If those leaked documents from the Pentagon are to be believed—and I think they are—the United States needs a plan B for Ukraine. As much as we’d all like to see the swift liberation of Ukrainian territory, the under-equipped, under-trained Ukrainian forces now gearing up for a spring offensive are unlikely to make far-reaching gains against Russia’s defenses. The administration’s bold promises of an eventual Ukrainian triumph will probably not be borne out, and Ukraine will suffer additional damage in the meantime. What Ukraine needs is peace, not a protracted war of attrition against a more populous adversary whose leader does not much care about how many lives are sacrificed in the maelstrom.
I suspect most top officials in the Biden administration understand this cruel reality, whatever they may say in public. Although anything is possible in wartime, they don’t expect Ukraine to achieve a dramatic breakthrough or the Russian army to collapse. Instead, they are hoping that Ukraine’s armed forces do well enough to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin to move toward a cease-fire and eventually negotiate a full peace agreement. (For an unofficial version of this view, see Raj Menon’s thoughtful and relatively optimistic analysis here.) If the Ukrainian offensive goes poorly, however, Putin will be in no rush to negotiate. Although Russia would also be better off if the war ended, he is unlikely to stop until his main war aim—the strategic neutralization of Ukraine—is achieved.