Letter from Washington
Inside the White House’s battle to keep Ukraine in the fight.
On a Monday afternoon in August, when President Joe Biden was on vacation and the West Wing felt like a ghost town, his national-security adviser, Jake Sullivan, sat down to discuss America’s involvement in the war in Ukraine. Sullivan had agreed to an interview “with trepidation,” as he had told me, but now, in the White House’s Roosevelt Room, steps from the Oval Office, he seemed surprisingly relaxed for a congenital worrier. (“It’s my job to worry,” he once told an interviewer. “So I worry about literally everything.”) When I asked about reports that, at a recent nato summit, he had been furious during negotiations over whether to issue Ukraine a formal “invitation” to join the Western alliance, he said, only half jokingly, “First of all, I’m, like, the most rational human being on the planet.”
But, when it came to the subject of the war itself, and why Biden has staked so much on helping Ukraine fight it, Sullivan struck an unusually impassioned note. “As a child of the eighties and ‘Rocky’ and ‘Red Dawn,’ I believe in freedom fighters and I believe in righteous causes, and I believe the Ukrainians have one,” he said. “There are very few conflicts that I have seen—maybe none—in the post-Cold War era . . . where there’s such a clear good guy and bad guy. And we’re on the side of the good guy, and we have to do a lot for that person.”
There’s no question that the United States has done a lot: American assistance to Ukraine, totalling seventy-six billion dollars, with more than forty-three billion for security aid, is the largest such effort since the Second World War. In the aftermath of the February 24, 2022, Russian invasion, the U.S. has delivered more than two thousand Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, more than ten thousand Javelin antitank weapons, and more than two million 155-millimetre artillery rounds. It has sent Patriot missiles for air defense and High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems—known as himars—to give Ukraine longer-range strike capability; sophisticated Ghost drones and small hand-launched Puma drones; Stryker armored personnel carriers, Bradley fighting vehicles, and M1A1 Abrams tanks.
Biden has framed the conflict in sweeping, nearly civilizational terms, vowing to stick with Ukraine for “as long as it takes” to defeat the invaders, who—despite an estimated hundred and twenty thousand dead and a hundred and eighty thousand injured—still hold nearly twenty per cent of the country’s territory. But at nearly every stage the Administration has faced sharp questions about the nature and the durability of the U.S. commitment. Beyond the inevitable tensions with Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, there are jostling Washington bureaucracies, restive European allies, and a growing Trumpist faction in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which is opposed to the bipartisan congressional bills that have, up until now, funded the war. A vocal peace camp, meanwhile, is demanding negotiations with Vladimir Putin to end the conflict, even as Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said there is currently little prospect for “meaningful diplomacy.”
The task of leading the White House through such treacherous politics has fallen to Sullivan, who, when he was appointed, at the age of forty-four, was the youngest national-security adviser since McGeorge Bundy held the job, during the Vietnam War. “It’s really Jake,” Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. Ambassador to nato, who has consulted regularly with the National Security Council since the Russian invasion, told me. “He’s the quartermaster of the war—and everything else.”
Sullivan is lean, with wispy blond hair, a tendency to blush bright red, and a workaholic intensity unusual even by Washington’s standards. (One night a few months ago, Sullivan discovered an intruder who had broken into his home at around 3 a.m., because he was still up working.) In his office, there is a chart—updated frequently—showing countries’ current stocks of ammunition that might go to Ukraine. This spring, during the battle of Bakhmut, he knew the status of the fighting down to the city block. He often speaks with his counterpart in Kyiv, Zelensky’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, two or three times a week, and has taken charge of everything from lobbying South Korea for artillery shells to running an emergency operation to get Ukraine additional power generators. Earlier this year, when Germany balked at sending Leopard tanks to Ukraine, Sullivan spent days in intensive talks with the German national-security adviser to secure them; in exchange, the U.S. agreed to provide M1A1 Abrams tanks, a move that the Pentagon had long opposed. The N.S.C., in other words, has gone operational, with Sullivan personally overseeing the effort while also doing the rest of his job, which, in recent months, has taken him to secret meetings with a top Chinese official in Vienna and Malta and to complicated negotiations in the Middle East.
In contrast to the epic feuds between George W. Bush’s Pentagon and the State Department over Iraq, or the vicious infighting in Donald Trump’s turnover-ridden national-security team, the Biden White House’s approach to the war has been notably drama-free. Disagreements among advisers, while at times robust and protracted, have barely surfaced in the press. Blinken, a confidant of Biden for more than two decades, has been perhaps the most visible salesman for the Administration’s strategy and a key conduit to European allies. Lloyd Austin, the congenial and low-profile Secretary of Defense, has overseen the military relationship with Kyiv. Sullivan is more of an inside player, the relentless wonk at Biden’s side. In an interview, Blinken called him “the hub,” an “honest broker” who has refereed the team’s differences, which the Secretary acknowledged to me but described as largely “tactical, rarely fundamental in nature.” The fact that they have “a friendship, partnership, and real complicity in working together for many years,” he added, has also made for an unusually consensus-minded group.
At the same time, the Administration’s policy hasn’t always been clear. “A pledge to support Ukraine ‘for as long as it takes’ is not a strategy,” the top Republicans on the House and Senate foreign-affairs committees wrote in a letter this month to the White House. A major complaint from Ukraine supporters in both parties is that the White House delayed too long in providing urgently needed weapons. The term “self-deterrence” is popular among those who subscribe to this view. So is “incrementalism.” John Herbst, a former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, called it “world-class ad-hoc-ery.”
In some sense, the President’s instructions have been clear from the beginning: No U.S. boots on the ground; no supplying weapons for the purpose of attacking Russian territory; and avoid giving Putin grounds for nuclear escalation. In practice, however, it’s fallen to Sullivan and Biden’s other advisers to oversee a series of one-off decisions about which weapons systems to provide to keep Ukraine in the fight. “I don’t necessarily think that they went in thinking, Oh, we’re going to boil this frog slowly, because that’s the best way to avoid escalation,” Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former national-intelligence officer who worked on the Biden transition team for the N.S.C., said. “They stumbled into it.”
In the Roosevelt Room, when I mentioned the term “proxy war” as a possible description for America’s considerable role in the conflict, Sullivan reacted with an almost visceral recoil. “Ukraine is not fighting on behalf of the United States of America to further our objectives,” he said. “They are fighting for their land and their freedom.” He went on, “The analogy to me is much closer to the way the United States supported the U.K. in the early years of World War Two—that basically you’ve got an authoritarian aggressor trying to destroy the sovereignty of a free nation, and the U.S. didn’t directly enter the war, but we provided a massive amount of material to them.”
But as we now know, despite the flood of aid to Britain, a war with Nazi Germany was all but inevitable for the U.S. Today, a direct war with Putin’s Russia remains unthinkable—and yet the status quo also seems unsustainable.
I first met Sullivan when he was a top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, serving as both her closest travelling adviser and the head of the State Department’s policy-planning office, a position created after the Second World War by George F. Kennan, the Kremlinologist and the architect of containment. Sullivan, in his early thirties, was already a Washington prodigy, with a dazzling résumé and a reputation as a Midwestern nice guy. When Biden named him national-security adviser, he called him a “once-in-a-generation intellect.” Clinton has referred to him as a “once-in-a-generation talent.”
Sullivan grew up in a large Irish Catholic family in Minneapolis, one of five children of a high-school guidance counsellor and a college journalism professor who once studied to become a Jesuit priest. At Yale, Sullivan was the editor-in-chief of the Yale Daily News and a nationally ranked college debater; once a week, he commuted to New York to intern at the Council on Foreign Relations. During his senior year, he scored a rare trifecta—“the academic equivalent of horse racing’s Triple Crown,” as the Yale Bulletin put it—winning all three of the most prestigious fellowships available to American undergraduates: the Rhodes, the Marshall, and the Truman. Sullivan opted for the Rhodes, earned a master’s in international relations at Oxford, and took time out to compete in the world collegiate debate championships in Sydney, finishing second. He then went to Yale Law School and, after graduating, secured a Supreme Court clerkship with Justice Stephen Breyer.
Sullivan began his political career as an aide to another bright Minnesotan with a Yale degree: the Democratic senator Amy Klobuchar, who connected him with Clinton to run debate prep for her 2008 primary against Barack Obama. Sullivan quickly proved indispensable to the former First Lady, and, when Clinton became Obama’s Secretary of State, Sullivan went with her. “Jake did everything for her,” one of Obama’s senior aides told the authors Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes. “Whatever was the front-burner issue of the day, you could go to Jake.” Eventually, Clinton and Sullivan travelled to a hundred and twelve countries.
Biden and his national-security team have often been portrayed, with some justification, as a sort of second coming of the Obama Administration, a reunion of the old gang, albeit with younger aides, such as Blinken and Sullivan, moving into principal positions. When Sullivan got married, in 2015, to Maggie Goodlander, who would go on to serve as counsel to Attorney General Merrick Garland, attendees at the wedding, which was held on Yale’s campus, included not only Clinton, who read a Bible verse in the ceremony, but also Blinken and William Burns, Biden’s future C.I.A. director. (During Obama’s Presidency, Sullivan and Burns, at that time the Deputy Secretary of State, were secretly dispatched to Oman to begin talks with Iran, which ultimately produced the Iran nuclear deal.) Tom Sullivan, the groom’s younger brother, is now Blinken’s deputy chief of staff.
Many of the figures who are ascendant in the Biden Administration—including Biden himself—had also been occasional critics of Obama’s policy toward Russia. In 2009, when Obama sought to repair relations with Russia despite its recent invasion of Georgia, Clinton gamely handed Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, an oversized “reset” button—incorrectly translated into Russian, as it turned out—to symbolize the new policy. But internally she was skeptical. When she left the Obama Administration, in 2013, one of her last acts was to submit a harshly worded memo warning the President about Putin. “Don’t appear too eager to work together,” she told Obama, according to her memoir. “Don’t flatter Putin with high-level attention. Decline his invitation for a presidential-level summit.” The first draft of the memo was written by Sullivan. “It was significantly darker” than the final product, he told me—so much so that “some of the Russia hands in the State Department” had said, “That’s over the top, that’s too far.”
After Clinton’s departure, Sullivan succeeded Blinken as Biden’s Vice-Presidential national-security adviser. The following year, Putin launched a surprise takeover of the Crimean Peninsula and backed a separatist war in eastern Ukraine. In response, Biden and others in the White House urged Obama to provide lethal assistance to Kyiv, such as Javelin antitank weapons, but Obama refused. Blinken and Sullivan disagreed with the decision. “Biden was generally the one that was much more forward-leaning in wanting to take more steps,” one of their N.S.C. colleagues at the time recalled. The same was true of his advisers—“the people,” as the colleague put it, “who are now in the driver’s seat.” Another colleague from the Obama years added, “These are the people from the Obama Administration who thought there were real mistakes.”
Sullivan left the White House to serve as the chief policy adviser for Clinton’s 2016 campaign. The morning after her loss, when Clinton stoically spoke of the need to accept Trump’s win—in a speech that Sullivan had stayed up all night writing—he sat in the front row and cried. “There’s nothing I don’t second-guess about 2016,” he told me.
The experience convinced Sullivan that liberal internationalists like himself were an endangered species unless they could reorient their thinking. During the Trump years, he launched a think-tank project with the self-appointed mission of developing a “foreign policy for the middle class.” He emerged notably more skeptical about the benefits of unfettered globalization and free trade, a new position that he stressed as Biden’s top policy adviser during the 2020 campaign.
Biden won the 2020 election not wanting to talk so much about Russia. America’s growing rivalry with China, Blinken said, in an early speech as Secretary of State, now looked to be “the biggest geopolitical test” that the U.S. would face this century. As for Russia, another reset was impossible after Putin’s meddling in the 2016 Presidential election and four years of Trump’s open sycophancy. Instead, Biden’s team settled on a new formula, pinning their hopes on a “stable and predictable” relationship. The word “guardrails” came up often in their planning, according to a former official who was involved in the talks.
In the spring of 2021, when Russia began an ominous military buildup along its border with Ukraine, Biden invited Putin to meet in Geneva. But, by the time of the summit, in June, the threat to Ukraine seemed to have ebbed and Biden focussed on warning Putin against launching further cyberattacks on the U.S. After the meeting, Biden insisted that there was a “genuine prospect” for better relations.
By then, a more pressing problem was unfolding. In April, Biden had announced the end of the two-decade-long U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, setting a September deadline for all remaining U.S. troops to exit the country. In August, however, the U.S.-backed government in Kabul collapsed. The Biden Administration, believing that such a possibility was months away, had failed to evacuate Afghans who had assisted the U.S. during the conflict. Thousands descended upon the Kabul airport, where the U.S. military organized an emergency airlift. The operation ultimately rescued some hundred and twenty-five thousand people, but only after horrific scenes of chaos and a terrorist attack at the airport’s Abbey Gate, in which thirteen U.S. service members and at least a hundred and seventy Afghans died.
Sullivan came under criticism for the botched withdrawal, with some people calling for him to be fired. Brett Bruen, the director of global engagement for the Obama White House, argued in an op-ed that Sullivan and others were responsible for “the most unnecessarily embarrassing day in the history of the National Security Council.” Sullivan kept his job, but colleagues told me that he had taken this “trial by fire,” as one put it, deeply personally. An after-action report by the State Department chided the Administration for succumbing to groupthink and for its failure to plan adequately for “worst-case scenarios.” “This definitely weighed on Jake very heavily,” Ron Klain, Biden’s first White House chief of staff, told the author Chris Whipple. “Did he give the right advice? Did he push back on the military enough?”
The first secret U.S. intelligence reports about Russia’s plans to invade Ukraine came only a few weeks after the withdrawal from Afghanistan, in early October, 2021. A month later, in a speech to an Australian think tank, Sullivan again spoke about “striving for a more stable, more predictable relationship” with Russia.
In fact, the stable-and-predictable policy was already dead. A week before the speech, Biden had dispatched Burns, his C.I.A. director, on a secret mission to Moscow. Burns notified the Kremlin that the United States was aware of its intentions and warned of serious consequences if Putin followed through. He returned to Washington convinced that the invasion was going to happen.
Biden’s N.S.C. team was haunted by both the recent catastrophe in Afghanistan and the recollection of Putin’s 2014 takeover of Crimea. “In Crimea, [Russia] created a fait accompli before the world had really fully woken up to what they had done,” Sullivan recalled, in an oral history for Politico. “We wanted to make sure the world was wide awake.” He compared the situation to a scene from the first “Austin Powers” movie, in which “there’s a steamroller on the far side of the room, and a guy standing there, holding up his hand, and shouting, ‘No!’ Then they zoom out, and the steamroller is moving incredibly slowly and is really far away.” He added, “I was determined that we were not going to be that guy—just waiting for the steamroller to roll over Ukraine. We were going to act.”
Prewar estimates suggested that Ukraine’s military could hold out against the Russians for no more than a few days. A “tiger team” assembled by Sullivan and his deputy national-security adviser, Jon Finer, met to game out possibilities. “A lot of our planning was worst-case scenario planning,” Sullivan told Politico, “which always psychologically puts one in a tough space.”
Instead, Ukraine defied expectations and held off Russia’s assault on Kyiv. The White House was suddenly improvising a strategy for a long war. But Putin’s increasingly explicit nuclear sabre-rattling meant that the early months of the conflict were spent in arguments over what might or might not cross Russia’s red line. In the spring of 2022, a debate raged in Washington over whether to give Ukraine the precision medium-range missile system known as himars. When Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker, led a congressional delegation to Kyiv to meet with Zelensky, the Ukrainian President’s “main ask” was for the himars, according to Jason Crow, a House Democrat and a military veteran. Eventually, Biden approved the delivery, with the proviso that the himars not be used to hit targets inside Russia. “I felt like we dragged our feet,” a Democratic senator told me. Ukraine, meanwhile, moved on to the next items on its list. Arguments ensued over tanks, F-16 fighter jets, and longer-range missiles known as atacms.
Sullivan, characteristically, knew every side of each issue. “Jake’s a master debater,” one of his former N.S.C. colleagues said. “He constantly wants to test his own propositions.” Advocates of talks with Russia have had an open line to Sullivan and his staff, as have former officials who believe that such talks are akin to selling out Ukraine. “One of the things I genuinely admire about Jake is his willingness to take criticism and input, his willingness to double-check and to ask,” Senator Chris Coons, a Biden confidant from Delaware and a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, told me.
Even officials in the Administration who have, at times, been frustrated with Sullivan told me that they appreciated his openness. “He’s a really good listener, and it can be a strength,” a senior official said. “He wants a real debate, and he fosters that. But the weakness of that is that sometimes he can blow in the wind, and you just get these shocks to the system, like, ‘Wait, what? We’re doing what now?’ ”
Sullivan also studiously avoids any daylight between himself and Biden. “He is very careful not to contradict him,” a former official who worked with Sullivan during the Obama Administration said. “He can guide him, but he can’t contradict him. That’s what a national-security adviser has to do, and Jake has always been very conscious, like frankly any good Washington staffer, of never getting afoul of his principal, and he never does.”
Sullivan’s methodical, hyperanalytical style fits with Biden’s career-long tendency to hold on to a decision, to wait and test the angles and find a way to the political center of gravity. But the downside of that approach is evident, too. “There’s a real tendency to paralysis by analysis,” Eric Edelman, a former Under-Secretary of Defense in the Bush Administration, said. “Jake likes to look at every facet of a problem and wants to understand everything. That’s the tragedy of government—you have to make decisions behind a veil of irreducible ignorance.”
By February of this year, it was clear that the war would not be ending anytime soon. Biden decided to travel to Kyiv, in a risky and secret trip, to commemorate the first anniversary of the invasion. During an overnight train ride from the Polish border town of Przemyśl to the Ukrainian capital, Biden and Sullivan sat alone together in a wood-panelled car, with the curtains drawn for security, working on the contours of a longer-term strategy to discuss with Zelensky. Since the previous fall, when Ukraine took back key cities such as Kherson and Kharkiv, the question was not so much whether the Administration had failed to anticipate disaster, as in Afghanistan, but what more it could do to make winning possible. Biden and Sullivan were focussed on two converging challenges—how best to supply Ukraine for a planned spring counter-offensive and how to prepare for the nato summit in July, in Vilnius, Lithuania, where Zelensky would push for a definitive answer to when Ukraine would be allowed to join the alliance.
Biden was immovable in his opposition to granting nato membership to Ukraine while the war was ongoing. But, during the ten-hour trip into the war zone, he and Sullivan discussed what they planned to offer Zelensky instead: long-term security guarantees and military assistance akin to what the U.S. has provided to Israel since the nineteen-eighties. Sullivan told me, “We had a long conversation about this in which the President said he wanted to use the meeting in Kyiv to lay out for Zelensky his view that there is a pathway to nato—it’s not for now, it’s for later—and the bridge to nato is the Israel model.”
The idea had been germinating in the N.S.C. since mid-January. The arrangement with Israel has been codified and sustained going back to the Reagan Administration by a series of formal memorandums of understanding, which commit the U.S. to providing a certain amount of military aid and weapons over a ten-year period in order to give Israel a “qualitative military edge” in the region. Unlike nato’s Article 5 commitment, which states that an attack on any one member is an attack on all, there has been no explicit pledge obliging the U.S. to fight on Israel’s behalf if it is attacked.
Such an arrangement would nevertheless send a message to Putin—and to everybody else—that the United States would not abandon Ukraine. The next morning, in a meeting with Zelensky, Biden proposed the “Israel model” for the first time. Later, when he and the Ukrainian President met with the press, Biden framed the trip as a rebuke to Putin. “Putin thought Ukraine was weak and the West was divided,” Biden said. “He thought he could outlast us. I don’t think he’s thinking that right now.” Then he and Zelensky took a stroll through Kyiv, as air-raid sirens blared.
By late spring, the White House was continuing to push ahead with the Israel model. In May, when Biden travelled to a G-7 summit in Japan, Sullivan pitched Yermak and other national-security advisers on a joint statement of principles outlining a long-term security commitment to Ukraine. The idea was that each country, including the U.S., would then negotiate its own bilateral memorandum of understanding with Ukraine. (Blinken told me that the U.S. ultimately enlisted twenty-eight other countries.) “We negotiated the hell out of that document,” a senior Administration official said. The White House and some allies, such as Germany, wanted to insure that the statement came from the G-7, and not nato, “because nato, we continue to feel, should be kept out of this conflict,” a senior European official told me.
Zelensky, however, continued to lobby for full nato membership. Otherwise, he believed, even if Ukraine won the war it would exist in a security gray zone, vulnerable to future attack by Russia. A number of nato allies, especially among the former Soviet-bloc countries, agreed. “The bigger issue is he wanted to make clear throughout that this was not one hundred per cent a substitute for nato,” the senior Administration official recalled. “Zelensky didn’t want to be told, ‘That’s it, the door is now closed on you. You’re down an entirely different path and you can never get back on this other path.’ ”
Inside the Administration, there was disagreement about how to handle this brewing problem. Some State Department officials prodded the White House to offer more to Ukraine. During a nato meeting of foreign ministers in early June, in Oslo, Blinken called Biden and Sullivan with the message that the U.S., along with Germany, risked being perceived as an isolated holdout. “The strong majority felt that it was important that the summit take steps forward on advancing the proposition of Ukraine’s membership and that we could not simply sit on the status quo,” Blinken told me. “And so I reported that back.” nato’s Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, floated a proposal for what the alliance might offer Ukraine: not yet membership, but a faster track to getting there, in which Ukraine would not be required to first fulfill an elaborate Membership Action Plan, a condition that nato had imposed on other former Soviet states. When Stoltenberg came to Washington in mid-June, Biden reluctantly agreed to skip the map.
Privately, the Ukrainians were hardly thrilled with the proposal. Zelensky was still holding out hope for a concrete commitment to let Ukraine join nato. A senior diplomatic source told me that the Americans were disappointed by Ukraine’s reaction to the lifting of the map: “Like, ‘What, you don’t see that as a win?’ It was so frustrating.”
Ukraine’s long-awaited spring offensive began, in June, with high expectations. Publicly, the Administration emphasized what the Pentagon called the “mountain of steel” it had sent to bolster the Ukrainian Army. But Russia had built three lines of defense in key places along the front. The fighting would hark back to the awful trench warfare of the First World War. The Ukrainians, in fact, were expending artillery shells at an unheard-of rate. In the White House, Sullivan and others worried that a shortage would stall the counter-offensive before it could succeed.
Sullivan had warned about this scenario for months. In January, the Ukrainians had worked with the Pentagon on an extensive war game in Wiesbaden to assess their needs. The conclusion was not good: the counter-offensive would require more 155-millimetre rounds than the Pentagon had to offer. By February, Sullivan began to speak of this as the war’s “math problem.”
As Sullivan saw it, there were three potential solutions: dramatically ramp up production; look for additional sources of ammunition around the world; or send Ukraine some of the large stocks of phased-out cluster munitions held in storage by the Pentagon. But the White House learned that it would take months to sufficiently increase production of artillery shells—too late for the counter-offensive. And the State Department was opposed to sending cluster munitions, known as dpicms, which are outlawed by more than a hundred countries, including many U.S. allies in Europe, because of the civilian casualties they often leave in their wake. That left the hunt for more munitions. Austin and Sullivan began calling leaders across the globe, including in countries, such as South Korea and Israel, that had not been particularly supportive of the war effort. “The decision was made to make a real run at the South Koreans, because they were the allies that had the biggest stockpile,” a senior Pentagon official recalled. Leaked documents revealed that the N.S.C. proposed various creative ways of getting around South Korea’s prohibition on directly selling arms to fuel the conflict; one of these involved having Poland or the U.S. buy the munitions and then send them on to Ukraine.
But by early summer a secret report from the Pentagon warned that Ukraine risked running out of ammunition sooner than expected and again recommended sending cluster munitions. “We’d reached the end of the road,” the senior Administration official recalled. “Like, if we want to make sure there is not a significant disruption in supply, we have to make this decision right now.” The State Department finally lifted its objections—it was a “very stark choice,” Blinken told me, and the Pentagon’s dire warning was “dispositive”—and the N.S.C. convened a meeting to ratify the decision. “They had to go back to the President and say, Option A is the Ukrainians run out of ammo and the counter-offensive stops, or Option B is you provide dpicms,” the senior Pentagon official said. In early July, Biden announced the move, which he called “difficult.”
In an interview that same day, I asked Sullivan about the Administration’s cycle of “no-no-no-yes” decisions on sending various kinds of military assistance to Ukraine. By this point, even some inside the Administration found the pattern hard to understand. “It’s like the boy who cried wolf,” a senior official had told me. “I just don’t know what to believe anymore. When they say, ‘No way, we would never look at the atacms,’ I say, ‘Is that true?’ I do feel I just keep seeing the same movie over and over again.”
It was clear that the question exasperated Sullivan. “I think cluster munitions is in a different category from F-16s,” he told me. “Which itself is in a different category from Abrams tanks. I see the through line you guys are all drawing on the no-no-no-yes thing, but actually each of these has their own distinct logic to them.” To him, the Abrams-tank decision was “about sustaining unity” with Germany. Sometimes the State Department objected, as in the case of the cluster munitions. Sometimes it was the Pentagon or the President personally, as with the atacms.
The atacms had become a particular sore point. In 2022, Biden had rejected sending them, arguing that, to Putin, they would constitute an unacceptable escalation, since their range, up to a hundred and ninety miles, meant that they could hit targets inside Russia. “Another key goal is to insure that we do not end up in a circumstance where we are heading down the road towards a Third World War,” Sullivan said that summer. But once the British began providing similar missiles, in the spring of 2023, the argument no longer seemed to apply. “What has held us back,” the senior Pentagon official told me this summer, was that doing so would “deplete our stocks at a time when we require those missiles for our own contingencies, whether that be Iran or North Korea or China.”
Members of Congress in both parties objected to that reasoning. In June, the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed a bipartisan resolution saying that atacms should “immediately” be offered. When officials had told Crow, the Democratic congressman, that sending the atacms would affect the Pentagon’s Operations Plan, his response, he said, was “Well, for what future war? The war in Europe is now, and it is being fought by the Ukrainians. So change the goddam oplan.”
More broadly, some of Ukraine’s supporters feared that the protracted deliberations had negatively affected the counter-offensive, which, by midsummer, had failed to produce the hoped-for breaches in the Russian lines. “Think about where we might be if things like himars, Stingers, F-16s, atacms were over there a year ago,” Dan Sullivan, a senior Republican senator on the Armed Services Committee, told me. “That’s the really big flaw in the execution of their strategy, and it does start to undermine support when people don’t think they’re in it to win it.”
For his part, the national-security adviser seemed to chafe at the view, circulating widely in Washington, that he was the holdup and that others, including Blinken, were more “forward-leaning.” In recent months, Sullivan had taken to saying that, despite all the attention paid to high-tech weapons and fighter jets, there were only two things that Ukraine could not do without: artillery and air defense. This, he said, was why he had been among the loudest voices pushing to approve the cluster munitions, which, he told colleagues, were the most important single assistance the U.S. could give. “He’s frustrated with this perception that he’s the problem,” a former senior U.S. official told me. “It’s completely wrong.”
Blinken told me that the criticism stemmed from a misunderstanding of Sullivan’s role. “I’ve been forward-leaning in advocating to get the Ukrainians different things at different times, but it’s imperative that that be part of a rigorous process,” the Secretary said. “It’s never been, at all, Jake is a brake on this—it’s Jake doing the job the way it’s supposed to be done.”
The former official said that, by December of 2022, Sullivan was trying to get the President to use the threat of sending atacms as leverage with the Russians. “He was pushing Biden: Why don’t we at least say we will send atacms unless you stop firing on cities?” the former official told me. “So he’s been making that argument for at least six months now, and the President was not willing to do it. At some point, the President is the President.”
Another former senior U.S. official recalled a conversation with Sullivan about whether the U.S. would agree to send F-16s to Ukraine. Sullivan indicated that he was supportive. But, in early 2023, Biden publicly ruled out doing so, at least in the short term. Months later, several European allies agreed, with Biden’s approval, to supply F-16s to Ukraine. It wasn’t until the summer, however, that the U.S. signed off on a plan to train Ukrainian pilots on the fighter jets. The former official told me he had concluded, “The biggest drag on the speed of responding to Ukrainian requests has been the President, not Lloyd Austin, not Tony, not Jake—not the Administration, but the President. Jake is trying to play the role of honest broker, because he’s with the President every day.”
Martin Indyk, who served as Obama’s chief Mideast peace negotiator, argued that Biden’s equivocation had real consequences. “They made a big mistake,” he told me. “They self-deterred. That affected every move—that cautious incrementalism which we can now see with the benefit of hindsight was unnecessary.” Indyk, who wrote a book about Henry Kissinger’s Mideast diplomacy, recalled a key moment in the Yom Kippur War, in 1973, when Kissinger, the national-security adviser, was hesitating to send more than three C-5a transport aircraft to Israel. “Nixon famously said, ‘You know, Henry, we’re going to get blamed and criticized if we send thirty or if we send three,’ ” Indyk told me. “So he said, ‘Send everything that flies. And get on with it.’ ” The problem today is that Biden has been more Kissinger than Nixon, Indyk said: “We need him to tell Jake, ‘Send everything that flies, goddammit, and get on with it.’ I think it would have changed the course of the war.”
Nato summits are usually staid affairs, with almost everything haggled over and approved in advance. But two things happened in the weeks leading up to the Vilnius summit which disrupted hopes for a smooth rollout. First, in late June, came explosive news from inside Russia: Putin’s mercenary Yevgeny Prigozhin had launched a mutiny. Sullivan cancelled a trip to Denmark to monitor the situation from Washington; he and Biden had just helicoptered to Camp David and arrived at their cabins when word came that Prigozhin had been persuaded to stand down.
Then, a few days later, a phone call between Biden and the German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, threatened to derail negotiations over the summit’s final communiqué, which would show where nato stood on the divisive matter of Ukraine’s quest for membership. Scholz, according to four sources with whom I spoke, made clear that he was adamantly opposed to a statement that included a specific “invitation” for Ukraine to join nato. He also told Biden that he was skeptical of letting Ukraine out of the Membership Action Plan requirement. On that point, Biden refused—he had already agreed to it.
Biden, who prizes his closeness to Scholz—the senior European official described the “extremely warm, brothers-in-arms feeling” between them—agreed to present a joint front with the Germans on the idea of extending a formal invitation to Ukraine. As Scholz saw it, lifting the map would be a significant enough show of progress for Ukraine. The senior Administration official recalled, “Biden basically said to Scholz, ‘Look, I will make sure that, as we go through these negotiations, we aren’t on a kind of a pure slippery slope.’ ”
The issue had still not been resolved by the weekend before the summit. That Monday, Sullivan and Blinken signed off on a compromise—an awkward, American-drafted sentence offering an unspecified future “invitation” but nothing to explain how or when Ukraine could obtain it. Another breakthrough came that night, when Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, agreed to drop his objections to Sweden’s nato membership, which he had been stalling almost single-handedly for more than a year.
But on the morning of Tuesday, July 11th, when leaders were to formally gather in Vilnius, Sullivan sensed trouble during a phone call with Yermak, the Ukrainian chief of staff. Sullivan turned beet red as Yermak told him that the hard-fought language in the communiqué was not enough. After Yermak informed Sullivan that he and Zelensky would soon land in Vilnius and hoped to negotiate final wording, Sullivan responded sharply: this was nato’s communiqué, he said, not Ukraine’s.
Things soon got worse. Zelensky sent out a tweet blasting the draft for placing “unprecedented and absurd” conditions on Ukraine. He also suggested that the allies were holding out to use Ukraine’s nato status as a bargaining chip in future negotiations with Russia. Sullivan, who was stunned by the tone of the tweet, left a meeting that Biden was holding with a bipartisan group of senators to call Yermak again. “We literally did this sentence to make them happy,” a senior U.S. official recalled of the moment. Maybe, Sullivan said to Biden, they should remove or replace the carefully negotiated wording. What was the point if the Ukrainians didn’t like it? “I was, like, this whole summit’s going to come crashing down,” the senior diplomatic source said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Jake that angry.”
By that evening, after hours of talks, both Biden and Emmanuel Macron, the French President, among others, objected to making any revisions, and the statement was finalized exactly as it had been before the hours of embarrassingly public discord. For a summit meant to project “unity and zeal” on Ukraine’s behalf, as Sullivan had put it days earlier, it was a mess. The senior European official said the dustup was consistent with the “track record of President Zelensky asking for things which he knows he cannot get,” thus “creating his own disappointment.”
The Americans, the senior Administration official told me, went back to the Ukrainians with one last pitch: “Guys, the play’s the same, and it’s a good one for you,” with a promise of nato membership in the future and bilateral security commitments in the meantime. Zelensky got the message. The next day, he appeared alongside Biden and praised the summit as a “success” for Ukraine. Their meeting, he tweeted, was “meaningful” and “powerful.”
Relieved, Sullivan decided to make an appearance at a public forum on the sidelines of the nato event. Daria Kaleniuk, one of Ukraine’s best-known anti-corruption activists, rose to ask him a question. Wearing a dusty-pink blazer over a black T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “#Ukraine nato now,” she confronted Sullivan in starkly personal terms. She had left her eleven-year-old son behind in Kyiv, “sleeping in the corridor because of the air raids,” she said. “Jake, please advise me, what should I tell my son?” Was Biden refusing to allow Ukraine to join nato “because he is afraid of Russia”? Or because he was engaged in “back-channel communications with the Kremlin,” preparing to sell out Ukraine to Putin?
Sullivan, looking exhausted, began by talking about the “bravery and courage” of the Ukrainians and how the United States would be there for them “as long as it takes.” But his tone sharpened as he responded to Kaleniuk’s speculation about Biden’s motives, which he called “unfounded and unjustified” and “a lot of conspiracy theorizing that simply is not based on any reality whatsoever.” What’s more, he added, “I think the American people do deserve a degree of gratitude” for their support of Ukraine.
An audience member told me that there were audible gasps in the room—you don’t tell a mother who’s left her child sheltering from Russian bombs to express more gratitude. Hours later, Sullivan ran into Oleksiy Goncharenko, a member of Ukraine’s parliament, and heatedly complained about the “unfair and unfounded” question.
Kaleniuk, for her part, had no regrets. Sullivan had been described to her as the most important Biden adviser on the war—and also as a “very, very cautious” brake on the advanced weapons, assistance, and nato membership that Ukraine needed. “It’s just important for Jake to understand it’s not the craziest thing, that actually there are thousands of Ukrainians who have the same perception of how America treats us,” she told me when I reached her in Kyiv. Her biggest fear, she added, was that Washington, despite its support, has no plan for how to insure that Ukraine wins. The nato summit had only reinforced this concern. “The White House doesn’t have a clear end-game scenario and end-game strategy for this war,” she said.
Early on, the Biden team had settled on a response to the inevitable question of how and when there might be a negotiated end to the war: “Nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine.” There would be no separate deal with Russia, they promised. But many Ukrainians, like Kaleniuk, continue to worry that that is exactly where things will end up, with the two nuclear superpowers at the table, settling their country’s fate once again.
Shortly before the Vilnius summit, NBC News reported that Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, had held a secret meeting in New York with former U.S. officials, including Richard Haass, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. At the time, Sullivan and the Americans were trying to ease Ukraine’s disappointment about nato membership, and they denied having anything to do with the meeting or with any other secret negotiations with Russia.
Still, a former U.S. official who has met with the Russians during the war told me that the N.S.C. was “fully briefed” both before and after the conversation. I was also told, in June, of an intermediary who was going to the White House with a message from the Kremlin. “The White House wants to see these people,” a former official who has participated in unofficial discussions with the Russians told me. “They want to understand what the Russians are thinking.”
There is little doubt that the Biden Administration has actively considered ways to get Russia to the negotiating table. Last fall, Mark Milley, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly expressed his view that the war would likely not be ended on the battlefield. Privately, Sullivan has had extensive discussions about what a peace deal might look like. “My conversations with him all the way through have been about what can you do to eventually bring this war to an end,” an informal adviser of Sullivan’s told me. “There are massive risks that are attendant with continuing to fight a hot war via proxy with the Russians. And the risks aren’t going down. They’re probably going up. So they want to find a way to eventually get to a freeze, to eventually get to a negotiated settlement. But it has to be something that keeps nato together. It has to be something that doesn’t isolate the Ukrainians or have them go off and undermine everything that’s been done. That’s a hard square to circle.”
Talks, if they do occur, are likely to raise tensions further between the U.S. and Ukraine. “The Administration’s policy up to now has been close to unconditional support for Ukraine and essentially a real reluctance to be seen to be at cross-purposes with Ukraine,” Haass told me. “But that policy endures only if there is identity of interests between the United States and Ukraine, and if that were to be the case that would be without historical precedent. If you look at the history—whether the U.S. with South Vietnam, or the U.S. with Israel, or the U.S. with Britain and France during Suez—history is about how you manage disagreement with your allies.”
In September, shortly before Zelensky made his second visit to Washington since the invasion, Biden approved sending atacms to Ukraine, after nearly a year of resisting the idea. American officials, meanwhile, have held two rounds of formal negotiations with Ukraine over the terms of a memorandum of understanding—Sullivan’s “Israel model.” With Trump barrelling toward the Republican nomination, however, the political support that had once seemed so strong and bipartisan for Ukraine in Washington has been quickly eroding.
On September 30th, the House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, facing a rebellion from a group of hard-right Trumpists, stripped Ukraine funding from a resolution to temporarily keep the government open. A few days later, Biden asked European leaders, on a call, “not to read too much into it,” Blinken told me, but, within hours, McCarthy was ousted as Speaker by the anti-Ukraine rebels. Now the fate of Ukraine aid, including a White House request for another twenty-four billion dollars, is entirely up in the air. Zelensky, during his recent visit, warned members of the U.S. Senate about the consequences of a cutoff: “If we don’t get the aid, we will lose the war.”
Sullivan clearly has profound worries about how this will all play out. Months into the counter-offensive, Ukraine has yet to reclaim much more of its territory; the Administration has been telling members of Congress that the conflict could last three to five years. A grinding war of attrition would be a disaster for both Ukraine and its allies, but a negotiated settlement does not seem possible as long as Putin remains in power. Putin, of course, has every incentive to keep fighting through next year’s U.S. election, with its possibility of a Trump return. And it’s hard to imagine Zelensky going for a deal with Putin, either, given all that Ukraine has sacrificed. Even a Ukrainian victory would present challenges for American foreign policy, since it would “threaten the integrity of the Russian state and the Russian regime and create instability throughout Eurasia,” as one of the former U.S. officials put it to me. Ukraine’s desire to take back occupied Crimea has been a particular concern for Sullivan, who has privately noted the Administration’s assessment that this scenario carries the highest risk of Putin following through on his nuclear threats. In other words, there are few good options.
“The reason they’ve been so hesitant about escalation is not exactly because they see Russian reprisal as a likely problem,” the former official said. “It’s not like they think, Oh, we’re going to give them atacms and then Russia is going to launch an attack against nato. It’s because they recognize that it’s not going anywhere—that they are fighting a war they can’t afford either to win or lose.”
I read this quote to Sullivan during our interview in the Roosevelt Room. “That’s kind of the rap on us,” he acknowledged. “I don’t think it’s a fair one. We’re not fighting for a draw here.”
Then he proceeded, once again, to raise and attempt to demolish all the by now familiar arguments. “To be paralyzed by escalation would be terrible, and we have not been paralyzed—we have provided tens of billions of dollars of advanced weapons, intelligence, training, capacity, that has had enormous lethal effect,” he said. “But to be completely cavalier about escalation, to say that to even raise the question makes you a coward, that’s easy to do from the outside, but when you sit in this seat you can’t do that. You have an obligation to the American people to consider worst-case scenarios. That’s our job.” ♦
Джерело: The New Yorker