The World Awaits Ukraine’s Counteroffensive

As the country approaches a battle for its ultimate fate, democracy and Western civilization hang in the balance.

Black-and-white photo of Ukrainian soldiers descending a snow-covered staircase in single file
Ukrainian soldiers train in an abandoned building in western Ukraine before being sent to battle, March 2023. (Paolo Pellegrin / Magnum)

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The Atlantic’s June cover story is a dispatch from Ukraine, including an interview with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The Ukrainian leader met with our editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg, staff writer Anne Applebaum, and Laurene Powell Jobs, chair of the magazine’s board of directors, and their conversations took place as Ukraine prepares to conduct what could be one of the most consequential military counteroffensives in modern history.

First, here are four new stories from The Atlantic:

A Fateful Spring

The democracies face a coming year of decision. In the next 12 to 18 months, we will know whether Americans have the collective will to resist yet another attempt to hand power to a would-be autocrat; as astonishing as it seems, one of the likely presidential candidates in the 2024 election is a man who incited a violent attack against the government and the Constitution of the United States. We will also know whether the free world (and yes, it’s long past time to start using that expression again) has the will to resist the onslaught of Russian butchery in Europe.

These two battles are inextricably linked. If America stumbles even deeper into authoritarian darkness than it already has, Ukraine is lost. If Ukraine is lost, Europe and the West face an existential threat not only to our physical security but also to our democratic civilization.

As Jeffrey Goldberg notes in his editor’s introduction to the June issue, The Atlantic went to Ukraine because the war there “is about much more than Ukraine; it is about the very subjects that animate this magazine: democracy, freedom, justice, humanism.” In Kherson, he and Anne were interviewing Ukrainian soldiers when the Russians bombed a nearby supermarket parking lot, the kind of indiscriminate attack that reinforces the stakes for Ukraine and the world. The Russian missile, Jeff writes, “was meant to murder and terrorize; mission accomplished.”

And this is what the Russian war on Ukraine has become: a campaign of revenge by an infuriated despot who is determined to show that democracy will bow to dictatorship, even if he has to bomb every home and kill every Ukrainian.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, of course, is trapped in a vortex of his own grandiose miscalculations and strategic ineptitude. He expected Ukraine to collapse within hours of his first attacks more than a year ago. As the Ukrainian defense minister told Anne and Jeff, so did the U.S. and NATO, who expected a war between “a big Soviet army fighting a small Soviet army” and thought that the “big” Soviet army would win.

I made the same miscalculation in my early analyses of the conflict. As we now know, however, the Russian military had for years managed to hide its shocking incompetence and poor logistics from the world—and especially from Putin, whose small circle of sycophants was too terrified to tell him the truth. Lost in a fantasy, he expected not only that Kyiv would fall but also that Russian soldiers would be greeted as liberators. The Russian campaign, as Anne and Jeff write, was “to annihilate both Ukraine and the idea of Ukraine,” but now, with tens of thousands of Russian casualties and the Russian nation in shock at constant defeats, Putin has apparently decided that he must destroy what he once hoped to possess whole. He will rule over whatever is left—and then continue his attempted march westward.

Although our cover story bears witness to these crushing tragedies on the ground in Ukraine, it is not a report of relentless pessimism. Indeed, Ukraine at war has forged an even stronger identity as a civic and democratic nation. Ukrainians are resolute that there is no alternative to victory. (Ukrainian citizens, as our writers saw, routinely use expressions when parting such as “See you after the victory.”) Anne and Jeff also note how much has changed since those first chaotic months of the war. When they went to speak with Zelensky in the spring of 2022, Kyiv was a city in darkness, its leadership in bunkers, its businesses mostly closed. When they returned last month, they found that “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.” Even Bucha, where the Russians conducted a ghastly campaign of civilian executions, is rebuilding.

Good news, to be sure, but without a powerful counteroffensive and eventual victory, there can be no peace in Ukraine, and no stability in Europe or the world. What does “victory” mean? Obviously, the survival of an independent Ukraine is the immediate goal, but a lasting peace has to mean more than living through successive Russian conquests and partitions. The Ukrainians, who have lost so much already, are unlikely to accept such an unjust truce, even if the Russians had any interest in offering one. If the Ukrainians lose sovereign territory, if they are not safe from Russian attack, and if there is no reckoning with Russian war criminals, then any Ukrainian “victory” is just a temporary respite from another round of Russian aggression.

But even more important, any outcome short of a Ukrainian victory would endanger the rest of the world. There is a reason, as Anne and Jeff write, that so many nations, movements, and individuals are waiting to see what happens:

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.

This is why the world is waiting for the Ukrainian counteroffensive. Read the whole story, which is accompanied by powerful images captured by the renowned photojournalist Paolo Pellegrin. (The cover art is by Bono. Yes, that Bono.) Americans can find it easy to forget the war raging across the sea, but Ukraine is approaching a battle for its ultimate fate—as are all of us living in the free world.


Today’s News

  1. A man suspected of killing five neighbors with an AR-15 rifle in Texas on Friday continues to evade law enforcement.
  2. France had a large May Day demonstration as people rallied against President Emmanuel Macron raising the retirement age.
  3. The bulk of First Republic Bank’s operations will be sold to JPMorgan Chase in an attempt to prevent a banking crisis that has been on the horizon for two months.


Evening Read

An illustration of Paris Hilton
Illustration by Paul Spella / The Atlantic. Source: Dave Benett / Getty.

Paris Hilton Has a Lesson for Everybody

By Annie Lowrey

The Paris Hilton with whom I am familiar is not the real Paris Hilton, Paris Hilton tells me. The Paris Hilton she describes in her best-selling new memoir is. “I just put it all out there. It was like writing in a diary, speaking about things that I’ve never said out loud to anyone in my life, not my closest friends or family members. So I would say it was definitely me,” she tells me over Zoom. “Yeah, it’s me.”

I do not believe this claim for a minute, nor do I believe that she believes it either. Paris: The Memoir is a glimpse into the lifestyles of the rich and famous; a dishy gift for her devoted fans, the Little Hiltons; and a horrifying recounting of a life filled with exploitation and abuse. It is also a manual on how to construct a self for public consumption, a skill at which Hilton is an immortal genius and a practice she has helped mainstream into American culture, curving it into a ouroboros of ceaseless posting, commenting, buying, selling.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

Philip Seymour Hoffman in Along Came Polly
Philip Seymour Hoffman in Along Came Polly (TCD / Prod.DB / Alamy)

Watch. Along Came Polly (streaming on Peacock), which features a brilliant comedic performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Listen. “Funny How Time Slips Away,” a song that captures the artistry of Willie Nelson.

Play our daily crossword.

Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.