ISSN 2330-717X

Ukraine Stuns Russia With Counteroffensive But Can’t Claim Victory Yet

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By Mike Eckel

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(RFE/RL) — In early August, the signs pointed south: Ukraine stepped up its tempo of long-range artillery and rockets attacks in the Kherson region, pounding Dnieper River crossings and Russian ammunition depots. Russia shifted sizable numbers of units southwest, away from the Donbas, in anticipation of what most observers expected was a major counteroffensive.

Last week, the signs pointed east: Over roughly a six-day period, Ukrainian forces drove east and southeast away from the city of Kharkiv, plowing through what appears to have been undermanned and poorly defended Russian defenses, making a head-snapping counteroffensive to the Oskil River and rewriting the map of the Donbas battlefield.

In doing so, experts say, Ukraine may have rewritten the narrative of the entire invasion, nearly seven months since its launch.

For weeks now, across a roughly 2,400-kilometer front line from the mouth of the Dnieper River in the southwest to Luhansk and Donetsk regions in the northeast, Ukrainian and Russian forces have been pounding each other in what many experts called a stalemated war of attrition.

Over the summer, as Western weaponry began arriving in larger quantities, things began to change. Over the past six days, however, everything changed.

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“The Ukrainians now have the initiative in this war,” said Mick Ryan, a retired major general in the Australian Army and fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The Russians will now be fighting where the Ukrainians decide to attack them and not at places of their choosing.”

“The loss of equipment and forces in Kharkiv means the Russians have no ability to wage any type of offensive in the short to medium term,” said Konrad Muzyka, a defense analyst for Rochan Consulting.

Ukrainian troops on September 10 claimed control of the city of Izyum, a strategic railway hub in southeast Kharkiv that had been used by Russian forces to supply its forces as they pushed westward earlier in the summer. The city had been attacked just days after the February 24 invasion and besieged for weeks until late March when Ukraine withdrew.

With Telegram, Twitter, and other social media channels awash in photos of Ukrainian flags hoisted in towns once occupied by Russian forces, Ukrainian officials claim to have wrested more territory from the Russian Army in the past week than all the territory Russia has captured since April.

“We’re advancing not only south and east but also to the north,” General Valery Zaluzhniy, the top commander of Ukraine’s military, said in a post on Telegramon September 11. “There are 50 kilometers to the [Russian] border.”

Ukrainian troops have regained control of more than 3,000 square kilometers since the beginning of September, he said.

Later in the day on September 11, unconfirmed reports said Ukrainian forces had advanced all the way to the border with Russia. Serhiy Hayday, governor of the Luhansk region, suggested that troops were also near Lysychansk, a key city on the Siverskiy Donets River whose loss in early July was seen as a substantial defeat for Kyiv.

Punish The Commanders

While Ukrainians are optimistic — if not jubilant — from Russia’s perspective, it’s a split screen.

Officially, there has been no public acknowledgement of the Ukrainian successes or the Russian defeats. The Defense Ministry announced that its forces were being pulled out of Izyum and nearby Balaklia and were “regrouping” elsewhere.

In Moscow on September 10, Muscovites enjoyed fireworks and danced in the streets to celebrate the Russian capital’s 875th birthday. President Vladimir Putin spent the day reviewing a new marital-arts facility in Moscow and marking the opening of a new Ferris wheel.

Unofficially, there was dismay and fury, especially among the Russian military bloggers and more rabid nationalist commentators who let loose on Telegram channels, ripping into Russian commanders.

Igor Girkin, a notorious former Russian intelligence officer who played an instrumental role when war first erupted in the Donbas in 2014 and who is now an outspoken critic of the Russian military, sarcastically noted a “brilliant…operation to transfer the cities of Izyum, Balaklia, and Kupyansk to our respected Ukrainian partners.”

He also acerbically suggested transferring several border districts in Russia’s Belgorod region to Ukraine.

Ramzan Kadyrov, the pugnacious Chechen strongman whose “Kadyrovtsy” fighters have played a visible role in several Ukrainian battles, said “mistakes were made” by Russian commanders and appeared to call the Ukrainian advances “amazing.”

“If today or tomorrow no changes are made to the conduct of the special military operation, I will be forced to contact the country’s leadership in order to explain the situation on Earth to them,” Kadyrov wrote in a mocking post on his Telegram channel. “It is very interesting; ‘amazing,’ I would say.”

“I’m no strategist, like at the Defense Ministry. But mistakes were made,” he wrote in the post. “I think they will draw conclusions from it. And when you tell the truth to a person’s face, they might not like it. But I like to tell the truth.”

“It’s high time to punish the commanders who allowed these kinds of things to happen,” another outspoken pro-Russian military blogger named Maksim Fomin said in a video posted on September 9.

Before the war, military experts had discounted the ability of the Ukrainian military to withstand the onslaught of the bigger and better-equipped Russian Army. But Ukrainians thwarted an initial Russian effort from the north, aimed at seizing the capital, Kyiv, prompting Russian commanders to shift forces east to the Donbas, where they made slow, grinding advances with a reported artillery advantage of 10 to 1, wearing down Ukrainian troops.

The thrust into Kharkiv, and the lightning speed with which both Ukrainians advanced and the Russians retreated, surprised even experienced watchers of how the war has unfolded.

Ryan called the Ukrainian advance “well-planned” and part of a two-pronged effort in Kherson and in Kharkiv.

“Kherson was not a feint,” he said. “It is a significant operation that has been well-planned and executed against very tough Russian resistance. The operations in the north and south [and whatever comes next] appear to be part of a well-sequenced Ukrainian operational design.”

“I think what happened was the Ukrainians went in with about three or four mechanized brigades and obviously didn’t know what the expectation was,” Muzyka told RFE/RL. “At the bare minimum, to test the Russians defenses and see what would happen.

“And what actually happened was a total collapse of Russian defensive military positions,” he said. 

And while credit has been given to the tenacity of their soldiers, Ukrainians have also benefited from a firehose of powerful Western weaponry: U.S. long-range HIMARS artillery systems, M777 howitzers, high-speed anti-radiation missiles, French-made Caesar howitzers, and German-made Panzerhaubitze self-propelled artillery.

That has allowed the Ukrainians to fire at targets — for example, bridges over the Dnieper River or command posts in Kharkiv and Lunhansk regions — from distances that the Russian rockets can’t reach.

For military planners and experts, the bigger question now is what happens next. Will the Ukrainians keep their momentum, even as the supply lines stretch out and are made vulnerable? Will the Russians be able to regroup and mount a counterattack or even withstand further Ukrainian advances?

‘They Can Do A Lot Of Damage To The Russians During This Time’

One of the biggest hindrances to Russia’s war-fighting ability has been personnel; its manpower problems have been well-documented for months now and officials have conducted a stealth mobilization campaign to replace killed and wounded personnel. U.S and Western officials say as many as 80,000 Russian troops and pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas have been killed or wounded since the start of the invasion.

Any sort of recruitment campaign going on within Russia is likely to be severely diminished as news of the Ukrainians’ Kharkiv successes trickles down, Muzyka said. 

“The rout will have a negative impact on recruitment,” he said. “Russia does not have the manpower. The only thing they can do is force people to join, and the only way they can do that is through mobilization.” 

Putin’s reluctance to call for a general mobilization — effectively declaring all-out war on Ukraine — has flummoxed experts, who have concluded the Kremlin doesn’t want to roil Russian society or undermine the passive support Russian have given the war.

Russian commanders’ decision to shift some of their most seasoned units away from Kharkiv, in anticipation of Kherson, further highlights that problem.

“It will depend on how fresh the Ukrainians are and what their level of logistics on wheels is,” Ryan told RFE/RL. “I would expect they have been told to go hard for, for a set period — say, a week or two — before they can expect relief. They can do a lot of damage to the Russians during this time.”

“I think the Russian tempo at the moment is unable to keep up with Ukrainian operations,” he said. “Not only are the Ukrainians able to execute operations more quickly, they are doing so in a way, very geographically dispersed, which makes it hard for the Russians to reinforce between the north, east, and south.”

  • Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He’s reported on the ground on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.

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