Great Counteroffensive Expectations
Here's how to calibrate your expectations for Ukraine's push to reclaim its territory
There is a poster hanging on the wall of a building inside Leon Trotsky’s former residence in Mexico City. It’s a grid of portraits of prominent Bolsheviks with their name below., and a brief descriptor of their current status.
Rykov: Shot; Bukharin: Shot; Zinoviev: Shot; Kollontai: Missing?; Joffe: Suicide; Krestinsky: Shot; Trotsky: In exile; Stalin: Survivor.
Not long after that rogues gallery was printed, of course, Trotsky’s status would be downgraded to “murdered with an ice pick.”
That poster has come to mind frequently of late, as the crew of current big name Russian war enthusiasts grows fewer and fewer. Prigozhin: Dead; Utkin: Dead; Surovikin: House arrest?; Strelkov: Prison; Tatarsky: Dead; Dugina: Dead; Shoigu: Survivor.
It may not quite be the Stalinist purges, but the state of the Putinist war council is hollowing out, one person at a time. The quasi-private Wagner Group is beheaded. The ultra-nationalists keep exploding. Military commanders are mysteriously relieved of duty.
Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s long-suffering minister of defense, has somehow managed to survive. And he seems as confused as anyone. Approached by a Russia One reporter this week, he was asked a pretty blunt question: “Will we win?” Here’s how he responded:
The Shoigu shrug, coupled with his mumbling response of “we have no other options,” perfectly summarizes the state of the Russian war effort. Here is a man who has presided over one of the most bungled military campaigns of the modern era insisting that the only way out is to keep digging down. How?
With the critics and competitors dead or in jail, and the survivors afraid of a similar fate, a Russian opposition Telegram channel wrote recently, “the system has returned to its original position, where it has Shoigu and [Chief of the General Staff Valery] Gerasimov as brilliant military leaders, no one criticizes anyone and there are only victories in the reports.” The return to form for the Russians has been made easier by the perception that Ukraine’s much-hyped counteroffensive has been a failure.
But Russia’s buoyant mood may have arrived prematurely. After a slow start, it seems Ukraine’s counteroffensive is gaining steam. And there are promising signs for Kyiv on the horizon. While now is not the time for big pronouncements about the outcome of the war, it is becoming clear that the next four months are going to be hugely significant.
So, this week, on a very special Bug-eyed and Shameless, a chance to calibrate your expectations on what comes next in Ukraine, and what to watch for as this miserable war continues.
This dispatch is not intended to be an exhaustive military briefing on the state of the war. Instead, consider it an operational vibe check. A quick survey of the various moving parts, how they will become important in the months to come, and how both sides are spinning these developments in their favor.
Here’s the topline:
Western cohesion: To date, the degree of solidarity — both within NATO and of other likeminded countries — has been remarkable. Going back to the start of this bloody war, the consensus was that soft pro-Russian sentiment in the Republican Party and inside several European capitals, coupled with addressing energy shortages, would make this kind of consensus nearly impossible. And yet, 18 months on, unity prevails. The risks are still there, however. The GOP primary season, Turkish opportunism, and Russophilia in eastern Europe all risk freezing Western aid right when it is most needed.
Russian dissent: There has been no large-scale domestic opposition to Putin since anti-mobilization protests broke out — and were quickly neutralized — last September. Yevgeny Prigozhin’s sudden loss of altitude probably means that any kind of elite coup is substantially less likely, at least in the short term. But there’s two things worth watching: A continued domestic sabotage campaign, and the possibility of a second round of mobilization. The former may become more pronounced as Russian supplies dwindle, and the latter could be a flashpoint for real revolt.
Russia’s stockpiles: Russia’s war against Ukraine, at least for most of 2023, has been two pronged: One, the trench and urban warfare along the eastern and southern front; two, the harassing missile campaign against Ukrainian critical infrastructure and major cities. The latter is intended to weaken resolve for the former. The problem is that Russia has been exhausting its pre-war stockpiles and it was struggling to produce enough to replenish its stores. Moscow has, tentatively, fixed this problem.
Ukraine’s jets: Russia has maintained consistent air superiority since its invasion began last year. European-supplied F-16 fighters could substantially change this calculous within a matter of months, but not necessarily how we might expect.
The frontlines: Earlier this summer, a vicious cycle of optimism took hold. Speculation of a coming counteroffensive begat questions about the counteroffensive, which led to cagey responses from Ukraine — which only fuelled the speculation and raised hopes. Trying to tamp down expectations proved fruitless. When Russian defensive lines proved stronger than anticipated, teeth gnashed with claims of failure. Focus on the Ukrainian war effort proved, for the first time, a curse and not an asset. Critics had a window to claim that no amount of money and weapons would ever save the Ukrainians. Now, Ukraine is making steady gains against Russia — and everyone is careful not to put too much weight on the progress.
That’s your quick summary. The full debrief, below, is for paying subscribers only.