Russia’s Struggles

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When we last updated you on the war in Ukraine, we laid out three possible scenarios for the near future. This morning, we’ll explain how the events of the past six weeks have affected the war, with help from our colleagues who are covering it from Ukraine, Washington and elsewhere.

The bottom line is that the most recent phase of the war has gone better for Ukraine than many observers expected after Russia’s progress earlier this year. “The Ukrainians are doing well,” Helene Cooper, a Washington correspondent, told us. “The Russians are measuring progress in feet, not even miles, at this point.”

As Anton Troianovski, The Times’s Moscow bureau chief, puts it: “The Russians appeared to have lost some of the momentum they had earlier in the summer. If you look closely, you see the Ukrainians gaining a bit of momentum, even though not that much is changing on the map.”

Victory, stalemate, defeat

As a reminder, here are the three scenarios we described last month, which were based partly on public comments by Avril Haines, the U.S. director of national intelligence:

  • Russia starts to win. Russia would continue to take over more of eastern Ukraine, as it did in the spring, and ultimately control all of the Donbas region. This progress might break Ukrainians’ will to fight elsewhere — and weaken support for the war in Western Europe and the U.S.

  • The war falls into a stalemate. Many analysts, including Haines, consider this scenario the most likely. In it, Russia would dominate the east but would not be able to go much farther.

  • Ukraine starts to win. Ukraine would halt Russia’s advance in the east and also succeed in launching counterattacks, potentially reclaiming some territory in the south, where Russia has also taken over some cities.

Looking back at this list now, we are struck that the recent events seem to fall somewhere between the second and third scenarios.

In the early summer, Russia seemed to be making progress toward taking over all of eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, which includes two provinces, Donetsk and Luhansk. But that progress appears to have slowed. Russia controls only Luhansk, not all of Donetsk.

“Russia has made little to no inroads in the Donetsk province, and U.S. officials don’t think they’ll take it this year,” said our colleague Eric Schmitt, a senior correspondent covering security issues. Colin Kahl, a top Pentagon official, has pointed out that Russia’s minuscule progress in the east has come at a high cost — about 20,000 troop deaths and another 50,000 or so injuries. Michael Schwirtz, a Times correspondent who has been covering the war in Ukraine, calls these numbers “astonishing.”

Seth Jones, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, “The Russians probably don’t have enough effective combat forces to fully take Donetsk,” at least not anytime soon. (This recent story by Helene has more details.)

Ukraine has been able to stymie Russia thanks in large part to weapons from the U.S., the E.U. and other allies. Especially important in recent weeks have been truck-mounted rocket launchers, known as HIMARS, whose satellite-guided missiles can travel nearly 50 miles. The U.S. has sent 16 of the launchers to Ukraine so far and helped train their crews.

The HIMARS are one reason that Ukraine has been able to strike more deeply into Russian-held territory than before. One target has been Kherson, a region in southern Ukraine that Russia controls and where Ukraine may be gearing up for a counterattack. Ukraine has also carried out successful sabotage attacks in Crimea, an area of southern Ukraine that Vladimir Putin annexed in 2014.

“To walk right in and start blowing up military bases in Crimea is a real embarrassment for Russia,” Michael said. (Here’s a profile of the resistance fighters conducting the sabotage operations, written from Ukraine by Andrew Kramer.)

Together, these attacks have forced Russia to divert several thousand troops from the east to defend areas that had previously seemed secure. As Helene said, “The Russians are now fighting a two-front war.”

Putin was hoping to be in a better position by now. After he was defeated in his initial attempt to oust Ukraine’s government, his fallback goal became taking over eastern Ukraine. That now seems unlikely to happen this year. “Russia is not even accomplishing its scaled-down goal,” Helene added.

A long war

With all this said, Russia still has some major advantages. Putin seems completely in control of Russia’s government, allowing him to play a long game. And Russia has a history of winning wars of attrition, recently in Syria and Chechnya and less recently during World War II — although not in Afghanistan, which demonstrates that Russia can also lose these conflicts.

In the current war, Russian troops may not be making much progress, but neither is Ukraine. It still has not recaptured large amounts of territory in the east or the south. Ukrainian troops and civilians have also suffered heavy casualties, Michael said.

One unexpected recent positive for Putin has been his ability to fight the war without having to resort to a draft. Some analysts had predicted that he would need to mobilize more troops from the Russian population, Anton notes. Instead, Russia has continued to fight using only its existing troops, and forcibly drafted residents of eastern Ukraine.

In coming weeks, Putin will likely try to bolster domestic support by holding show trials for Ukrainian prisoners of war from the southern city of Mariupol. Over the longer term, he seems to be hoping that European and U.S. support for Ukraine may flag, especially if he can keep energy prices high.

As well as the past few weeks have gone for Ukraine, Putin has overcome setbacks before, through a mixture of patience and brutality.

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