The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ukraine’s military is stronger than U.S. leaks indicated, Blinken says

"Russia sought to erase Ukraine from the map, to eliminate its independence. ... That has failed," Antony Blinken said at an event marking World Press Freedom Day hosted by Washington Post Live. "Where exactly this settles remains to be seen." (Video: Washington Post Live)
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Ukraine is better positioned to make headway in its expected counteroffensive against Russia than leaked U.S. intelligence documents indicated, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday, voicing confidence that Kyiv can reclaim occupied territory despite a host of military challenges.

Blinken declined to specifically address the trove of classified material that spilled into public view after it was posted on the Discord social media platform, but said intelligence material detailing the military challenges that Ukraine will face, including problems fielding and sustaining troops, “reflected a particular point in time and this is not static.”

Most of the leaked material dated from January, February and March. Officials have charged a member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard with mishandling classified documents.

“Where Ukraine might have been a month ago, two months ago, three months ago, is not where it is now in terms of its ability, for example, to prosecute a counteroffensive and to deal with the ongoing Russian aggression,” Blinken said, speaking at an event marking World Press Freedom Day hosted by Washington Post Live.

The government of President Volodymyr Zelensky is preparing to launch a long-awaited operation seeking to recapture vast swaths of territory seized by Russian forces after President Vladimir Putin’s February 2022 invasion. Leaders in Kyiv have also vowed to push Russia out of Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that Putin annexed illegally in 2014 and heavily fortified.

While Ukraine’s military has performed far better against Russia than Western nations had expected, it has recaptured little territory since last year. One leaked U.S. assessment predicted that Ukrainian forces, facing shortfalls in heavy weaponry, ammunition and manpower, would probably make only “modest territorial gains” in their spring campaign.

Both militaries have sustained massive casualties, but even still, neither side appears inclined to negotiate an end to the war. Moscow earlier Wednesday accused Ukraine’s government of a brazen attempt to assassinate the Russian leader and declared that it “reserves the right to respond.” Officials in Kyiv denied responsibility, suggesting instead that the thwarted attack was carried out by “local resistance forces” and was being exploited by the Kremlin to justify Russia’s targeting of Ukrainian civilians.

Blinken, noting that Western nations have provided Ukraine huge amounts of weaponry and training, said he was “confident that they will have success in regaining more of their territory.” For Putin, he added, the war had already proven fruitless.

“Russia sought to erase Ukraine from the map, to eliminate its independence, to subsume it into Russia. That has failed,” he said.

Throughout the conflict, Blinken has expressed confidence in Ukraine’s military momentum even as its forces have complained about ammunition and equipment shortages, and advances on the ground have slowed. But he also suggested that the war may not end, as leaders in Kyiv have pledged, with the recovery of every inch of their country.

“Where exactly this settles remains to be seen,” Blinken said. “And Ukraine has to make important decisions about exactly where it’s going to go, how far it can get, and how it wants to pursue this. But we’re determined to sustain that support.”

Zelensky has expressed dismay about the Discord leak — which also detailed sensitive Ukrainian vulnerabilities in areas including air defense — and his irritation about the lack of follow-up from U.S. officials.

Blinken said he had spoken with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba about the leaks after the material was made public. In that conversation, Blinken said, he communicated that the United States “very much regretted the unauthorized disclosure of these documents” and had arrested the person allegedly responsible.

Blinken said Ukraine and other countries benefit from the “extraordinary information” the U.S. intelligence agencies generate, with much of Kyiv’s signals intelligence powered by America’s far-reaching electronic surveillance programs. He said foreign partners have not expressed anger to him about the leaks.

“If we have a country, whether it’s China or other countries that have significant influence, that are prepared to pursue a just and durable peace, we would welcome that … but first [with] a clear understanding that in this instance there is a victim and there’s an aggressor, there is no moral equivalence between the two positions. Until recently, it was very unclear whether China accepted that basic principle. I’m still not sure that they do, but at least President Xi has now had a conversation with Zelensky. That’s a positive thing because it’s vitally important that China and other countries that have been seeking to advance peace hear from the victim, not just the aggressor.” — Secretary of State Antony Blinken (Video: Washington Post Live)

Blinken praised last week’s phone call between Zelensky and Chinese President Xi Jinping, saying it was “vitally important that China and other countries that have been seeking to advance peace hear from the victim, not just the aggressor.”

Earlier this year, Xi introduced a 12-point peace plan for Ukraine, but had not spoken to Zelensky since the start of the conflict while having calls and a meeting with Putin. U.S. officials have cautioned China, Russia’s most powerful foreign friend, against providing weapons to Moscow.

Blinken said that it was possible China could play a productive role in bringing the war to an end, and that Xi’s peace plan included “positive” elements. But he said it wasn’t clear whether the Chinese leader had yet accepted that Ukraine is the victim and Russia is the aggressor in the conflict.

One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.

A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.

Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.