Analysis | Four takeaways from our package on Ukraine’s counteroffensive

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The big idea

Four takeaways from our package on Ukraine’s counteroffensive

Cheap drones reshape the battlefield. Russia floods Ukraine with an ocean of mines. Ukraine keenly feels its lack of air power. And Moscow showcases its ruthlessness about sending its soldiers to die.

These are four takeaways from The Washington Post package today on Ukraine’s stalled counteroffensive, which began full of optimism about expelling Russian forces but has settled into a grinding, bloody war of attrition after reclaiming just 200 square miles of territory since June.

And stalled it has. Ukraine’s top commander, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, told the Economist in an interview published Nov. 1 that the conflict has reached a “stalemate” and observed “there will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough.”

In two deeply reported articles, my colleagues have told the story of the planning leading up to the counteroffensive, complete with rifts between Kyiv and major supporters, including the United States, and the rare successes and frequent setbacks of the past six months.

Here are some things that stood out.

1. Drones utterly reshaped the battlefield

Again and again and again throughout these two pieces, the vital role of drones stands out — for both sides. Like the machine gun, radar or the submarine before them, unmanned aerial vehicles have transformed intelligence-gathering and fighting in modern warfare.

Ukraine and Russia have each turned to first-person-view (FPV) drones to collect information and take out enemy forces. They’re fast, precise, “cost less than $1000 each and can disable a multimillion-dollar tank.”

“Unlike artillery ammunition, which is a precious resource for both Russia and Ukraine, the low-cost, disposable FPV drones can be used to hit small groups of infantry — navigated directly into trenches or into troops on the move,” our colleagues wrote.

2. Russia flooded Ukraine with an ocean of mines

The counteroffensive has stalled in part because Russia spent many months in early 2023 building up its defenses — elaborate trenches and tunnels, antitank defenses shaped like concrete pyramids and other obstacles.

  • And then there are the mines.

Ukrainian officials say throughout the pieces that they have struggled with the sheer volume of Moscow’s mines, complain at times about not having enough demining equipment, and note they are losing what equipment they have when they advance on Russian positions.

  • Our colleagues report on one Ukrainian commander who “found a map that the Russians had used to mark their minefields. For just one part of the front — about four miles long and four miles deep — more than 20,000 mines were listed.

And they quote a former Russian officer who fled to the West, Konstantin Yefremov, describing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reliance on mines. 

  • “Putin’s army is experiencing shortages of various arms, but can literally swim in mines,” Yefremov said. “They have millions of them, both antitank and antipersonnel mines.”
3. Ukraine’s lack of air power

Both of our colleagues’ pieces highlight Ukraine’s lack of air power, its Soviet-era fighters badly outmatched by their Russian counterparts. (The F-16s Kyiv wants won’t be available to join the fray for a long time, perhaps a year.)

  • Ukraine’s MiG-29 fighters can detect targets within a 40-mile radius and strike them from 20 miles away. Russia’s Su-35s can detect targets more than 90 miles away and fire from as far as 75 miles away. The mismatch is obvious.

As a result one “core refrain from Ukraine was that they were being asked to fight in a way no NATO nation would ever contemplate — without effective power in the air,” our colleagues reported. Notably, the United States has had air superiority in every modern conflict it has fought.

4. Russian ruthlessness … with its own fighters

In addition to having far more troops and more weapons, the Russian war effort has relied on its willingness (and ability) to endure far more soldiers killed in action.

Two examples stand out in our colleagues’ reporting.

  • “Throughout the Zaporizhzhia region, the Russians had deployed new units, called ‘Storm Z,’ with fighters recruited from prisons. The former inmates attacked in human waves called ‘meat assaults’ and were used to preserve more-elite forces.

Russia, “in a tactic used in both World War I and II … would deploy blocking units behind the Russian troops to prevent them from retreating, sometimes under pain of death.

  • Their options were “either to die from our units or from their own,” said Ukrainian police Col. Oleksandr Netrebko, the commander of a newly formed police brigade.

Blocking units have a decidedly Soviet history. In 1942, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin issued Order 227, which is best known for its “not one step backward” command. It prohibited retreat from fighting the Nazis unless ordered, and it declared “panic makers and cowards must be liquidated on the spot.”

How the counteroffensive ends remains unclear. But thanks to our colleagues, we have a much clearer sense of how it was planned and how it has unfolded to this point. 


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What’s happening now

White House warns Congress of urgent need for Ukraine funding

“The White House issued an urgent warning to Congress on Monday about the need for additional aid for Ukraine’s war with Russia, with Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young bluntly writing in a letter to congressional leaders that the United States is ‘out of money to support Ukraine in this fight,’Maegan Vazquez reports.

Doug Burgum suspends longshot presidential campaign

“Longshot Republican presidential candidate and North Dakota governor Doug Burgum has suspended his campaign on Monday, after failing to gain momentum with voters in a crowded primary field,” Meryl Kornfield reports.

Israel orders evacuations as it widens offensive but Palestinians are running out of places to go

“Israel’s military renewed calls Monday for mass evacuations from the southern town of Khan Younis, where tens of thousands of displaced Palestinians have sought refuge in recent weeks, as it widened its ground offensive and bombarded targets across the Gaza Strip,” the Associated Press’s Wafaa Shurafa, Samy Magdy and Jack Jeffery report.

Lunchtime reads from The Post

Bipartisan senators seek information about Russian oil flows to U.S. supplier

The Pentagon is facing congressional pressure to stop the flow of Russian oil into its supply chain after a Washington Post examination revealing that shipments of the forbidden fuel have been making their way to a refinery that serves the U.S. military,” Evan Halper, Dalton Bennett and Jonathan O’Connell report.

Feds have charged more than 250 people under new gun trafficking law

Over the past 16 months, the Justice Department has aggressively deployed a new law targeting gun traffickers to charge more than 250 people, according to interviews with law enforcement, administration and congressional officials,” Devlin Barrett reports.

Who will run Gaza after the war? U.S. searches for best of bad options

“The Israelis say they don’t want the job. Arab nations are resisting. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas might volunteer, but the Palestinian people probably don’t want him,” Michael Birnbaum, William Booth and Hazem Balousha report.

  • “As the Biden administration begins to plan for ‘the day after’ in Gaza — confronting problematic questions such as who runs the territory once the shooting stops, how it gets rebuilt and, potentially, how it eventually becomes a part of an independent Palestinian state — the stakeholders face a host of unattractive options.”

… and beyond

Israel issues severe travel warnings to dozens of countries amid rising antisemitism

The National Security Council on Monday updated travel warnings for dozens of countries, amid rising antisemitism around the world as” the Israel-Gaza war continues, the Times of Israel reports.

  • Several countries in Western Europe, including the United Kingdom, France and Germany; in South America, including Argentina and Brazil; along with Australia and Russia were raised to Level 2, which recommends that Israelis take additional precautions while there.”

Inside America’s school internet censorship machine

Thanks in large part to a two-decade-old federal anti-porn law, school districts across the US restrict what students see online using a patchwork of commercial web filters that block vast and often random swathes of the internet. Companies like GoGuardian and Blocksi — the two filters used in Albuquerque — govern students’ internet use in thousands of US school districts. As the national debate over school censorship focuses on controversial book-banning laws, a WIRED investigation reveals how these automated web filters can perpetuate dangerous censorship on an even greater scale,” Wired reports.

The Biden agenda

Protesters now chant and challenge Biden over Gaza at every chance

“Protesters have interrupted the president’s speeches, placed bloody handprints near the front of the White House, appeared near his Wilmington, Del., home, gathered outside his fundraisers and lined the streets traversed by his motorcade. The demonstrators deploy similar signs and chants and are increasingly using direct action to voice their displeasure with the president’s handling of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza,” Matt Viser and Toluse Olorunnipa report.

Biden’s prescription for 2024 turnaround will include major health-care focus

President Joe Biden is preparing a package of health care measures that he would aim to pass in a second term, with announcements starting this week centered on cutting prescription drug prices,CNN’s Edward-Isaac Dovere, Arlette Saenz and Tami Luhby report.

  • “Biden and aides see the potential to transform health care coverage and cost for millions of Americans and, along the way, give the president a full-throated, forward-looking argument on an issue that has consistently delivered for Democrats in recent election cycles.

The people Donald Trump pardoned who are now helping him, visualized

Never before had a president used his constitutional clemency powers to free or forgive so many people who could be useful to his future political efforts. A Washington Post review of Trump’s 238 clemency orders found that dozens of recipients, including [former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio], have gone on to plug his 2024 candidacy through social media and national interviews, contribute money to his front-running bid for the Republican nomination or disseminate his false claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election,” Beth Reinhard, Manuel Roig-Franzia and Clara Ence Morse report.

Hot on the left

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney announces run for governor in 2025

“Mayor Levar M. Stoney, who has led Virginia’s capital through a historic reckoning with its Confederate past and a contentious period of economic growth, announced on Monday that he will seek the Democratic nomination for governor in 2025,Gregory S. Schneider reports.

  • “Stoney, 42, will try to become the second African American elected governor in Virginia’s history. His announcement tees up a tough nominating contest with U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), who said last month that she will not seek reelection to Congress so she can run for governor.”

Hot on the right

Kari Lake struggles to court moderates, imperiling GOP Senate pickup

“When she ran for governor of Arizona last year, Kari Lake unapologetically pilloried her Republican opponents with attacks that targeted not just their conservative credentials, but their personal morals and even their families,” Yvonne Wingett Sanchez, Liz Goodwin and Isaac Arnsdorf report.

  • “But now on a mission to flip a Senate seat from Arizona back to red after three cycles of GOP losses, Lake is courting some of those very same Republicans she recently denounced as ‘RINOs,’ or Republicans in name only, hoping they will set aside hurt feelings and deep-seated resentments from her last scorched-earth campaign and unite around her candidacy.”

Today in Washington

At 12:15 p.m., Biden will get his daily intelligence briefing with Vice President Harris.

In closing

The political and demographic divides in kitchen-tool ownership, and more!

Unlike most utensils, the spork is a young man’s game. Men are a little more likely to own them than women (38 percent to 31 percent), and adults under age 30 seem to be much more likely to be sporked up than their retirement-age friends (58 percent to 25 percent), though margins of error grow wider in these narrow groups,” Andrew Van Dam writes.

Thanks for reading. See you tomorrow.

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