Retaking lands occupied by an enemy during war is a brutally difficult task. But an army that tries to do so usually has one big advantage: surprise. The occupation force does not know when or where the attackers will strike.
In 1944, the United States and its allies deceived the nazis to believe that an invasion of France would take place on a different part of the Atlantic coast than it did. Today, Ukraine also hopes to surprise Russia with the start of a spring or summer counter-offensive. The Russians know a major attack is imminent, but not what form it will take.
The outcome of this counter-offensive could shape the outcome of the war. A successful campaign by Ukraine, recapturing territory Russia now controls, could lead President Vladimir Putin to fear outright defeat and seek a face-saving peace deal. A failed counteroffensive could cause Ukraine’s Western allies to question whether the war is winnable and potentially push Ukraine toward an unfavorable truce.
In today’s newsletter, I’ll preview the coming phase of the war, with help from colleagues covering it. The counter-offensive could begin at any time over the next few weeks.
The land bridge
The so-called land bridge that Russia has established in southeastern Ukraine will likely be the center of attention:
The southern edge of the land bridge is the Crimean Peninsula, which Russian forces invaded and seized nearly a decade ago. Since the start of the biggest war last year, Putin has also taken control of the territory that connects Crimea to Russia, including the port city of Mariupol and much of the Donbass region in the east. from Ukraine. “The Ukrainians want to break the land bridge,” Julian Barnes, who covers intelligence agencies in Washington, told me.
The territory that Russia controls gives it several strategic advantages. First, Ukraine is cut off by about half of its coastline. Secondly, the territory includes a nuclear power plant near the city of Zaporizhzhia which is a major electricity producer.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, Russia can more easily supply its troops in Crimea. The land bridge is one of two military supply routes from Russia to Crimea and cities in southern Ukraine, according to The Times Kyiv bureau chief Andrew Kramer. (The other is the Kerch Strait.)
Experts compared the final months of the war to World War I, with both sides dug in trenches and neither making much progress. Russia has lost tens of thousands of troops just this year capture Bakhmutmarginal city of Donbass.
Ukraine hopes that its counter-offensive will end this stalemate. Western allies have supplied Ukraine’s military with billions of dollars worth of equipment and trained its troops in camps in Germany in recent months. Troops learned a technique known as combined arms warfare, in which different parts of the military work together to take territory. Tanks break through enemy lines by going over trenches, for example, and infantry then deploys to hold the area.
“The counter-offensive will most likely start in several places, possibly in the south and east,” Julian said. “Some of them will be fakes. Some will be part of the main efforts.
Ukraine still has fewer troops and less equipment than Russia, but the Ukrainian military has so far proven more effective – with better morale, smarter tactics and more advanced Western weaponry – than that of Russia. The counter-offensive is in fact a bet that Ukraine can use these advantages not only to push back Russia, but to retake vast territories.
As Thomas Gibbons-Neff, a Ukrainian correspondent, put it: “If Ukraine manages to cut the land bridge, Russian troops will be stretched even further and, more importantly, Ukraine will be in a better position to attack more to the east and south, towards the Crimea. .”
Most experts don’t believe Ukraine will retake Crimea anytime soon – or that this war will end with Crimea back under Ukrainian control. However, Ukraine does not need this result for the counter-offensive to be a success. Any major progress could cause Putin and his aides to fear that a long war could lead to further casualties and possibly put Crimea at risk. “The Russian people care about Crimea,” said my colleague Helene Cooper. Before the Soviet era, the region had been part of Russia for decades.
In the pro-Ukraine scenario, a peace deal in which Russia is expelled from everywhere but Crimea and parts of the Donbass region would become plausible. On the other hand, a failed counteroffensive and an unbroken land bridge would provide Putin with a great psychological victory and a base from which to launch future attacks.
An important factor is that Ukraine now has enough weapons for a single major push. If the Ukrainians haven’t made progress by the fall, when colder, wetter weather will make fighting more difficult, the Russian land bridge might start to look impregnable.
As Helene points out, however, Ukraine has often exceeded expectations in this war. Even Bakhmut’s fall, while disappointing, took months longer than analysts expected. In the coming months, the Ukrainian military will attempt to accomplish perhaps its most difficult task since repelling the initial Russian invasion.
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ARTS AND IDEAS
The summer movie season begins next week. Among the films that have thrilled Times critics:
Horror: “The Boogeyman”, based on a story by Stephen King, about a young woman who battles a supernatural entity that invades her home. (June 2)
Science fiction: “Asteroid City,” Wes Anderson’s take on the 1950s fascination with flying saucers, with its usual all-star cast. (June 16)
Stock: “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Fate”, Harrison Ford’s last film in the franchise. (June 30th)
Animation: “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse”, the sequel to the Oscar-winning film “Into the Spider-Verse”. (June 2)
To see the full summer movie schedule.