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Ukraine Lost in Bakhmut. But It Has Much Bigger Plans.

Ukraine Lost in Bakhmut. But It Has Much Bigger Plans.

Wed, 24 May 2023 09:45

After almost a year of deadly battle, Russia has claimed victory in the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. But what happens now is uncertain. Eric Schmitt, who covers national security for The New York Times, explains what this moment in the war means, and why the next few months could be critical for Ukraine. Guest: Eric Schmitt, a national security correspondent for The New York Times.

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Before we get started today, I wanted to share two pieces of exciting news. The first is that we here at New York Times Audio have just released an app. For fans of New York Times podcasts like you, it does something very helpful. It takes all kinds of shows, like cereal, the run-up, this American life, the daily, and gathers them into one place. And it helps you discover the new shows that we're making that you might not know about. And that brings me to the second piece of exciting news, which is that New York Times Audio is launching a new new show. It's called The Headlines. As a daily listener, you know that what we do every day is we bring you one story in depth. But of course, our newsroom is covering dozens and dozens of stories every single day. And that's what The Headlines is for. It's a short show that brings you the top stories of the day, straight from the reporters covering them. This week, we're sending the show right down our feed, free to listen to. And after that, you can find it on our app. Search NYTAudio in the App Store or go to slash audio app. Everything in there is available to all New York Times subscribers. We hope you'll check it out. Okay, now here's today's show. From The New York Times, I'm Sabrina Tevernice. This is The Daily. After almost a year of fighting, Russia finally captured Bachmut, a city in eastern Ukraine, with Moscow declaring it a mission accomplished moment. Today, my colleague Eric Schmidt explains what the capture really means and why the next few months for Ukraine are so critical. It's Wednesday, May 24. So Eric, you and I and all of our colleagues have been watching this one city in eastern Ukraine, Bachmut. It's literally been the focal point of the war over the past many months. And finally, over the weekend, it fell. Bachmut fell to the Russians. How important is this? Well, you have to remember what kind of came before this. Obviously, the Russians failed in their initial attempt. They were driven out of Kiev. They then resumed last summer in the fighting in the Donbass. And they suffered some other defeats in places called Kharkiv and Herzogn in the southern part of Ukraine. So by late last summer, the Russians were looking for a victory. Tonight, new details from the front lines of Ukraine. The Russian appointed leader in Ukraine's Donetsk region now claims that Russian forces are closing in around the city of Bachmut. And they identified this city of about 75,000 people Bachmut as a place where if they could take that, they felt they could expand their presence in the Donbass. The city became a key target for Russian forces after they were forced to withdraw from other areas of the east. And so they began focusing their attack on this city. There is little strategic value. It's not a military hub. It's not a communications hub or a transport hub. But that said, Russia has had very few victories for quite a long time in this conflict. So any seizure or capture of part or most of Bachmut would be seen as a success as a victory by the country. And for the most part, I think people thought, well, that's going to be probably given the Russian wherewithal. They would probably be able to take that city fairly easily. Russian and Ukrainian forces are still fighting in the streets of Bachmut, which Russia has been trying to capture for several months. Thousands of Russian troops have died trying to take the eastern city. But what happened was, Ukrainians decided, hey, we're going to make more of an investment in this. If this is so important to Russia, that they win, at least have a symbolic victory, if not an actual military victory, we're going to stand in their way. And we're going to hang on as long as we can to block the Russians from achieving that triumph. OK, so this is kind of a strategically unimportant place that for some reason became important. That's right. Think of it almost as if two dogs fighting over a bone here. One is much larger and should have yanked this bone away long time ago. But this smaller dog is hanging on for dear life and denying the bigger dog the bone. That's kind of what's happening here. And that because Bachmut is so important for the Russians, the Ukrainians are hanging on. And by March, the American officials are kind of saying to the Ukrainians, hey, aren't you worried here that you could be wasting too much manpower and resources that you're going to need for future fights that are much more important to this larger campaign than this place Bachmut? But the Ukrainians say no, we're going to hang on here because anything that can deny Putin of victory isn't of itself a political victory for us, the underdog, just as it's been for months and months now as we've pushed back on the Russians before. Right and then over the weekend, of course, as we know, Bachmut falls. The Russians take it. That's right. The Russians declared basically mission accomplished. The city is essentially a wasteland, although the Ukrainians are still fighting from outside the city, so it's not completely over yet. But what's really important here is what happens in the kind of critical next phase of the war, the battle over Bachmut might actually turn out to be a very smart strategy by the Ukrainians. A smart strategy. But why would it be a smart strategy? Essentially, the Ukrainians losing territory, right? It's a loss for the Ukrainians. That's right. But go back and remember why the Ukrainians have been fighting over this for the last several months anyway. Their idea has been pinned down as many Russian forces in this otherwise not as very important place for as long as possible. Kill and injure as many Russian forces as you can. In fact, the United States says as many as 100,000 Russians have either died or been injured since January, mostly in around Bachmut. Wow. That's more than the population of Bachmut. I mean, that is just an unbelievable number. That's right. And perhaps most important, it's buying time for the Ukrainians to build up this major force, this big arsenal of weapons and newly trained soldiers that will mount a counteroffensive. They're first really big push since last fall to take back territory that the Russians hold. That counteroffensive that we believe is probably going to start as early as June. Right. The counteroffensive, also known as the spring offensive, something that people who've been following this war closely, like you and I have, have been expecting for months. Right. And spring, because the mud sees is more or less over and the ground is hard enough for large military vehicles to drive on. So people watching the war have pegged this time as the chance for a major counteroffensive by Ukraine. Tell us, Eric, when did the planning for it begin? The planning began almost within weeks after the last major offensive that the Ukrainians carried out last fall and a hair salon. They started planning. How are they going to amass a big enough force to drive out the Russians from the remaining territory that they still hold? And so Zelensky starts going around and accressing the Western allies for munitions. It's a great honor for me to be at the U.S. Congress and speak to you and all Americans. Remember back in December, he visits the United States, leading the Ukraine for the first time during the war, to drum up support for things like the Patriot missile batteries. For the Abrams tanks, both systems that the United States was initially reluctant to provide. We have artillery. Yes. Thank you. We have it. Is it enough? Honestly, not really. And then most recently, just in the last week or so, he went on a global tour. Ukrainian President Zelensky's diplomatic tour across Europe. All this coming as Ukraine's long anticipated spring counteroffensive could be starting. He went to Germany and got nearly $3 billion. It's the biggest package of military aid that Germany's offered Ukraine since this conflict started and it includes 30 leopard tanks, 15 anti-aircraft tanks, more than two hundred. He went to Britain. Rishi Sunak's office saying new equipment for Ukraine would include hundreds of long-range attack drones. Last week, Britain sent him. And finally, he ended up at the G7 summit in Japan. Washington confirmed that it has given the green light to training on much longed-for combat jets. Where he, for the first time, was able to get commitments from the United States to allow Ukrainian pilots to train in American-made F-16 fighter jets. And for the United States to allow European countries that own F-16s to transfer those important fighter jets to Ukraine. And it's followed a similar pattern to what we've seen with other requests for advanced weapons that first the Allies say no, and then they say maybe, and then they finally get to yes. It's a major victory for President Zelensky, both in acquiring some of the last important weapons that he needs for this major offensive that's going to start very soon, but also obtaining commitments for arms and ammunition. This gives his commanders assurances that when this counter-offensive starts, they can be as aggressive as possible because they know more is in the pipeline in the months to come and that there is a commitment on the part of Western Allies to support him with these major new weapon systems. Okay, so now Zelensky has all this stuff, right, all these weapons, and is really at this point running what amounts to a modern Western-style fighting force, a modern army. And Russia is now up against that modern army really for the first time. I mean, it hasn't seen this before in this war. That's right, there'll be tens of thousands of Ukrainian forces that have been trained, special tactics by the United States and other Western Allies with much more modern equipment, but the Ukrainians got essentially a crash course in all this. And so how this actually plays out on the ground is still to be seen. This is the moment, this is the moment that's been building for months, and now we'll see whether the Ukrainians can perform, whether they can punch through these Russian defenses and take back territory. We'll be right back. So, Eric, when is this counteroffensive actually supposed to start? So some military analysts believe that the early parts of the counteroffensive have already started. We're seeing signs that the Ukrainians are striking supply lines, for instance, railroad tracks that would carry troops and supplies to the front lines. We've seen attacks on ammunition depots and command posts by the Ukrainians in occupied Crimea, which would disrupt the Russian ability to thwart the counteroffensive that the Ukrainians are planning. Then there was this mysterious drone strike over the Kremlin recently. Oh, yeah. There were a couple of small drones, you know, exploded. They didn't hurt anybody, they didn't kill anybody. It was a middle of the night. Putin was not there in the Kremlin, but it raised all sorts of questions about who might be responsible for that. And then just recently, you've seen some kind of cross-border attacks carried out apparently by Russians working for the Ukrainians inside of Russia itself. Crazy. Like, these are Russians helping Ukrainians? Apparently so. We don't know a lot of details about it, but it's a group called the Free Russian Legion, who apparently are carrying out these kind of small-scale attacks, which is, again, meant to show, hey, we can reach inside your country and strike you, not just hit your military supply lines and, you know, affect the actual battle, but trying to strike a psychological blow of sabotage-type things, covert operations that are very disruptive and disorienting perhaps for the Russians. And this is all a preview of what's to come, this pattern of attacks. Yeah. But the pattern at the beginning, again, what you're trying to do in this instance, if you're the Ukrainians, you're trying to confuse the Russians as to what your objective is. Where is this attack going to come? How is it going to play out? So we're going to see faints. We're going to see misdirection, or you might see operations starting and stopping. The Ukrainians are probing for vulnerabilities in these front lines in the south where they're expected to strike hard and look for the areas where they might be able to make a breakthrough. And, Erika, once it actually begins this counteroffensive, what can we expect it to look like on the ground? I mean, they have all of these new weapons, right? That's right. If it works well for the Ukrainians, it should look a lot different than what we've seen in the previous phases of this long war so far. If you think about much of this war has been defined by exchanges, almost like a World War I trench warfare artillery blasts back and forth, you know, grinding out these very incremental advances on either side. This, again, if it works the way the Ukrainians and their western partners have designed it, is going to move much faster. You're going to have tanks on the ground. You're going to have armored personnel carriers carrying troops moving through the battlefield supported by artillery fire and synchronizing all of these different kinds of weapons and tactics in a way that they haven't done before. And if you can push ahead, you can gain ground much more quickly and break the will of the Russians. So if it works as intended, this would be a much faster, more modern fight in which Ukraine physically moves through the territory and takes it as it goes. That's right. That's the goal. And this is very difficult to do, even for a military as advanced as, say, the American military, particularly when they face the defenses that the Russians have thrown up in front of them. It's a big ask on the part of the Ukrainians, but that's what they've been training to do for the last several months and we'll see if it works or not. So Eric, now we come to the eternal and probably unanswerable question, which is how long can we expect this offensive to last? Well, there's a lot of things we don't know. We don't know how well the Russians will defend the ground that they've been digging into for months and months. They've been laying trenches. They've been putting down minefields. They've been putting in things called tank traps. So think of this as a months-long campaign that's going to go at least through the summer. And what would success look like for Ukraine coming out of this? So just in basic terms, remember the Russians now control, still control about 18% of Ukrainian territories. The Ukrainians, one of their main goals, just sees back as much of that territory as they can. And that's important for at least two reasons. One is they have to show all these Western donors that have given them all this equipment and money and aid that they can win, they can succeed. There was a good investment in the end. There was a good investment, right? Keep backing us and continuing the future. The second other major reason is that they want to put themselves in the best possible position for any kind of negotiated settlement, you know, win if that happens. That's not really on the cards right now, but certainly people are thinking about that and thinking about the impact that a counteroffensive could have on the outcome of such talks. They'd have a much stronger hand sitting at that negotiating table with say the Russians only at 5% of their country than they would with the Russians at 18% of their country. That's right. But the opposite could be true too. Let's say they don't do very well on this counteroffensive. And despite all the weapons that they've been given, and despite the fact the Russians have been hobbled by all sorts of problems with their logistics and leadership divisions, you know, if the Ukrainians can't take advantage of all that and don't make substantial gains, there's going to be a lot of pressure on them from the very people who've been supporting them to say, hey, maybe this is the time to basically stop. Negotiate a ceasefire, we'll work out terms, but that would leave Russian control. Still, a lot of Ukrainian territory, which is going to be hard for Zelensky to stomach. So it sounds like the window for the Ukrainians to prove that this aid is working and they can do it is finite, right? Is closing. That's right, all these things that are basically riding on the successful outcome of this counteroffensive are all coming into play in the next several weeks and months. And so it really is almost a do or die moment for the Ukrainians and their immediate objectives. It doesn't mean the war is going to end after this counteroffensive is over, but this is an incredibly important phase of the war up to now. And why is it so important now, Eric? Like what is it about this moment? First of all, the funding from the United States, both economic aid and military aid, is set to expire and run out by the end of this summer. And basically, the counteroffensive will offer a kind of a taste of whatever success or not is made and will help the administration presumably make a case for more money. Perhaps even more important is by this year or early next year for sure, the election season will be upon us here in the United States. And if Biden were to lose the White House, that could very likely mean the end of support for Ukraine, depending on who wins, or at least cutbacks in that support. And the Russians know this. And it's been part of Putin's strategies already started to talk about, I can wait longer than you, the United States, the West can. Your resolve for Ukraine is going to wane. And if there's a change of administrations in Washington, I will benefit. That's Putin's thinking right now. Right. Of course, we've seen it time and time again in this war, right, including in Buck Moot. We are willing to go the distance and we know you, Western countries, are going to lose interest, turn away. And in the end, that means I win. That's right. And that's why a success and a rather resounding success is so important because without that, you not only fill in your military objectives, but also your political objectives become much cloudy or I think going forward. So Eric stepping back here for a second, you know, thinking about Zelensky, the really high stakes he's facing right now in this critical phase of the war that's about to begin. How should I understand this moment? And thinking back, you know, to the beginning of our conversation, how does Buck Moot, this little city in eastern Ukraine fit into it, if at all? So in war, certain places emerge with outsized significance, even though they may be small cities like Buck Moot that don't seem to have, apparently a lot of strategic significance at all. Buck Moot used to be this little town that nobody had ever heard of. And now it's literally on the lips of not just an American president, but Russian president as well. So depending on how this counteroffensive goes, there's a potential that Buck Moot could be seen as an important turning point in the war. And here's what I mean. If the counteroffensive does not go well, and there are going to be a lot of analysts who say Ukraine made a grave mistake in focusing on its efforts, you know, pouring so much manpower and equipment into this lost cause. But if the offensive goes well for the Ukrainians, Buck Moot could turn out to be a possible potential turning point for how this underdog country could stand up to the giant Russian military. Right. So in the best case scenario, Buck Moot could be the marker in our memory of the moment when Ukraine lost the battle but won the war. It could be a small place with great importance if the counteroffensive goes well for Ukraine. Eric, thank you. Thank you. We'll be right back. Here's what else you should know today. The Times reports that Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida will announce his highly anticipated entry into the Republican presidential race tonight during a live conversation on Twitter with the platform's owner, Elon Musk. DeSantis will become the seventh Republican to announce his candidacy, a list that now includes former President Donald Trump, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Trump's trial on 34 felony counts in connection with a hush money scheme was scheduled for March of 2024 at the height of the Republican presidential primary. During a hearing at which the trial date was announced, Trump became visibly angry over the timing, waving his hands, and shaking his head. Today's episode was produced by Alex Stern, Ricky Novetski, and Moosati. It was edited by Lisa Chao and Lexi Dio, contains original music by Mary Ann Luzano and Diane Wong and was engineered by Chris Wood. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Lansfirk of Wonderly. That's it for the daily, and just a reminder, all this week you're going to see our new show, The Headlines, right here in the daily feed. We made it for you. Hope you like it. Defined it, go to slash audio app. I'm Sabrina Taverny C. We'll see you tomorrow.