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The Morning Dispatch: Is Ukraine Winning?
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The Morning Dispatch: Is Ukraine Winning?

A Ukrainian counteroffensive from Kharkiv is exceeding expectations.

Happy Monday! Click here to see pics of the “Hot Young Giant” in your area. 

(By “hot young giant” we mean a 14-million-year-old exoplanet seven times the weight of Jupiter and by “in your area” we mean orbiting a star nearly 400 light-years away. It was recently photographed for the first time by the James Webb Space Telescope.)

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Friday his state has bused more than 10,000 migrants to Washington, New York City, and Chicago since April, many to join friends or family as they await asylum hearings. Texas has spent more than $12 million on the busing, and Arizona’s copycat program has thus far spent $3 million to transport more than 1,500 migrants. Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a public emergency last week and said the city would spend $10 million on a new office to support the arriving migrants, while Chicago is asking for volunteers and donations to help.

  • Canada’s Conservative Party has elected Pierre Poilievre—a member of Parliament who supported trucker protests against vaccine mandates and COVID-19 restrictions—as its new leader. A populist, he’s appealed to financially struggling and disaffected voters and if elected prime minister promises to cut government spending and remove the central bank’s head, whom he partially blames for Canada’s inflation. Poilievre will try to unseat current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and topple the Liberal Party’s control in Parliament.

  • The Supreme Court on Friday temporarily blocked a court order that would have required Yeshiva University—an orthodox Jewish school in New York—to recognize LGBTQ student group YU Pride Alliance as a campus club. The university says recognizing the group would violate its sincere religious beliefs. The court’s order, signed by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, grants the school reprieve while it appeals the ruling in a state court.

  • New York Gov. Kathy Hochul issued an executive order Friday declaring a state disaster emergency over poliovirus found in wastewater samples from several counties around New York City, unlocking additional resources to prevent an outbreak. A case of paralytic polio was found in Rockland County—just north of New York City—earlier this summer.

  • The U.S. Treasury announced Friday it would implement sanctions against the Iranian Ministry of Intelligences and Security and its leader, Esmail Khatib, for allegedly carrying out cyberattacks against several government and private-sector groups, including the Albanian government. The latest sanctions—which block U.S. companies and individuals from doing business with the ministry or Khatib—come as negotiations to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal have reportedly stalled.

  • The Justice Department and former President Donald Trump’s legal team have not agreed on a person to review material retrieved from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate last month, according to a Friday night court filing, with the DOJ proposing two retired judges and Trump’s team proposing a different retired judge or the former deputy attorney general of Florida. ​​The two parties also remain far apart on the scope of any review, with Trump’s team arguing the special master should review all documents seized—including ones with classification markings—and that the special master should consider executive privilege in his or her evaluation. Judge Aileen Cannon is expected to adjudicate the disputes as early as this week.

  • U.S. District Court Judge Donald Middlebrooks tossed former President Donald Trump’s lawsuit against Hillary Clinton, which alleged she and other Democrats worked together to accuse him of collaborating with Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign. In a decision issued Thursday, Middlebrooks held that Trump’s suit exceeded the statute of limitations and that statements Trump characterized as “injurious falsehoods” were protected free speech. Trump attorney Alina Habba promised to appeal the decision.

  • King Charles III was officially proclaimed king Saturday—the ceremony televised for the first time in history—after the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, last week. Buckingham Palace said Saturday that her funeral will be held September 19 at Westminster Abbey, and President Joe Biden said Sunday that he and first lady Jill Biden have accepted an invitation to attend.

Is Ukraine … Winning?

Ukrainian forces patrol recently liberated territory in Kharkiv Oblast. (Photo by Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

When Russian forces were driven out of Kyiv in late March after failing to capture Ukraine’s capital city, Russia’s Defense Ministry dressed up the retreat as part of a purposeful and long-planned “regrouping” that would allow the country’s military to focus on “liberating” the Donbas region.

The Defense Ministry made a similar announcement over the weekend. “The Izyum-Balakleyskaya grouping of Russian troops was rolled up in three days and transferred to the territory of the [Donetsk People’s Republic],” TASS, state-run media, reported the agency as saying. “It was decided to regroup the Russian troops stationed in the Balakleya and Izyum regions in order to build up efforts in the Donetsk direction.”

Ukraine’s military may have had something to do with the decision.

We’ve written to you several times in recent weeks about Ukraine’s counteroffensive, a long-promised effort after months of stalemate to claw back some of the territory Russia seized in the war’s earliest days. Ukrainian officials were intentionally cagey when asked about details of the push—as were their Western allies—but the campaign was generally understood to be taking place in the southern part of the country, near the key shipping hub of Kherson. Citing multiple American and Ukrainian sources, CNN reported at one point that U.S. officials had encouraged their Ukrainian counterparts to scale back their ambitions, focusing first on retaking Kherson before thinking about engaging Russian forces on multiple fronts.

Either Ukrainian officials ignored the United States’ advice, or, more likely, that reporting didn’t have the story exactly right. But Russian military leaders appear to have been operating on similar intelligence, shifting tens of thousands of troops to southern Ukraine in recent weeks in an effort to shore up their defenses. That left their northern flank—stationed near Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city—vulnerable to attack. So Ukraine attacked.

“The Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kharkiv Oblast is routing Russian forces and collapsing Russia’s northern Donbas axis,” reads the latest battlefield update from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). “Russian forces are not conducting a controlled withdrawal and are hurriedly fleeing southeastern Kharkiv Oblast to escape encirclement around Izyum.” The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense assessed that Russia has “likely” ordered the withdrawal of all its troops currently in Ukraine’s Kharkiv Oblast west of the Oskil River, and, by the weekend’s end, Ukraine is believed to be in control of several towns seen as strategic “supply and logistics” hubs for Russia’s military: Balakliia, Kupiansk, and Izyum.

In a lengthy Telegram post on Sunday, Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhnyi—Ukraine’s top military commander—claimed his troops had wrested more than 3,000 square kilometers of land from Russian control since the beginning of September, and that the Ukrainian forces are now just 50 kilometers from the country’s original border with Russia in the northeast. According to the ISW’s analysis, Ukraine has captured (or recaptured) more territory in the past five days than Russia has since April.

Undermanned and demoralized, Russian troops occupying Ukrainian towns and villages have reportedly not been putting up much of a fight when Ukrainian forces show up, opting instead to drop their weapons and turn tail. “They said, ‘You’re on your own,’” Olena Matvienko—a resident of the small village of Zaliznychne outside Kharkiv—told the Washington Post. “They came into our houses to take clothes so the drones wouldn’t see them in uniforms. They took our bicycles. Two of them pointed guns at my ex-husband until he handed them his car keys.”

After a summer of occupation, we’re sure to learn more in the coming days about Bucha-like atrocities Russian soldiers left behind. Ukrainian war-crimes investigators from Kharkiv have been canvassing the recently liberated towns, digging up or otherwise collecting the remains of dead civilians whose bodies have been decomposing for months. At least one such investigator was seen vomiting during the process. 

Unlike earlier Russian retreats, the withdrawing troops in recent days appear to have been caught so off-guard by Ukrainian advances that they didn’t have time to collect their weaponry—or even destroy it. “We hoped for success but didn’t expect such cowardly behavior,” Petro Kuzyk—a Ukrainian military commander—told the Financial Times. “They abandoned their tanks and equipment. … Even grabbed bicycles to escape. That the Russian army is completely degraded made our work easier; they fled like Olympic sprinters.” The supplies—as well as any abandoned intelligence—will only serve to bolster Ukraine’s efforts further.

You might assume that, given the Ukrainians’ limited resources, the vaunted counteroffensive in Kherson was merely a deke intended to divert Russian attention from Ukraine’s true aim in the northeast. But Michael Kofman—director of Russia studies at CNA—doesn’t see the southern push as only a diversion. “These appear to be interrelated offensives,” he tweeted late last week. “Kherson likely intended as a more deliberate, sequenced advance. Kharkiv to take advantage of favorable conditions & attain a rapid breakthrough.”

Rob Lee, a Russian military expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, agrees. “We need to wait to see how far they can go, but the offensive in the northeast and Kherson tells us Ukraine has a manpower advantage and can use it effectively,” he told the New York Times. “There is still a lot that we don’t know about the offensive, but it is clear this was well planned and executed by Ukrainian forces.”

American officials haven’t been particularly forthcoming when asked about U.S. involvement in said plans, but Ukrainian and U.S. intelligence officials are believed to have ramped up collaboration in recent months. And of course, the United States has sent Ukraine more than $10 billion in military assistance since the beginning of the war. “We are seeing real and measurable gains from Ukraine in the use of these [weapons] systems,” Gen. Mark Milley—chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—told reporters in Germany last week. “The Ukrainians have struck over 400 targets with the HIMARS, and they’ve had devastating effect.” Some Ukrainian officials have begun pointing to this week’s successes as a taste of what else Ukraine could accomplish if the West provides even more weaponry.

As pivotal as Ukraine’s victories have been on the battlefield, they may prove even more consequential in the war of public opinion. As the ISW notes, a growing number of popular, pro-Kremlin, pro-war military bloggers have been expressing frustration with the military effort in recent days, with some calling out the Ministry of Defense by name. “To not say a word about the realities of what is happening in the Kharkiv [region] means to betray those who fought there and are still fighting,” one wrote. Another mocked the Defense Ministry for “blacklisting” those critical of its strategy. “We are the most inconvenient for you,” the message read. “But let’s be frank: now is not the moment when you can be silent and not say anything. Now is not the moment when you can create an information vacuum.”

But as much as last week’s surge feels like a turning point in the conflict, Russia still controls nearly 20 percent of Ukraine, and Kyiv is not yet in any position to demand a ceasefire. Plus, Russia’s forces will almost assuredly mount a counteroffensive of their own. 

One may have already begun: More than 30 Ukrainian settlements have reportedly been hit with Russian rockets over the past 24 hours, and artillery allegedly targeting civilian infrastructure knocked out multiple power plants—resulting in blackouts throughout much of the eastern part of the country. “No military facilities,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said of Russia’s supposed targets. “The goal is to deprive people of light & heat.”

But expressing gratitude for Ukrainian servicemembers in his nightly address to the nation on Sunday, Zelensky struck an optimistic tone. “You’ve taught [the enemy] a lot: The ability to quickly get dressed and get out of our land, and the understanding that, by abandoning equipment and weapons, it can be done much faster and easier,” he said. “Today, everyone sees and notes your actions in the north, south and east of Ukraine. The world is impressed. The enemy is panicking. Ukraine is proud of you, believes in you, prays for you, and is waiting for you.”

“The path to victory is a difficult one,” Zelensky continued. “But we are sure: you are capable of it. You will reach our border, all its sections. You will see our frontiers and the enemies’ backs. You will see the shining of the eyes of our people and of the occupiers’ heels. They will call it ‘goodwill gestures.’ We’ll call it a victory.”

Worth Your Time

  • Edlene was married to Alan for 21 years. As of yesterday, it’s been 21 years since he died in the attack on the Twin Towers. This weekend, journalist Matt Labash republished not only his on-the-ground reporting from the days after 9/11, but an update on Edlene and Alan LaFrance from one year later. “Edlene LaFrance is not a whiner, though she could be forgiven if she were one,” he wrote in 2002. “She hasn’t told her overburdened son that her doctors are worried she has breast cancer. Having switched nursing jobs earlier this year, she has told no one at work besides her boss that she lost her husband on 9/11. Even her own mother, who is senile and who Edlene doesn’t wish to traumatize, has no idea her daughter is now a widow. ‘When she asks where Alan is,’ Edlene says, ‘I tell her he’s at work.’ I ask her if she blames God for any of this. ‘Why would I?’ she asks, out of conviction or convenience or both, ‘He didn’t do it.’ She says she’s been hitting the Scriptures pretty hard lately—not Job, as you might expect, but all the widows’n’orphans passages. There are a lot more of them than she had noticed before, and she says they present a compelling body of evidence that God won’t let her fall through the cracks. So far, she says, He hasn’t.”

  • In the increasingly likely event that China mounts an invasion of Taiwan, funneling weaponry to the island will be much more difficult than it’s been in Ukraine. “Taiwan would likely have to fight with whatever weapons it had on the first day of a war with China,” Blake Herzinger—an Indo-Pacific defense policy specialist and U.S. Navy Reserve officer—writes for Foreign Policy. “Pledges of game-changing asymmetric weapons will matter little if Beijing elects to send an invasion force across the Taiwan Strait before U.S. defense corporations can fill their backlogged orders. Taiwan’s friends must not be seduced by the idea that because an after-the-fact effort worked in Ukraine, it can work in Taiwan too. Geography is working against Taipei, not for it, and years of strategic misalignment and inattention have left Taiwan’s defense forces ill-suited for the challenge they are facing. To survive, Taiwan needs its weapons prepared ahead of time—and ready on Day 1.”

  • There’s been lots of talk about banning pornography or other objectionable content online, but things get complicated fast when the discussion turns to enforcement. “You can take down the big targets, the Pornhubs and Kiwi Farms of the world, easily enough,” Bonnie Kristian writes for Reason. “Maybe you toss their owners in jail or hit them with big fines. But when their erstwhile users make a new site, or a thousand new sites—and they will—will they all get taken down too? Will you get everyone who uploads a video or leaves a comment? Everyone whose internet history shows they’ve visited these sites? What about emailing the banned content to download for offline viewing—is that illegal too? What kind of mass surveillance apparatus are you willing to build to catch everyone who bypasses the ban?”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

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Toeing the Company Line

  • In Friday’s Uphill (🔒), Haley reports on Democratic senators’ (and Sen. Susan Collins’) efforts to enshrine gay marriage in law and concerns about the bill from conservative and religious groups. Plus: Sen. Richard Shelby on the Space Launch System’s latest scrub: “Well, they’re not going to fund failure.”

  • Beware the dangerous combination of groupthink and the certainty of moral infallibility, Jonah writes in Friday’s G-File. “Plenty of people have evil motives because evil exists,” he notes. “But even most evil people don’t think they’re evil. Even most Nazis—very bad motives there—didn’t set out saying, ‘Let’s be villains! Let’s be remembered for centuries as the bad guys and be depicted by British actors in World War II movies as deliberately horrible people.’ It takes a lot of effort to even contemplate the possibility that we’re the baddies.”

  • David remembers Queen Elizabeth in Sunday’s French Press, arguing her life demonstrated the need for people and institutions that transcend politics. “Queen Elizabeth lived with honor and did her duty, and in so doing she helped bind together a fractious people,” he writes. “She helped give them a sense of shared identity.”

  • For another perspective on Queen Elizabeth’s life, Miles Smith IV explores the ways she was political—as a deeply conservative figure overseeing the liberalization of Britain—and her steadfastness as Britain’s head of state amid global change. Also on the site over the weekend: Peter Meilander on why students’ career prospects shouldn’t be a teacher’s primary concern, and Alec Dent reviewing Monkey Business, the Marilyn Monroe/Cary Grant comedy, at 70 years old.

  • On the site today, Price St. Clair writes about the occupational-licensing barriers faced by a barber who recently emigrated from Egypt, and Chris Stirewalt argues that “a healthy republic, like a family, is built on love.”

Let Us Know

What (if anything) did you do to commemorate 9/11 over the weekend?

Declan Garvey's Headshot

Declan Garvey

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton's Headshot

Esther Eaton

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.