seasoned senior career diplomat, as his nominee to be U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, according to current and former officials familiar with the matter, although no final decision has been reached. The delay in nominating an ambassador to Ukraine, a year into his presidency, has flummoxed and angered some veteran diplomats and Europe watchers.

“You can’t blame Ted Cruz, because they haven’t sent a name to the Senate yet. It is inexcusable,” said William Taylor, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and expert on European issues at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He said the two-year-long absence of a Senate-confirmed ambassador is “received by the Ukrainians as inexplicable. They’re saying, ‘If you Americans are serious about what you say, then how come you haven’t an ambassador who represents you at the senior level?’”

“I don’t think the administration is trying to send that signal, but it’s how the Ukrainians view things,” he added.

Washington’s increasing focus on China has also redoubled caution about poking the Russian bear. Since March, the White House has scrutinized U.S. military exercises aimed at deterring Russia, fearing that the actions are provocative and could prompt retaliation from Moscow. The White House recently asked the Defense Department to provide a list of exercises it conducts through NATO and U.S. European Command, some of which are required by law. The Washington Post first reported on the move in November.

The National Security Council has also put under review the large-scale Defender Europe exercise, a U.S. Army-level exercise that last focused on the Balkan and Black Sea regions near Ukraine, prompting Russian and Serbian exercises in response. Officials at the State Department and in the Pentagon have pushed back, insisting that the exercises help U.S. troops prepare for a potential conflict in the region and have an added messaging benefit. Many of the exercises, which are multilateral and require significant logistical planning and coordination months in advance, can’t be easily turned off and on.

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and his team, who have sought to refocus the U.S. national security establishment toward the rising threat from China, are trying to prevent Russia from becoming a distraction from the pivot by tamping down on any perceived U.S. saber-rattling that could provoke Moscow. But critics worry that the White House’s approach amounts to mollifying a seemingly ​​revanchist Russia.

“I fear that there might be some semblance of accommodation,” said the Senate Republican aide, speaking on condition of anonymity to candidly discuss sensitive policy deliberations. “That makes me worry that we are thinking about concessions that Ukraine might make in that regard that will appease the Putin regime, such that they don’t take further aggressive action.”

Some former officials are worried that if the White House fails to respond in Ukraine, it could send a disturbing message to other American allies in Russia’s looming shadow.

“The reality in the day-to-day is that you just can’t make a clean break,” said Alex Gray, who served as National Security Council chief of staff during the Trump administration. “Ultimately, it’s not just Ukraine that will be the victim of the signal that sends. It’ll be the Baltics, it’ll be southeastern Europe, it’ll be the Caucasus, it’ll be the Arctic. It just goes on and on and on.”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

More from Foreign Policy

Bill Clinton and Joe Biden  at a meeting of the U.S. Congressional delegation to the NATO summit in Spain on July 7, 1998.

Liberal Illusions Caused the Ukraine Crisis

The greatest tragedy about Russia’s potential invasion is how easily it could have been avoided.

A report card is superimposed over U.S. President Joe Biden.

Is Biden’s Foreign Policy Grade A Material?

More than 30 experts grade the U.S. president’s first year of foreign policy.

White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan gives a press briefing.

Defining the Biden Doctrine

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan sat down with FP to talk about Russia, China, relations with Europe, and year one of the Biden presidency.

Ukrainian servicemen taking part in the armed conflict with Russia-backed separatists in Donetsk region of the country attend the handover ceremony of military heavy weapons and equipment in Kiev on November 15, 2018.

The West’s Weapons Won’t Make Any Difference to Ukraine

U.S. military equipment wouldn’t realistically help Ukrainians—or intimidate Putin.