Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American
September 30, 2022
After a two-month stalemate, earlier this month Ukraine launched a game-changing counteroffensive against the Russians occupying their eastern territories of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia.
Over the summer, Ukrainian forces destroyed Russian arms, command centers, and supplies behind Russian lines with U.S.-supplied long-range High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), then began to talk of a counteroffensive in the south, near Kherson. To guard against such a move, Russia moved many of its soldiers from the northeast to Kherson, leaving its northeastern troops stretched thin.
On September 6, Ukrainians moved, but not near Kherson in the south. Instead, they struck hard on the weakened northeastern lines, cutting quickly through the stretched and disheartened Russian occupiers and capturing more than 6000 square miles in less than a week. Russian troops abandoned their weapons and fled.
Russian president Vladimir Putin had launched the war on February 24 with the expectation that a lightning-quick attack would give him control of Ukraine before other nations could react, much as when he had invaded Crimea in 2014, or Georgia in 2008.
But he did not reckon with the careful rebuilding and training the Ukrainian military had undergone since 2014 as it worked to hold off Russia. He also misjudged the strength and commitment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which former president Trump had worked hard to dismantle. In office only a year at that point, President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken had made reconstructing the world’s democratic alliances a top priority.
Those alliances held against Russia’s invasion of a sovereign nation as they had not before when Putin had bought appeasement with promises: “Don’t believe those who try to use Russia to scare you, who say that, after Crimea, other [Ukrainian] regions will follow,” he said in 2014. “We don’t want to carve up Ukraine. We don’t need this.” In 2022, international sanctions began to bite into and then to bring down the Russian economy, while shipments of weapons and economic support kept the Ukrainians supplied. Rather than a quick, successful strike, Putin found himself in a drawn-out and deeply unpopular conflict.
The Ukrainian counteroffensive tightened the screws further. Putin responded to it on September 21 by hinting that he might use nuclear weapons and calling for what initially was described as “partial” mobilization, a move he had tried to avoid because of its potential to turn the Russian people against him. Immediately, Russian men headed for the country’s borders, while civilians and draftees, provided with few supplies and no training, began to resist.
Putin also announced that the four occupied regions would hold referenda on joining Russia and would be part of Russia as soon as those referenda occurred, so any attacks on them would be considered attacks on Russian territory. With this upfront admission that the vote was predetermined, Putin’s move was clearly designed to enable him to keep the Ukrainian territory he seems about to lose. It also violated international law by attacking another nation’s sovereignty, and Biden and other democratic leaders condemned it in advance.
Then, on September 26, the Nord Stream pipelines on the floor of the Baltic Sea that send natural gas from Russia to Europe appear to have been sabotaged with TNT in what appears to have been a warning that Russia could attack the critical infrastructure of NATO countries. In this case, neither of the pipelines was in use, and blowing them up might simply have been a way to get rid of them in such a way to collect insurance on assets that are losing value as Europe turns to alternative energy.
But the explosions might also have been a warning that the seven major pipelines delivering Norwegian gas to Europe could be next. Former president Trump promptly “truthed”: “Do not make matters worse with the pipeline blowup. Be strategic, be smart (brilliant!), get a negotiated deal done NOW. Both sides need and want it. The entire World is at stake. I will head up group???”
Today, in a televised ceremony, Putin announced that the sham referenda had taken place and that “there are four new regions of Russia.” The four territories, which Russia does not fully control, cover about 18% of Ukraine. Putin’s speech seemed to indicate a concern that the countries under his sway are sliding away. He focused on the “West,” claiming that Russia itself is under attack from western democracies. “The West is looking for new opportunities to hit us and they always dreamt about breaking our state into smaller states who will be fighting against each other,” he said. “They cannot be happy with this idea that there is this large country with all [these] natural riches and people who will never live under a foreign oppression.”
He offered to negotiate for an end to the war, but said that the “four new regions of Russia aren’t up for negotiation.”
Journalist Anne Applebaum, who is a specialist on Central and Eastern Europe, identified Putin’s actions as a war not just on Ukraine, but on world order and the rule of law, a system embraced by the democratic world. It is, she writes in The Atlantic, “a statement of contempt for democracy itself.” That world order says that big countries cannot attack smaller countries and that mass slaughter is unacceptable. In contrast, in Putin’s world, she writes, “Only brutality matters.”
Secretary of State Blinken tweeted: “Today, we took swift and severe measures in response to President Putin’s attempt to annex regions of Ukraine—a clear violation of international law. We will continue to impose costs on anyone that provides political or economic support for this sham.”
In turn, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky announced that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO. Ukraine’s membership in the organization would require other NATO countries to send troops to fight Russia. Admission to NATO requires the consent of all 30 members, and that consent is unlikely to materialize in the midst of a war, but Zelenky’s announcement overshadowed Putin’s.
Zelensky appealed to the ethnic minorities conscripted into Russian armies not to fight, telling them that more than 58,000 Russian soldiers had already died in Ukraine and warning them that they do not have to die for Putin. If they do come, he warned, those who are sent without dog tags should tattoo their names on their bodies so the Ukrainian authorities can inform their relatives when they are killed.
“The United States condemns Russia’s fraudulent attempt today to annex sovereign Ukrainian territory,” President Biden said. “Russia is violating international law, trampling on the United Nations Charter, and showing its contempt for peaceful nations everywhere. Make no mistake: these actions have no legitimacy.”
The U.S. announced new sanctions against Russians and Russian entities and will continue to provide aid to the Ukrainians. In what sounded like a reference to the damaged pipelines, Biden told reporters “America’s fully prepared with our NATO allies to defend every single inch of NATO territory, every single inch,” Mr. Biden said, adding: “Mr. Putin, don’t misunderstand what I’m saying.”
Meanwhile, Ukrainian troops have advanced around the city of Lyman and appear to be on the cusp of encircling the Russian troops there. Lyman is a key logistics and transportation hub, and the Institute for the Study of War, a think tank, says its loss “will likely be highly consequential to the Russian grouping.”
Today, a Washington Post op-ed by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, now serving a nine-year sentence in a maximum-security penal colony on trumped up charges, bore a title unimaginable a year ago: “This is what a post-Putin Russia should look like.”