Putin Talks Tough While Ukraine Makes Gains
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The Ukrainians are making progress in their long-awaited counteroffensive. Meanwhile, the Russian president is talking like a gangster and rattling the nuclear saber—again.
First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:
- The woman who bought a mountain for God
- Justice comes for Hunter Biden.
- The failure of affirmative action
A Slow, Bloody Business
While we’re all distracted—understandably—by the spectacle of a former U.S. president under multiple criminal indictments, the war in Europe grinds on, consuming lives, burning cities, and threatening global peace. The Ukrainian counteroffensive is now clearly under way, and Kyiv’s forces are making incremental but concrete gains along the front. The Ukrainians are, for the moment, calm and confident; the Russians less so.
Ukrainian officials have been cautious in their evaluations of this early stage of the counteroffensive because they know it’s going to be a long summer. “Hot battles continue,” according to a statement from Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar, and the situation is “difficult.” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has acknowledged Russian counterattacks but said yesterday that no positions have been lost, while other areas have been “liberated.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, is talking tough—which itself is a tell, a sign of how he thinks this war is going.
Putin is trying to turn up the global temperature with some swagger about nuclear weapons. This past March, Putin said that he would base Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus, close to Ukraine. Moscow and Minsk have since signed a formal agreement, and Putin now claims that the first weapons have arrived in Belarus. This may or may not be true; Putin has previously said that storage facilities for Russian warheads wouldn’t be ready until July, and the Russian military is not exactly known for getting things done ahead of time, so it’s unclear how much of this is (at this point) mere bluster. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said a few days ago that the United States does not “see any indications that Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon”—which isn’t quite the same thing as saying that the weapons haven’t moved—but also that America has “no reason to adjust our own nuclear posture.”
Putin, meanwhile, said at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum last week that he had no interest in returning to any conversations with the West about arms control. “We have more of these weapons than NATO countries do,” he said in answer to an interviewer’s question. “They know that, and they keep telling us to start negotiations on reductions. Well, you know, fuck ’em. As our people would say.”
CNN tried to render this Russian expression—хрен им—more gently, as “shove it,” but that’s not even close. Putin has often used this kind of gangsterish tone when he’s trying to project strength, especially to his own people in Russia. (He used similarly rough language, much to the Russian public’s delight, when speaking of what he would to do to Chechen terrorists, using a phrase that, in American Mob idiom, would basically translate as a vow “to whack them in their shithouses.”)
The leader of a nuclear-armed power sounding like Tony Soprano is alarming, but Putin is likely emphasizing Russia’s nuclear deterrent because his conventional forces have been repeatedly humiliated in combat. More to the point, although Russia still has a large military, Moscow has lost its best units and most highly trained officers and soldiers after a year of ghastly losses on the ground.
So what should we expect, and how should we think about this new phase in the war?
First, Americans especially should put aside what they know about recent U.S.-led wars such as the campaigns in Iraq: There will be no gathering on a “line of departure” followed by a massive air, armor, and infantry blitz. Nor is this like D-Day, with men storming the beaches and overwhelming enemy pillboxes. The counteroffensive had no real “beginning,” in that sense; the initial phase probably began with some tentative engagements against the Russians on the edges of Bakhmut shortly after Putin’s forces finally took what’s left of the town a few weeks ago.
Sadly, the Ukraine war is now more like World War I: Both sides have settled in along a large, static line. The Russian high command has been dreading this Ukrainian counteroffensive since last winter, and so the Russians have dug in, taking up defensive positions inside fortifications and huddling in trenches that will have to be cleared out one by one. (The Ukrainians have already released footage of their soldiers fighting in Russian trenches.) The Ukrainians must now probe, feint, and strike where they can, while trying to attack and disrupt Russian supply and reinforcements waiting in the rear, farther back from the battlefield.
Second, there will be no official “end” to the counteroffensive, either. (Well, unless Russia sues for peace, I suppose, but Putin has no apparent interest in any of that.) War is an uncertain and contingent thing; as we teach students at our senior military colleges, the enemy gets a vote on your strategy. Luck always gets a say as well. Americans are used to conflicts in which the United States deploys a large force, seizes the initiative, and keeps it for as long as we wish. The Ukrainians have no such luxury.
Although we should keep an eye on those Russian nukes (and whether Putin is really moving them), the real news in the coming weeks will be whether the Ukrainians can break through points along those Russian lines. The Russians are already engaging in savage counterattacks in an effort to blunt Ukrainian operations, and although sudden collapses and dramatic wins and losses on either side are always possible, the more likely story is one of Ukrainian progress measured by the names of small villages and the coordinates of grid squares on a map—a slower and far bloodier business.
As for Putin’s threats, the Russian president seems to be venting and showing off, which is one way to know that we are not yet in a crisis. When national leaders stop appearing in public, and both Moscow and Washington go quiet, that’s a time to worry. Putin is indulging his usual vulgar sense of humor, and though Americans, like Russians, also have some colorful local expressions, it is better for the Americans and NATO to be the resolute adults in the room, as they have been since the beginning of this criminal Russian onslaught.
- Rescue crews are continuing the search for a submersible with five people aboard that went missing while traveling to tour the Titanic’s wreckage. As of this afternoon, it has about 40 hours of oxygen left.
- Hunter Biden, the president’s son, has reached a proposed plea deal with federal prosecutors. He will plead guilty to two minor tax crimes and admit to owning a gun illegally, and will likely avoid jail time.
- China and Cuba are holding conversations about forming a new joint military-training facility on the island, according to U.S. officials.
The Real Lesson of The Truman Show
By Megan Garber
Truman Burbank, the unwitting star of the world’s most popular TV show, is supposed to be an everyman. The Truman Show is set in an island town, Seahaven, that evokes the prefab conformities of American suburbia. Truman is a brand in a setting that is stridently generic. Since his birth, he has navigated a world manufactured—by Christof, the creator of his show—for lucrative inoffensiveness. Everything around him exists to fulfill the primary mandate of a mass-market TV show: appealing to the widest possible audience.
The Truman Show hits a snag, though, and the problem is Truman. As he grows up, he proves himself to be less a bland everyman than someone who is quirky and restless and, in the best way, kind of a weirdo. Truman is also unusually inquisitive—a great quality for anyone who is not a piece of IP. Christof, consequently, has spent much of the show’s run trying to squelch Truman’s curiosity. He wants to be an explorer, an excited Truman tells a teacher. “You’re too late,” she replies, on cue. “There’s really nothing left to explore.”
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Read. Robert Gottlieb, who edited Toni Morrison, Robert Caro, and others, died last week at 92. His memoir, Avid Reader, is an account of his storied career. Check out the book, and read a remembrance of him by Cynthia Ozick.
Listen. Janelle Monáe’s newest album, The Age of Pleasure, in which joy, extremity, and cheesiness are the mood.
Play. Try out Caleb’s Inferno, our new print-edition puzzle. It starts easy but gets devilishly hard as you descend into its depths.
Nuclear weapons are always a grim business. But I have long been fascinated by how nuclear arms and fears of nuclear war seeped so deeply into our popular culture during the Cold War. (In fact, I used to teach a course about it at Harvard Extension School.) So if you’re looking for a little light music to accompany your reading about nuclear issues—such as this article by me last year and another here by my colleague Ross Andersen—I have a playlist for you.
This list won’t include all your sentimental favorites—sorry, fans of “99 Red Balloons”; we’ve heard that one enough—but there’s some odd stuff here: Did you know that Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” was actually the flip side of a single about a nuclear war that leaves only one man and 13 women alive? (Bill sounds pretty happy about it.) And there are songs that even I didn’t realize were about nuclear war, such as “I Melt With You,” a favorite from my college days that I thought was about “melting” emotionally but, as it turns out, was about, you know, actually melting. Enjoy!
You’ll see a bit less of me in the next few weeks as I complete my last tour teaching in Harvard’s Summer School—a bittersweet milestone that rounds out 35 years of my previous career as an educator. I will be taking time this summer to work on an updated version of The Death of Expertise, in which I’ll talk about how the rejection of expertise is a problem that has gotten much worse in recent years, even before the coronavirus pandemic. (You’ll get the first peek at that in an excerpt here in The Atlantic sometime in the fall.)
Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.