Photographs by Paolo Pellegrin
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In March 1774, Prince Grigory Potemkin, the favorite general and sometime lover of Catherine the Great, took control of the anarchic southern frontier of her empire, a region previously ruled by the Mongol Khans, the Cossack hosts, and the Ottoman Turks, among others. As viceroy, Potemkin waged war and founded cities, among them Kherson, the first home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. In 1783, he annexed Crimea and became an avatar of imperial glory. To Vladimir Putin in particular, Potemkin is the Russian nationalist who subdued territory now impudently and illegitimately claimed by Ukraine, a nation that Putin believes does not exist.
The rest of the world remembers Potemkin differently, for something that we would now call a disinformation campaign. In 1787, Catherine paid a six-month visit to Crimea and the land then known as New Russia. The story goes that Potemkin built fake villages along her route, populated with fake villagers exuding fake prosperity. These villages probably never existed, but the story has endured for a reason: The sycophantic courtier, creating false images for the empress, is a figure we know from other times and other places. The tale also evokes something we recognize to be true, not just of imperial Russia but of Putin’s Russia, where mind-boggling efforts are made to please the leader—efforts that these days include telling him he is winning a war that he is most definitely not winning.
In a bid to restore Potemkin’s cities to Russian suzerainty, Russia occupied Kherson in early March of 2022, at the outset of a campaign to annihilate both Ukraine and the idea of Ukraine. Russian soldiers kidnapped the mayor, tortured city employees, murdered civilians, and stole children. In September, Putin held a ceremony in the Kremlin declaring Kherson and other occupied territories to be part of Russia. But Kherson did not become Russia. Partisans fought back inside the city, with car bombs and sabotage. Even as the occupiers held a ludicrous referendum, designed to show that Ukrainians had chosen Russia, the Russian army was quietly preparing to flee. By October, this new Potemkin village was collapsing, and the resurgent Ukrainian army was approaching the outskirts of Kherson. It was then that the Russians did something particularly strange: They kidnapped the bones of Grigory Potemkin.
Potemkin died in 1791. His skull and at least several other bones—which ones, exactly, is a mystery—were eventually brought to St. Catherine’s Cathedral, in Kherson, built by Potemkin himself. The bones were kept in a crypt beneath the cathedral nave. On a cloudy Sunday this past March, we visited the cathedral, which sits just a few streets away from the Dnipro River—now the front line—to try to understand why the Russian army, in the chaotic final days of its occupation of Kherson, had paused to rob a grave.
We arrived during a short break between services. The worshippers were mainly elderly, with a few younger people, even children, mixed in. The streets outside were empty; the city has been depopulated by the invasion, by the counterinvasion, and by ongoing, erratic fire from Russian soldiers, known to the Ukrainians as “Rashists” or “orcs.” On one of the days we visited, a missile hit a supermarket parking lot. Three people were killed in this attack, and three people wounded, including an elderly woman. The shelling sounded far away to us, except when it didn’t.
At the cathedral, a young priest rolled back a rug in the nave and opened a trapdoor. We descended narrow stairs. Potemkin’s bones once rested in a wooden coffin on a stone platform at the center of the dark, claustrophobic room. Father Vitaly—who spoke in Ukrainian, the language of Kherson’s modern rulers, not in Russian, the language of Potemkin—described the day of the theft. “Russian vehicles surrounded the church,” he said. “Then soldiers came in and asked to open the crypt. They seemed very uneasy. Six of them came down the stairs and took the bones. They took them outside, to a van that was waiting. Then they were gone.”
We asked him what he made of it. “I’m grateful to Potemkin for building this church,” he said carefully. Then he shrugged. Potemkin’s historic connection to the city didn’t interest him as much as it interested us. His flock had more important concerns.
Afterward, on a long drive to Ukrainian artillery positions along the river, we debated the meaning of the theft. Perhaps Russia had given up on Kherson and taken Potemkin home, away from wretched and ungrateful Ukraine. Or maybe Potemkin’s skull was resting not on Putin’s desk in the Kremlin, but rather in a safe house across the river, waiting to be brought back after a Russian reinvasion.
[In Focus: Photos of celebrations as Ukraine retakes Kherson]
A week later, in Kyiv, we had the opportunity to ask one of Ukraine’s leading experts on Russian imperialist behavior why a squad of Russian soldiers, presumably busy planning the retreat from Kherson, had stolen Potemkin’s bones. “I’m not sure that they know who Potemkin is,” Volodymyr Zelensky said. The Ukrainian president waved away the question: “I think for them, it doesn’t matter what they’ve stolen.” When the Russians left Kherson they took everything: paintings, furniture, dishwashers, the raccoons from the zoo, the skull of Catherine’s lover. The long legacy of Prince Potemkin, the neoclassical stone cathedral, the extraordinary weight of the past—none of that matters, he reckoned, to the men who fled Kherson.
“When they run, they take everything they see,” Zelensky told us. “You know what they took from the Kyiv region? Urinals. They stole urinals!”
On a previous visit to see Zelensky, in April of 2022, the scale of Putin’s delusion was just becoming clear. That meeting felt improvised, almost accidental; it was arranged on the fly, via a mad series of text messages, in the days immediately following the chaotic Russian withdrawal from the northern part of the country. We took a train to Kyiv that wasn’t listed on any timetable; in the blacked-out town center, only one restaurant was open. In Bucha, the Kyiv suburb that had been occupied by Russian troops, we watched soldiers and technicians exhume bodies from a mass grave behind a church. At that moment, the war was turning: The Russians, having failed to take Kyiv from the north in the first month of fighting, were preparing to attack from the east. After our meeting, a Zelensky aide texted us a list of weapons that the Ukrainian army needed in order to repel that offensive, hoping that we would carry the message back to Washington.
[Read: Anne Applebaum and Jeffrey Goldberg interview Volodymyr Zelensky in April 2022 ]
When we visited again a few weeks ago, the lights were on, the restaurants were open, and the trains ran on predictable schedules. A coffee shop in the station was serving oat-milk lattes. Bucha is a construction site, with a brand-new hardware store for anyone repairing war damage themselves. A conversation with Zelensky is now a more formal affair, with simultaneous translation, a videographer, and an array of English-speaking aides in attendance. Zelensky himself spoke English much of the time—he has had, he said, a lot more practice. But behind the more polished presentation, the tension and uncertainty persist, fueled by the sense that we are once again at a turning point, once again at a moment when key decisions will be made, in Kyiv, of course, but especially in Washington.
For although the war is not lost, it is also not won. Kherson is free, but it is under constant attack. Kyiv’s restaurants are open, but refugees have not yet returned home. Russia’s winter offensive has petered out, but as of this writing, in mid-April, it is unclear when Ukraine’s summer offensive will begin. Until it begins, or rather, until it ends, negotiations—about the future of Ukraine and its borders, Ukraine’s relationship to Russia and to Europe, the final status of the Crimean Peninsula—cannot begin either. Right now Putin still seems to believe that a long, drawn-out war of attrition will eventually bring him back his empire: Ukraine’s feckless Western allies will grow tired and give up; maybe Donald Trump will win reelection and align with the Kremlin; Ukraine will retreat; Ukrainians will be overwhelmed by the sheer number of Russian soldiers, however poorly armed and trained they may be.
Uniquely, the United States has the power to determine how, and how quickly, the war of attrition turns into something quite different. The Ukrainian defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, spoke with us about the “Ramstein Club,” named after the American air base in Germany where the group, which consists of the defense officials of 54 countries, first convened. Still, his most important relationship is with U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (“we communicate very, very often”), and everyone knows that this club is organized by Americans, led by Americans, galvanized by Americans. Andriy Yermak, Zelensky’s chief of staff, told us that Ukrainians now feel they are “strategic partners and friends” with America, something that might not have felt so true a few years ago, when Donald Trump was impeached on charges of seeking to extort Zelensky.
In our interview with Zelensky, which we conducted with the chair of The Atlantic’s board of directors, Laurene Powell Jobs, we asked him how he would justify this unusual relationship to a skeptical American: Why should Americans donate weapons to a distant war? He was clear in stating that the outcome of the war will determine the future of Europe. “If we will not have enough weapons,” he said, “that means we will be weak. If we will be weak, they will occupy us. If they occupy us, they will be on the borders of Moldova, and they will occupy Moldova. When they have occupied Moldova, they will [travel through] Belarus, and they will occupy Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. That’s three Baltic countries which are members of NATO. They will occupy them. Of course, [the Balts] are brave people, and they will fight. But they are small. And they don’t have nuclear weapons. So they will be attacked by Russians because that is the policy of Russia, to take back all the countries which have been previously part of the Soviet Union.” The fate of NATO, of America’s position in Europe, indeed of America’s position in the world are all at stake.
[Read: Zelensky has an answer for DeSantis]
But something even deeper is at stake as well. As Zelensky put it, this is a war over a fundamental definition of not just democracy but civilization, a battle “to show everybody else, including Russia, to respect sovereignty, human rights, territorial integrity; and to respect people, not to kill people, not to rape women, not to kill animals, not to take that which is not yours.” If a Ukraine that believes in the rule of law and human rights can achieve victory against a much larger, much more autocratic society, and if it can do so while preserving its own freedoms, then similarly open societies and movements around the world can hope for success too. After the Russian invasion, the Venezuelan opposition movement hung a Ukrainian flag on the front of its country’s embassy hall in Washington. The Taiwanese Parliament gave a rapturous welcome to Ukrainian activists last year. Not everyone in the world cares about this war, but for anyone trying to defeat a dictator, it has profound significance.
America is linked to the war in this deeper sense. The civilization that Ukraine defends has been profoundly shaped by American ideas not just about democracy, but about entrepreneurship, liberty, civil society, and the rule of law. When we asked Zelensky about Ukraine’s tech sector, he happily began talking about his dream of building a university devoted to computer science, and about the projects created by his country’s Ministry of Digital Transformation, among them a unique app that allows Ukrainians to store documents on their phones, a godsend for refugees. He talks more readily about Silicon Valley than he does about Potemkin’s bones, and no wonder: The former defines the world he wants to live in.
Zelensky did not share our preoccupation with the history of Russian imperial desire. “I don’t love the past,” he said. “We have to jump forward, not back.”
In a different part of Ukraine, we saw what Zelensky’s “jump forward” looks like in practice. The future is unfolding in a room where glue, wire, bits of metal, and electronic components are strewn across several large tables. A 3‑D printer stands along one wall. A rack of what appear to be Styrofoam model airplanes hangs on another wall. They are drones, and this is a drone workshop, one of two we visited and one of dozens spread all around the country.
The status of this particular drone workshop might confuse Americans who think that “the military” is a unitary institution, or that “defense production” is something that involves billion-dollar companies. The patron of this project is a former Ukrainian-special-forces commander and current member of Parliament, Colonel Roman Kostenko. The “employees” are all engineers, now mobilized into the army as pilots and designers of drones. The financing is private, and the entire enterprise is based on the belief that if Ukraine can’t compete with Russian quantity, it can exceed Russian quality: “The only way we can win is by being smarter,” Kostenko told us. He said he speaks regularly with the military leadership, though he is no longer in the chain of command. “It’s not Lockheed Martin,” he said, surveying the room. But when we pointed out that Lockheed Martin probably started this way too, he agreed.
Though we were asked not to disclose precise details of this workshop’s location or activities, we can say that it primarily produces modifications to commercially available drones. Reznikov, the Ukrainian defense minister, later told us that he calls them “wedding-ceremony drones,” by which he means drones normally used to film weddings, now repurposed as lethal weapons. The workshop also modifies existing explosive devices, including Soviet-era ones, for the drones to carry. Along with similar teams around the country, the team here also works on new kinds of drones that can do new things, including carrying out sophisticated electronic warfare and underwater attacks, all at relatively low cost. Kostenko described a drone that he said had destroyed 24 pieces of enemy equipment, including tanks.
But this basement-and-garage-based Ukrainian tech army doesn’t just build drones; it also builds the software that coordinates the work of the drones. Sometimes it does so in partnership with NGOs, not companies; an executive at one of these groups described the software it develops as “an invention, not a product”—and, more important, as an invention that is constantly being redesigned. One widely used program collects information and distributes it to the laptops and tablets of ordinary soldiers up and down the front line, providing the situational awareness that has been one of Ukraine’s unexpected advantages. A tiny command post we visited had a bank of screens, each showing a different view of the battlefield.
Several foreign companies cooperate too. The most advanced, such as Palantir, the U.S.-based software and defense company, have software that can draw on multiple data sources—commercial-satellite images, reports from partisans—to identify and prioritize targets. This form of “algorithmic warfare” isn’t new, but the Ukrainians have the incentive to develop and expand it: Lacking warehouses full of spare ammunition, they have to hit the largest number of enemy vehicles with the smallest number of missiles.
Maxwell Adams, an engineer at Helsing, a European defense-tech company working pro bono in Ukraine, told us that the Ukrainians impressed his team with their ability to use everything available, from simple messaging apps to sophisticated artillery, all in unpredictable conditions. Together with their Ukrainian colleagues, his employees work to “get our software to run right on the edge, meaning on tiny little computer chips on the back of a rusty old vehicle, or in the backpack of a soldier, or on the payload of a drone.” The Ukrainians “absolutely get how to make AI operational,” he said.
They also get the need to use whatever they have. Reznikov described the combination of weaponry that the Ukrainians have received from dozens of different countries as a “zoo,” a menagerie of weapons (“We have approximately 10 systems of artillery,” he said, ticking them off on his fingers), and they all have to be made to work together, under conditions of limited ammunition, limited manpower, and sometimes limited satellite connection.
This high-tech world exists alongside and within an extraordinarily diverse citizens’ army, one that includes NATO-trained officers; grandfathers guarding their own villages; and every conceivable level of training, experience, and equipment in between. Because the front line runs through suburban backyards and working farms, this army lives and works in those places too. In a cottage near another part of the front line, we met a handful of drone operators, along with their chihuahua and a couple of cats. Religious icons, property of a former owner, hung on the wall in the kitchen; muddy boots were lined up in rows in the hallway. In what used to be a living room, “Elephant,” who was a farmer before the war (albeit a farmer who had previously served in Ukrainian intelligence), talked about the need to modernize army education. “Frenchman” acquired his call sign because he’d served in the French Foreign Legion before coming home to run a wine bar in Lviv; he looks less like the tough legionnaire you imagine than the hip restaurateur he had become. Yet another soldier was fiddling with what looked like a video-game console when we arrived; in fact, he was learning to guide a drone. All of them had joined this special-forces group after February 2022.
A couple of hours’ drive away, along a dirt road filled with rocks, mud, and potholes the size of small ponds, we encountered a completely different kind of Ukrainian army, an infantry brigade composed of local men. Their artillery unit deploys weapons that look like they might have been used during the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and keeps them in barns and warehouses. They were cheerful—before we spoke, they insisted that we eat lunch at an army canteen—and showed no sign of the exhaustion that journalists have reported among troops in harsher sections of the front line. But although they can find Russian targets using the software on their tablets, they don’t have much ammunition with which to strike them. Joking, one of them offered us a deal: “If you could give us some more HIMARS now”—the American-made mobile rocket launchers that have been crucial to Ukraine’s defense—“after the war we’ll build you some drones.”
The unusual nature of this grassroots fighting force, along with its even more unusual range of physical and technological capabilities, helps explain why the Ukrainians were underestimated at the beginning of the conflict, and why their abilities are so hard to gauge now. Washington and Brussels thought that the war would feature “a big Soviet army fighting a small Soviet army,” in Reznikov’s words, and that the big Soviet army would of course win. But after the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, “the first people who became defenders were volunteers from the Maidan,” Reznikov noted, referring to Ukraine’s revolution against its autocratic, Russian-backed president that year. “They took rifles and went to the east.” In that same year, patriotic young Ukrainians also went to work for the defense industry or built the NGOs that still support the military today.
The old Ukrainian army had been shaped by years of negative selection, attracting the least educated and the least ambitious. The new one is now being shaped by the best educated and the most ambitious. In recent months, that army has evolved even further. In training camps in NATO countries, Ukrainian troops are learning to use Western battle tanks, to operate new kinds of artillery, and above all to carry out the combined-arms operations that will be part of the summer offensive—to achieve “interoperability,” as Reznikov put it, at a level the army has never previously attempted.
Sometimes, the war is described as a battle between autocracy and democracy, or between dictatorship and freedom. In truth, the differences between the two opponents are not merely ideological, but also sociological. Ukraine’s struggle against Russia pits a heterarchy against a hierarchy. An open, networked, flexible society—one that is both stronger at the grassroots level and more deeply integrated with Washington, Brussels, and Silicon Valley than anyone realized—is fighting a very large, very corrupt, top-down state. On one side, farmers defend their land and 20‑something engineers build eyes in the sky, using tools that would be familiar to 20‑something engineers anywhere else. On the other side, commanders send waves of poorly armed conscripts to be slaughtered—just as Stalin once sent shtrafbats, penal battalions, against the Nazis—under the leadership of a dictator obsessed with ancient bones. “The choice,” Zelensky told us, “is between freedom and fear.”
Versions of these two civilizations still exist within Ukrainian society too, though the division is not ethnic or linguistic. It is now exceedingly rare to find Ukrainians who describe themselves as “pro-Russian,” even in the Russian-speaking east. The streets in the center of Russian-speaking Odesa are lined with Ukrainian flags; Odesa’s mayor, the Russian-speaking Gennadiy Trukhanov, told us he believes Ukrainians are “the front line of the struggle for the civilized world.” But autocratic, top-down, hierarchical ways of doing things are hard to discard, especially in state institutions. The instinct to control and centralize decision making remains. Citizens’ groups and volunteers have arisen around the military partly to combat the vestiges of Soviet bureaucracy.
But the Ukrainians who want their country to remain part of this new, networked world believe they will win. See you after the victory, they say when parting ways. We’ll rebuild it after the victory, they say when talking about something smashed or destroyed. Trukhanov already dreams of a victory celebration, an enormous dining table spanning the length of Primorskiy Bulvar, Odesa’s famous seaside promenade, currently blocked off by soldiers and barricades: “Everyone is invited.” Even those who are more pessimistic about the immediate future remain optimistic about the longer term: After the victory, we will need to defend the victory. Some of them have an almost mystical faith that it’s their country’s turn on the world stage. Yermak, Zelensky’s chief of staff, told us that victory is “very near,” that you can “feel it in the atmosphere.” Dmytro Kuleba, the Ukrainian foreign minister, talks about “history turning its wheels,” a process that cannot be stopped.
Others put their faith in modernity, in technology, and, yes, in the example of American democracy. “We are living in an open world, in a democratic world,” says Oleksiy Honcharuk, a former prime minister of Ukraine who is now in the tech world too. “And this advantage is huge.” Is that true? Only a Ukrainian victory can prove it.
But what is “victory”? That’s the question asked repeatedly of every American official, of every pundit, at every public debate dedicated to Ukraine, often in a querulous, demanding tone, as if this were a question difficult to answer. In Ukraine itself—in the office of the president, in the defense ministry, in the foreign ministry, in private apartments, on the front line—the question isn’t perceived to be difficult at all.
Victory means, first, that Ukraine retains sovereign control of all of the territory that lies within its internationally recognized borders, including land taken by Russia since 2014: Donetsk, Luhansk, Melitopol, Mariupol, Crimea. “Every centimeter of our 603,550 square kilometers,” Kuleba says. Ukrainians believe that the de facto ceding of territory to Russia in 2014 gave Putin the idea that he could take more, and they don’t want to repeat the error. Instead of ending the conflict, a cease-fire that leaves large chunks of Ukraine under Russian control could give him an incentive to regroup, rearm, and try again. They also point out that territory under Putin’s control is a crime scene, a space where repression, terror, and human-rights violations take place every day. Ukrainians who remain in the occupied territories are at constant risk of losing their property, their identity, and their lives. No Ukrainian leader can give up the idea of saving them.
[Anne Applebaum and Nataliya Gumenyuk: Incompetence and torture in occupied Ukraine]
Victory means, second, that Ukrainians are safe. Safe from terrorist attacks, safe from shelling, safe from missiles lobbed at supermarket parking lots. Zelensky talks about safety “for everything. From schools to technologies, for everything in the education sphere, in medicine, in the streets. That is the idea. For energy. For everything.” Safety means that the airports reopen, the refugees return, foreign investment resumes, and buildings can be rebuilt without fear that another Russian missile will knock them down. To achieve this kind of safety, Ukraine, again, will need more than a cease-fire. The country will have to be embedded in some security structure reliable enough to be trusted, something that resembles NATO, if not NATO itself. Ukraine will also have to reconceive itself as a frontline state like Israel or South Korea, with a world-class defense industry and a large standing army. Deterrence is the most important guarantee of peace.
Victory means, third, some kind of justice. Justice for the victims of the war, for the people who lost their homes or limbs, for the children who have been taken from their parents. Justice might be delivered in different ways: through reparations, through the transfer of captured or sanctioned Russian assets, or through the International Criminal Court, which recently issued an arrest warrant for Putin for the crime of kidnapping Ukrainian children and deporting them to Russia. More important than the means of justice is the perception of justice—neither Putin nor Russia can enjoy impunity. Victims need the acknowledgment that they were unfairly targeted. Until this kind of justice is achieved, millions of people will not feel that the war ended, and will not stop trying to seek reparations or revenge.
The day after we met him, Frenchman, the young drone operator and French Foreign Legion veteran who used to run a bar in Lviv, was killed in a Russian attack. His given name was Dmytro Pashchuk. “Compared to this war,” he had told us when we asked about his past military experience, “everything is kindergarten.” Nobody who fought with him will ever accept an unjust conclusion to the conflict.
Victory can be defined. But can it be achieved? Part of the answer is military, technical, logistical. Part of the answer, however, is political and even psychological. The Ukrainian theory of victory includes all of these elements.
In Russian history, military victory has often reinforced autocracy. Potemkin’s conquests reinforced Catherine the Great. Stalin’s defeat of Hitler reinforced his own regime. By contrast, military failure has often inspired political change. Russian losses to Germany during World War I helped launch the Russian Revolution. Russian losses in Afghanistan in the 1980s helped trigger the reforms of the Gorbachev years, which in turn led to the breakup of the Soviet Union.
The naval catastrophe that Russia suffered during the Russo-Japanese War is less well known, but it was equally consequential. During the Battle of Tsushima, in 1905, the Japanese demolished the bulk of the Russian fleet and captured two admirals. Russia was a larger and richer country than Japan at that time, and could have kept fighting. But the shock and shame of the defeat was too overwhelming. Although Czar Nicholas II did not lose power, popular discontent with the war helped spark the failed 1905 revolution, and forced him to enact political reforms, including the creation of Russia’s first Parliament and first constitution.
Ukrainians need a military success like that, one with enough symbolic power to force change in Russia. This might not mean a revolution, or even a change of leadership. Zelensky believes the West spends too much time thinking about Putin, worrying about what’s inside his head. “It’s not about him,” he told us. Kuleba, the foreign minister, says he thinks the future of Russia is unknowable, so there is no point in speculating about what it would or should be. “The capacity of the best analysts to foresee the future under these circumstances is largely overestimated,” he told us. “Will it fall apart?” he asked rhetorically. “Will there be a regime change? Will the regime be forced to focus on its internal problems, meaning that the potential for external aggressive policies will decline?”
Only one thing matters: Russia’s leaders must conclude that the war was a mistake, and Russia must acknowledge Ukraine as an independent country with the right to exist. The Russian elite, in other words, must experience an internal shift of the kind that led the French to end their colonial project in Algeria in the early 1960s—a change that was accompanied by the collapse of the French constitutional order, attempted assassinations, and a failed coup d’état. A slower but equally profound shift took place in Britain in the early 20th century, when the British ruling class was forced to stop talking about the Irish as peasants incapable of running their own state, and let them create one. When that happens in Russia, the war will be over. Not suspended, not delayed for a month or a year—over.
No one knows how and when that change will come, whether next week or in the next decade. But the Ukrainians hope they can create the conditions in which political shocks and pivotal developments can occur. Perhaps the modern equivalent of the Battle of Tsushima is another Russian naval catastrophe, or the recapture of the city of Mariupol, whose total destruction by Russian forces in March of last year set a new post–World War II standard for cruelty and horror in Europe.
But the strongest symbol is Crimea. The annexation of Crimea in 1783 inspired Putin’s love of Potemkin. Putin’s own occupation and annexation of Crimea, in 2014, rejuvenated his presidency. The slogan “Krym Nash”—“Crimea Is Ours”—spread across Russia in a burst of imperialist emotion and Soviet nostalgia, reproduced on posters and T‑shirts, inspiring a slew of memes. This year Putin marked the anniversary of the annexation by visiting the peninsula, walking stiffly around a children’s center and an art school in the company of local officials.
Crimea became a symbol for Ukrainians too. The 2014 invasion marked the start of the Russian war on Ukraine; the subsequent annexation warned Ukrainians that the international legal system would not protect them. The history of the Crimean Tatars, a Muslim people who constituted the majority of the peninsula’s population before Potemkin arrived, echoes the history of the rest of the country: The Tatars were the targets of repression, intimidation, and ethnic cleansing under both czarist and Soviet rule. In 1944, Stalin deported all of them, some 200,000 people, to Central Asia. They returned only after 1989.
After 2014, many Tatars once again fled the peninsula; more than 100 of those who remained are political prisoners. The restoration of their rights and their culture is one of Zelensky’s favorite themes. In April of this year, he honored them by hosting iftar, a Ramadan evening meal, with Crimean Tatar political leaders in attendance. The president’s permanent representative to Crimea, Tamila Tasheva, herself a Crimean Tatar, describes the Tatars as a “part of the Ukrainian political nation.”
Crimea’s significance is strategic too. In the past nine years, the Putin regime has transformed Crimea from a holiday resort area into something resembling a Russian aircraft carrier attached to the bottom of Ukraine, crisscrossed with trenches and fortifications. The peninsula contains prisons for captured Ukrainians and serves as a hub for the transport of stolen Ukrainian grain. The leader of the occupation administration, Sergey Aksyonov, has called Crimea the “frontline outpost” for the occupation of southern Ukraine.
Knowing that Crimea is being built into a fortress, the Ukrainians talk about the “political military” liberation of Crimea, not a purely military counteroffensive. Once they have cut off the roads, railroads, and waterways to the peninsula, and targeted the military infrastructure with drones, the presumption is that many Russian inhabitants, especially recent immigrants, will become convinced that they would be better off living somewhere else. Some have reportedly fled already, following an explosion on the Kerch Strait Bridge (which connects Crimea to Russia) and other explosions on the peninsula. “Crimea we will take without a fight,” Reznikov told us.
Detailed plans for the de-occupation of Crimea already exist. Tasheva, together with lawyers, educators, and others, has been working on a “Crimea Recovery Strategy” that envisions a greener, cleaner Crimea, a “modern European resort.” Working groups have been set up to consider the fate of property lost or acquired since 2014, of Ukrainians who collaborated, and of the Russians who do not flee. Schools will need to be reformed, independent media restored, and the Ukrainian political system reestablished.
Tasheva pushes back against any idea that Russia and Ukraine could share the peninsula: “There cannot be joint control by both David and Goliath,” she told us. Regarding Crimea, the difference between the two civilizations is stark. For Russia, Crimea is and always will be a military base. For Ukraine, “Crimea is a place of diversity—our bridge to the global South.” Tasheva wants to build better road connections to Europe, restore destroyed Tatar monuments, and revitalize the use of the Ukrainian and Tatar languages on the peninsula. Plans to reverse environmental damage, reduce the use of fossil fuels, and revive cultural festivals have been drawn up, printed out, translated into English. If set into motion, they would undo not just Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, but Potemkin’s annexation in 1783.
Is this a fantasy? Perhaps. But in February 2022, the successful defense of Kyiv also looked like a fantasy. The drone workshops, the artillery on the front line, the software designers in Kyiv—back then they were beyond the realm of anyone’s imagination. To predict what might happen in Ukraine a year from now therefore requires the vision to conjure a world that currently doesn’t exist, and to accept that fantasies sometimes become real.
Do Americans share that vision? It is true that the U.S. has supported Ukraine, not a traditional American ally, at a level that was also once unimaginable, comparable only to the Lend-Lease program of World War II. We have provided Ukraine with intelligence and weapons, taken care of Ukrainian refugees, put strict sanctions on Russia. So far, there has been no secondary disaster. Despite a thousand predictions to the contrary, Europeans did not freeze to death last winter when they were compelled to seek alternatives to Russian gas. World War III did not break out. But over the next few months, as the Ukrainians take their best shot at winning the war, the democratic world will have to decide whether to help them do so. Sovereignty, safety, and justice—shouldn’t Americans want the war to end that way too?
Of course. That is what any senior official in the Biden administration, any European foreign minister, would say if asked on the record. Privately, answers are less clear. The support the U.S. has given Ukraine so far has been enough to help its army hold off Russia, enough to take back Kherson and some territory in the Kharkiv region. But America has not yet given Ukraine fighter jets or its most advanced long-range missiles. Nor is it clear that everyone in Washington, Brussels, or Paris believes it is either possible or desirable for Ukraine to take back all of the territory lost since February 2022, let alone territory taken in 2014. In April, leaked U.S.-government documents offered a bleak assessment of Ukrainian capabilities, predicting that neither Russia nor Ukraine could achieve anything more than “marginal” territorial gains, as a result of “insufficient troops and supplies.” This could be a self-fulfilling prophecy: If Ukraine is given insufficient supplies, then it will have insufficient supplies. One Western official recently told us that the prospect of Ukraine retaking Crimea is so distant, his country has done no contingency planning for it. If the West doesn’t plan for victory, victory will be hard to achieve.
Evidently some wonder not whether the counteroffensive can succeed, but whether it should succeed. The fear that Putin will use nuclear weapons to defend Crimea lurks just under the surface—but we have told him that the response to this would have “catastrophic consequences” for Russia; this is why deterrence is so important. The urge to preserve the status quo, and the fear of what could follow Putin, is just as strong. French President Emmanuel Macron has said openly that Russia should be defeated but not “crushed.” Yet even the worst successor imaginable, even the bloodiest general or most rabid propagandist, will immediately be preferable to Putin, because he will be weaker than Putin. He will quickly become the focus of an intense power struggle. He will not have grandiose dreams about his place in history. He will not be obsessed with Potemkin. He will not be responsible for starting this war, and he could have an easier time ending it.
In Western capitals, preoccupation with the consequences of a Russian defeat has meant far too little time spent thinking about the consequences of a Ukrainian victory. After all, the Ukrainians aren’t the only ones hoping that their success can support and sustain a civilizational change. Russia, as it is currently governed, is a source of instability not just in Ukraine but around the world. Russian mercenaries prop up dictatorships in Africa; Russian hackers undermine political debate and elections all across the democratic world. The investments of Russian companies keep dictators in power in Minsk, in Caracas, in Tehran. A Ukrainian victory would immediately inspire people fighting for human rights and the rule of law, wherever they are. In a recent conversation in Washington, a Belarusian activist spoke about his organization’s plans to reactivate the Belarusian opposition movement. For the moment, it is still working in secret, underground. “Everyone is waiting for the counteroffensive,” he said.
And he is right. Ukrainians are waiting for the counteroffensive. Europeans, East and West, are waiting for the counteroffensive. Central Asians are waiting for the counteroffensive. Belarusians, Venezuelans, Iranians, and others around the world whose dictatorships are propped up by the Russians—they are all waiting for the counteroffensive too. This spring, this summer, this autumn, Ukraine gets a chance to alter geopolitics for a generation. And so does the United States.
This article appears in the June 2023 print edition with the headline “The Counteroffensive.”