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Russia is stepping up its campaign to terrorize Kyiv. But the Russians, for all their bluster, are now on the defensive and likely to stay there—if Ukraine gets the weapons it needs from the West.
First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:
What Ukraine Needs
The world, as I wrote a few weeks ago, is awaiting the Ukrainian counteroffensive against Russia’s occupying armies. Ukraine has survived a brutal winter and the destruction of yet another city, Bakhmut. But don’t expect the renewed Ukrainian push to be signaled with a whistle and a charge from the trenches; this isn’t World War I, even if the Russian commanders are fighting (and sacrificing their men) as if it’s 1914.
Indeed, the first moves of Ukraine’s counteroffensive operations are apparently already under way. Ukrainian forces have launched several counterattacks around Bakhmut in the past week, reclaiming territory from the Russians, who controlled most of the city (or what’s left of it). As The Wall Street Journal reported, the Ukrainians created a “Bakhmut trap” for Moscow; the Russians stupidly allowed themselves to be bled in inconclusive but brutal engagements, and now Ukraine is recapturing positions in days that Russia took many weeks to gain.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his high command know that their forces are in a tight spot, and so they’ve tried to fall back on their usual tactic of striking at civilians to try to break Ukrainian will. But even Russia’s attempt to attack a major city last night went haywire: The Ukrainians claim that the Russians fired 18 missiles at Kyiv, including Putin’s prized Kinzhals, and all 18 were shot down by Ukrainian air defenses. So far, this claim is unverified (and of course, the Russians churlishly disputed it).
The Ukrainian counteroffensive will pick up speed and intensity in the coming weeks, but the Russians had already been incurring immense casualties. The Wagner mercenaries, a private hypernationalist Russian army run by a wealthy warlord named Yevgeny Prigozhin, has suffered especially high losses. Prigozhin recently released a video in which he stood before a group of corpses and unleashed a barrage of curses—few people in the world can swear like the Russians—against the Russian government for starving Wagner’s forces of supplies.
(I do not know what to make of a report that Prigozhin was trying to cut a deal with the Ukrainians to sell out Russian military positions to save his men in Bakhmut. The story could be a clever psychological operation by Kyiv, and Prigozhin denies it, but he’s so awful—and he hates the Russian Defense Ministry so much for shorting his men on bullets—that it’s plausible. You can bet that Putin’s officials are pretty interested to know the truth and are working to find it.)
It’s time to make Prigozhin, Putin, and everyone else in the Kremlin start swearing even more. The Ukrainians have been asking for jets, longer-range systems, and more artillery. The United States has sent Patriot air-defense systems, the United Kingdom has provided the Storm Shadow missile system, and Germany has shipped more Leopard tanks. But it’s not enough. The Ukrainians are burning through ammunition at a high rate, and they still need help stopping Russia’s missile attacks. The West can do more to ensure that the Ukrainian counteroffensive succeeds.
Regular readers know that this is something of a shift in my thinking. Early on in this conflict, I advocated for a firm but cautious policy. I wanted the U.S. and NATO to provide weapons, money, and support, but I did not want free-world nations, in those first months, to provide systems that the Russians could use to claim direct Western involvement in the conflict. (I was especially opposed—and remain so—to irresponsible calls for NATO to patrol Ukraine’s skies.)
Both the military and the political situations, however, have changed significantly since the winter of 2022. First, at this point there is no way for Russia to lie about Western involvement, either to its own people or to anyone else in the world. The early fog of war has lifted, and there is no doubt about who is fighting whom in Europe.
Second, any hope that the Russians could be encouraged to show restraint evaporated months ago. At the outset, we might have expected that Russian failures would lead Putin to reassess his scheme, but instead, the Russians have descended into barbarism: War crimes and attempted genocide are now routine parts of Russian military operations. The Kremlin (wisely, for once) has avoided attacking NATO, and for the time being, Putin has chosen to stop making nuclear threats, but the Russian war plan in Ukraine has become little more than an operation to serve Putin’s rage and slaughter Ukrainians as retribution for their resistance.
Finally, although I will always remain concerned about Russian escalation against the West, I think those risks are less severe than they were a year ago. Putin is still who he was a year ago: vain, emotional, and a terrible strategist. But I am convinced that in the early days of the war, when the very best Russian forces were suffering one defeat after another, he and his toadies in the Kremlin were gripped by panic. I wanted the West to limit the chance that Putin would do something stupid and reckless—or more stupid and reckless than attacking Ukraine in the first place.
The shock of invasion has now passed in Kyiv, and the shock of defeat has, apparently, dissipated in Moscow. The recent Victory Day parade in front of the Kremlin was a sad and desultory affair, featuring tired old men saluting one another and somehow pretending that their forces were not being immolated on a battlefield only 1,000 kilometers away.
More to the point, the other part of the escalation equation relies on time: The longer this war drags on, the greater the chance of a black-swan event or another delusional miscalculation inside the Kremlin. Although the war cannot end until Putin decides to stop pouring men and metal into battle, the Ukrainians now have a chance to inflict so much damage, and retake so much territory, that Russian leaders will have to face failure, no matter what Putin or the ghouls who serve him on Russian television say. The sooner Putin and his coterie have no choice but to let go of the last shreds of their imperial fantasies, the better.
A summer of decision has arrived, if the West is willing to help Ukraine make it one.
- The prosecutor John Durham wrapped up his four-year investigation into the origins of the FBI probe into ties between Russia and Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, concluding that the agency was influenced by confirmation bias and operated with a “lack of analytical rigor.”
- A Florida teacher is under state investigation for showing a Disney movie with a gay character to her class.
- Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, testified before Congress about the possibilities and risks of artificial intelligence.
- Up for Debate: Readers tell Conor Friedersdorf what they think about the killing of Jordan Neely—and what they see as the heart of the debate surrounding the tragedy.
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Writing in the Ruins
By Gal Beckerman
If you grew up in East Germany, a country whose national anthem began, “Resurrected from the ruins, faces toward the future turned,” you might find a landscape covered in shards to be almost natural—the broken past coexisting alongside an emerging world of concrete and glass. Those ruins might even inspire an unabashed love, as they have in the German novelist Jenny Erpenbeck, born in that now-extinct country in 1967. “Steel girders. Charred beams. Walls with nothing behind them,” she writes in an essay. “Rooms where the rain falls on dead pigeons because there isn’t a roof overhead.” These are a few of her favorite things.
For Erpenbeck, who ranks among Germany’s most acclaimed writers (and is frequently mentioned as a future Nobel contender), this love comes with an ethic, one that suffuses her fiction.
More From The Atlantic
Read. Emma Straub’s This Time Tomorrow, which captures the defining emotion of modern life.
Listen. Check out a curated audio collection of some of our most popular articles from last month.
I promise this is the last thing I’ll say about it, but if you’re a Succession fan, “my” episode—the one where I had a tiny role as a pundit named Ben Stove—aired on Sunday night. I’ve been on television many times, but catching glimpses of myself standing behind Tom Wambsgans and Greg Hirsch, or glaring down from a big-screen television while Shiv and Roman Roy argue over the future of the American republic, is still surreal. If you’d like to know what it was like behind the scenes, I wrote about the experience, and what I learned from it about both entertainment and politics, for The Atlantic’s Culture section here.
Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.