Kyiv needs to show Russians that the war is not worth fighting.
June 8, 2023
Groups calling themselves the Free Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps have launched raids inside Russia. Drones have flown over Moscow, damaging what may be the homes of Russian intelligence officers and buzzing the Kremlin itself. Unusually intense fighting has been reported this week in several parts of eastern Ukraine, with completely different versions of events provided by Russians and Ukrainians. Conflicts have also been reported between the Russian mercenaries of the Wagner Group and the soldiers of the regular Russian army.
What does it all mean? That the Ukrainian counteroffensive has begun.
In a week that also marks the 79th anniversary of D-Day, we should note the many ways in which this military action does not, and probably will not, resemble the Normandy landing. Perhaps at some point there will be a lot of Ukrainian troops massed in one place, taking huge casualties—or perhaps not. Perhaps there will be a galvanized, coordinated Russian military response—or perhaps the response will look more like it did on Tuesday, when a dam that was under direct Russian control collapsed, leading to the inundation of southern Ukraine. Nor was that the only disaster: A series of smaller man-made floods has also washed over Russian-occupied territories in the past few days.
This counteroffensive will also look different from the D-Day movies because Ukraine‘s goals are not merely military. Yes, Ukrainian troops are probing Russian defenses up and down the 1,000-kilometer front line. Yes, the Ukrainians are conducting shaping operations, hitting ammunition dumps and other targets behind Russian lines. Yes, Ukraine wants to take back territory lost since February 2022, as well as territory lost in 2014. Yes, we know the Ukrainians can do it, because they’ve done it before. They fought the Russians out of northern Ukraine at the very beginning of the war. They recaptured Russian-held parts of the Kharkiv district in September, and the city of Kherson a couple of months later.
But in addition to taking back land, they are also conducting a sort of psychological shaping operation: They have to convince the Russian elite that the war was a mistake and that Russia can‘t win it, not in the short term and not in the long term, either. Toward this end, they are also seeking to convince ordinary Russians that they aren’t as safe as they thought, that the war is nearer to their own homes than they believed, and that President Vladimir Putin isn’t as wise as they imagined. And the Ukrainians have to do all of this without a full-scale invasion of Russia, without occupying Moscow, and without a spectacular Russian surrender in Red Square.
The anti-Putin Russians fighting in Russia are part of that battle. This group, which seems to contain some authentic Russian extremists and some authentic opponents of Putin (but may also contain Ukrainians pretending to be Russian extremists or opponents of Putin), does have a military purpose. These incursions can help neutralize the immediate border zone, and draw Russian troops away from more important battles. The group’s leaders appear to have killed a senior Russian officer and are said to have taken prisoners.
But they, too, are part of a different game. As one of the group’s members (nickname―Caesar) told The New York Times, they aim to provide a demonstration to the people of Russia that it is possible to create resistance and fight against the Putin regime inside Russia. By their very existence, they prove that apathy is not mandatory, that the Russian nation is not unified, and that no one is secure just because they live inside the borders of Russia.
The drones in Moscow could have the same effect. I don’t know who launched them—Ukrainian special forces, Russian saboteurs, or Ukrainian special forces pretending to be Russian saboteurs. But the effect is the same: They show Muscovites that no one is untouchable, not even the residents of the Kremlin. Maybe they won’t persuade people to create resistance and fight against the Putin regime, but they might help persuade people to start thinking about what comes next.
And indeed, some people are clearly thinking about what comes next. Although no evidence indicates that Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner mercenaries, is actively trying to eliminate Putin, he does seem to be part of a competition to replace him, should the Russian president accidentally fall out a window. During an interview Monday, he mocked the luxurious life of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s daughter, implied that Shoigu himself is lazy, and described the chief of the general staff throwing paranoid tantrums, yelling and squealing at anyone surrounding him. We are, he said, two months away from the firing squads—by which he meant the firing squads that will eliminate these degenerate leaders. One Russian officer who said he had been captured and interrogated by the Wagner Group issued a statement claiming that Prigozhin’s men were threatening and humiliating Russian soldiers. Prigozhin, in turn, says the regular Russian army opened fire on his mercenaries and left land mines to obstruct their movement.
In this context, the destruction not just of the big dam on the Dnipro River but of other dams and waterways all across occupied Ukraine has a clear purpose. Floods create chaos, forcing the Ukrainian state to care for evacuees. They put large, unexpected bodies of water between the Ukrainian and Russian forces, making it impossible to move equipment. These actions also send a psychological message: We will do anything—anything—to stop you. We don’t care how it looks. We don’t care who it damages. Confirmed reports say that the Russian occupation regime is not rescuing people stranded on the roof of their house by the flood, and that the Russian army is shelling people engaged in rescue operations. Russian soldiers have also drowned, Ukrainian spokespeople believe. An army that was willing to waste tens of thousands of men in the pointless nine-month battle of Bakhmut is unlikely to care.
Remember that all of this—the weird psyops, the exploded dam, the Russian infighting—has unfolded even before anyone has reliably spotted the Western-trained, Western-equipped Ukrainian brigades that are meant to lead this counteroffensive. On Tuesday, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced with great fanfare that it had destroyed some of this equipment, including a German Leopard 2 tank. Hours later, Russian bloggers examined the video clips they produced.
Alas, the objects destroyed seem to be not Leopard tanks but John Deere tractors. Future reports from the Russian ministry should be treated with caution. Future reports from any source should be treated with caution. What we can see is not the fog of war, in the old-fashioned sense; instead it is a kind of swirling tornado, a maelstrom of claims and counterclaims, memes and countermemes, real battles taking place away from television screens and fake ones happening on camera. The Normandy landings were followed by a long, bloody Allied slog through France, which no one back home watched in real time. The certainty that D-Day was a true turning point emerged only in retrospect. This Ukrainian counteroffensive is, so far, disappointing fans of panoramic drama, set-piece battles, and heroic tales. Those might, or might not, come later. In the meantime, remember that the true purpose of the counteroffensive is not your entertainment.