The Ukrainian military has finally amassed enough forces, supplies, and other resources – including a much-needed infusion of new weapons and munitions from the United States and NATO — to launch its counteroffensive against the Russian invaders. On four fronts, the Ukrainians and Russians are engaging in fierce battles that in many places resemble the hellish trench warfare of more than 100 years ago during the first World War. In some areas, the Ukrainians have successfully pushed back the Russian invaders – inflicting and enduring a large number of casualties in the process. Elsewhere, the Ukrainians have had much less success, often retaking a small amount of territory only to be forced to withdraw by Russian counterattacks.
On Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told the BBC that the counterattack’s progress has been “slower than desired” and that “We would definitely like to make bigger steps….But nevertheless, those who fight shall win and to those that knock, the door shall be opened.”
On Friday, Russia faced an armed rebellion spearheaded by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner private army, which appeared to briefly seize control of the military headquarters south of Moscow. The uprising was quickly squashed, however. By Saturday, a brokered settlement was announced between the Wagner PMC group and Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
“This is good for Ukraine. They just drew an ace.”
In an attempt to make better sense of the Ukraine war and its newest phase, Putin and Russia’s threats and goals, lessons for the United States and its national security, and what comes next, I recently spoke with Elliot Ackerman. He is a New York Times best-selling author of several books, including “2034: A Novel of the Next World War,” “The Fifth Act: America’s End in Afghanistan” and “Places and Names: On War, Revolution and Returning.” Ackerman’s new book is “Halcyon.” Ackerman is also a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a Marine veteran, having served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he received the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for Valor and the Purple Heart.
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity on breaking news events:
We spoke several days ago about Russia and Ukraine. On Friday, it appears that some type of mutiny or insurrection was initiated by the Wagner mercenary group against Putin. As of now, Saturday morning EST time, events are still developing, but what do we know at this early point?
Our conversation ended last week with an observation about how important it is to expect the unexpected, and here we are.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, who spent nine years in a Soviet prison for thievery and then had a successful business career that started as a hot dog vendor (you can’t make this stuff up), has risen to prominence as the head of the Wagner Group, a mercenary organization that Putin has used not only to outsource the war in Ukraine but also the war in Syria before that. Prigozhin has become increasingly critical of Russia’s command structure. He has now threatened to march on Moscow unless the chief of the Russian military agrees to meet with him; however, by the time this is printed, he may very well be on the outskirts of Moscow, as he’s only kilometers away now.
Putin’s frontline forces are deployed in Ukraine, are training to be deployed, or are being reconstituted. Putin has a huge internal security force at his command. What do we know about the forces he has to suppress a mutiny-insurrection or even a full-on coup attempt?
The capability of these forces—which are quite capable—means much less than their loyalty. We’ve seen this time and again in the past few years, in which a well-equipped, well-trained army folds in the face of a smaller force. This is because war is fundamentally a political act; it’s politics by violence. If Putin’s security services decide that the politically expedient and safe move is to align themselves with the insurrectionists, then the size and scope of those services don’t matter because Putin no longer controls them. The politics of this moment is everything.
“The Ukrainians—out gunned for much of this war—have shown us through their actions that human will is the most impressive weapon in their arsenal; our strategy should be to get them more of the actual weapons they need.”
What does this potentially mean for the Ukrainian war? Specifically, for the Ukrainians and their counteroffensive?
This is good for Ukraine. They just drew an ace. Does it mean that the war will be over tomorrow? No. But even if Putin survives, he’ll be weaker. Starting today, any Russian who wants to fight in Ukraine will be fighting a war on two fronts, the second front being the political opposition at home.
Given the still developing nature of these events what are your greatest worries? fears right now?
Putin and Prigozhin have both behaved like animals in Ukraine, and cornered animals are dangerous. We should all be rooting for a Russia without Putin, but what comes next could be just as bad or worse. Autocrats the world over—from Xi in China to the ayatollahs in Iran—are watching this. They surely see themselves in Putin. This stokes fear and people don’t always act rationally in the face of fear. Particularly despots.
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The war continues. How are you feeling at this point? And what of all the expectations by many military and other experts that it would have been over by now? The predictions that the Russians would roll over the Ukrainians in a few weeks of battle have most certainly not aged well.
War, by its nature, is irrational. That makes it unpredictable. However, we can certainly say that this summer is an important one. Ukraine’s allies have spent much of the last year building up its military with equipment. The Ukrainians have fielded many fresh units in preparation for a counteroffensive. The Russians, who were on the offense this winter, didn’t take as much ground as some experts might have predicted. The Ukrainians have an opportunity to prove that they can outperform the Russians. If that happens, success builds on success, and they’ll be in a stronger position when the weather turns cold again. Is this enough to “win” the war; no, at least not in the short term, but Ukrainian success this fighting season could buy them another fighting season, and by that time you could start to see a meaningful accretion of territorial gains that could lead to an end game—maybe not a total victory—but at least an end game that the Ukrainians might accept.
Definitions matter. As a military professional and expert, what does a “counteroffensive” really mean? What conditions should be met? How did Ukraine’s leaders decide this was the time to attack the Russians across multiple fronts?
“Putin and Prigozhin have both behaved like animals in Ukraine, and cornered animals are dangerous.”
A “counteroffensive” is just that, an offensive action undertaken by a force that had previously been on the defensive. All through this winter, the Ukrainians have been on the defensive, particularly at the strategic level. They’ve focused on holding ground, on bleeding the Russians in places like Bakhmut, on persevering manpower, and on building up their stores of equipment. They’re now deploying those resources against the Russians with the hope of taking back territory in the east that they lost during the invasion.
There are multiple fronts and battles in Ukraine. These fronts and battles are part of a larger strategic plan and war on both sides. How do we help the general public to better understand the relationship between these different moving parts and the big picture?
Unlike, say, the war on terror, or the war in Syria, the war in Ukraine is relatively simple. It’s a conventional war. It has a clear aggressor: the Russians. It has a nation that was invaded without provocation: Ukraine. The Russian aggressor is occupying the sovereign territory of the Ukrainian defender. The Ukrainians want their country back. That means pushing the Russians across the border. That’s the big picture.
Now, how you accomplish that, that is far more complicated. The execution involves understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your army, your adversary’s army, the political conditions in your country, the countries of your allies, and your adversary’s country. It involves understanding the battlefield as not only physical terrain but psychological terrain, too. It also involves understanding how armies not only maneuver across distance, but across time. How an offensive at one moment might be a terrible idea, but at another might be exactly the right move. This is all the business of war, a very old business.
There is a widely circulated video of US and German armor that was destroyed and severely damaged by Russian mines, anti-tank missiles, and artillery during a failed breaching operation. It is inevitable that the world will soon see images of destroyed F16s and Abrams tanks as well. What are the myths vs realities of how those weapons systems will and are impacting the battle so far?
The weapons systems you mentioned above are pretty spectacular. If you’ve ever been around an Abrams when it fires its main gun or been proximate to an F-16 as it drops ordnance, it’ll rock you in your socks. But these aren’t wonder weapons. They cannot destroy everything and they themselves can be destroyed—as you noted. Also, we cannot produce them in unlimited numbers. It takes time to replace this equipment. Weapons alone don’t win wars. Human will is what wins wars. The Ukrainians—out gunned for much of this war—have shown us through their actions that human will is the most impressive weapon in their arsenal; our strategy should be to get them more of the actual weapons they need.
The Ukrainians have used drones and other means to attack Moscow, railways, and other infrastructure inside of Russia and far behind the front lines of battle. What is the impact of such attacks? What type of planning and training do such operations require?
These types of “special operations” have a significant psychological impact. The drone attacks inside of Russia remind me of America’s Doolittle Raiders in the Second World War. Immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when the Empire of Japan had the U.S. on its backfoot, the Doolittle Raiders attacked Tokyo. The damage they caused didn’t meaningfully impair Tokyo’s warfighting capacity, but it had a huge psychological impact. It showed the Japanese people that America could strike them at home, and it allowed Americans to land a blow at the outset of a broader war. These types of operations require enormous, detailed planning by some of the most highly trained soldiers in any military. They are strategic in nature, so the cost of failure is often as high as the reward for victory.
The drone and other attacks and sabotage against Moscow and Russia at large are a lesson in the vulnerability of the United States as well.
We remain vulnerable to attack. The recent drone strikes in Moscow demonstrate that vulnerability, but so did 9/11 or even the recent Chinese spy balloons.
The Atlantic and Pacific Oceans have served our homeland well in the past, but they’re not impenetrable defenses, particularly in an increasingly connected world. The pandemic also showed us our vulnerabilities, not only to a virus coming from China, but our economic dependence on actors who don’t have our best interests at heart.
More than a year later, how are the Russians “seeing” the battlefield and war now?
“The longer the war goes on the greater the risk that the Ukrainians won’t lose this war on the battlefield, but at a ballot box.”
The Russians are becoming more prepared by the minute. Russia has a tradition of bungling the beginnings of its wars and then performing better over time. This was the case in the Napoleonic Wars and the Second World War. However, this hasn’t always been the case. Soviet performance in Afghanistan didn’t improve with time. Unlike Napoleon’s France and Hitler’s Germany, Ukraine has not invaded Russia. Ukraine does not represent an existential threat to everyday Russians—no matter how Putin tries to spin it—so you might not see that same Russian increase in performance that has historically occurred when there’s an attack on the Rodina, the homeland.
There are military and other experts who are predicting that the Russians will succeed in stopping the Ukrainian counteroffensive. US intelligence appraisals, as I understand it are concerning as well. There are other analysts who are predicting that the Ukrainians have a very good chance of succeeding. What are your thoughts?
It depends on how you define success. If success is that the Ukrainians push the Russians all the way back to the pre-February 24, 2022, borders and take back the Crimean Peninsula this summer, I’d agree that this seems pretty unlikely. If success means that the Ukrainians through their tenacity, valor, and military competence have put the Russians on notice that this war is unwinnable while also retaking meaningful chunks of territory, then I wouldn’t be too quick to discount the Ukrainians. Unfortunately, in the short term, it seems like the war will go on.
Many billions of dollars of equipment, arms, munitions, and other support have already flooded into Ukraine. What are some specifics of what they need now? And what of those who still say that we are escalating the war and making it more likely to spread and drag on needlessly by providing the Ukrainians with all the weapons they are requesting?
The list of weapons needed by the Ukrainians is long: F-16s, main battle tanks like the Abrams, HIMARS rocket launchers, Bradley fighting vehicles, etc. Since the war’s inception there has been a line of thinking within the Biden administration and among our allies that by giving the Ukrainians the weapons they need, we might escalate and prolong the war. I couldn’t disagree more strongly with this philosophy.
The past eighteen months show that by arming the Ukrainians at a trickle we have prolonged the war, giving the Ukrainians just enough to fight, but not enough to win. This plays into the Russians’ hands. Putin knows that time is on his side. He knows that he’s not just fighting against the Ukrainians but that he’s also fighting again an alliance, and alliances often fall apart. The longer the war goes on the greater the risk that the Ukrainians won’t lose this war on the battlefield, but at a ballot box. In 2024, in the U.S. and Europe, we and many of our allies are holding elections. The outcome of those elections will prove critical to the war effort.
War is a cruel teacher and manmade laboratory of the worst sort. At this point more than a year in, are there any new lessons about modern warfare or is this just a refresher course on what was learned going back to World War I and before about modern warfighting?
Everything in war changes. Everything in war stays the same. On the one hand, we have soldiers slogging it out in trenches, pounding each other with artillery. On the other, we have drones spotting for that artillery, signals intercepts turning cellphone data into targeting data, and sophisticated influence campaigns being waged by both Russia and Ukraine against each other’s populations. War is always a hybrid of the new and the old, the genius and savagery within us.
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What have you learned from American and European and other volunteers who have served in Ukraine? What are their direct impressions of what is happening on the ground there?
I’ve spent some time reporting from Ukraine. Among the volunteers, many of whom were veterans of the 9/11 wars, the prevailing sentiment was that this war was so uncomplicated in comparison. In Ukraine, you know who the enemy is. The battle lines are clearly drawn. And the combat is kinetic and intense. We’re not seeing IEDs in Ukraine. We’re not talking about insurgency. It’s strange for many to be fighting in such a different type of war.
There are no “do overs” in war. But if given the opportunity would Putin have launched this invasion given what he knows now? If so, what do you think Putin would have done differently?
Putin did not expect the resistance he met, so I imagine he would’ve made a very different set of decisions had he known. But for too long we never expected Putin would invade, so we’re guilty too.
In war, expect the unexpected. It’s a good rule of thumb, one that might save your life.
What are Putin’s strategic goals at this point? What does “victory” look like for him and Russia?
It’s critically important in any war to understand one’s adversary, no matter how reprehensible. We should all be trying to get into Putin’s head—so long as we don’t stay there too long. For Putin, this war is about a restoration of Russia, about upsetting the Western-led global order that has dominated since after the end of the Cold War, and it’s also about capitalizing on what he perceives as Western weakness. For him, victory is Russia appropriating a significant chunk of Ukraine while simultaneously proving to the world and his erstwhile allies that the West is a decadent paper tiger, a society so inwardly focused and so beset by divisions and decadence that it can no longer stand up to strong men like him and Xi. Putin is playing for keeps, so are the Ukrainians, and so should we.
about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine