Ukraine Faces a Crucial Moment in the War

Vovchansk is a small Ukrainian town that sits just three miles from the border with Russia. Dotted with farmland and Soviet-era factories, it carries the memory of successive invasions and occupations. During the Second World War, as the Wehrmacht and the Red Army fought relentlessly in and around nearby Kharkiv—control of that city changed hands four times—Vovchansk was occupied by Nazi forces for more than a year. Today, two years into Russia’s war in Ukraine, as the Russian military has managed to shift momentum in its favor, the town is again at the center of decisive battles.

The story of Vovchansk’s present-day occupation began on the first day of the invasion, in February, 2022, when Russian units streamed across the border. They took the town without much of a fight, but they were eventually worn down by insufficient troop numbers, disorganized command, and a lack of air and artillery power. That September, Ukraine mounted a surprise counter-offensive, leading Russian forces to retreat from Vovchansk and dozens of other towns in the Kharkiv region.

On May 10th of this year, with the war in a very different phase, Russia attacked again. The so-called “meat storm,” in which wave after wave of foot soldiers are sent into the line of fire—Western intelligence services estimate that the total number of Russian dead and wounded has surpassed half a million—remains a grim hallmark of Russian operations, but the military has adapted. The Kremlin has replenished the armed forces by way of a military draft and financial incentives, recruiting as many as thirty thousand new soldiers every month, and is spending a third of the national budget on defense and security. According to nato estimates, Russia produces three million artillery shells per year—more than double the number that all nato member states combined can provide Ukraine. The Russian Army has become adept at using drones and electronic countermeasures to stymie Ukraine’s own battlefield innovations, and the Air Force has retrofitted Soviet-era one-and-a-half-ton unguided “dumb” bombs with wings and G.P.S. navigation to create “glide bombs,” which are used to level troop formations and entire city blocks alike.

Meanwhile, Ukraine is facing perhaps its toughest moment yet in the war. For months, recalcitrant Republicans in Congress blocked the passage of a new aid package, and Ukrainian stocks of everything from anti-aircraft missiles to artillery shells grew scarce. Ukrainian commanders estimate that Russian forces now have a ten-to-one advantage in artillery rounds. With air defenses depleted, Ukrainian cities—Kharkiv most of all—endured the most sustained assaults since the war began. Missile strikes knocked out power grids across the country. In late April, Congress finally approved a sixty-one-billion-dollar arms package, but the war’s momentum had already turned, and, in any case, heavy-weapons systems and armaments can’t reach the battlefield overnight. Last week, for the first time, the government in Kyiv ordered nationwide blackouts.

But a lack of arms is only one of Ukraine’s problems; the military is also short on soldiers. In the early days of the war, there was no shortage of people looking to sign up to fight, but finding eager recruits has become far more difficult. Discontent is rising as the draft affects mostly those who tend to bear the brunt of fighting in any war: people from more rural regions, the less educated, the relatively less well off. President Volodymyr Zelensky had no ready solution to this dilemma, and the parliament failed to pass a mobilization law for more than a year. Last month, Zelensky finally signed a series of laws expanding the draft and, his administration argues, making it more transparent and efficient. But there is still no process for demobilizing troops, so those who are called up fear that they are being handed a one-way ticket—not an attractive prospect in a grinding war of attrition that, according to U.S. intelligence, has killed seventy thousand Ukrainian soldiers. And, as with the long-delayed influx of U.S. arms, the new laws will take time to change the reality on the battlefield.

It was within this window of opportunity that Russia launched its current offensive. Fighting continues in the streets of Vovchansk, as Ukrainian commanders speak euphemistically of units that have “moved to more advantageous positions, as a consequence of enemy fire and storming action,” and less euphemistically of a Russian “tactical success.” Russia’s incursion is what’s known in military parlance as a “fixing” operation—a way to tie down forces in one area of fighting to create advantage in another. Vladimir Putin’s immediate priority remains the capture of the entirety of the Donbas region, in eastern Ukraine.

When Putin’s initial war aims—the sacking of Kyiv and the overthrow of Zelensky—failed in the invasion’s early days, it seemed as if a prolonged war would favor Ukraine. Zelensky didn’t flee. The Russian Army was in disarray. The West proved more united than Putin imagined. But that logic reversed long ago. Even with a year’s worth of U.S. weapons on the way, Ukraine cannot count on future aid packages, particularly if Donald Trump becomes President again. And for all the talk in Washington and in European capitals of the existential nature of the fight, they have not used the past two years to seriously upgrade or expand arms production.

The Biden Administration, out of fear of escalation, prohibits U.S. weapons from being used against targets in sovereign Russian territory. (Last week, Russia staged drills near the border, simulating the use of tactical nuclear weapons.) But, Ukrainian officials argue, that is where Russia is now launching its strikes. Zelensky thinks that Putin’s nuclear posturing is essentially just that, and in a recent interview with the Times he said that Russian forces “proceed calmly, understanding that our partners do not give us permission” to use Western weapons to hit back.

If Vovchansk falls, Russian artillery will again be within firing distance of Kharkiv. The campaign to render Ukraine’s second-largest city—with a prewar population of 1.5 million people, the size of Amsterdam—functionally uninhabitable would gain force. Putin has indicated he believes that if Russia applies enough pressure, destruction, and misery, the West will end its support of Ukraine, which would lead to political change in Kyiv, with Zelensky replaced by figures sympathetic to Moscow. But that outcome is not inevitable. As the story of Vovchansk shows, the trajectories of wars can change many times. ♦

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