The Good Fight
Tim Mak on the Ukrainian Counteroffensive

Tim Mak on the Ukrainian Counteroffensive

Yascha Mounk and Tim Mak discuss the recent coup attempt in Russia, Ukraine’s prospects for regaining its territory, and the toll of war on civilian society.

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Tim Mak is a writer, reporter, and founder of the online publication The Counteroffensive. He was formerly the Washington Investigative Correspondent for National Public Radio.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Tim Mak discuss the slow progress of Ukraine’s counteroffensive and how a big breakthrough might come about; how the collective experience of resisting Russian aggression has contributed to a shared sense of Ukrainian national identity; and what the future may hold for a post-war Ukraine.

The first section of this conversation, considering the aftereffects of Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin's failed revoltwas recorded on June 28th. Everything following it was recorded earlier, on June 20th.

The views expressed are those of the speakers, not those of Persuasion. The transcript and conversation have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity. - The Editors

Yascha Mounk: The first, obvious question: what just happened in Russia with this apparent coup attempt and how do you think that's going to influence the war? 

Tim Mak: Even as someone who watches this pretty closely, I'm dumbfounded by the whole situation. The idea that the head of the Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, would launch an armed insurgency, and then drive towards Moscow—that wasn't really on my bingo card or on anyone else’s. But what it did was lay bare just the amount of chaos there is inside the Russian political system at the moment and how unstable a dictatorship is when politics begins to take hold. Timothy Snyder had a really interesting article a few weeks before all this happened, saying that the moment when politics starts—open politics—in an autocratic system, that's the beginning of the end. When government officials begin to beef with each other openly, that's a signal of maybe not the imminent collapse of an autocratic system, but a very dangerous moment for the dictator in charge. There can't be some mercenary group head demanding publicly to have the Minister of Defense removed from power. That sort of thing can't happen in a stable dictatorship. 

I think that Ukrainians, in general, are very happy to see a little bit of instability in Russia—and that instability is caused in no small part by Putin and the Russian government's conduct during this war. There's a lot of dissent within Russia—hidden dissent, largely. But a lot of unhappiness about the number of Russian lives lost, for example, and that's something you can't hide in small communities where people come back in body bags or don't come back at all. I spoke to an advisor to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, Yuriy Sak, and he said that this is a situation where terrorists are killing terrorists. And the net gain here is for Ukraine. There's no downside in this, at least in the immediate term. And when you talk to Ukrainians, a lot of them think that a lot of progress needs to be made on the battlefield, but that ultimately, as long as Putin remains in power—as long as Russia remains an imperial, dictatorial state—they won't be safe no matter what kind of agreement or what kind of battlefield victories they achieve, and that the ultimate goal to end hostilities does need to involve the collapse of the Russian state itself. 

Now, the Ukrainian military has stated that they're taking advantage of the chaos within the Russian domestic political system; that they've been making gains, for example, in and around Bakhmut as a result of the confusion among Russian military forces over the last few days.

Mounk: One segment of the conversation we had a week ago was about Ukraine’s spring offensive, and whether its delayed onset and so far modest successes are a reason for pessimism about the prospects of success. 

Have these gains over the course of the last week significantly changed the overall picture that you drew in your assessment one week ago, or do you think that, broadly speaking, your assessment remains the same?

Mak: I think it broadly remains the same. Political instability, though, can have impacts in ways that bullets and HIMARS rockets can't, right? If you're a Russian soldier in the trenches near the frontlines in one of these defensive positions waiting for the Ukrainians to attack, and you're seeing all of this chaos back at home, you might well wonder, “What am I doing out here when our government doesn't have the general competence to take care of pretty simple issues, like not allowing a rebellion to occur?” In terms of whether the gains in the past few days have dramatically changed the calculations on the battlefield, I don't think so. But the will to fight is an extremely, extremely powerful and very difficult to quantify element of any war, of any battle. You know that the CIA and the DIA are really good at counting troops and counting tanks and counting guns. But it's much harder to determine whether people will stand and fight. You can't say that the morale this week is the same as the morale last week. The CIA and the DIA, for example, made mistakes in terms of assessing the will to fight in Afghanistan, and how quickly Kabul would fall. They also made a misjudgment on how quickly they expected Kyiv to fall. And that's because it's so difficult to determine this will-to-fight factor, this morale factor, because it's not as easily quantifiable. That said, it's pretty fair to say that there's a lot of confusion and turmoil inside Russia right now. And that that's to Ukraine's benefit in the short term.

It's hard not to think that these Russian troops are not more demoralized today than they were last week. There's a lot of support among the Russian rank-and-file for the Wagner group, which are seen as effective shock troops. And every soldier always has skepticism about his or her leadership. I'm sure that's been expressed in conversations between Russian troops now, because of how chaotic things have been way further back from the frontlines.

Mounk: We've been waiting for the start of the spring offensive for a long time. And it is very important both in military terms, as one of the big opportunities Ukraine might have to reconquer some of the territory, and in political terms, to sustain support for Ukraine and possibly create the perspective for some kind of end to the war on fair terms. 

I know it's relatively early in the offensive, but how is it going so far? Do you have an assessment on how it's proceeding?

Mak: The spring counteroffensive is likely to become the summer counteroffensive, and then drag into the fall counteroffensive. We're looking at the first couple weeks of fighting. So far, that is going to be a long and difficult path for the Ukrainians. Now, the Ukrainians are making progress on three or four fronts. One in the south, one that you might call the central axis, and one is the Bakhmut axis. And they're making slow progress, measured in meters, not in kilometers. If anyone was hoping that Russian lines would immediately collapse, like in the areas around Kharkiv last year, it's become very clear that the Russian lines are dug in, and that it’s going to take quite a lot of time, effort and sacrifice on the part of the Ukrainians to make to achieve their longer-term goals, which are obviously to put Russia in a bad strategic position and ultimately push them out of Ukrainian territory. 

So far, what we've seen is a handful of villages that have been retaken by Ukrainian forces, but just devastating fighting along heavily-mined areas, with soldiers on both sides receiving pretty high levels of casualties. In fact, the Institute for the Study of War said recently that Ukraine is likely to take a strategic pause and decide how to proceed given the difficulties of the first couple of weeks.

Mounk: This sounds like bad news. The spring offensive ended up starting much later than we anticipated, and then it sounds like even once the offensive actually started, progress was slower than at least some people hoped. Why is this the case?

Mak: I think you have to understand that the idea of a spring counteroffensive in particular is driven by political demands, by the wishes of allies who have put a lot of money, aid, military equipment and training and diplomatic support into Ukraine, to say “Hey, show us something. Show us some progress.” And that's primarily a political pressure and not a military or strategic one. There was and is a real vibrant debate, even within Ukraine's own military community, as to whether to wait or to go. You can see some of that diplomatic pressure taking the form of trying to show some evidence of advances and progress ahead of a NATO summit next month, to say “Hey, thank you, NATO for your support—not only should Ukraine be be given a pathway into NATO, but look at what we've done so far with all the support you've provided us.”

Mounk: Can we expect this grinding process to go on for the foreseeable future? If there isn't some form of armistice or negotiated settlement, what are the realistic scenarios for how this war might end?

Mak: You talk to Ukrainians, and they're not remotely close to some sort of diplomatic arrangement. There have been two phases of the war in terms of public opinion and interest in a diplomatic solution: pre-Bucha and post-Bucha. I was in Kyiv when the invasion started. And I remember talking to people hoping that it would be over in three weeks, four weeks, two months, three months. But public opinion dramatically changed, and hearts really hardened, after it became clear that Russia had committed these terrible atrocities just outside of Kyiv. And it wasn't merely that they had killed unarmed civilians or looted, but a lot of Ukrainians had visited those places, had seen the apartments where these atrocities happened, and thought, “Well, my apartment looks quite a lot like that. That family looks a lot like my family.” And after that moment, there was no prospect for any sort of negotiated peace in the medium term. I spoke to one woman right after the atrocities were revealed. She's a former doctor, she is as empathetic as one can get. She told me “I'm a Christian, I know that I'm taught to love everyone. But I can't forgive this.” She described this hatred, this burning inside her that really hardened her towards any sort of sympathy or interest in talking to the Russian forces that had invaded her country. This probably represents the vast majority of public opinion in Ukraine right now. 

If that is the median person in Ukraine, then the only way it ends is on the battlefield. The plans that each side has proposed is basically that the other side must give up. And that's not really a recipe for a diplomatic agreement. And what's obvious is that it's easier to be on the defensive than it is to be on the offensive. We've spoken about this counteroffensive for months and months. And so the Russians have been able to heavily mine likely approaches towards their territory and create really very solid defensive structures. One advantage they have is that they still have superiority in the sky—they don't have total control, but they're able to operate with relative impunity. Ukraine has made a strategic decision to locate its air defense in the cities to protect civilians. And so that leaves their troops more vulnerable on the move. And so, yes, it will be a long and grinding process. Now, the big issue is morale—can we see a collapse in the Russian lines due to inexperienced soldiers, soldiers who don't have a lot of training, are not particularly motivated to be fighting in a foreign country. And as the war goes on, you can imagine a scenario where there is a collapse in Russian lines—we're not there yet, obviously. But the counteroffensive is just starting, and I wouldn't try to draw too many conclusions from a couple of weeks of fighting.

Mounk: What are the precedents for how those kinds of defensive lines fail? If we're assuming that we're just far too far away from a negotiated settlement, and what we're left with is this long drawn-out military solution, what are some of the kinds of scenarios for that? What would it look like for Ukraine or Russia to win the kind of decisive victory on the battlefield that would end the war?

Mak: The real focus nowadays is combined arms warfare, being able to conduct the symphony of different kinds of components of war, from artillery and mortars to infantry, to the use of drones for spotting and for offensive operations, using tanks and using whatever other assets they have as well. And so combining all of those together, you can both create and exploit opportunities much faster than in a World War I type situation. Where it resembles World War I, I think, is sitting in a trench and getting hammered by artillery, with very slow, grinding movement. But the war is obviously a very different situation with a very different kind of warfare and new vulnerabilities to include things like electronic warfare; the Russians have proven relatively effective in jamming or obscuring GPS signals and communications on the frontlines, which have, according to the Institute for the Study of War, degraded in some ways Ukrainian effectiveness in the counteroffensive. But still, the Ukrainians are making progress. We're not talking about a standstill here. I think we need to give it a little bit more time before saying that this is a frozen conflict where people are just being thrown into the meat grinder. We're just a couple of weeks in, and the Ukrainians have made some, although limited, progress.

Mounk: One of the concerning things is that it's sort of hard to imagine a real end to the conflict even after this terrible phase of a fighting ends, which is to say that the best case scenario is a resounding Ukrainian victory with Ukrainians succeeding in expelling Russian troops from the territory. But it would still be very imaginable that, even in that kind of scenario, Russia would reform, wait until there's a military or political opening, and try to invade Ukraine again even years after some kind of official defeat. On the other hand, in the horror scenario in which Russia actually manages to conquer large stretches of Ukraine, even perhaps Kyiv, that would probably mean an extremely bloody occupation, with ongoing resistance and a guerrilla movement. That would be very bloody as well. 

I guess I'm pessimistic about when the military phase of this war might end. But the more I think about it, the more pessimistic I am as well that, even after that, the region will come to any kind of meaningful peace. Do you share that pessimism?

Mak: You might be talking yourself into a little bit of long-term pessimism when there's still so much to determine in the short term. When you talk to Ukrainians, they'll say that this is not a war in which victory can come merely from the battlefield—in the immediate term, that's where the action is. But most Ukrainians think that a diplomatic solution is foolish for the reason you stated, that any diplomatic solution that involves an armistice would merely be an opportunity for Russia to regroup, retrain, replenish their weaponry, and do this again in some period of time. I’m hearing from Ukrainians that this is part of a longer-term project to weaken the Russian state and remove the peril of Russian imperialism from becoming a problem in the long term. Ukrainians think that there are a number of levels on which this war is being fought—the battlefield obviously being one of them. But another one being empowering minorities in Russia to revolt and to create additional political instability within Russia—that being a major strategic goal, a publicly stated goal of the Ukrainian government, which would reduce Russia's ability in the long term to act as a threat towards Ukraine. So there's the battlefield component. There's the information and political stability component. And there's also kind of a long-term feeling in Ukraine that there are a number of reasons why this war is being fought. One is the obvious one, which is that Russia invaded them. But another is that people are fighting for a different kind of future for Ukraine, one in which the government is less corrupt, more free, more democratic, more closely aligned with the EU and more progressive in general. And when I talk to people, that seems to be a major component of why they're participating in helping with the military operations or why they're trying to push Ukraine towards victory. That's a major motivating force.

Mounk: One of the things that you've mentioned repeatedly in this conversation is talking to Ukrainian people, and that's because you are in the country and trying to do a different kind of journalism in which you really talk to a lot of people and tell stories about the war. 

What does it look like to try and tell the stories of the war in a way that people can try and relate to even though they live under such different circumstances? 

Mak: Just last month, I launched my publication to address this very issue. There's this problem we identify, which some people have called Ukraine fatigue, that folks are not so interested in hearing the technical details of the frontlines moving from this village to that village you've never heard of, to another village you've never heard of, or that 12 people were killed in a city in the east and three people were wounded. So we launched, to try to do compelling human interest journalism that motivates people to care about humans. We look at the news through the lens of a single person who's affected by that news. And we're hoping that that breaks through.

We have been writing, for example, about the strikes in Kyiv. But unlike other news outlets, who might say that at three o'clock in the morning, 12 ballistic missiles were shot down over the skies of Kyiv, what we did instead was we zoomed in on a single individual. One of the ballistic missiles was shot down over the Kyiv Zoo. And the shrapnel tore through a tree right in the middle of the Zoo. We found a sketch artist there named Georgy, and we tried to look at the overnight attacks through his experience. We looked at how he heard the explosions at three o'clock in the morning from his home on the left bank and came to work the next day, and sat on a bench to work as an artist, getting paid for sketches of people who visited the zoo. And we talked not only about his experience of the overnight strikes, but his life as an artist during the war, how difficult it has been to make a living, how difficult it has been to find himself in a position where he's forced to draw sketches at a zoo to make to make ends meet and his shame, for example, in having to do that sort of work when he believes that he has a much higher level of education in art, and we weave that whole story together in a way that we hope is more interesting for the public; if you're interested in art, for example, you could relate to that sort of thing. And then in the course of reading about a story, you learn the news, you learn about the strikes that happen overnight, almost incidentally to the human narrative that we're trying to bring to it. So over the course of the last month and a half, we've profiled Ukrainian fishermen, along the Dnipro River, who are enduring this terrible ecological catastrophe due to the blowing up of the Kakhovka Dam. We've talked to a US fighter who's fighting for Ukraine, and we try to give an immersive experience of what it was like fighting in Bakhmut in the last days before it fell. We profiled Ukrainian female partisans who are training for action behind enemy lines and how they can continue to resist in areas of Russian occupation. We profiled a 76 year old woman who once lived in Orikhiv, which is one of the towns that is a focal point of the counteroffensive, and how she was forced out of her town due to constant shelling, but still sneaks back into the city, despite extreme personal danger to herself, because she loves the cats and dogs that are living there with no one to feed them. And so she sneaks back into the city to feed them. That's the sort of kind of personal narrative-driven, intimate reporting that we've been doing that brings you a little closer, immerses you a little bit more in the facts of these stories, as stories that I hope people will want to read. These are the kinds of stories that we're trying to put out there to combat the so-called Ukraine fatigue.

The most interesting fact about Ukraine that I've learned in the last year and a half is that I don't think that the national dish of Ukraine is borscht, actually. I think, properly, it is sushi. No one is ready for that information. But the Ukrainians are obsessed with sushi. And there's a really interesting, geopolitical reason for this. It exploded in popularity after the Orange Revolution in 2004. And my theory on this is that it reflected Ukraine's desire to be more worldly, to embrace the non-Russian components of the world, and to be closer to its allies in the West and elsewhere around the globe. So we're doing tons of stories that don't have to do merely with suffering. And we're trying to make it personal.

Mounk: How do you balance, as a war correspondent and somebody who now leads a media organization trying to cover this conflict, two different instincts which I think are both important and valid. One is that you're obviously doing values-driven journalism, that the reason why you're there in good part is that you think the Ukrainian cause is just.

On the other hand, of course, you're a journalist who needs to look also at the darker aspects of society or the things that are not working that well, both to be objective and to tell interesting stories, whatever political valence they may have and, in part, because that may actually be necessary—for example, being forthright about some of the corruption that undoubtedly does exist in Ukraine (as, of course, it does probably even more severely in Russia). And because it may be necessary in order to put pressure on those parts of the Ukrainian state to actually perform better and to enhance the chances of Ukrainian victory. How do you balance those? 

Mak: My philosophy, and the philosophy of, is that empathy and autocracy can't coexist; that if you tell human stories, and you show the impact of oppression on people, the injustice of it screams out and demands some sort of other resolution. And that's true in the obvious and explicit example of Russia’s violence against Ukrainian civilians and the ongoing full scale invasion. But it's also true when the Ukrainian government misbehaves. People are deeply affected by that, too. And we'll be telling those stories as well. I don't want to place Russian atrocities on the same level as Ukrainian misdeeds (which, as you point out, obviously do exist). They're not equivalent in any way. But one thing as a Canadian-American journalist that I have in Ukraine is a special privilege, which is that I'm here as a media reporter, and I'm able to speak more frankly, more truthfully, and more honestly with my audience, because my audience demands it and, furthermore, isn't as immersed as the Ukrainian audience in this war. Ukrainians, quite rightfully, and quite understandably, don't have a lot of interest or appetite for these sorts of investigative stories because right now their overarching goal is to see the war concluded in their favor. But we have an opportunity to write all sorts of stories on any topic that we like without, as far as I can tell, any sort of pushback from the Ukrainian government. And we will be telling more stories about what it's like to be in Ukraine today. Ukrainians also have this long, time-honored tradition of complaining loudly about their own government and on the streets, which is something that you know that Russian citizens don't have the same right to do. It's worth pointing out that divergence as well.

Mounk: What is something that you've learned from being in the country and talking with lots of people and reporting these stories that you think still really is not obvious to reasonably well-informed people outside the country?

Mak: I think from the outside looking in, there's been a lot of complimentary coverage on President Zelensky. But if you talk to Ukrainians (this follows from my previous point), that Ukrainians have this long tradition of complaining quite loudly and publicly about their own government. And if you talk to a lot of Ukrainians, you'll find a lot of dissent and a lot of criticism of the Ukrainian government itself. You know, I spoke to someone in Dnipro, which is in central Ukraine and has a large Russian-speaking population, and he said, “I didn't vote for Zelensky in the last election. But I've been really proud of the way he has conducted himself as the leader of the country, that he put his own life at risk and, at great personal danger, stayed in Kyiv in the early days of the war. He's been a great advocate abroad and domestically for the Ukrainian military. He's been able to unify a lot of allies. That being said, though, I wouldn't vote for him next time.” That seems to be a pretty common perspective that I've gotten from a lot of Ukrainians.

Before the war, Zelensky’s approval rating was in the toilet. Ukrainians, before the full-scale invasion, thought that he could not run a government well and wasn't effective as president. During the war, I don't think that there are that many folks saying that he hasn't been able to be effective as a leader or as a moral voice. But those same criticisms remain about whether he can be a kind of day-to-day manager—not a moral figure, but someone who can run the machinery of government. It reminds you a little bit of Churchill, who, the instant World War II ended, was rejected for re-election by British voters. They didn’t think that he would be an appropriate peacetime Prime Minister. I see that there's a real possibility of that happening in Ukraine, because folks still don't have trust in him in terms of the nuts and bolts of government.

Mounk: What do you think Ukrainian society would look like if the country manages to win this war in some kind of resounding way, or perhaps if eventually there's some kind of frozen conflict on somewhat favorable terms to Ukraine? 

Clearly, the country has a very sizable population that has been striving for democracy for a long time but wants to be integrated in the West. But it is also the kind of country that is struggling to maintain its democratic institutions. Is there any kind of way of imagining what a peacetime Ukrainian political system may end up looking like?

Mak: It's far too early given that we don't know the nature of the end of the conflict, or can even really realistically see what that might look like, to predict what would happen in Zelensky’s political future. But on what does a post-war Ukraine look like, I think that with one exception (which I'll explain) there will be a huge gold rush in Ukraine; that Ukraine has shown itself to be a population of entrepreneurial, resilient and highly-educated people who are just desperate for the opportunity and infrastructure to join Europe and join the world economy as a leading innovator. And I think Western institutions and companies are just banging on the door, ready to invest in this country. They've seen all the positive stories of Ukrainian resilience, and they want to be part of the story of Ukrainian recovery and this boom that I think is likely to happen. The exception to this is the issue of corruption—you talk to any Ukrainian, they'll acknowledge it as an issue. If the courts can be trusted, then Western companies would be very happy to invest and build businesses here in Ukraine. The question is whether or not the courts can be trusted, whether there's an appropriate application of the rule of law, or whether there will be some sort of pay-to-play situation, which has existed in Ukraine in the past. 

And this is why I said earlier that there are a couple reasons why this war has been fought; that, obviously, one is that Russia invaded. But the other one is that there are a lot of people who think that this war is being fought so that, on the other end of it, Ukraine emerges as a less corrupt, more free society. And I think that if there is a movement towards autocracy, if there is a kind of squeezing on the freedoms that Ukrainians have felt in the past, you will find that young Ukrainians simply won't put up with it; that they've sacrificed so much. And that the people who are still in this country are enduring daily threats of violence because they love the place they're in—they simply won't sit still and take it. I read in POLITICO Europe a good story by Jamie Dettmer with folks speculating on what sort of active protests and demonstrations might be necessary to roll back the restrictions on democratic freedoms that are, let's acknowledge, natural in any wartime setting. There's already talk about the need or the possibility of another Maidan uprising in Ukraine if things don't go that way. Ukrainian democrats and folks who are interested in a free Ukraine know what has worked for them in the past, and they're certainly not going to be shy about it in the future. They feel like their rights are under threat.

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