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Missiles and Momentum in Ukraine
Recent successes in the war to defeat the Russian invasion.
FOLLOWING THE HORRIFIC OCTOBER 7 ATTACKS on Israel by Hamas, the war in Ukraine was understandably pushed to the sidelines of the news, inevitably prompting right-wing trolls like former Hercules actor Kevin Sorbo to tout its alleged invisibility as implied evidence that it was always fake news:
This reduced visibility, moreover, came on the heels of weeks of claims that the Ukrainian counteroffensive was a bust and had reached the “pointless meat grinder” stage. On October 13, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vasily Nebenzya, said that “the so-called Ukrainian counteroffensive can be considered finished” with nothing to show for it but tens of thousands of dead recruits and that Russia had “launched active combat operations along the entire frontline.” (Nebenzya also accused the West of feeding more weapons to Ukraine “like drugs to a drug addict, thus prolonging his agony.”) Two days later, Nebenzya’s boss Vladimir Putin weighed in with his own assertion that the Ukrainian counteroffensive had “failed completely” but, confusingly, added that “the opposing side” was planning new offensive operations in some areas and described the Russian troops’ operations as “active defense,” without explaining how that differs from plain and simple defense.
Then, after two more days, on October 17, Russia got an unpleasant surprise when Ukraine delivered powerful strikes at targets in occupied territories, in Berdyansk and Luhansk, hitting military airports and weapons depots. British intelligence assessed the damage at fourteen wrecked Russian helicopters; other analysts have put the number even higher, at twenty-one. Either way, not only Ukrainian military sources but demoralized Russian war bloggers noted that these were record losses.
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That evening, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky disclosed in his nightly address to the nation that the missiles used in the strike were the long-coveted ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile System):
And today I am especially grateful to the United States. Our agreements with President Biden are being implemented. And they are being implemented very accurately—ATACMS have proven themselves.
U.S. officials also confirmed the delivery and use of the missiles. Thus ends a prolonged will-they-or-won’t-they saga in which reports last September that Zelensky’s request for the long-range missiles would not be granted during his visit to Washington, D.C. were followed by a quick reversal, albeit not officially announced. Now, we have confirmation by demonstration.
Putin, on his visit to Beijing, predictably claimed that the ATACMS would not help Ukraine but also made a weird invitation to President Joe Biden to take them back and come over to Russia for “tea and pancakes” instead. (While a number of Western observers saw the comment as creepy innuendo based on the polonium-laced tea apparently given to Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko by Russian agents, some dissident Russian commentators such as Alexander Nevzorov noted that pancakes are a traditional Russian dish at funeral wakes and tartly speculated that the wake might be for Putin himself.) Meanwhile, at least some Russian war cheerleaders who do not live inside Putin’s bubble made little secret of the fact that the new missiles were bad news for the Russian war effort. Appearing on the 60 Minutes program on Channel One with the husband-and-wife team of Olga Skabeyeva and Yevgeny Popov, retired Russian colonel and TV pundit Mikhail Khodaryonok candidly admitted that if ATACMS strikes continued, this could make it much harder for Russia to use its military aircraft to stymie Ukrainian offensive operations by strafing tanks and armored personnel vehicles. He also advocated retaliatory strikes, presumably on civilians, that would be painful enough to make ATACMS use too costly for Ukraine.
Since we don’t know how many ATACMS missiles Ukraine has been given or how many it has fired, it’s difficult to say on what scale Ukraine will be able to use them. (It should also be noted that other allies will likely step up long-range missile deliveries after this step by the United States.) But Ukrainian officials, such as Zelensky adviser Mykhailo Podolyak, are saying it’s a potential game-changer in depriving Russia of aerial supremacy—especially since F-16 jets will soon follow. Pro-Ukraine commentators who are critical of the slow pace of Western weapons deliveries, such as Russian expatriate journalist Yulia Latynina, have been asking why the ATACMS were not in place before the start of the spring/summer counteroffensive, which would have likely ensured far more impressive successes.
But while Ukrainian territorial gains since June have been small and slow, there’s a strong case to be made that the momentum is currently on Ukraine’s side—as seen not only in land advances but in strikes on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which has been forced to withdraw most of its assets from Sevastopol. James Heappey, the U.K.’s minister for the armed forces, even spoke of the “functional defeat” of the Black Sea Fleet in an October 3 address to the Warsaw Security Forum. To this, one can add commando raids and strikes disabling many Russian anti-air missile installations in Crimea.
AND THERE’S ANOTHER remarkable Ukrainian operation currently in progress near Kherson, where units have crossed the Dnieper and gained a foothold on the Russia-occupied eastern bank of the river in the village of Krynki. Russia has claimed to have thwarted Ukrainian attempts to establish a presence on the eastern bank, and the Russian news site Argumenty i Fakty has even reported that the entire shoreline “is littered with dead bodies of Ukrainian commandos” (while providing no visual evidence). Yet many Russian war bloggers are saying that the fighting in Krynki continues and that Ukrainian troops are in either full or partial control of the village. While reliable information is difficult to obtain—so far, there is no video footage from either side—it appears that Ukrainian troops are having a fair amount of success and even securing supply lines. If they do manage to establish a base in Krynki or other nearby villages, it could allow them to push deeper into Russian-held territory and accomplish the goal of severing the land corridor to Crimea.
At least so far, the Ukrainian counteroffensive shows no signs of slowing down. And what of those Russian “active operations”? One attempt by Russian forces to seize the offensive has been unfolding at the eastern town of Avdiivka, where Russian assaults have intensified in the last week—and where Ukraine has been successfully repelling them. So far, according to numerous reports, not only from Ukraine but from Russian war bloggers, Russia is suffering unprecedented losses in both machinery—including dozens of tanks—and life with virtually no gains to show for it. (While estimates of Russian casualties by the Ukrainian military must obviously be taken with a grain of salt, visual record of at least some of those losses do exist, in contrast to the Ukrainian corpses supposedly littering the Dnieper’s shores near Krynki.) Nevzorov, a former TV journalist with a penchant for gallows humor, has darkly quipped that Russia has “apparently decided to make Avdiivka the site of the largest suicide club in human history.”
Some speculate that the Avdiivka offensive is an attempt to draw Ukrainian troops away from counteroffensive operations elsewhere; others that it’s intended to score a victory for propaganda purposes. Avdiivka could even be intended as a trophy to show off on Russia’s “National Unity Day” on November 4, which marks the expulsion of Polish-Lithuanian occupying troops from Moscow in 1612 and could thus be seen as having some relevance to the current conflict. One may see a similarity to the grueling siege of Bakhmut, which the Russian military had almost certainly hoped to seize in time for Victory Day on May 9. In that case, the siege continued until May 25. But Ukraine’s defenders are in a much stronger position at Avdiivka than they were at Bakhmut; and, while Russia is sticking to the same method of grimly named “meat storms”—i.e., frontal assaults in which soldiers are thrown at the enemy as cannon fodder—it can no longer rely on the Wagner mercenaries who played a decisive role in that previous pyrrhic victory. Somewhere, perhaps, the ghost of Yevgeny Prigozhin is laughing.
NO ONE IS EXPECTING a swift Ukrainian victory or a rapid collapse of Russian occupation forces in the near future. But the recent news for Ukraine has been encouraging—especially since the war in Israel may ultimately strengthen rather than weaken Western commitments to Kyiv. President Biden’s primetime Oval Office address on Thursday, which linked the war in Ukraine and the war in Israel as battles in defense of democracies, and which sets the stage for a request for $100 billion in new spending that pairs aid to Ukraine with aid to Israel and Taiwan, was seen as a landmark event by Ukraine’s defenders. As Podolyak told Latynina in a Friday livestream:
I saw a more foundational speech where, finally, the emphasis is in the right place: that the price of freedom is always a price; that is, freedom always has a price. And if we want to live in a world in which there are rules . . . then we must stay the course to the end. . . . It seems to me that this is a very clear and fundamental statement that [the United States] will really stay the course with Ukraine to the end, just as with Israel.
Given the rocky road ahead in U.S. politics, there are no certainties. But at least for the next year, continued American support for Ukraine seems assured—and Ukraine seems poised to use it well.