It’s now been 15 months since Russia invaded Ukraine. Tens of thousands of Ukrainian and Russian military personnel have been killed. And now, it appears that Russia has succeeded in taking what is left of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut after months of intense fighting.
As Ukraine prepares to launch its anticipated spring offensive, President Joe Biden has agreed to allow Americans to train Ukrainian forces to fly F-16 fighter jets—and allies can even provide some of those jets to Ukraine.
Has America provided Ukraine with the right kind of support? How important is the spring offensive to the future of the war? And how did the city of Bakhmut, which isn’t strategically located, become an epicenter in the war?
Victoria Coates, senior research fellow in international affairs and national security at The Heritage Foundation, joins the “Problematic Women” podcast to answer our most pressing questions about the future of the war and the prospects of Ukraine’s success.
Also on today’s show, we break down what is happening with the debate over the national debt and why Congress and Biden can’t agree on raising the debt limit. Plus, some climate activists poured black vegetable charcoal into the Trevi Fountain in Rome. We explain why.
And as always, we’ll be crowning our “Problematic Woman of the Week.”
Listen to the podcast below or read a portion of the transcript from our conversation with Coates:
Virginia Allen: February marked a year since Russia invaded Ukraine. Are you surprised that this war is still going on?
Victoria Coates: Oh, I think everyone’s pretty much amazed, and we’ve just marked the 15-month point this week. So, we’re now a year and a quarter. We are taking a big bite out of that second year here time-wise into this war.
And what was most disturbing to me this week were reports that the administration is contemplating a quote-unquote solution for Ukraine that would be a frozen conflict like the Korean Peninsula, where you’d have a North Korea-type area that would be a no-go zone. And then the South Korea-type area, which would be a Western-aligned capitalist, democratic country.
And while South Korea has been a big success, I don’t know that we want to re-create the North Korea model. So, my argument from the beginning has been that we needed to get this conflict into a condition where we could actually win it, not drag it into a stalemate.
Kristen Eichamer: One of the latest developments in this war has happened in the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. Russia has claimed now that it has taken the city. It’s not exactly a strategic location; it’s just in the middle of the country, but why have so much fighting around this city when it’s not necessarily a strategic location?
Coates: Bakhmut is a very interesting case and an example of through-the-looking-glass nature of this war, for whatever reason, [Yevgeny] Prigozhin, who’s the head of—the Russian head of—the Wagner Group, which is their paramilitary group, just made Bakhmut one of his key strategic goals. But as you say, it’s not really all that important of a location.
If the Ukrainians retain the high ground around Bakhmut, then they control access to whatever’s left of the city, which doesn’t sound like it’s much. So, the Russians have spent however many thousands of lives, however much ammunition and material taking what is essentially [a Pyrrhic] victory if they do indeed control the city now. But even that’s not clear.
And so, the fact that we’re even allowing them to treat this as some [sort of] a victory to their domestic press is a real mistake. I think [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy probably had it right when he was talking about it in Hiroshima [in Japan] last week, that all you got there are a bunch of dead Russians. That would be the way to frame it. And point out that if, 15 months later, all they have to show for it is Bakhmut, this is a failure for the Russians.
Allen: How should the U.S. be thinking about support for Ukraine? Have we given the support that we should have given? Have we given too much? Has it been the right support?
Coates: It’s really, really frustrating because we are now over $110 billion committed in both economic and military support for Ukraine. And so, this is a pretty significant price tag for the United States. And the first point I’d make is, it is really shameful that the administration has allowed the two largest economies in Europe, being France and Germany, to really take a backseat on this.
Everybody was just delighted 10 days ago when the Germans announced they were pledging $3 billion in support, and oh, that meant that the Europeans were coming onboard and starting to shoulder their burden. Well, no, not if it’s less than 3% of what the American taxpayer has shouldered.
So, I think that enabling of European dependency, especially as some of the smaller countries are stepping up and doing more than their fair share, that really points out how much the French and the Germans have shirked their responsibility for what is essentially a European war in the end.
So, that would be the first point. The second is, we’re looking at what we’re giving them. The president, after insisting for months that we were not going to give them the F-16 fighters, now announced in Hiroshima that we were going to bring a bunch of Ukrainian pilots over and train them on the F-16. He stopped shy of saying he was actually going to provide the jets.
There are some other places I guess they could come from. But again, it’s this incremental handwringing over what is escalatory, what isn’t escalatory. The last time I looked, the person who was escalating was [Russian President] Vladimir Putin.
So, I think that has been a real drawback to the Ukrainian impulse, which I think most Americans strongly support to win this war and take their country back and prevent Russia from doing this again. So, we have here at [The Heritage Foundation] in our family, we have J.V. Venable, who’s been writing on the F-16, said he really doesn’t think they’re going to be the game-changer. Everyone assumes that there’s some reasons you might want to do it in terms of long-term arming of Ukraine, but we’re in a shooting war right now. That shouldn’t be our priority. (The Daily Signal is the news outlet of The Heritage Foundation.)
Eichamer: We’re hearing a lot about the spring offensive. What does the spring offensive entail?
Coates: Well, the short answer is, we don’t know, because the Ukrainians have rightly gotten sick of having their military secrets leaked to the American press by the administration, which does that for various reasons of messaging, but which it has proven pretty damaging to the war efforts.
So, they don’t tell us anymore what they’re going to do. I’m a little concerned that we’re on the verge of June, and the spring offensive has not yet materialized, but that doesn’t mean it won’t.
And if they feel that some of the other systems that we’ve provided, and our allies have provided, are now in place, they’re fully trained on them, we could see a major movement in coming days to start to retake additional pockets of territory in the east of the country and really shore up the defenses of Kyiv.
Allen: How critical will the coming weeks, and maybe next three months, be for the war? How much longer could this drag on?
Coates: Well, I think what we don’t want is a repeat of last year, where the Ukrainians were making significant gains over the summer months, and there was a real slow walk of support for them. If the administration is serious, as the president said, and Hiroshima, we have Ukraine’s back, we’re in this for as long as it takes, then they owe the American people a clear plan.
The fact that we’re sitting here 15 months into this thing with no idea what the end state is or where we’re going to go, except for a vague signal that we may freeze the conflict, that’s really not desirable.
And if we get into the fall, and they’re still grinding on, and then we’re into the U.S. election cycle, that’s not good for anyone.
Allen: Victoria, we really appreciate your expertise on this.
Coates: Thank you.
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