The United States is prepared to support Ukraine for the long haul in the war against Russia and is confident Kyiv will prevail, senior Biden administration officials told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria at a unique CNN town hall marking the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion.
“Russia has already lost this war,” Biden national security adviser Jake Sullivan said during the town hall Thursday night.
Both Sullivan and Samantha Power, administrator of the US Agency for International Development, took questions at the town hall from Americans and Ukrainians Thursday, on topics ranging from how the US will keep arming Ukraine to an assessment of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions and the role China may play in the conflict.
The US officials praised the resilience of the Ukrainian people as they were questioned by Ukrainians including a 14-year-old girl and a soldier serving on the front lines of the war in the country’s military.
Here are the top takeaways from the town hall on the anniversary of Russia’s invasion:
‘Russia has already lost’
US officials have signaled that the war is likely to drag on for months still, with no real end in sight.
But Sullivan argued that one year into the conflict, Ukraine has already stopped Russia from accomplishing its main objective of taking over the capital of Kyiv.
“Russia’s aims in this war were to wipe Ukraine off the map, to take the capital and to eliminate Ukraine, to absorb it into Russia,” Sullivan said. “They failed at doing that and they are in no position to be able to do that as we go forward.”
Putin’s aims as the war has dragged on was another topic that was raised at the town hall. Sullivan was asked about the risk that Putin could turn to nuclear weapons, and he said that the US had seen no change in Russia’s nuclear posture.
“Sitting here today, we do not see movements in Russia’s nuclear forces that lead us to believe that something fundamentally has changed from how things have been over the course of the past year,” Sullivan said.
Ukrainian troops want to know weapons will keep coming
During the town hall, Sullivan touted the latest US security assistance that the Biden administration has authorized to Ukraine – a $2 billion package of weapons that’s expected to be officially announced on Friday as the war hits the 1-year mark.
The $2 billion package includes new funding for contracts including HIMARS rockets, 155-millimeter artillery ammunition, drones, counter-drone equipment, mine-clearing equipment and secure communications equipment.
Sullivan was asked by a Ukrainian soldier named Yegor, currently serving on the front lines, whether the US would be able to increase production of ammunition and other weapons to Ukraine, such as 155-millimeter artillery shells and HIMARS.
“One of the things that we are working hard at – at President Biden’s direction – is to increase the production of all of these types of ammunition,” Sullivan said. “This is not something we can do with the snap of a finger, but it’s something that we are putting immense effort and resources into.”
There are limits to US assistance
Sullivan told Zakaria that the US has provided Ukraine with the assistance it needs for each phase of the war since it began one year ago.
But he also acknowledged that the Ukrainians have often asked for more than the US is willing to give – though in many cases the Biden administration has eventually transferred weapons it had initially resisted sending.
Sullivan reiterated the Biden administration’s position Thursday evening that it’s not currently providing F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, saying the fighter jets “are not the key capability” Ukraine needs for a counteroffensive against Russian forces.
Still, Sullivan noted that the F-16s came up during Biden’s trip earlier this week when he spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is pushing for F-16s.
“F-16s are not a question for the short-term fight. F-16s are a question for the long-term defense of Ukraine and that’s a conversation that President Biden and President Zelensky had,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan noted that there is flexibility in the US position on weapons, as the administration weighs the risks of escalation with Ukraine’s security needs throughout the war. Biden agreed to provide Abrams tanks to Ukraine – which the US has argued aren’t as relevant as German Leopard tanks – because Germany wanted the US to provide tanks before it was willing to do so itself, he said.
US closely watching China’s role in the conflict
Zakaria asked Sullivan for his first reaction Thursday evening to a 12-point plan Beijing released calling for the end of hostilities in Ukraine and pitching itself as a mediator between Moscow and Kyiv.
“Well my first reaction to it is they could stop at point one, which is respect the sovereignty of all nations,” Sullivan said. “This war could end tomorrow if Russia stopped attacking Ukraine and withdrew its forces. Ukraine wasn’t attacking Russia, NATO wasn’t attacking Russia, the United States wasn’t attacking Russia. This was a war of choice waged by Putin.”
The same week Beijing released its 12-point plan, US officials have warned that China could be preparing to provide lethal military aid to Russia. Sullivan said Thursday night that such a move has not been ruled out yet.
Still, Sullivan argued that the idea that the two countries are becoming “unbreakable allies” is disproven because China has taken a careful stance toward Russia’s war, noting they abstained instead of voting with Moscow on a recent United Nations resolution.
“They have tried to pitch themselves as somehow not standing fully in Russia’s camp when it comes to the war in Ukraine,” Sullivan said.
Biden officials say US will not abandon Ukraine
Both Sullivan and Power brushed aside criticism from some of Biden’s Republican critics that the billions of dollars the US is spending in Ukraine would be better spent at home.
Many Republicans, including some 2024 hopefuls, have argued aid to Ukraine should be scaled back or cut off as the war stretches on. With Republicans in control of the House, passing additional funding packages for Ukraine is expected to be a tougher lift this year.
Sullivan argued that the US can afford to spend money on problems at home as well as abroad.
“I would say to those senators, yes, let’s do these things at home. But are you saying that American is incapable of also helping to serve as a powerful force of good in the world?” Sullivan said.
“I think there’s a pessimism in this argument that these senators are making. President Biden has an optimistic view, which is that we can do it, and we should do it, and we are doing it.”
Power argued that US support for Ukraine is actually one of the rare issues where there is strong bipartisanship in today’s Washington, when she was asked by a Ukrainian mother about the commonality between the citizens of the two countries.
“The reflection, I think, of how much commonality Americans do feel with Ukrainians is the flow of support that has been sustained over the course of this last year,” Power said. “It is the bipartisanship in a town that isn’t famous for it anymore, but Ukraine has been not only a galvanizing issue, but a uniting issue for our own country.”
Lera, a 14-year-old Ukrainian girl, asked Power whether she could rely on American to feel safe in her country. Power responded that the US was committed to making Ukrainians feel as safe as possible despite the war.
“We have your backs, we stand with you, not just here on the battle front but in trying to help you feel as much safety as you can when one man and his wicked vision has tried to take that away,” Power said.
Reconstruction of Ukraine is going to be a ‘mammoth undertaking’
Power acknowledged the long road ahead for Ukraine to rebuild the country when the war ends. Some estimates have totaled the damage to date at $130 billion, she noted.
“This is going to be a mammoth undertaking,” she said.
Power said that USAID and international financial institutions have worked to rebuild Ukraine’s infrastructure and help get private industry to return to peaceful parts of Ukraine.
But she added that major projects are still ahead, and that the Biden administration and other allies are focused on making sure the money that’s dedicated to reconstruction is well spent.
“The other thing we want to do now is, with an eye to those big-ticket items, most of which will only happen when there’s a negotiated peace,” Power said.
“But we have to make sure resources are going to be well spent,” she added. “When you have those huge investments, which go well beyond what is being provided right now, that’s when of course you want to make sure that you have the safeguards in place so that all outside investors and donors can know and say to their citizens that this is money that’s going to be well spent.”
Power said that to this point, the Biden administration has not seen evidence that US assistance was being misused.
“Again, the key is not resting on anybody’s good will or virtue,” she said. “It’s checks and balances, the rule of law, the integrity of officials.”