The explosion is invariably spectacular: a gigantic spitting fireball, often followed by a slow-motion aerial cascade of secondary explosions. As soon as such footage finds its way online, an exultant Ukrainian comment erupts: “It’s HIMARS time!”
As its war with Russia enters its sixth month, Ukraine is celebrating recent battlefield successes generated by sophisticated launchers known as High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS. The Pentagon has provided or promised a dozen advanced systems capable of hitting targets up to 50 miles away.
After Russia’s large-scale invasion of its smaller neighbor on February 24, the conflict escalated from Moscow’s initial failure to capture the capital, Kyiv, to substantial Ukrainian territorial losses this summer in the industrial heartland of the country. east of the country.
Now the calculus of combat appears to be changing once again, with Ukrainian forces, aided by their new weaponry, striking dozens of sites, including Russian munitions dumps, troop concentrations and bridges. This is seen as likely preparation for an offensive to regain Russian-held territory in the south of the country near the Black Sea coast.
“Ukrainian forces are now using long-range rocket systems very effectively,” US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said last week during a virtual meeting of 50 donating nations. of equipment to Ukraine. “I think everyone here understands the difference they’ve made on the pitch.”
This battlefield effect, however, leaves Ukrainian officials on a fine line.
President Volodymyr Zelensky and other senior officials continue to make strong calls for more Western armaments, stating bluntly that Ukraine cannot seize the military initiative without much more donated armaments. Ukraine’s First Lady Olena Zelenska made an unusual personal appearance before Congress on Wednesday, where she graphically spoke of civilian suffering at the hands of Russia while calling for additional military hardware.
But at the same time, Zelensky and his lieutenants seek to paint a picture in which their armed forces may already be on the verge of taking over – implicitly promising that the country’s sacrifice of lives, as well as the growing economic and energy tensions of the allies resulting from the war, will eventually prove useful.
“We have significant potential for the advance of our forces to the front and to inflict further significant casualties on the occupiers,” Zelensky said Thursday evening in his nightly address to the country.
The two messages are not necessarily contradictory. However, their calibration is a difficult task.
Too much triumphalism, while boosting household morale, can undermine the urgency of calls for more Western armaments. By contrast, any semblance of defeatism could hasten outside calls for Zelensky to accept territorial concessions in Moscow and perhaps end the fighting before winter sets in.
The onset of cold weather will mean that Ukraine’s European allies will face a far more intense energy crisis inflicted by the Kremlin. Austin acknowledged this, citing difficulties in keeping pressure on Russia.
“We are working to maintain and intensify the momentum of donations,” he said. “There is no doubt that it will always be hard work, making sure to maintain unity.”
On the world stage, Ukraine constantly portrays Russia as a treacherous power that cannot be trusted to honor international agreements – and Moscow’s actions often make this characterization compelling.
On Saturday, Russian missiles hit the port of Odessa in southern Ukraine, the Ukrainian military said, just a day after the signing of a UN-brokered deal with Turkey to allow exports grain from Black Sea ports to alleviate global food shortages caused by war. .
“That’s all you need to know about the Russians and the deals,” tweeted Anton Gerashchenko, adviser to the Ukrainian Interior Ministry. He argued that the episode strengthened the case for more and better Western weapons for Ukraine.
With the advent of a sixth month of fighting – a psychological crossing into long-war territory – the Kremlin says it will intensify its military objectives, discarding an earlier focus on the industrial heartland of the East, which it has largely taken over.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently articulated territorial ambitions that stretch far beyond the Donbass region, whose control Moscow had set itself as a primary objective after failing to invade and subdue Kyiv in the first weeks of the war.
“The geography has changed – it’s not just Donetsk and Luhansk,” Lavrov told Russian media last week, referring to the two eastern provinces that make up Donbass.
The Kremlin says increased Western military support for Ukraine played a role in the decision to broaden its war aims. This claim is dismissed by Western officials, including German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, who told German state broadcaster Deutsche Welle last week that “this is just new propaganda from the Russian side”. .
Ukrainian and Western officials have said for months that Russia may be preparing to annex areas seized since the invasion, but those warnings have grown louder in recent days.
“Russia is preparing the ground to annex Ukrainian territory it controls, in direct violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said last week.
Kirby, predicting the Kremlin could proceed with the annexation as early as September, said Russian President Vladimir Putin was “cleaning the playbook” of his illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.
Ukrainian and Western officials say Ukrainian civilians already living under Russian rule are being subjected to a series of horrors – torture, illegal detention, enforced disappearances. A report by New York-based Human Rights Watch released on Friday details “an abyss of fear” in Russian-occupied areas in southern Ukraine.
On the battlefield, the improvement in the capabilities of the Ukrainian army is occurring while that of Russia is apparently diminishing. On Thursday, a Ukrainian defense intelligence official, Vadym Skibitskyi, told an online briefing that Russia had spent up to 60% of its stockpile on precision missiles. But he noted that Moscow still has huge stockpiles of missiles, dating back to the Soviet era.
“Russian forces will likely continue to use their stockpiles of lower-precision Soviet weapons systems,” said an assessment by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of Warfare. “But the decisiveness of these strikes, compared to the impact of Ukrainian HIMARS strikes, will likely remain limited.”
Moscow denies deliberately targeting civilians, but its increasing use of imprecise projectiles partly explains the recent carnage in Ukrainian towns far from the eastern battlefront.
Ukraine was stabbed earlier this month by the death in a Russian missile strike of a 4-year-old girl with Down syndrome in the central provincial capital of Vinnytsia. Moments before shrapnel ripped through a downtown neighborhood, bubbly child Liza Dmytrieva was shown in social media posts happily pushing her own stroller.
Later gruesome footage showed her crumpled body on the ground, along with images of her mother’s badly injured severed foot.
Other such harrowing scenes surfaced last week from Ukraine’s second-largest city, the eastern metropolis of Kharkiv, which after a short reprieve came under heavy Russian fire again. In photos widely circulated online and authenticated by Ukrainian officials, a grieving father knelt for hours next to the body of his slain 13-year-old son, shaking hands with the boy, following a strike near a city bus stop.
Forecasting is a particularly difficult art when it comes to this war.
The head of Britain’s equivalent to the CIA, MI6 Director Richard Moore, speaking at a well-attended security forum in Aspen, Colorado last week, said Russian forces had received a “very, very bloody nose” and suggested that Moscow was “about to flee”. breathless. »
Yet the top US military commander, speaking at the same event, planned a long and arduous drudgery.
“This will likely continue as a bitter war of attrition for some time until both sides see another way out,” said Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. . “Maybe through negotiation, or something like that.”
King reported from Kyiv and Wilkinson from Washington.