Report: Pentagon believes Ukrainian forces now "able and willing" to reclaim territory from Russia

AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky

This claim is more than just an empty morale booster. As Jazz noted this morning, Ukraine has already retaken the suburb of Makariv northwest of Kiev. The further the Russians are pushed away from the capital, the less probable an eventual siege becomes.

Which leads me to wonder: Is it possible Russia might eventually cut bait entirely on northern Ukraine and refocus on the south? If the goal now is to take Mariupol and create a corridor between Crimea and the Donbas, the Russian forces dug in outside Kiev aren’t contributing to that goal. They’re harassing Kiev with artillery but have no near-term prospect of actually taking the city. So why leave them there when manpower is short and getting shorter by the day instead of sending them south to join Russia’s more successful front?

It’s just a prestige thing for Putin, right? If he redeploys those forces away from Kiev, he’s admitting that his plan to topple Ukraine’s government has failed utterly.

Remember that some military experts believe that Russia’s campaign has either already culminated or is on the brink of doing so. Losses and logistical difficulties may have left them unable to advance much further, at least in the northern half of Ukraine. If so, that’s an opportunity for Ukrainian forces to creep out of their defensive positions around cities and go on the attack. And the Pentagon says they’re preparing to seize the opportunity:

Makariv is the most notable example of a Ukrainian counteroffensive paying off, given its proximity to Kiev. There’s evidence to believe the Ukrainians really are on offense there:

They may have achieved more than just pushing the Russians back too. One report claims that the Russian army in the area is encircled:

Few things would better encapsulate how the war has gone for Russia thus far than having troops who were trying to surround Kiev end up surrounded themselves.

Ukrainian troops are reportedly advancing in other parts of the north, maybe with greater strategic significance than in Makariv:

The fear at the moment is that Mariupol will fall, allowing Russia to consolidate its gains in the south, and then the Russian army will push north towards Dnipro to the rear of Ukraine’s troops in the east. That would leave those troops encircled. The assault on Izyum is designed to create an escape route for them to the west in case Russia moves north from Mariupol to try to cut them off.

By the way, Mariupol is still technically under Ukrainian control despite the fact that Russia wants it badly:

Is there any scenario in which Ukrainian troops might try to move south to liberate Kherson and Mariupol? They’d have to feel very confident about their position in the north to do that, not wanting to draw manpower away from Kiev and Kharkiv in the event of a new Russian attack. Unless they manage to route Russia’s army in the north, I assume they’re likely to stay put. Which, if so, means we’re headed for a settlement in which Russia demands sovereignty over the south and east of Ukraine.

Unless the Russian army breaks down first, of course:

Anne Applebaum writes today that the only acceptable outcome at this point is a Ukrainian victory — although her definition of victory may be different from yours:

Before you can achieve something, you have to imagine what it will look like. And in this war, victory can be imagined without difficulty. It means that Ukraine remains a sovereign democracy, with the right to choose its own leaders and make its own treaties. There will be no pro-Russian puppet regime in Kyiv, no need for a prolonged Ukrainian resistance, no continued fighting. The Russian army retreats back over the borders. Maybe those borders could change, or maybe Ukraine could pledge neutrality, but that is for the Ukrainians to decide and not for outsiders to dictate. Maybe international peacekeepers are needed. Whatever happens, Ukraine must have strong reasons to believe that Russian troops will not quickly return.

“Maybe those borders could change” seems a little too easygoing about the prospect of Russia carving off the Donbas and the coastline of the Sea of Azov from Ukraine. I agree that Ukraine surviving mostly intact with Zelensky in charge and the west providing security guarantees would amount to an overall victory for Ukrainians in light of Putin’s dreams of conquest. But the thought of him gaining territory as a reward for his brutality is obnoxious in the extreme.

There’s no alternative realistically, though. Even if Ukraine puts the new package of drones and Javelins we’re sending them to good use, there’s no outcome in which Putin stands by while all of his gains melt away. If the Ukrainians really did manage to run his soldiers out of the north and then turn south to threaten Russian troops there, I imagine that’s when Putin would panic about a total loss of prestige and consider playing his trump card. It’s really hard to imagine Kherson and Mariupol back in Ukrainian hands in the near term. If I’m missing an obvious possibility, tell me.