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Tuesday briefing: ‘Give us the weapons!’ – the counteroffensive that could secure the west’s support

Good morning. Last Wednesday, when the dominant story in Ukraine was grinding warfare in the southern Kherson province that had no imminent prospect of a breakthrough, Vladimir Putin spoke confidently about Russia’s unbreakable might. “We have not lost anything and will not lose anything,” he said. The best news out of Kharkiv was about an escaped chimpanzee being wheeled back to the city zoo on a bicycle.

Six days later, nobody’s talking about fugitive apes. A lightning Ukrainian advance has swept through Kharkiv region – with Volodymyr Zelenskiy last night putting the territory captured at 6,000 square kilometres (2,320 square miles). On Sunday, Russia released a map that tacitly acknowledged it had been all but driven from the region; in a matter of days it has lost more ground than it had gained since the beginning of April. The most pressing question facing Ukraine now is when to stop and consolidate its advance.

The surprise Ukrainian offensive has changed the facts on the ground – but just as important is the impact it could have on western allies whose loyalties will come under severe strain in the cold winter ahead. In today’s newsletter, the Guardian’s defence editor, Dan Sabbagh, explains how this counterattack could change the course of the war. That’s after the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. The Queen | King Charles and his siblings stood vigil over their mother’s coffin at St Giles’ cathedral in Edinburgh yesterday before thousands of members of the public began to file past to pay their respects. More are queuing to do so this morning before the Queen’s coffin is flown to London this evening.

  2. Policing | The Metropolitan police officer who fired the shot that killed 24-year-old Chris Kaba has been suspended from frontline duties, the Metropolitan police have confirmed in a statement. Kaba, who was unarmed, was shot dead by police in south London last week.

  3. Cost of living | An emergency budget to bring in winter tax cuts for millions of people and set out more detail on energy handouts is expected late next week once the country emerges from national mourning.

  4. Egypt | British-Egyptian environmental activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah has said that he might die in prison, as he reaches the sixth month of his hunger strike. His imprisonment follows a decade-long crackdown on dissent in Egypt by Abdel Fatah al-Sisi and a concerted effort to restrict non-state-sanctioned participation in Cop27.

  5. Emmys | Succession and Ted Lasso were among the big winners at the prestigious US television awards on Monday night, while the HBO miniseries The White Lotus won every category for which it was nominated.

In depth: ‘Prompt supplies bring victory and peace closer’

A Ukrainian soldier passes by a Russian tank damaged in a battle in the Kharkiv region.
A Ukrainian soldier passes by a Russian tank damaged in a battle in the Kharkiv region. Photograph: AP

One central part of the story of the war in Ukraine has been the desperate need for military assistance from the west. Whatever the practical challenges, on the whole, the diplomatic will has remained. Only last week, the United States approved a $2.7bn (£2.3bn) aid package, including $675m for weapons, bringing the total US military aid to about $13bn.

At the same time, there is an awareness in western capitals that ahead of a winter that will effectively freeze operations for several months, the conflict is reaching a crucial point – and a persistent question, asked quietly: if providing weapons simply drags out a war that is unlikely to end in a decisive Ukrainian victory, is the vast cost exacted by Russian limits on gas supplies worth paying?

Ukraine’s offensive in Kharkiv is therefore not only an important swing in military momentum and domestic morale – but could decisively reframe that diplomatic debate.

In this thread, the respected US-based Institute for the Study of War said that Ukraine “has decisively won the battle of Kharkiv Oblast”, and thrown Russia into a “panicked and disorderly retreat”, leaving large quantities of equipment and supplies behind as they flee. You can see extraordinary pictures of that abandoned equipment here. The loss of two key logistical centres, Izyum and Kupyansk, “has in effect ended Russia’s grand plans to seize control of the entire Donbas” region, the Economist said.

Isobel Koshiw and Lorenzo Tondo, who are in Kharkiv for the Guardian, write that Russia has immediately launched a counterattack – and report on claims that liberating troops have found evidence of atrocities against civilians. Nonetheless, the success of the Ukrainian offensive is “absolutely critical,” said Dan Sabbagh.

Like many analysts, he cautioned that there are many twists left both in Kharkiv and the wider conflict – but he added: “Ukraine has done something that didn’t appear to be possible this side of Christmas. And that will change the conversations among its allies.”

Here’s how that happened, and what it could mean.


How western resources helped in Kharkiv

“There are two ways to think about this,” Dan said. “On the one hand, Ukraine’s done this with its own troops, its own leadership, its own strategy. But on the other, western weapons and intelligence have made a decisive difference.”

As one example in Kharkiv, Dan pointed to the deployment of multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS), provided by the US, UK and Germany, as well as other longer-range artillery systems. “They’ve been able to clear the ground ahead of infantry and tank advances. Theystrike deep in Russian territory to knock out barracks, munitions, logistics and so on. They also knocked out a bridge that was crucial to Russian reinforcement.” In this excellent analysis, Dan explained how Ukrainian troops and tanks were able to then take advantage.

Training and information have also been crucial. The New York Times reported American officials saying that a Ukrainian decision to step up intelligence-sharing had enabled Washington to provide more salient information in return. And, Dan said, “There’s been preparation on a strategic level. The Ukrainians knew how to fight a defensive and partisan war, but until now there’s been less evidence of their ability to conduct an offensive campaign. Western training has played a part in that.”


What Ukraine still needs

Ukrainian soldiers prepare to fire at Russian positions from a US-supplied M777 howitzer in Kharkiv last June.
Ukrainian soldiers prepare to fire at Russian positions from a US-supplied M777 howitzer in Kharkiv last June. Photograph: Evgeniy Maloletka/AP

While the US and Europe have frequently stated their iron commitment to Ukraine’s cause, there are some clear differences of opinion with Kyiv about the level of support. “[Kyiv] would clearly want more MLRS than they’ve had so far,” Dan said. “There are a little over 20 now, and the Ukrainians would like to see double that. They’d also like to have longer-range rocket systems [the Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS] which the US has so far refused to provide.”

As well as these offensive weapons and renewed calls for tanks and fighter jets, Ukrainians are also desperate for greater protection from Russian retaliation – as evidenced on Sunday by strikes knocking out power and water supplies in much of the Kharkiv region. “It needs an awful lot of air-defence systems,” said Dan. “The US finally agreed in the summer to send the Nasams missile system which protects the White House and the Pentagon, and they recently agreed to send six more. But it’s a big country, with a lot of important targets.”

Notably, Ukraine has seized on developments in Kharkiv to dispute claims that such help will only extend the conflict. Foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted on Sunday that “weapons, weapons, weapons have been our agenda since spring.” “Three agenda items now are schedule, schedule, schedule,” he added. “Prompt supplies bring victory and peace closer.”


Why western support could waver

“Russia’s strongest card is to force up the prices of oil and gas, and it’s done that quite successfully,” Dan said. “The costs loaded on to western treasuries aren’t in the cost of military aid alone. Russia’s calculus is: at some point European countries will decide that it’s not worth it.”

A Reuters analysis piece from August by Andrew Osborn captures some of that thinking. Osborn quoted a source close to the Russian authorities as saying: “It’s going to be a difficult winter for Europeans. We could see protests, unrest. Some European leaders might think twice about continuing to support Ukraine.” (To read about the reaction now in Moscow, see this piece by Shaun Walker and Andrew Roth.)

Only last week, even as the German chancellor Olaf Scholz said that support to Ukraine would increase, the Die Welt newspaper characterised his assurances as “general and vague” – and his defence minister Christine Lambrecht said that Berlin’s resources had “hit the limit”. European leaders made no new military pledges in July, according to the Kiel Institute’s Ukraine support tracker. That’s about supply-chain bottlenecks as well as will. On Friday, Nato’s secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said that “some allies are now raising the issue of whether these stocks are depleted too much” and said it was essential to “ramp up production”.


How the advance in Kharkiv could change the calculus

All of this explains why Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Saturday that “if we were a little stronger with weapons, we would deoccupy faster”. Now he can point to a concrete advance to reinforce his point.

That’s a message for political leaders – which is important for the public, too. “This is such a key advance because it shows ordinary people that this is not a war to get tired of,” Dan said. “So if this can be sustained, it will clearly change the calculus.”

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That outcome is far from assured, and even if it materialises it will not guarantee longer-term success – but the fact that it might have seemed unthinkable even a week ago is perhaps the best evidence Kyiv can give the west that the fight is not in vain. “If Ukrainians had behaved the way Russia thought they would, this war would have been over long ago,” Dan said. “But instead they’ve shown more than resilience – they’ve shown an astonishing desire to be a free country.”

What else we’ve been reading

Dede Orton on the last day Dede’s Diner was open to the public in Utah.
Dede Orton on the last day Dede’s Diner was open to the public in Utah. Photograph: Mikayla Whitmore
  • If you find that your eleventy-billion WhatsApp groups are taking over your life, you are not alone, as Sirin Kale’s read about the tyranny of the group chat makes painfully clear. “There is something to be said for the idea that not everything needs to be responded to, or deserves a response,” one expert tells her. Heresy! Archie

  • It’s been a brutal few years for the hospitality industry around the world – the pandemic, supply chain problems and the soaring cost of fuel has forced many restaurants to close. In the US, David Dudley went to the last day open for DeDe’s diner in Utah to hear from regulars about what it meant to them. Nimo

  • As Mark Rowley takes over the crisis-ridden Met police force, former detective superintendent Shabnam Chaudhri has some stark advice about the message he must give to the force: “It begins with dishing out some tough love. This means no longer defending the indefensible, policing on behalf of the public, not the so-called police family.” Archie

  • This piece by Martin Farrer on how India has become the fifth-largest economy, overtaking the UK, and what it means for the global market, is fascinating. Nimo

  • Oliver Wainwright visits Birmingham’s legendary Ringway Centre, which is under threat of being torn down to build three huge glass towers. Wainwright eloquently argues the importance of preserving the postwar heritage of the city’s architecture. Nimo

Sport

Cricket | Zak Crawley hit the winning runs as England wrapped up a win by nine wickets over South Africa in the third Test at the Kia Oval, securing a 2-1 series victory.

Football | Arsenal’s Europa League home game against PSV on Thursday has been postponed. Manchester United’s match against Leeds on Sunday is also expected to be postponed due to policing issues related to the Queen’s funeral.

Football | Graham Potter has said the Chelsea owners’ vision for the future convinced him to leave Brighton and take over as manager. The 47-year-old, who replaced Thomas Tuchel last week, said it was “the start of a really exciting period” for the club.

The front pages

Guardian front page 13 September 2022
Photograph: Guardian

King Charles holding vigil in St Giles Cathedral dominates the front pages. The Telegraph leads with “Guard of honour” and the Mirror has “We will watch over you”. The Express says “Lost in grief for ‘darling Mama’” while the Mail’s take is “Silent vigil for a Queen … and a mother”. The i newspaper has “Vigil for a mother” and the Sun says “The King’s vigil”.

The Times leads with “Royal family united in grief” while the Guardian runs a picture of King Charles and other mourners beneath its lead story “PM under pressure to reveal details of energy crisis plan”. The FT has “Kwarteng tells Treasury to adopt new focus ‘entirely on growth’.”

Today in Focus

King Charles III at Westminster Hall, London.
King Charles III at Westminster Hall, London. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA

Can King Charles reinvent himself and the monarchy?

King Charles III comes to the throne with a nation in political flux and economic turmoil. Robert Booth looks at the challenges the new monarch faces.

Cartoon of the day | Ben Jennings

Ben Jennings cartoon of King Charles III
Illustration: Ben Jennings/The Guardian

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

Katja Pavlovna.
‘Knowledge is power’ … mental health advocate Katja Pavlovna. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

Katja Pavlovna is a 34-year-old language teacher from the West Midlands who was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Pavlovna noticed the dearth of first-hand testimonials about her diagnosis and the level of stigma attached to some mental illnesses. So, alongside co-founder Kay Garbett, she set up the website Sorry My Mental Illness Isn’t Sexy Enough for You to provide information and reassurance about mental health issues to those who need it. The website lets people anonymously share their experiences living with a personality disorder. “Knowledge is power,” Pavlovna said, “and a personal resource is so helpful. I related much more to people sharing their own experiences than to NHS guidelines.”

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s crosswords to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until tomorrow.

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