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The Ukrainian Counteroffensive Might Be Here
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The Ukrainian Counteroffensive Might Be Here

Plus: Will RFK Jr. prove to be a thorn in Joe Biden’s side?

Happy Tuesday! Sure, the idea of spending $3,500 on a pair of ski goggles designed to pull you out of the real world seems a little silly.

But now that you tell us they’re made by Apple

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Russian defense officials claimed Monday that Ukrainian forces had launched a “large-scale offensive” in eastern Ukraine and suggested they had taken heavy losses—including several hundred casualties overnight. Ukraine acknowledged offensive efforts in the region but disputed both Russian claims about their magnitude and the assertion that they signaled the beginning of the long-awaited spring offensive.
  • Nearly 90 Afghan schoolgirls and their teachers fell ill over the weekend after suspected poisonings at an elementary school in northern Afghanistan. Local officials suggested the alleged attack—which sent victims to the hospital with respiratory and neurological symptoms—may have been motivated by a rivalry between villages. The episode mirrored recent reported poisonings in Iran—and a string of similar incidents in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2012, which the World Health Organization concluded were likely caused by mass psychogenic illness. Under Taliban rule, women have been barred from receiving an education past the sixth grade, so most of the sickened girls were between 6 and 12 years old.
  • The U.S. Navy said Sunday an Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard craft carrying armed troops “harassed” a commercial vessel in the Strait of Hormuz. The destroyer USS McFaul and the U.K. Royal Navy frigate HMS Lancaster responded to a distress call from the unnamed ship after three “fast-attack” boats approached and followed the vessel. The Lancaster dispatched a helicopter to monitor the situation, which the Navy said resolved when the Iranian boats departed after an hour. 
  • Former Vice President Mike Pence officially filed to run for president yesterday ahead of a formal announcement expected in Des Moines, Iowa, on Wednesday. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, meanwhile, announced he would not run in 2024, arguing it’s more important to keep former President Donald Trump from clinching the GOP nomination. “The stakes are too high for a crowded field to hand the nomination to a candidate who earns just 35 percent of the vote,” he wrote in the Washington Post. “I will help ensure this does not happen.”
  • GOP Rep. James Comer of Kentucky, chair of the House Oversight Committee, said Monday he will initiate hearings to hold FBI Director Christopher Wray in contempt of Congress. The FBI refused to turn over an unclassified document which Comer claimed—after viewing it with Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin during an FBI briefing Monday—details allegations that President Joe Biden was involved in a $5 million bribery scheme when he was vice president. Raskin dismissed the document’s significance, arguing it recycles “stale and debunked Burisma conspiracy theories long peddled by Rudy Giuliani and a Russian agent.” The committee will vote Thursday on whether to bring the measure against Wray to the full House.
  • The Securities and Exchange Commission on Monday sued Binance—the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange—alleging the company and its founder, Changpeng Zhao, misused U.S. investors’ funds and showed “blatant disregard” for federal securities law. The 136-page filing accused Binance of sending investors’ funds to a separate company controlled by Zhao, among other transgressions.
  • An Oklahoma school board voted 3-2 on Monday to approve the nation’s first religious charter school, St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School, which plans to offer online classes to children kindergarten through 12th grade. The school—which has the backing of Republican Oklahoma Gov. J. Kevin Stitt—will likely face legal challenges over its public funding. 

Is This It?

Ukrainian troops train on Leopard 2 tanks. (Photo by Serhii Mykhalchuk/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)
Ukrainian troops train on Leopard 2 tanks. (Photo by Serhii Mykhalchuk/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)

Ukraine’s modern update to “loose lips sink ships” is considerably shorter:

Never one to broadcast the details of their military plans, Ukrainian leaders have been extra coy in recent days, declaring themselves ready to go on the attack but emphasizing the need for secrecy on the details. Russia’s military claimed yesterday it had repelled a significant counterattack effort in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, and while Ukrainian leaders deny the details of the report, it’s one of several incidents that could represent the first phase of the long-awaited counteroffensive.

According to Russia’s defense ministry, Ukrainian troops attacked Russian positions in five areas of southern Donetsk on Sunday, using six mechanized and two tank battalions. “The enemy’s goal was to break through our defenses in the most vulnerable, in its opinion, sector of the front,” ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said. “The enemy did not achieve its tasks, it had no success.” Konashenkov claimed Russian forces had repelled the attack, killed 250 Ukrainian soldiers, and destroyed 16 tanks plus other combat vehicles—though the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) noted Russia’s claims of repelling the attack “are consistent with previous false Russian claims made during past counteroffensives.” Indeed, lower-level Russian officials suggested Ukrainian troops had successfully gained ground and used just 10 armored vehicles. 

Ukrainian officials also contested Russia’s account. Serhiy Cherevatyi, a spokesman for the country’s eastern forces, told NBC News Monday the claims about a major attack and casualties were “an absolute lie.” Ukraine’s Centre for Strategic Communications said Russians were “stepping up their information and psychological operations” and will “spread false information about the counteroffensive, its directions, and the losses of the Ukrainian army. Even if there is no counteroffensive.”

Ukrainian leaders have understandably tried to keep the details of their counteroffensive under wraps. “Plans love silence,” the defense ministry declared in a video posted Sunday featuring Ukrainian soldiers holding a finger to their lips. “There will be no announcement of the start.” Ukrainian leaders have begun to “more strictly enforce a regime of informational silence about operations in preparation for upcoming counteroffensives,” ISW wrote Saturday.

But Ukrainian leaders have also primed observers to look for signs of a counteroffensive in every troop movement. “I think that, as of today, we are ready to do it,” President Volodymyr Zelensky told the Wall Street Journal late last week. “To be honest, it can go a variety of ways, completely different. But we are going to do it, and we are ready.” While evasive about the details, Ukrainian leaders did confirm they’re continuing existing efforts to push back Russian forces. “The defensive operation includes counteroffensive actions,” Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said Monday. “Therefore, in some sectors, we are conducting offensive actions.”

Here’s the ISW’s map of the current state of play, with Russian control charted in red:

Ukrainian offensive actions do seem to have intensified in recent days—including in the southern region of Zaporizhzhia. Along with Kherson, that’s where most military analysts expect Ukrainian forces to focus counterattack efforts to cut off the “land bridge” of occupied territory connecting Russia to occupied Crimea. Vladimir Rogov, a Russia-installed official in occupied southeast Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia province, said Ukrainian forces tried to punch through Russian defenses Sunday and on Monday had sent “even greater forces into the attack.”  

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s southern command blamed Russia for the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam across the Dnipro River in southern Ukraine. The resulting flooding could threaten Russian defensive positions but may also make Ukrainian advances across the river more difficult and threaten the supply of water necessary to cool the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant.

The fight has also reached Russian soil, potentially dealing blows to Russian morale. Anti-Putin Russian paramilitaries are still battling for territory across the border in Russia’s Belgorod region, and drones have struck buildings in Moscow. Once frightened of Russian nuclear strikes if Ukraine struck inside its borders, Biden administration officials now seem more relaxed. “It’s not like we’re going to go out and investigate this,” John Kirby, National Security Council spokesman, said of allegedly Ukraine-backed strikes in Russia. Some officials are downright blasé. “Look, it’s a war,” one senior Pentagon official reportedly said. “This is what happens in a war.”

Overall, ISW said Monday it had “observed an increase in combat activity in different sectors of the frontline,” but declined to speculate if the uptick constituted a counteroffensive, noting it could be “days, weeks, or even months” before the outcome of any such effort is clear. That’s not unusual. “The beginning of any attack is always confused,” said Mark Cancian, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The reports are incomplete, so it’s hard to get a full perspective on just how big a deal the attack is.”

And although Ukrainian forces have wildly outperformed expectations since February 2022, a counteroffensive means entering a new—likely more challenging—phase in the war. “It’s militarily easier to fight on the defensive than to go on the offensive,” said Raphael Cohen, director of the RAND Corporation’s Strategy and Doctrine Program. “Traditional U.S. Army doctrine will say you should have a three-to-one advantage when going on the offensive.” 

While Russian leaders spent lives in droves to take Bakhmut, satellite images show Russian defenders elsewhere along the frontlines have been digging trenches and anti-tank ditches, preparing to resist Ukrainian attacks. “The defenses now constructed, consisting of complex obstacles and field fortifications, will pose a major tactical challenge to Ukrainian offensive operations,” Britain’s Royal United Services Institute warned in a recent report. 

Still, Western officials have been cautiously optimistic about the offensive. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said Sunday Ukraine had nine Western-equipped brigades prepared to spearhead the offensive, three more in reserve, and another three undergoing training in Germany. “Our goal has been to provide them with the capability so that they have an opportunity to be successful,” Austin said. “We’re all sensing that Ukrainian leadership is increasingly confident in the capability that they have and opportunities that they may have.” During a trip to Normandy to mark today’s anniversary of the Allied D-Day assault, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley sounded a similar note, declaring it “too early to tell what outcomes are going to happen,” but asserting Ukraine is “very well prepared.”

What all this means, Cohen argued, is that the ISW maps we’ve been showing you every few weeks could soon start to look noticeably different, the pink crescent of Russian-occupied territory visibly retreating as Ukrainians advance. “I think Ukraine is in good stead to be able to make significant gains in the next couple months,” Cohen told TMD.

RFK Jr. Shakes Up the Race

“I’ve got so many skeletons in my closet that if they could vote, I could be king of the world,” Robert F. Kennedy Jr. admitted in an April speech announcing his bid for the Democratic nomination. “I am not an ideal presidential candidate for normal times.”

But in the political scion’s estimation, these times are anything but normal—and if you believe the polling about trust in institutions, plenty of Americans agree. “The intelligence agencies spy on our own people,” Kennedy’s campaign website reads. “Government and tech platforms conspire to surveil and censor the public. Regulatory agencies have been captured by those they are supposed to regulate: Wall Street controls the SEC. Polluters and extractive industries dominate the EPA and BLM. Pharma controls the CDC, NIH, and FDA. Big Ag controls the USDA. Big Tech has captured the FTC.”

The son of former Sen. Robert F. Kennedy has channeled such themes of paranoia and conspiracy—plus a healthy dose of populist nationalism—throughout his fledgling campaign for Democratic support. And to the surprise of just about everyone besides Kennedy, it’s kinda, sorta working. He’s almost certainly not going to win it all like tech billionaire Jack Dorsey promised over the weekend, but the environmental-lawyer-turned-anti-vaccine-advocate is drawing enough support in early polling to be a thorn in President Biden’s side.

In line with historical trends dating back decades, the president’s political team—as well as its allies in the media—has done everything in its power to pretend there is no Democratic primary this cycle. The Democratic National Committee hasn’t scheduled any debates, and its executive director pledged last fall to stick with the incumbent—“period.” But Biden’s sagging popularity has created a vacuum that RFK Jr.’s quixotic campaign is currently filling, making clear there’s an appetite among a sizable chunk of Democratic primary voters for an alternative.

RFK Jr.’s national polling numbers thus far would be the envy of just about every Republican presidential candidate save Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis on a good day. The longshot entered the race in April with the support of about one in five Democratic primary voters, and he’s more or less sustained that figure over the past month as Biden’s hypothetical share of the vote has ticked down slightly. The only other even slightly relevant candidate in the race—self-help guru and spiritual advisor Marianne Williamson—is polling at nearly 7 percent, about the same as Mike Pence and Nikki Haley combined. “The public polls speak for themselves,” Kennedy told Fox News last week, claiming his campaign’s internal numbers are even better. “I think we’re doing very well, much better than expected.”

Even the candidate himself admits his dynastic last name probably has something to do with the baseline support he’s received—but he also highlighted another phenomenon when asked to explain his surprising poll numbers: “We feel like we’re going to get a lot of independents and Republican crossovers.”

Looking at Kennedy’s issue set—an amalgamation of anti-vaccine and anti-Big Pharma conspiracies alongside criticism of the United States’ support for Ukraine, corporate power, and efforts to suppress speech (he just regained access to his Instagram account this week)—you might think he’d be much more at home on the New Right than the Democratic Party. At least one CNN producer seems to agree, with the network accidentally introducing him as a Republican last week. With right-wing figures like Steve Bannon, Alex Jones, Charlie Kirk, and Roger Stone all praising Kennedy’s candidacy in recent weeks, it’s an easy enough mistake to make.  

A lengthy Twitter space with Elon Musk on Monday—during which he blamed antidepressants for the rise in mass shootings, claimed COVID-19 was a “bioweapon,” pushed for a more secure border, and accused Democrats of being the “party of war”—is unlikely to change that perception. “So much of what you said is what drove me to leave the Democratic Party,” former Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard told Kennedy during the Twitter event. “Today’s Democratic Party is a party that is under the control of this elitist cabal of warmongers.”

If that doesn’t sound like someone destined to win the Democratic primary to you, you’re not alone. But Kennedy has vowed to camp out in New Hampshire for the foreseeable future, despite the Democratic Party’s efforts to push South Carolina’s primary to the front of the line. “We’re going to New Hampshire as it’s always been treated, like a key primary, a key indicator for the rest of the country, and a state that politicians have to go to do retail politics,” he said last week.

While we feel pretty safe suggesting Kennedy himself is not going to be the Democratic nominee next year, the amount of traction he’s gained—with minimal ad spending and media exposure—exposes Biden’s inherent weakness heading into 2024. We’re just a few weeks removed from an NBC News poll finding 70 percent of the country—including 51 percent of Democrats—don’t want him to run for reelection, with nearly half of those respondents citing his age as a “major” reason why. Biden’s already gotten just about every serious potential primary challenger on the record supporting his re-election bid, but another fall—or worse—between now and next spring could certainly change an ambitious Democrat’s calculus.

Worth Your Time

The dictatorial impulse to censor unflattering news and intimidate honest reporters isn’t limited to Russia and its recent arrest of the Wall Street Journal’s Evan Gershkovich, Mary Anastasia O’Grady argues in the Journal—it’s alive and well in Cuba, too. “The rising number of police states in Latin America that take their cues from the Kremlin naturally increases the risks to good journalists in the Western Hemisphere,” she writes. “This is especially true in Cuba, where the Russian grip is getting tighter by the day. Cuba has a long record of beating, jailing and exiling journalists. Havana also takes hostages: From 2009-14 it held U.S. Agency for International Development contractor Alan Gross prisoner and released him only when President Obama agreed to a swap for convicted Cuban spies. Several journalists covering the work of human-rights activists or antigovernment demonstrators have been savagely attacked by brown shirts and state security. Some have been detained and interrogated. Notebooks and cameras have been confiscated. In November 2021, in anticipation of a large protest march, the dictatorship withdrew the credentials of the entire Spanish news agency EFE. Mr. Gershkovich told the truth and is paying the price. It’s something to keep in mind the next time you see a report from inside Russia—or Cuba.”

Presented Without Comment

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Toeing the Company Line

  • It’s Tuesday, which means Dispatch Live (🔒) returns tonight at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT! Declan will be joined by Harvest, Grayson, Andrew, and Drucker to discuss the news of the week and, of course, take plenty of viewer questions! Keep an eye out for an email later today with information on how to tune in.
  • In the newsletters: Kevin provides an overview (🔒) of “peak oil” and other lies that took over the Zeitgeist, the Dispatch Politics team recaps Nikki Haley’s CNN town hall performance, and Nick argues (🔒) Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is the “return to normalcy” candidate, no matter what Trump says. 
  • On the podcasts: Sarah and David take to Advisory Opinions to break down the latest Supreme Court decisions on labor rights and the False Claims Act, while Charlotte interviews former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman about the implications of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s reelection on the Dispatch Podcast
  • On the site: Audrey dives into North Carolina’s GOP gubernatorial primary and looks at concerns over its current frontrunner, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson. Plus, Ivana Stradner warns of Vladimir Putin’s adeptness at waging global culture war. 

Let Us Know

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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.

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.