The recent uprising in Russia has diverted attention from a more positive development for President Vladimir Putin: Ukraine’s much-anticipated summer counter-offensive has not made much progress so far.
Since the counteroffensive began last month, Ukraine claims to have retaken only about 60 square miles. By comparison, a less publicized push last fall in the northeast of the country recovered nearly 5,000 square miles. “Ukraine is probably weeks behind where it hoped to be at this point,” said my colleague Eric Schmitt, who covers national security.
Currently, Ukraine appears to be struggling against Russian forces that are better prepared than those they faced in last fall’s offensive. Large minefields laid by the Russians were particularly difficult to deal with, making any Ukrainian advance risky. Western leaders are considering more aid to help Ukraine get through – a topic that is likely to come up at a NATO summit, starting tomorrow. (Here’s a Times preview of the summit.)
“It’s been difficult,” Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, told my colleague David Leonhardt on Friday. “Defense has consistently been a simpler proposition than offense in this war, frankly, on both sides.”
To understand what’s at stake, today’s newsletter will walk through the two likely scenarios over the coming months. In one, Ukraine finally breaks through Russia’s defenses. Military victories, after all, often take time. In the second, less positive outcome for Ukraine, the stalemate continues, giving Putin reason to think that time is on his side.
Scenario 1: breakthrough
Ukraine does have reason to remain cautiously optimistic. It still has months of dry, sunny weather and hard terrain before a rainy, muddy fall will make military advances difficult. And so far, Ukraine has not made a full push with the bulk of its troops. It mostly encouraged Russian troops with smaller strikes – trying to find weaknesses in defenses that consist not only of minefields, but also tank traps, other obstacles and then two or three rows of dug-in soldiers.
If Ukraine finds a vulnerability in those defenses, it would then commit to a greater effort. If Ukrainian troops then break through, the rest of the Russian lines could panic and fall apart, allowing Ukraine to retake much more territory. All this could develop very slowly, over weeks or months.
“US officials are growing concerned, but it’s not too late,” said Julian Barnes, a Times correspondent who covers intelligence. “The big push could still come.”
This scenario could look similar to Ukraine’s recapture of the southern city of Kherson last year. Ukraine spent months in the summer using smaller strikes to wear down Russian forces and deplete their supplies around the city. Ukrainian forces moved into Kherson starting in late August, and Russia announced its withdrawal in November. It seemed like a sudden turn of events at the time, but it came after months of grinding work by Ukraine.
“Ukraine has yet to make much of its strength,” Sullivan said of the current counteroffensive. “We won’t really know to what extent Ukraine will take back territory until they commit the large number of forces that they have so far held in reserve.”
Scenario 2: Russia holds
As bad as the first year of the invasion went for Russia, the country seems to have learned from some of its mistakes. Last year, Russia often used one hastily constructed line of troops to defend a large chunk of territory. Russia’s multiple defensive lines and minefields in Ukraine today are a major improvement. “The Russians are clearly more prepared than before,” Eric said.
Military shipments from the United States and Europe are intended to help Ukraine break through such defenses. But the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, told CNN last week those advanced weapons came too slowly, forcing him to delay the counteroffensive and giving Russian forces time to lay more mines and fortify their defensive lines.
(The US announced more support for Ukraine on Friday, including controversial cluster munitions.)
“If Ukraine doesn’t do as well as we hoped, the responsibility for that will fall partly on Western decision-making and its indolence,” said George Barros, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.
Ukraine’s main goal in its counteroffensive is to retake much, if not all, of the land connecting Russian forces in the eastern Donbas region and the southern peninsula of Crimea. By doing so, Ukrainian leaders would hope to make Russia worry about total defeat and negotiate a favorable peace agreement.
To achieve this, Ukraine will have to take much more territory than it has so far. With months to go, it still has time to succeed. And Ukraine has surprised the world before.
Related: A retired military official uses maps to explain Ukraine’s strategy on the front lines in a video for The Wall Street Journal.
More about Ukraine
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