February 3, 2023

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Putin’s victories and losses – The New York Times

As winter began, military analysts expected fighting in Ukraine to slow as wet and snowy terrain made it too difficult for both Russia and Ukraine to mount major offensive advances. Indeed, since a successful Ukrainian offensive in late summer and autumn, territorial boundaries have remained largely the same.

Still, some recent struggles have been good for Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president. But other developments, notably continued Western unity in support of Ukraine, have gone badly for Russia. (Others are just plain horrific, no matter how they affect the outcome of the war, including a Russian attack on civilians in the city of Dnipro over the weekend that killed at least 35.) How these developments play out could help the next phase of the war to be decided.

Today’s newsletter looks at Putin’s recent victories and defeats and what they mean for Ukraine.

Russia has recorded few victories on the battlefield since late summer. Instead, casualties mounted as Ukraine retook territory to the east and south.

But Russian forces have recently made gains around the town of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine and appear to have taken Soledar, a town on the outskirts of the city. (Ukraine claims they are still fighting.)

A victory in Soledar would be symbolic rather than strategic, say military analysts. Russia has been deprived of victories in recent months, so any success could help keep support for Putin’s war alive. But Soledar itself is unlikely to play a major role in retaking Bakhmut or the Greater Donbass region, which was one of Putin’s main goals.

Another achievement for Putin in recent months is the lack of battlefield casualties. Russian defenses appear to have held to the east and south. Again, analysts expected battlefield lines wouldn’t move much in the winter. But that wasn’t always guaranteed; Ukraine, for example, promised to continue their offensive advance into the winter months. That didn’t happen, allowing Russia to hold territory.

“By maintaining its defense strategy, Russia averted a cascading, catastrophic collapse — what would be the best hope for a dramatic Ukrainian victory,” said my colleague Julian Barnes, who reports on national security for the Times.

As winter set in, supporters of Ukraine feared Western unity was beginning to break. Europeans in particular faced the prospect of a cold winter and skyrocketing energy prices, fueled by sanctions on Russia’s oil and gas industry, which powered much of the continent.

But with the right preparation and a bit of luck, the worst didn’t happen. European nations have stocked up on gas from alternative sources such as the US, Nigeria and Qatar. And the winter turned out to be relatively warm, allowing Europeans to avoid some of the higher fuel prices, as my colleague Somini Sengupta wrote.

Subsequently, western unity held around Ukraine. If anything, it has intensified. Western powers are promising Ukraine tanks and other armored vehicles, dismissing fears that supplying these weapons would be considered too provocative by Russia. “The debate is not about doing less, but about doing more for Ukraine,” Julian said.

Another bad sign for Putin: he has again changed the Russian military leadership in Ukraine. Russia recently replaced General Sergei Surovikin, who also led Russia’s brutal campaign in Syria, with a close Kremlin ally, General Valery Gerasimov. It was the second leadership change in three months, signaling that Putin is unhappy with the way the war is going.

Recent events mostly paint a mixed picture for both Russia and Ukraine.

Though Ukraine has fared much better than many analysts expected at the start of the war, it has yet to make big battlefield gains in the east and south to hold any hope of a favorable peace deal. Continued Western unity – and tanks – could help secure these victories.

But Russia’s recent battlefield victories and leadership changes could also help its military overcome previous Ukrainian momentum. Ukrainian officials recently warned that Russia was preparing for a new offensive, one that could again push into their capital, Kyiv. American officials are less certain of Russia’s ability to launch a major new push.

Regardless of which side advances first, the battles to come as wet and snowy conditions recede will decide who has the advantage.

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On Friday nights, a crowd gathers at a nightclub in Ann Arbor, Michigan to drink, flirt and dance to live rock music. The party’s official name is the Ann Arbor Happy Hour at Live, but it’s also affectionately known as the Geezer Dance Party.

That’s because almost the entire crowd is over 65 years old. “I call us the silver tsunami,” said Randy Tessier, a 72-year-old professor at the University of Michigan who organizes the event. “We are many and still want to rock.”

The meetup is the latest take on a musical happy hour, having been going on since the 1970s, and some regulars have been coming for over 50 years. “It’s the most beautiful thing in my life,” said Maggie Levenstein. “It makes me happy every week.”