One of the difficulties in covering the Russo-Ukraine War as a journalist is the tendency of so many in this profession to assemble facts in favor of whatever the prevailing narrative of the day is. Sixteen months ago, it was hard to find many people in prominent Washington think tanks or at major broadsheets who did not think Kyiv would fall in three days. When it didn’t, those wedded to the notion that Russia was a near-indomitable military power still found the conventional wisdom, built up over years of diligent study and perhaps the unconscious assimilation of Russian propaganda, hard to slough off. Just because Kyiv wasn’t sacked and the Russian army was driven out of the capital region, ran this line of thinking, didn’t mean Ukraine hadn’t exhausted its inventory of miracles. It could not claw back more territory. Then Kharkiv happened. A wondrous bait-and-switch operation, to be sure, but a one-off for that very reason. The Russians were learning, adapting and preparing, and the long-shot play to retake Kherson would prove it. Then Russia withdrew from half of that region in November as a “goodwill gesture.” And so on.
Having serially outperformed expectations, Ukraine finds itself in the unenviable position of having gone from scrappy underdog to victim of its own mythologized success. Six and a half weeks into a much-anticipated counteroffensive and there are no dramatic battlefield developments. A handful of settlements have been reclaimed in the southern regions of Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk, and that’s it. An absence of climax has begun to lead to impending anti-climax and the sort of doomcasting that characterized the preliminaries of Russia’s full-scale invasion. The counteroffensive into which Kyiv and its NATO partners have invested so much kit, manpower and money is already a busted flush, we are told. “Ukraine’s counter-offensive is failing, with no easy fixes,” ran one comment piece in The Daily Telegraph. This was preceded four days earlier by an even less sunny prognosis in the same newspaper, “Ukraine and the West are facing a devastating defeat.”
Ironically, such assessments stand in marked contrast to what Russians in the field are saying about the capability of their adversary. But to understand where Ukraine is headed, it’s first necessary to explain where it is.
Ukraine launched this operation in June hoping, but not expecting, a quick breakthrough of Russian defensive lines in the south. The objective, as several Western and Ukrainian officials told New Lines, is to press through all the way to the Sea of Azov, in Ukraine’s southeast, to sever Russia’s “land bridge” to occupied Crimea and isolate Russian forces on the left bank of the Dnipro, the remaining area of Kherson oblast that is still under Moscow’s control. This was never to be an easy or quick undertaking, as was well known before the counteroffensive got underway. Russian forces have spent more than a year building up enormous fortifications known collectively as the “Surovikin Line,” named for the former commander of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Gen. Sergey Surovikin, who has not been seen or heard from since the Wagner putsch last month and who, the Wall Street Journal reports, may be detained as a willing or passive accomplice in that affair. [Continue reading…]