Opinion | Jake Sullivan weighs uncertainties and risks in Ukraine war

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President Biden on Monday heads to a NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, in what seems an enviable position: The alliance is stronger than ever before; its ally Ukraine is slowly advancing on the battlefield and receiving more weapons every week; and Russia is in disarray at home.

Yet if the Ukraine war is going so well for Biden and the West, why does it still feel so fraught with danger — and why is its eventual outcome still so uncertain? That’s the paradox that should haunt the allies as they gather in the Lithuanian capital: Can they move from a strategy of sustaining Kyiv to one for victory?

Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, discussed these issues with a small group of journalists Friday as he prepared for the Vilnius trip. What struck me, listening to Sullivan, was that even with America’s unmatched and often astonishing intelligence supremacy, there’s so much that the United States still doesn’t know about the dynamics that shape this war.

Let’s start with the fundamental question that Biden and his advisers have weighed since the war began in February 2022: How can the United States and its NATO partners help Ukraine repel Russia’s invasion without triggering a direct NATO-Russia conflict that might lead to use of nuclear weapons?

Sullivan said Biden tries to steer U.S. policy between what he called “two caricatures” about the Russian nuclear threat. The first is “that the Biden administration is paralyzed by the nuclear threat and therefore won’t support Ukraine sufficiently,” Sullivan said. “I think that is nonsense.” He cited the “extraordinary quantity and quality” of U.S. weapons deliveries — the latest being Biden’s decision, announced Friday, to ship U.S. cluster munitions to sustain Kyiv’s counteroffensive and extend its timetable for success.

Sullivan sharply rejected the idea, voiced increasingly by some Washington strategists, that Biden is overplaying the Russian nuclear threat and deterring NATO from all-in support for Kyiv. The hawks, he said, argue: “This nuclear threat is complete nonsense. Don’t worry about it at all. It’s to be completely discounted.”

Sullivan rebuffed the no-worry approach: “It is a threat. It is a real threat. It’s one we need to take seriously. And it’s one that does evolve with changing conditions on the ground.” As the philosophers say, this issue of nuclear risk is “contingent.” It’s neither inevitable nor impossible.

The national security adviser said that in weighing nuclear risks, the administration has done “a tremendous amount of consultation … about all of the possible contingencies in this conflict,” which presumably would center on a Russian tactical nuclear attack if Ukraine breaks through and Russian conventional forces are collapsing. He noted that China and India “see it similarly” and are “trying to indicate to Russia that it would be a terrible move for Russia … to actually deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine.”

The disarray in Russia complicates nuclear assessments, and here, again, what was fascinating was how much Sullivan said the intelligence community doesn’t know about the June 24 revolt by Wagner militia leader Yevgeniy Prigozhin. “We don’t know exactly where Prigozhin is. We know he’s moving around. So, he’s not holed up somewhere. He’s at liberty so far as we know. Why, under what conditions, based on what assurances — that’s all a mystery to us,” he said.

The bottom line of the Prigozhin affair, Sullivan said, is that Russian President Vladimir Putin “is clearly not coming out of this thing stronger.” The fact that Putin quelled what he called an “armed mutiny” with a negotiated compromise indicates weakness in his command and control. Sullivan listed some puzzles for Putin: “How far beyond Prigozhin did this go? How much of the underlying drivers of Prigozhin’s conduct remain embedded in other parts of the Russian security apparatus?”

The Prigozhin affair hasn’t yet had a “substantial impact” on Russian forces inside Ukraine, Sullivan said. But he noted that it does seem to have rattled China, Putin’s most important supporter.

Beijing “has been repeatedly surprised by events,” Sullivan said. “They misjudged the scope of Russia’s initial invasion, they didn’t expect the relatively poor quality and capacity of the Russian forces” and now “they were surprised by the events relative to Prigozhin.” Beijing keep encountering unexpected events on the “downside.”

Putin’s shaky handling of the Prigozhin affair “probably … strengthened the hands of those [in Beijing] who say, ‘Let’s end this war sooner, or help get this war over sooner,’” Sullivan explained.

Sullivan conceded that Ukraine’s counteroffensive has been “hard going” and that “Russian defense in depth has been considerable” in terms of men, mines and munitions. But he cautioned that the Ukrainians haven’t yet deployed the bulk of their forces. They’re “probing the chess game” of this battlefield and testing points of Russian weakness that might allow a rapid advance by the maneuver forces NATO allies have supplied over the past year. Thanks to U.S. shipment of cluster bombs, Ukraine will have enough ammunition for this waiting game and a “wider window” for success, he said.

Sullivan, preternaturally young for a national security adviser, spoke in what’s known as the “Secretary of War Suite” in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, decorated with portraits of venerable strategists who once occupied this space, such as Henry Stimson in World War II. Many of them faced the same question that weighs on Sullivan now: How to achieve victory in war when the parameters are uncertain and some of the risks cannot be known.

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