Kyiv on Monday launched a flurry of attacks into areas of southern Ukraine controlled by Russia, billed as the opening moves of a much-heralded Ukrainian counteroffensive to liberate the key port city of Kherson on the west bank of the Dnieper River.
Yet the doubters — many of whom confidently predicted at the start of the war that Ukraine couldn’t possibly resist a Russian invasion and that Western military assistance to Ukraine wouldn’t make a difference — still can’t let evidence to the contrary get in the way of their convictions.
Broadly, this cohort wants Washington to withhold aid to pressure Kyiv to sue for peace and concede Ukrainian land seized by Russia rather than continue to resist.
When Russian forces finally managed to seize two important eastern cities by early July after months of struggling in their war with Ukraine, the defeatists — from think tank analysts and academics to former foreign policy hands to allegedly anti-imperialist leftists — again insisted that Ukraine had no hope of prevailing against Russia’s superior might. In advance of the new operation this week, the doubt continued. A typical argument is that it would take a “miracle” for Ukraine to succeed.
Broadly, this cohort wants Washington to withhold aid to pressure Kyiv to sue for peace and concede Ukrainian land seized by Russia rather than continue to resist. Give Russian President Vladimir Putin an excuse to declare victory, they claim, and he’ll take the opportunity to negotiate a peace agreement and bow out with his pride intact.
Ukraine is inclined to do otherwise. Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, tweeted Monday: “The only possible option for negotiations with Russia is being conducted by a special Ukrainian delegation in the southern and other directions of the frontline.”
Moscow, too, is sending no signals that it’s ready to discuss a diplomatic resolution. The recent Russian government statement that it still seeks to overthrow Ukraine’s government, combined with senior officials’ speaking openly of destroying the concept of a Ukrainian nation (even though both goals now seem unachievable), should dispel wishful thinking that Putin is in a compromising mood.
In fact, Russia’s own military appears more pessimistic about its capabilities than the Ukraine defeatists. Russian operations in eastern Ukraine have decreased markedly in energy since July as Moscow has shifted forces to southern Ukraine in expectation of a Kherson counteroffensive. That’s because both sides can see Russia’s vulnerability in this sector and how that gives Ukraine a credible shot at liberating Kherson.
The southern port city is politically and strategically important. Symbolically it matters because its residents have actively resisted Russia’s occupation through civil disobedience and armed resistance, unlike many cities in the east that Ukrainian civilians largely evacuated when Russia captured them. In return, human rights groups have observed that Russian troops have kidnapped, tortured or killed many of those resisting, and Moscow is expected to conduct a “referendum” aimed at creating a separatist republic in the region.
Militarily, the city and its bridges serve as a Russian toehold on the southwest bank of the Dnieper River, which cuts Ukraine in two. Russian control of Kherson allows the Kremlin to continue to use the city as a base to try to capture the neighboring ports of Odesa and Mykolaiv, thereby crippling Ukraine’s export-based economy. Conversely, liberating Kherson is probably a prerequisite for Ukraine to recapture several other cities.
Kyiv made some earlier efforts that didn’t bear much fruit in Kherson, but the tables turned by the end of July. Over the last month, Russian ammunition depots began evaporating in massive explosions in precision attacks by rocket artillery systems supplied by the U.S., causing Russian shelling to decline precipitously, according to Ukrainian commanders. Ukraine also picked off Russian air defense systems and killed multiple high-ranking commanders meeting at headquarters, according to Ukrainian reports.
Then, this month, Ukrainian forces wiped out numerous Russian warplanes on the ground and blew up depots in adjacent Crimea using still-undisclosed means. This came as a massive shock, as Crimea — seized by Russian troops in 2014 — was considered so firmly under Russian control that it has still been frequented by Russian vacationers this summer.
At the same time, Russia’s foothold on the side of a river mostly controlled by Ukraine is inherently hard to defend, because supplies and reinforcements are bottlenecked through a limited number of bridges and ferries. The U.S.-supplied HIMARS artillery has also enabled Ukraine to precisely target these bridges, heavily damaging them.
To be sure, no one should take for granted that these strategies guarantee Ukrainian victory. Assaulting prepared defensive positions is usually difficult and costly, and Russia has heavily fortified the outskirts of Kherson. Ukrainian troops must undertake large-scale coordination of infantry, tanks, artillery and airpower to succeed — a combined arms operation that Ukraine’s army has little experience performing at such scale. Russia itself has failed disastrously at executing this tricky type of operation.
And Ukraine has to fight smartly, because it can’t generate the numerical superiority that generally secures a win through brute force (simplistically calculated as a 3-to-1 ratio of attackers to defenders), especially factoring in Russian reserves now deployed nearby. Pulling off a victory likely requires Ukraine to have husbanded a large, fresh force that has received more extensive training than usual, perhaps including drills with NATO instructors elsewhere in Europe. And Ukraine’s counteroffensive may, at least initially, take the form of several short hops rather than a sustained drive so as not to overtax its forces.
So much is uncertain in war. However, this month we have clearly reached the point where Russia’s military can no longer “continue their steady advance,” as Moscow’s partisans have often bragged — and it is bracing for Ukraine’s counterpunch.
Accordingly, the West should continue its support of Ukraine so it can take back territories occupied by Russia rather than follow the counsel of pessimists. Some have track records of pro-Putin and anti-Ukrainian rhetoric or openly flaunt their utter lack of concern for anything transpiring outside America’s borders or are so-called anti-imperialists who appear ready to sing the praises of an invasion if it’s opposed by Washington. Others rightly deplore the horrible violence of this war but are too quick to reward indefensible aggression in hope of a quick resolution.
U.S. and European weapons have already helped bring a halt to Russia’s slow advance in the east and created the potential for Ukraine’s southern counteroffensive. If that aid can be sustained — and undeniably, there are challenges and costs involved — it will make Russia’s invasion less and less sustainable. That’s ultimately what will gravely weaken the Kremlin’s illegal occupation of Ukrainian cities and its impetus to take what it wants through force, something that’s a threat not only to Ukraine but also to the U.S. and its allies.