We’re in a new phase of the Ukraine-Russia war. Paul Poast of the University of Chicago returns to the podcast to break down Ukraine’s extraordinary counteroffensive. He explains why this counterattack is reminiscent of D-Day, why President Vladimir Putin continues to struggle to achieve his objectives, and whether the end of the war could be within sight.
In this excerpt, Poast recaps the past several months of the Russia-Ukraine war to provide context for Ukraine’s recent counteroffensive.
Derek Thompson: It’s been awhile since our last update, so I was wondering if you could help to reframe last week’s developments in the broader story of this war. How should we contextualize what just happened in the last week?
Paul Poast: Absolutely. And it makes sense that it’s been awhile since we’ve had an update because, to be honest, there hasn’t been a lot over the past few months that’s really changed. And so there wasn’t really a lot to talk about. But obviously in the past, say, 72 hours, 96 hours, everybody has been talking about it. But to understand why, yes, I do think it’s important to kind of recap, well, how did we get to this point?
So remember that back in late February, Russia launched this invasion—or excuse me, “special military operation,” as they’re referring to it—into Ukraine. And at that point they were following what I’ve been referring to as a Crimea model. And what I mean by that is you go back to 2014, when Russia first took control of the Crimean Peninsula, what they did was they sent in their troops rapidly, took control of the country, took control of the peninsula, and basically did so without a shot being fired.
And what you could tell was that in late February when the invasion started, they tried to do that same thing, but at scale. They tried to take control of the entire country. They were using the roads. And yes, there was fighting, but I think [Russia] believed that they could carry out a lightning strike and be able to take control of the country, impose maybe regime change. That seemed to be an objective. Take control of Kyiv. That was what happened at first, and that was kind of phase one.
But that soon bogged down, largely because I think the Russians were surprised by how fiercely and capably the Ukrainian forces were able to start fighting. Of course, this was very famously captured by the quote by President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy of, I don’t need a ride, I need ammo. Right. The idea that they were going to try to get him into exile and he’s like, “No, I’m not leaving.”
And so that then set up the second phase of the war, where you then had Ukrainian forces pushing back, starting to receive assistance from the West, largely NATO allies and in particular the United States. That, in turn, led the Russians to shift their strategy from this Crimea model to more of a Chechnya model. And what I mean by that is, if you look at the years that Russia was carrying out military operations in its province of Chechnya, it was doing so in a very indiscriminate manner. It was targeting civilians. There wasn’t a lot of strategy involved. It was very much based on punishment. And you could see that that was what the Russian strategy was shifting toward, was that, “OK, if we’re not going to be able to take Kyiv, if this is not going to be a lightning strike, then we’re going to start punishing the Ukrainians.” And then what that led to was as they shifted to that, they also started to shift kind of the overall objective.
It was clear they were no longer going to be able to take control of the entire country. So the Russian forces started to consolidate control in the eastern part and southern portions of the country, which are contiguous with the Crimean Peninsula. And so that would make sense that this would be an area as well as the provinces that are adjacent to Russia itself. And so that’s where they started to consolidate their control. And what that has led to then is over the past several months, you have had the beginning of attritional warfare, meaning this is kind of the next phase of just the two sides kind of slogging it out. The Ukrainians receiving weapons, the Russians still using their weaponry, fighting in this manner, firing shots, maybe small attacks here and there. But there wasn’t a lot of movement. And that was leading a lot of people observing it, myself included, to think that we were heading toward a kind of stalemate—long, protracted conflict.
I even was making comparisons that, depending on how things went, we could end up in a situation almost like the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. That was an eight-year war where basically after the first few months of fighting, it just became trench warfare and lasted for eight years like that because neither side was backing away, neither side was able to move. Both sides were being supported by external powers. And that just led to massive deaths. You had over a million battlefield deaths in that war. And I was very much thinking that we could be heading in that direction.
That now sets up what’s happened over the past few weeks. And what’s happened over the past few weeks is that the Ukrainian forces have been preparing to launch a counteroffensive. So rather than being content to just be in this kind of stasis, stalemate-type situation, they’ve started preparing themselves to launch a counteroffensive.
And so they’ve been using a lot of this weaponry that’s been provided by the West to just, for example, fire artillery shells and just start pounding the Russian positions, and pounding them and pounding them. They’ve also been amassing troops in the southern part of the country as well as the northern part of the Russian-controlled part of the country. And so that is basically the cities of Kherson, which is the city in the south, and then the city of Kharkiv, which is in the northern part of the Russian-controlled territory. And so that’s where they started amassing forces. And then what they did was about 96 hours ago, they launched a counteroffensive where instead of actually attacking Kherson, which is where the Russians thought they were going to attack, they actually attacked in Kharkiv and made huge progress, stunning progress in terms of the amount of territory they were able to take.
They were able to acquire—the reports are somewhere in the neighborhood of over 3,000 square kilometers of territory. They’ve been able to retake in three days what took Russia three months to be able to gain control of. And so that is the scale of what has happened. And that’s where we are now, is watching this counteroffensive and seeing the Russian forces in that northern part of their controlled territory basically melt away. And this is now leading people to think, “Well, could this war be over sooner rather than later, and over in a way that’s victorious for Ukraine?”
This excerpt was edited for clarity.
Host: Derek Thompson
Guest: Paul Poast
Producer: Devon Manze