Avril Haynes, US director of national intelligence, recently outlined three possible scenarios in Ukraine.
First, Russia’s continued advance in eastern Ukraine would break the will of the Ukrainians to war and allow the Russian military to take over even more of the country. Such an outcome is a new target for Vladimir Putin after the defeat in his initial attempt to overthrow the government of Ukraine.
In the second scenario – the most likely, Haynes said (during a public appearance in Washington last week) – Russia would dominate the east but not be able to move much further. The two countries would reach a stalemate, which Haynes called “an exhausting struggle”.
In the third scenario, Ukraine will stop Russia’s eastward advance and also succeed in counterattacks. Ukraine has already regained some territory, especially in the southern part of the country, and some military experts expect a wider offensive soon.
Today’s newsletter provides an update on the war by examining several questions to help determine which of these three scenarios becomes the most likely.
Temporary or permanent
Has the situation finally changed or will the Ukrainian forces achieve more success?
The last phase of the war went well for Russia. The eastern part of Ukraine, known as Donbass, consists of two regions – Lugansk and Donetsk. According to Thomas Bullock, an analyst at Janes, an intelligence firm, Russia now controls virtually all of Lugansk and about 60 percent of Donetsk.
Yesterday, Russian forces intensified their shelling of Bakhmut, a city in Donetsk that is an important supply hub for Ukraine. Russia used similar tactics in Lugansk to clear out Ukrainian troops and civilians before taking over the cities.
“The Kremlin is making it clear that their overall plans have not changed and everything is going according to plan,” said Anton Troyanovsky, head of the Moscow bureau of The Times. As a sign of confidence in the Kremlin, Russian media have recently been reporting plans to hold referendums in the occupied territories and formally annex them, Anton added.
But Ukraine continues to benefit from the influx of modern weapons from the West. And there are some reasons to wonder if Ukrainian troops will soon be able to use these weapons better than they have hitherto.
During the initial phase of the war, the US, EU and other allies of Ukraine sent relatively simple weapons such as shoulder-fired missile systems known as Javelins. These weapons helped Ukraine defend the territory from small groups of Russian troops. More recently, the West has sent more powerful artillery — like HIMARS, a truck-mounted missile system — to help Ukraine counter a massive Russian troop buildup in the east.
My colleague Julian Barnes points out that teaching someone how to use a javelin can only take a few hours. Training soldiers to use HIMARS can take days or weeks, as can transporting them to the battlefield. In the coming weeks, Julian said he would be watching to see if Ukraine could use its growing stockpile of HIMARS to inflict even more damage on Russian forces.
(Here’s more on the early HIMARS effect from Eric Schmitt and John Ismay of The Times.)
No Russian project
Is Russia running out of troops?
Two recent events have given rise to reflection. First, Russia has had to turn to external troops—for example, from the private company Wagner Group—to replenish its units, as my colleague Thomas Gibbons-Neff explained in his recent analysis of the war. Second, Putin ordered some of the troops involved in the recent Donbas victories to rest, suggesting that those units were exhausted.
“U.S. officials and outside analysts agree that if Russia wants to move beyond the Donbass, it will need to take the step they didn’t want to take: mass mobilization,” Julian said. “Russia will need to conduct a military conscription, recall soldiers who previously served, and take politically painful steps to rebuild its forces. So far, Putin is unwilling to do so.”
Russia has far more resources than Ukraine, including soldiers and weapons. But Russia’s resources are limited, especially if Putin is unwilling to spend political capital on mass mobilization.
These restrictions increase the likelihood that Ukraine will be able to hold onto Russia’s gains in the east and slowly deplete Russian forces with counterattacks and internal resistance, as well as Western economic sanctions. This situation, in turn, could lead to Putin agreeing to a possible ceasefire that would leave most of Ukraine untouched.
“It won’t be a perfect win,” Julian said, “but it could be realistic.”
But is Ukraine running out of troops even faster?
Both sides seem to be suffering equally high casualties – hundreds a day. As a result, Ukraine has to rely more and more on poorly trained troops.
Surviving troops also risk psychological trauma. The mode of warfare in the east – the ongoing exchange of artillery – is reminiscent of the trench warfare of World War I, which gave rise to the term “shell shock”, notes my colleague Thomas.
“During an artillery barrage, all you can do is lie down in cover and wait for the shelling to stop,” one Ukrainian commander told The Times. “Some people get mentally traumatized because of such shelling. It turned out that they are psychologically unprepared for everything they face.”
As uncertain as Ukraine’s future may be, the present is clearly dire, as Haynes acknowledged when describing three scenarios last week. “In short,” she said, “the picture remains rather bleak.”
Related comment: “The best way to prevent the next war is to defeat him in this one.” The Economist writes about it.referring to Putin.
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One attempt stands out, writes Vanessa Friedman, chief fashion critic for The Times: Iris van Herpen, whose 3D-printed and laser-cut clothes make her clothes look like organic lifeforms. “They are rewriting the physics of clothing and reimagining the body without erasing it, not in a caricature, but in a completely convincing way,” Vanessa writes.
See photos from the exhibition.
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