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The Morning Dispatch: Ukraine Punches Back
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The Morning Dispatch: Ukraine Punches Back

But details of what the apparent counteroffensive looks like are still shrouded in the fog of war.

Happy Thursday! One person’s ketchup stain is another person’s fashion statement. Heinz and ThredUp are teaming up to “elevate” secondhand clothes by smearing condiments on them before resale. Sure, why not!

(100 percent of the proceeds are going to Rise Against Hunger, which is nice, assuming there are proceeds.)

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • A long-awaited report from the United Nations’ human rights chief released Wednesday found China has committed “serious human rights violations” in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, citing a “large-scale arbitrary deprivation of liberty of members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim communities.” The report—which was published minutes before United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet’s four-year term came to an end—also labels as “credible” allegations of torture, forced medical treatment, and sexual and gender-based violence. 

  • The Food and Drug Administration amended the emergency use authorizations for both Pfizer and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines on Wednesday, authorizing the companies’ updated booster doses designed to target both the original SARS-CoV-2 strain and the BA.4/BA.5 strains of the Omicron variant. A Centers for Disease Control advisory panel still needs to formally recommend the updated vaccines before they can roll out nationwide, but that panel could do so as early as today.

  • Provisional data released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control found U.S. life expectancy fell nearly a year in 2021, from 77 to 76.1. The drop was not as steep as 2020’s 1.8-year decline, but combined, the past two years’ figures were the largest since the 1920s. Last year’s decline was primarily due to increased mortality from COVID-19, drug overdoses, heart disease, chronic liver disease, and suicide.

  • Gazprom, the Kremlin-controlled gas company, shut down its Nord Stream pipeline again on Wednesday for what it labeled “scheduled preventive work” on the gas compressor unit. The pipeline is scheduled to come back online on Saturday, but it’s been operating at just 20 percent capacity in recent months—leading European countries to accuse the Kremlin of leveraging energy supplies as a weapon of war.

  • Mary Peltola, a Democratic former state representative, will serve out the remainder of the late Rep. Don Young’s term after defeating Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich III in a special U.S. House election in Alaska that utilized ranked-choice voting. Peltola will become the first Democrat to represent the state of Alaska in the House in decades, and she is expected to be on the ballot for a full term—running against Palin and Begich III in Alaska’s new ranked-choice voting system—in November.*

  • The European Union’s statistics agency reported Wednesday that annual inflation hit a record 9.1 percent in the Eurozone last month, up from 8.9 percent in July. A 38 percent year-over-year spike in energy prices was the largest contributor to the August figure, followed by an 11-percent increase in the cost of food, alcohol, and tobacco.

  • An annual Pentagon report first obtained by the Associated Press found approximately 36,000 service members reported experiencing some type of sexual assault in the past year, a 13 percent jump from the year prior that was driven largely by a 26 percent spike in reports involving Army soldiers. Army officials said new training programs implemented in recent months have begun to have a positive effect, but leaders are concerned the data will hurt recruiting efforts that are already lagging behind expectations.

  • President Joe Biden approved an emergency declaration in Mississippi late Tuesday night, allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to mobilize equipment and resources and address the failure of the water system in Jackson. Tens of thousands of residents remain without reliable drinking water after flooding overwhelmed the capital city’s treatment system.

  • Former President Donald Trump’s legal team filed a response on Wednesday to the Justice Department’s latest filing, reiterating its request for a District Court judge to appoint a special master to review the documents seized from Mar-a-Lago last month for potentially privileged information. Trump’s team described the material recovered—including the classified documents—as Trump’s “own presidential records,” and blasted the DOJ for “criminalizing” his possession of them “in a secure setting.” A hearing on the special master issue is scheduled to be held later today.

Ukraine Takes the Initiative

A Ukrainian soldier positions a multiple rocket launcher to fire on the Russian frontline in the Mykolayiv region. (Photo by Pierre Crom / Getty Images.)

The Ukrainian counteroffensive has begun.

After months of an apparent stalemate—Ukrainian and Russian forces grinding each other down with artillery strikes while exchanging little territory—Ukraine’s military in recent weeks has made daring strikes behind Russian frontlines and tried to disrupt the flow of supplies of information to Russian units. As we noted earlier this month, Ukraine has been readying for weeks to mount a counteroffensive aimed at taking back territory in the south, particularly the key shipping hub of Kherson.

Monday, Ukrainian officials hinted the time had come. Southern Operational Command spokeswoman Natalia Humeniuk said that Ukrainian forces had begun “counteroffensive actions in many directions” and claimed the country’s military had broken through Russian forces’ first line of defense—though she declined to specify where. Ukrainian and Russian officials called for civilians in the occupied Kherson Oblast to evacuate or seek shelter. 

U.S. officials acknowledged the developments on Wednesday. “We are aware of Ukrainian military operations that have made some forward movement,” Pentagon spokesman Brigadier General Pat Ryder told reporters. “And in the Kherson region, we are aware in some cases of Russian units falling back.” Citing multiple anonymous U.S. and Ukrainian sources, CNN reported yesterday that U.S. officials had encouraged their Ukrainian counterparts in recent weeks to scale back the size and scope of the planned counteroffensive, focusing primarily on the southern Kherson region rather than engaging Russia on multiple fronts at once. As part of those discussions, U.S. and Ukrainian officials reportedly wargamed possible scenarios to better understand what Ukrainian forces would be up against.

We’re still very much in the fog of war, and various media outlets and military analysts have made differing—and sometimes conflicting—claims about the extent of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. Russia’s Defense Ministry initially denied such a counteroffensive existed, but eventually conceded it did, announcing the push had failed and hundreds of Ukrainian troops were dead. 

In interviews with the Wall Street Journal, several wounded Ukrainian soldiers said Russian forces have “a lot of equipment but few men,” claiming their side had made significant progress, albeit at a high human cost. “We’re advancing in some areas and being battered in others,” a 22-year-old Ukrainian soldier admitted while hospitalized with a concussion. According to a 32-year-old private, their task is straightforward: “Go in, f— them up, retake what’s ours.”

Those claims of on-the-ground advances are what separates this reported counteroffensive from Ukraine’s previous attacks aimed at taking out equipment or supply lines. “If those advances [are] able to keep going further and they’re able to defend whatever positions they take, that is the sign that this is something far larger than just some probing strikes,” Doug Klain, assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, told The Dispatch. “If Ukrainian forces are able to actually make some real gains, I think that we’ll probably look back on these last couple of weeks and months of what we thought was stalemate, and instead recognize them as probably careful preparation and training up on weapons for a bigger operation.”

But if the details of Ukraine’s operations still sound pretty vague, that’s the idea. “You need to understand these [liberated] villages are still in the vulnerable zone and could be hit by the enemy artillery and aviation,” Humeniuk said at a press conference, declining to confirm Ukrainian advances or points of attack. Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command asked people to “refrain from speculations” on its operations. “Anyone want to know what our plans are? You won’t hear specifics from any truly responsible person,” Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky told the country in a Monday address. “But the occupiers should know: we will oust them to the border.”

Western defense officials have likewise hesitated to provide much detail so far. Britain’s Ministry of Defense said yesterday Ukrainian troops had “pushed the front line back some distance in places, exploiting relatively thinly held Russian defenses,” but didn’t specify locations. The Pentagon followed a similar tack. “In order to preserve operation security and to give the Ukrainians the time and the space that they need to conduct their operations,” Ryder said, “I’m not going to go into [tactical] detail from the podium.”

The Kremlin may not be acknowledging this next stage of the war with its public statements, but it is with its actions. It’s doing what it can to replenish arms stocks, receiving drones from Iran this week. And President Vladimir Putin signed an order last week to add 137,000 troops to the military. “You don’t add—or say you’re going to add—137,000 troops if you’re planning on this thing being over in the next month or two,” said Raphael Cohen, director of the RAND Corporation’s Strategy and Doctrine Program. But “even if you’re in a benign recruiting environment, you can’t snap your fingers and have 137,000 people show up in uniform the next day.” 

U.S. officials say Putin’s pronouncement is unlikely to overcome Russia’s well-publicized recruiting difficulties, and new recruits will still need training. Although mass conscription is always an option, Russia has so far avoided a formal draft: It would be wildly unpopular, serve as a tacit acknowledgement that Russia can’t recruit enough volunteers, and flood the ranks with inexperienced, demoralized troops.

We’re likely to get more information on Ukraine’s operations in the coming days, but analysts warn that Ukraine’s gains are far more likely to be incremental than to match the sweeping, satellite-visible advances and retreats of the war’s early weeks. “The nature of urban combat is it tends to be slow,” Cohen told The Dispatch, noting Russia has had time to dig into its defensive positions. “This is going to be a long fight.”

Worth Your Time

  • “Not even death can exempt you from TSA screening.” Darryl Campbell’s entire The Verge story about the humiliating history of the TSA is worth your time, but the first few paragraphs had our jaws on the floor. “The passenger was dead. She and her family had arrived several hours prior, per the airport’s guidance for international flights, but she died sometime after check-in,” Campbell writes. “Since they had her boarding pass in hand, the distraught family figured that they would still try to get her on the flight. Better that than leave her in a foreign country’s medical system, they figured. The family might not have known it, but they had run into one of air travel’s many gray areas. Without a formal death certificate, the passenger could not be considered legally dead. And US law obligates airlines to accommodate their ticketed and checked-in passengers, even if they have ‘a physical or mental impairment that, on a permanent or temporary basis, substantially limits one or more major life activities.’ In short: she could still fly. But not before her body got checked for contraband, weapons, or explosives. And since the TSA’s body scanners can only be used on people who can stand up, the corpse would have to be manually patted down.”

  • This Mikhail Gorbachev obituary—from Russian-born journalist Cathy Young—is one of the better reflections on the former Soviet leader’s legacy that we’ve read in recent days. “It’s difficult not to see symbolism in the fact that Mikhail Gorbachev, the first and last president of the Soviet Union, died just a few months after the final death agony of the new Russia that he had, not always willingly, midwifed: a Russia of free travel and free speech, of McDonald’s restaurants and Adidas shoes, of openness to Western culture and Western values; a Russia that aspired to join the global community of liberal democracies,” Young writes for The Bulwark. “Over the years, people who evaluated his role in Russia’s history often remarked … that despite Putin-era backsliding toward authoritarianism, the habits of freedom Russian people had learned during the Gorbachev years—being able to read whatever they want, for example—could not be lost. Unfortunately, in 2022, even that seems in doubt. And yet Gorbachev’s career is also a reminder that history is unpredictable. Is this the end of the road for freedom in post-Soviet Russia—or perhaps an incredibly dark moment before a new beginning?”

  • Billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel bankrolled GOP newcomers J.D. Vance and Blake Masters through their primary campaigns, but his dollars have dried up now that it’s general election season—and it’s causing friction with Republican leaders. “The message from McConnell and Law, according to people with knowledge of their pitch, was that they should essentially split the cost, with Thiel cutting a check to their super PAC matching whatever funds they put behind Masters,” Isaac Stanley-Becker, Hannah Knowles, and Isaac Arnsdorf report for the Washington Post. “Another option, these people said, was that the Thiel-funded super PAC could take over the ad reservations initially made by the McConnell-linked group. Thiel indicated to them that he was not interested in such arrangements — a posture, say people around the venture capitalist, that is informed by his approach of investing early and a belief that any more of his money would be used as a Democratic talking point; he is still hosting fundraisers for Masters in the coming weeks.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • Let’s give the Gorbachev hero-worship a rest, Jonah urges in Wednesday’s G-File (🔒). “Saying that Gorbachev liberated Eastern Europe is like saying an incompetent warden liberated his prisoners when he failed in his effort to spruce up the prison,” Jonah writes. “We can acknowledge that the warden’s efforts were laudable given the context and we can even credit his refusal to murder the escapees in an effort to cover up his mess. But refusing to commit mass murder deserves an A+ only when the rest of the classroom is full of mass murderers.”

  • In honor of Labor Day, Scott devotes his latest Capitolism to what 21st-century “pro-worker” policy should look like. “Policymakers should generally stop targeting a certain kind of American worker, promising cradle-to-grave protection from inevitable disruptions, or presuming to know tomorrow’s employment and lifestyle trends,” he writes.

  • Reason editor-in-chief Katherine Mangu-Ward is back on The Remnant today for a conversation with Jonah that dives into the weeds on libertarian philosophy, the nature of the social good, and the relationship between libertarianism and feminism. Plus: Thoughts on drug liberalization and the transgender debate.

  • Steve is joined by Atlantic staff writer Mark Leibovich on today’s episode of The Dispatch Podcast for a discussion of Leibovich’s new book on the Trump era, Thank You for Your Servitude.

  • To wrap up the first quarter of The Dispatch Book Club, Sarah and Harvest discuss Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant. The book focuses on the human brain’s capacity to rethink and relearn, and why it tends to gravitate toward the “comfort of conviction” over the “discomfort of doubt.” Did it change Sarah or Harvest’s minds about anything?

  • On the site today, Charlotte discusses the odd spectacle of the U.S. continuing its push toward reviving the Iran nuclear deal even as Iran steps up its military confrontations with other nations in the region. And Andrew Fink digs further into what we can know about Ukraine’s counteroffensive against Russia by reporting on how pro-Putin commentators are spinning the development.

Let Us Know

When it comes to fast-moving and difficult-to-report stories like the war in Ukraine, how do you decide what information to trust? Do you buy the recent hints that the tide is beginning to turn in Ukraine’s favor?

Correction, September 1, 2022: Mary Peltola will be the first Democrat to represent Alaska in the U.S. House in nearly 50 years, but will not be the first-ever Democrat to do so.

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 is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.