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The democracies face a coming year of decision. In the next 12 to 18 months, we will know whether Americans have the collective will to resist yet another attempt to hand power to a would-be autocrat…We will also know whether the free world (and yes, it’s long past time to start using that expression again) has the will to resist the onslaught of Russian butchery in Europe. These two battles are inextricably linked. If America stumbles even deeper into authoritarian darkness than it already has, Ukraine is lost. If Ukraine is lost, Europe and the West face an existential threat not only to our physical security but also to our democratic civilization.

Thus opens the excellent Atlantic piece linked above, which is, honestly, about the finest piece of analytical war journalism I’ve ever read – If you’re at all interested in understanding today’s geopolitical realities, and aren’t yet acquainted with the work of the brilliant Anne Applebaum, staff writer at the Atlantic and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, you’re doing yourself a disservice. In this latest essay, co-authored with Jeffrey Goldberg, the Atlantic’s Editor in Chief, you’ll find everything you need to know about why the pending Ukrainian counter-offensive against Russia might be a turning point of truly historic significance, with implications that extend far, far beyond the battlefield, and what it might mean for all of us if Putin’s forces aren’t comprehensively routed.

Particularly relevant is their discussion of the differences between what the Ukrainians and we in the West might define as “victory”. For us, Ukrainian success sufficient to force some sort of cease fire and negotiated stalemate, one that acknowledges the factual permanence (if not the legality) of certain Russian territorial gains, might seem suitable, even desirable. For the Ukrainians, after all they’ve suffered since 2014, after the war crimes, the razing of their cities, the mass kidnapping of their children, after the atrocities in Bucha and everywhere else the savage Russian brigands carried out their looting, raping, and murder, victory means justice. Nothing less. It means the return of all conquered land. It means holding the responsible Russians to account. It means a lasting peace, not a Korean-style cease fire, but true security guaranteed by eventual admission into NATO. I’m with them, all the way. If anything comparable had happened to any of us, we’d demand the same, and we’d be unequivocally righteous. But what if it’s not achievable?

What if the coming counteroffensive is an utter disaster?

Thinking about all of it, I’m pretty much ready to lose my grip on a couple of autonomic bodily functions. There’s so very much at stake. Far more, it seems, than the general public appreciates, which is a failure both of our politicians, and the journalistic media that are supposed to be keeping us informed.

Let’s just say I’m anxious. Oh boy, am I anxious, even though, so far this year, there’s been a lot to be hopeful about. The Ukrainians have been so very tough and resilient. Consider: despite the Russians’ relentless campaign to destroy Ukraine’s electric grid and leave the civilian population to freeze in the dark, thus, presumably, breaking their will to fight and forcing surrender, the lights have stayed on. The Russians threw everything they had at what anyone would have assessed to be a set of very soft targets, but they couldn’t shut down the grid. It’s incredible, actually, and seems only partly to have been the result of the failure, for some reason, of the feared influx of ballistic missiles to arrive from Iran, but mainly on account of tireless and unexpectedly ingenious Ukrainian efforts to fix things even faster than the Russians could smash them. In the result, what could have been a decisive setback has instead been a desperately needed win, and a deeply satisfying moral victory; there’s an epic, heroic story there that I hope gets fully told some day.

Meanwhile, the Russians’ winter offensive in the east has failed, utterly and expensively. There’s still the chance of a final victory by the Wagner thugs in the little town of Bakhmut, but even that’s starting to look doubtful, and in any case won’t matter strategically, except to the extent that the whole campaign may reflect a successful Ukrainian strategy to bleed the Russians white. New western equipment, blessedly, has finally begun to arrive, including defensive Patriot missile batteries, and significant (if still insufficient) numbers of modern tanks, most importantly German Leopard IIs, and British Challenger IIs. Large numbers of Ukrainian troops are completing months of intensive training in the West, and returning to the front, amid genuinely moving scenes like this:

Swear to God. It’s enough to make you weep.

Certain weapons, armaments that might tip the balance, have still been denied to them, including tactical aircraft, and the long range strike weapons known as ATACMs, which would, if available, be giving the Russians hell up to 300 km behind the front line without the bastards being able to do anything about it. Still, lots of other, equally vital systems and logistical supplies, everything from artillery shells to fuel trucks to GPS guidance kits for air-dropped bombs, have been delivered in quantity.

Things are, on balance, therefore looking pretty good, and now we all wait for the next phase, when the Ukrainians go on the offensive and start rolling the Russians back, God willing. That’s coming any day now, as the muddy spring thaw gives way to a season of harder, dryer ground more suitable for the movement of heavy vehicles.

Are they ready? Have they amassed sufficient forces? Has NATO training equipped them with the crucial skills for combined arms operations? How much Western armour have they really obtained – how many Leopard and Challenger tanks are actually in theatre and ready to go? How many Bradleys, Strykers and Marders? There haven’t yet been any deliveries of the vaunted American M1 Abrams, of which only 31 were promised anyway – does that matter? What about air power – can the good guys prevail even though we in the West have steadfastly refused to supply them with fourth generation types like the F-16, to the point, now, that it’s simply too late? Have the Ukrainians done enough to lay the groundwork for a decisive assault? For weeks, now, Ukraine has been conducting a campaign to accomplish what the military types call “shaping the battlefield”, attempting to constrain Russian choices and impair their means of responding to any attack by cutting their logistics trains, and destroying their rear area supply depots. There’ve been a number of spectacular strikes on vital oil facilities and ammunition dumps:

Has this been enough? Are the Russians in any case so depleted by their own, badly botched winter offensive that anything they’re doing now to shore up the lines amounts to little more than the creation of a sort of Potemkin Maginot Line, formidable on paper, but undermanned, under-supplied, and brittle? It was astonishing to hear the intelligence assessment this week that the protracted battle in and around Bakhmut, still not successfully completed, has cost the Russians fully 100,000 casualties over the past four months, a horrendous toll that brings to mind the pivotal battles of World War II. Surely they can’t simply bounce back from such carnage? Consider too the losses of equipment, particularly tanks, to the point that the Russians are now pulling antiquated T-55s out of storage and rushing them forward to plug holes in their lines. These are vehicles first built in the late 1950s.

T-55s weren’t fit to deal with the generation of Western tanks that began being replaced over forty years ago. Now they’re being hauled out of mothballs and hustled to the front? Doesn’t that smack of desperation?

If so, great, maybe, but on the other hand what if the Russians really are desperate? What is Putin prepared to do to avoid defeat? Following their ridiculous and illegal annexations last year, the official line is that the occupied portions of Ukraine are now sovereign Russian territory, which they’ve pledged to defend with every means at their disposal, including nuclear weapons. They sure do love to rattle the nuclear sabre, bullying hoodlums that they are, but are they really bonkers enough to take it to that level if the conventional fight goes badly? The rabid propagandists on Russian TV, practically frothing at the mouth, have talked about little else over the past few days, as have other Russian luminaries (who may or may not be talking out their asses), and there are constant accounts of the possibility being bandied about within the Kremlin:

Is that just the usual bullshit? And what was this all about?

The supposed May 3 Ukrainian drone attack on the Kremlin bears all the hallmarks of one of Putin’s farcically transparent false flag operations, except that it was even more clumsy and ludicrous than usual. Why would he do this? Is it merely to give him an excuse to cancel the annual May 9 celebrations, which would normally involve the proud display of massed tanks and infantry that he can’t possibly muster any more, what with them all being fed into the meat grinder to his west? Or is he trying to fabricate the justification for some sort of retaliatory escalation – perhaps, indeed, the use of so-called “tactical” nuclear weapons (most of which have a yield either approaching or exceeding the bombs that were dropped on Japan)?

God forfend. We can be certain that America and its NATO allies have already gamed out a response, should the Russians cross the nuclear rubicon, and whatever that is, all the possibilities are terrifying, and I don’t want to know. I just hope it’s been communicated to the appropriate actors through the available back channels.

So, there’s all that to be concerned about, but here’s what’s really got me worried: everyone knows this is coming. It’s inevitable. The Russians have been preparing for it, as best they can (and we don’t really know how well they’ve done, so we can only hope they’ll be as incompetent at defending as they have been at attacking). Worse, even the most likely lines of attack seem to be well understood; all week long I’ve been reading Twitter threads written by both actual and purported experts, and they all seem to outline the same general strategy we’re likely to see, involving a thrust on the southern flank of the eastern front, probably towards Melitopol, designed to cut the “land bridge” to the Donetsk region and isolate the Crimean peninsula. This one is typical:

The idea of an offensive that everybody knows is imminent, after the enemy’s had months to prepare, fills me with dread. It puts me in mind of the Gallipoli campaign in WW I, when the British massed forces for months in Egypt, while the Ottoman Turks watched, waited, and made their preparations. What had to come next was perfectly plain, and, after finally landing in the Dardanelles, the Allies hit the heavy defences that had been built to stop them, then took 250,000 casualties before being forced to withdraw, having achieved nothing. The same sort of fiasco could certainly be in the offing this time.

Yet telegraphing that you mean to attack isn’t the same thing as forfeiting the element of surprise. Think of D-Day. Hitler and his generals sure as hell knew it was coming. They built literally thousands of kilometres of fortified positions, their celebrated Atlantic Wall, in an effort to fend it off. They watched our preparations closely, thoroughly, obsessively. They were as alive to the threat as humanly possible, and even thought they knew where we were going to land. But they didn’t know. We fooled them, via one of history’s greatest intelligence coups, convincing them by various ingenious means, including a huge volume of false signal traffic, and the mobilization of entire fake armies composed of inflatable dummy tanks and trucks (!), that the invasion would come at Calais, the obvious, logical choice. When we landed instead at Normandy (as Rommel, alone, had predicted), German forces were out of position, and Hitler even held some of his panzer divisions back, refusing to rush them toward the assumed feint at Normandy because he needed them to counter the real landing that was yet to come at Calais.

They can know you’re coming and still get caught with their pants down.

Maybe that’s what’s going to happen. Maybe everything we think we know about present Ukrainian battle plans is similarly false, and even the product of a clever campaign of disinformation (the Ukranians can be just as devious as we were prior to D-Day, see below). Or maybe it doesn’t matter anyway, because Putin’s conscript armies are depleted, exhausted, under-supplied, and ready to fold, no matter where the attack comes. There’s no reason to be utterly pessimistic.

There’s just every reason to fret.

Today I’m reading the first reports that the counter-offensive may already have begun. This is mainly chatter on Twitter, not necessarily false on that account, but hardly gospel either. As I write this, I see nothing on the mainstream news sites yet – CNN is more concerned with reporting that the lawsuit against Ed Sheeran for ripping off Marvin Gaye has failed – so there’s no way to know what to make of postings like this:

We’ll know soon enough. If it hasn’t already started, it will soon. Slava Ukraini.

An inflatable decoy HIMARS launcher, meant to serve as a magnet for Russian missiles. Not unlike…

…this decoy Sherman tank of the sort used to fool German reconnaissance aircraft in the run-up to D-Day

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