In a stunning counter-offensive, Ukraine has retaken hundreds of square miles of its territory from Russian military occupation in the past two weeks. Ukrainian armed forces have now regained control of much of the northeastern part of the country, including the city of Kharkiv, while Russian troops rapidly retreat. Ukraine’s military has also made gains in the country’s south. Media coverage of the victories shows residents of liberated cities tearfully welcoming Ukrainian soldiers, while hasty Russian withdrawals have left behind weapons, vehicles, even food and clothing. But these developments are bringing important consequences outside the country’s borders too. Russia’s dramatic and surprising losses will affect the dynamics around Vladimir Putin in Moscow, as well as how key Kremlin allies, such as China, see the conflict—and Putin himself. Political and military leaders in the West could adapt their thinking to Ukraine’s military progress, as well, as they monitor the situation and decide how to back Kyiv. What are the full geopolitics implications of the counter-offensive?

Chris Miller is an assistant professor of international history at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and the co-director of the school’s Russia and Eurasia Program. To Miller, it’s now clear within Russia that Putin’s strategies for the war—touting its successes, downplaying its costs, and using Russian energy supplies to pressure the West—are all failing. Putin has put himself in an untenable position, Miller says, by constantly framing the war as easy to win, because Putin can’t now admit to the substantial human and material resources Russia needs to push back against the Ukrainian advance. Meanwhile, his most important ally, China, now seems to have made a very poor decision in sticking close to Moscow, with Russia looking increasingly weak as a global power. As Miller sees it, Kyiv’s gains on the ground are changing how Western leaders perceive possible resolutions of the conflict—but while these gains make a Ukrainian victory more likely, the ultimate outcome of the war is still unclear.

Michael Bluhm: What do you make of these recent and ongoing battlefield gains?

Chris Miller: It’s always difficult to make predictions in a war, but everyone has regularly underestimated Ukraine’s capabilities since the start of this one.

Clearly, the Ukrainians have demonstrated the ability to launch a meaningful counter-offensive against the Russians. Clearly, the Russians have demonstrated an inability to properly defend against it—unable to have intelligence about where Ukraine is going to attack and unable to maintain the reserve capacity to reinforce positions facing pressure from the Ukrainians.

We don’t know to what extent that’s generalizable across all Russian positions or whether it’s somehow unique to the Kharkiv area. Insofar as it’s generalizable, Russia’s defeats during the past couple of weeks will weaken its ability to stand up to Ukrainian pressure that much more.

I don’t think that means Ukraine is about to push the Russians out of the country in the coming weeks. But it does mean that Ukraine has a plausible story it can tell about how, if it keeps getting arms and the support it needs from the West, it can defeat the Russians over the coming months.

Bluhm: How do you see these shifts on the ground in Ukraine affecting Putin’s position in Russia?

Miller: It’s clearly embarrassing for him. Putin has identified this war with himself since day one. He promised Russians that it would be a straightforward operation—and within Russia, it’s generally still described as a “special military operation,” to emphasize that it’s not going to impose vast costs on the Russian people.

Oles Navrotskyi

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