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The war in Ukraine will likely intensify this summer. Here's what to know

An Ukrainian soldier takes part in a military training with French servicemen at a military training compound at an undisclosed location in Poland, on April 4.
Wojtek Radwanski
AFP via Getty Images
An Ukrainian soldier takes part in a military training with French servicemen at a military training compound at an undisclosed location in Poland, on April 4.

You might look at Russia's full-scale war in Ukraine — now over two years old — and think it grinds on with little or no headway being made by either side.

A $60 billion U.S. military aid package is gradually making its way to Ukraine, and the White House has made incremental shifts on Ukraine's ability to target Russia directly — developments that will have profound repercussions for years to come. More immediately, fighting in the Russia-Ukraine war has tended to pick up during the summer, when the warmer, drier weather makes it easier for both sides to maneuver.

With all that in mind, here are five key regions and themes to be aware of over the months ahead.

The battle over Kharkiv and why that matters

Russian President Vladimir Putin tried taking Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, at the beginning of the full-scale invasion in early 2022, but failed. Russia is trying again to move on the city, which is a short distance from the border with Russia. The most intense fighting at the moment is taking place just outside Kharkiv.

Fred Kagan, a senior fellow and the director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, said there are two plausible explanations for why Russia is targeting Kharkiv. First, Russia may be attempting to thin out Ukraine's lines throughout the country by forcing Ukraine to shift troops from other areas to the Kharkiv region.

Second, Russia may be trying to get close enough to the city so it can use traditional artillery to keep the city under constant attack. Right now, Russia still has to rely on longer-range rockets and missiles.

"If they can do that, then they will be in a position to begin to do really massive damage to the city, much more than with their ongoing rocket campaign," Kagan said.

That damage to the economic and cultural hub wouldn't be just material: Taking down the city that Putin once failed to win over would be a symbolic blow to the Ukrainians.

U.S. green-lights Ukraine targeting Russian territory

Russia's concerted attacks in and around Kharkiv have prompted a change in U.S. policy. The Biden administration announced in late May that it would allow Ukraine to fire on targets within Russia that are close to the Ukraine-Russia border. Previously, the U.S. had been adamant that U.S. munitions not be used to strike in Russian territory.

"There never was a legal, moral or military reason for not allowing [Ukraine] to do that," retired U.S. Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges said of U.S. policy. "The [U.S.] administration, I think, was excessively cautious," Hodges said, out of "fear that somehow Russia might escalate or use a nuclear weapon in retaliation."

So the Ukrainians haven't wasted any time with this new policy, and they've already destroyed Russian systems and air defense weapons, Hodges said.

But the new stance doesn't go so far as letting these kinds of weapons be used anywhere else. Hodges says this is "shortsighted — literally as well as figuratively."

"The Russians, of course, will adapt to that and figure out where the gaps are," he said of the limits to Ukraine's military operations.

In the brutal calculus of war, the need for more manpower

Both sides appear to need more troops. Ukraine is struggling to recruit more fighters, while Russia has been losing large numbers of troops throughout the heavy fighting.

Russia is "losing over a thousand killed per day," Hodges said of Russia's military. "They're not able to attack with the same force that they were earlier."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in December that Ukraine's military aspires to recruit 500,000 more troops, and the country's parliament passed a law that lowers the age for drafting soldiers from 27 to 25.

Putin's bet on eventual victory

Putin said recently that he'd be willing to negotiate a cease-fire. But Hodges dismissed it. "He's trolling," Hodges said.

"It's just part of the Russian use of disinformation," he said. "He is not interested in a cease-fire, except if he recognizes that his own forces are in trouble and they need some time to regroup."

Kagan, of the American Enterprise Institute, said that Putin appears to be even more confident of his prospects on the battlefield.

Kagan points to recent rhetoric from Putin and top Russian officials that suggests they're increasingly willing to take major risks to gain ground — even if it means losing troops.

"If Putin is confident that the Ukrainians can never take back anything that he takes, then whatever the casualty price, it pays for small gains," Kagan said.

Putin hoped U.S. support for Ukraine would have waned by this point, Kagan said. He believes Putin's recent reshuffling of defense ministers shows that he is intending to play the long game.

"I think he still thinks that he can break [U.S.] will and that he can just have his forces keep crawling forward, however slowly, but they will eventually get there," Kagan said. "Putin is preparing Russia to be able to continue this war indefinitely."

The ebbs and flows of U.S. support for the war

Kagan and Hodges both said the U.S. and other Western allies need to show much more forceful support toward Ukraine militarily.

Hodges said the Biden administration's priority has been to prevent any escalation by Russia.

But Kagan said Ukraine's success depends on more concerted support from the United States.

"I think what Americans need to internalize is that the outcome of this war still depends very heavily on choices we make," Kagan said. "If we provide Ukraine with the material that it needs, and the Ukrainians do the things that they need to do, then it's very possible that the Ukrainians will be able to liberate parts of their country that are extremely important."

Kagan warned that if the U.S. cuts off assistance to Ukraine again or permanently, the Russians could easily overcome Ukraine. "We need to not be in any way complacent about this war."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Jeongyoon Han
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
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