The military situation in Ukraine took quite a dramatic turn over the weekend as Ukrainian forces—which had spent weeks advertising a counteroffensive in the south around Kherson, drawing Russian troops to the surrounding area—suddenly drove through the northeast as well. Around Kharkiv, Russian soldiers were outnumbered in some places by eight to one. And so they fled, abandoning equipment as they went. In one place, they abandoned a couple companies’ worth of perfectly good tanks, some with half-eaten MREs on them.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has boasted that Ukraine has seized 6,000 square kilometers. Though it’s hard to verify things in the middle of war, the well-respected Institute for the Study of War wrote that, in the four days between September 6, when the northeastern counteroffensive kicked off, and September 10, Ukraine took more territory than Russia captured in the five months since April. And while the Ukrainian army continues to make slow progress in the south, the Russian army is making no obvious moves to reinforce the positions to which they’ve retreated, which only invites the Ukrainian army to push further.
Ukrainians are jubilant, while Russian hardliners—the so-called “party of war”—are outraged. Kremlin TV is, of course, trying to spin this as an orderly reorganization of Russian troops who will, in due time, defeat the Ukrainians. But the hardliners aren’t buying it. They’ve been raging on Telegram channels about their feckless Russian generals betraying the dream of the Russian empire. By Tuesday, it had gotten to the point where Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, had to not-so-subtly warn them that the new laws criminalizing “discrediting” the Russian armed forces apply not just to the opposition, but to cheerleaders as well. The line between “pluralism” and “the current law…is very, very thin,” he said. “And one has to be extremely careful here.”
The ground, it seems, is getting quite shaky under Putin’s feet again. If these Ukrainian military gains hold—or even multiply—the pressure on Putin will continue to grow, too. And now that the entire liberal Russian opposition has either fled or is in jail, that political pressure will come either from the nationalist right who feel like Putin bungled their dreams of empire, or from the elites who feel that he has gambled with their fortunes and lost.
More on that in my conversation with the Russian journalist Evgenia Albats, below.
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|Evgenia Markovna Albats, who is always addressed by her stately patronymic, is the doyenne of independent Russian journalism. At 64, she has the stripes to prove it. Back in the 1980s, she was one of the first Soviet journalists to actually report on the K.G.B. (Her story about tracking down the former N.K.V.D. interrogator who sent a legendary Soviet scientist to his death in the Gulag absolutely floored me.) She has also written vividly about being a woman in the late Soviet era, and what it was like to give birth in a perestroika-era hospital plagued by shortages of everything from clean needles to running water.
In the years since, she has covered the wars in Chechnya, gotten a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard, and founded and run an independent Russian news magazine called The New Times (since shuttered by the authorities) that was an absolutely crucial outlet for investigative reporting on the corruption of Vladimir Putin’s regime...