Retaking land occupied by an enemy during war is a brutally difficult task. But a military trying to do so usually has one big advantage: surprise. The occupying force does not know when or where the attackers will strike.
In 1944, the U.S. and its allies tricked the Nazis into believing that an invasion of France would take place on a different part of the Atlantic coast than it did. Today, Ukraine is similarly hoping to surprise Russia with the start of a spring or summer counteroffensive. The Russians know that a major attack is coming but not the form it will take.
The outcome of that counteroffensive could shape the outcome of the war. A successful campaign by Ukraine, retaking territory that Russia now controls, could cause President Vladimir Putin to fear outright defeat and look for a face-saving peace deal. A failed counteroffensive could cause Ukraine’s Western allies to wonder 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 counteroffensive could start at any point over the next several weeks.
The land bridge
The so-called land bridge that Russia has established in southeastern Ukraine is likely to be the focus:
The southern edge of the land bridge is the Crimean Peninsula, which Russian forces invaded and seized almost a decade ago. Since the larger war began last year, Putin has also taken control of territory that connects Crimea to Russia, including the port city of Mariupol and much of the Donbas region, in eastern 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. One, Ukraine is cut off from about half of its coastline. Two, the territory includes a nuclear plant near the city of Zaporizhzhia that is a major producer of electricity.
Three, and perhaps most significantly, Russia can more easily supply its troops in Crimea. The land bridge is one of two routes for Russia’s military supplies to Crimea and towns in southern Ukraine, according to Andrew Kramer, The Times’s Kyiv bureau chief. (The other is the Kerch Strait.)
Experts have compared the war’s recent months to World War I, with both sides dug into trenches and neither making much progress. Russia lost tens of thousands of troops this year merely to capture Bakhmut, a marginal city in the Donbas.
Ukraine hopes that its counteroffensive will end this stalemate. Western allies have supplied the Ukrainian military with billions of dollars of equipment and trained its troops at camps in Germany over the past few months. The troops have learned a technique known as combined-arms warfare, in which different parts of the military work together to take territory. Tanks punch through enemy lines by rolling over trenches, for example, and infantry then spread out to hold the area.
“The counteroffensive will very likely start in multiple places, maybe in the south and the east,” Julian said. “Some of those will be feints. Some will be part of the main efforts.”
Ukraine still has fewer troops and less equipment than Russia, but Ukraine’s military has so far proven more effective — with better morale, smarter tactics and more advanced Western weapons — than Russia’s. The counteroffensive is effectively a bet that Ukraine can use those advantages not just to repel Russia but to retake large territories.
As Thomas Gibbons-Neff, a Ukraine correspondent, said, “If Ukraine manages to sever the land bridge, Russian troops will be under further strain and, more importantly, Ukraine will be in a better position to attack farther east and south, toward Crimea.”
Most experts do not believe Ukraine will retake Crimea anytime soon — or that this war will end with Crimea back under Ukrainian control. Still, Ukraine does not need that outcome for the counteroffensive to be a success. Any major progress could cause Putin and his aides to worry that a long war would bring further losses and eventually put Crimea at risk. “The Russian people do care about Crimea,” my colleague Helene Cooper said. Before the Soviet era, the region was part of Russia for decades.
In the favorable scenario for Ukraine, a peace deal in which Russia is expelled from everywhere but Crimea and parts of the Donbas region would become plausible. On the flip side, a failed counteroffensive and an unbroken land bridge would provide Putin with a big psychological victory and a foundation from which to launch future attacks.
An important factor is that Ukraine now has enough weapons for only one major push. If the Ukrainians have not made progress by the fall, when colder and wetter weather makes fighting harder, the Russian land bridge may begin to look impregnable.
As Helene points out, however, Ukraine has frequently exceeded expectations in this war. Even the fall of Bakhmut, while a disappointment, took months longer than analysts expected. In the months ahead, Ukraine’s military will try to accomplish perhaps its most difficult task since repelling Russia’s initial invasion.
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ARTS AND IDEAS
The summer movie season begins next week. Among the movies that have excited The Times’s critics:
Horror: “The Boogeyman,” inspired by a Stephen King story, about a young woman who battles a home-invading supernatural entity. (June 2)
Sci-fi: “Asteroid City,” Wes Anderson’s take on the 1950s fascination with flying saucers, featuring his usual star-studded cast. (June 16)
Action: “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” Harrison Ford’s final film in the franchise. (June 30)
Animation: “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” the sequel to the Oscar-winning “Into the Spider-Verse.” (June 2)
See the full summer movie calender.