By Aditya Bhan
Adding to a burgeoning list of setbacks faced by the Russian forces in Ukraine is the reported destruction of a Russian barge ferrying military hardware and troops across the Dnipro river near the Ukrainian city of Nova Kakhovka—on a day when a Ukrainian official claimed Russian forces had been trapped by the river due to the counteroffensive in the Kherson region, pushing them further south.
According to Nataliya Humenyuk, Head of the joint press centre of Ukrainian Defence Forces of the South, “the fire control that we (Ukrainian defence forces) maintain over crossings and transport arteries across the Dnipro makes them (Russian forces) understand that they are sandwiched between the (Ukrainian) defence forces and the right (river) bank – units that are in this part of the Kherson region”.
Figure 1 shows an increase in areas witnessing intense fighting between 6 and 13 September 2022, as a result of the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the south.
However, Russian forces seem to be faring far worse in the northeast with much of the territorial losses in the Kharkiv region since the beginning of September. Inflicting a significant operational setback on the Russian military, Ukrainian forces have recaptured a vast expanse of territory including the city of Izyum (see Figure 2).
The Ukrainian success in this region is a consequence of its smaller southern offensive, which led the Russian forces to redeploy to Donetsk and the southern axis, thereby, creating vulnerabilities in the northeast for Ukrainian fighters to exploit.
Kremlin-backed commander Alexander Khodakovsky described the Ukrainian strategic masterstroke as “an interesting technique: they achieved success in one direction (Kherson region), brought us to a state where we do not think about any offensive in this direction, only about stabilising the front line, and (Ukrainian) offensive surpluses are transferred to another sector (Kharkiv region)”. The former political leader in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in eastern Ukraine added that “a developed transport infrastructure allows them to manoeuvre with limited forces creating accumulations in places where it is necessary according to the plan, and the presence of a plan and success in its implementation is the possession of a strategic initiative”.
Following their swift withdrawal from the Kharkiv region, Russian forces may attempt to buy time by digging deep and hardening their defensive lines in the Donbas. This would not only allow the Russian forces to resupply and regroup but also once again turn the ongoing conflict into a protracted war of attrition.
Further, referendum announcements by the Russian-backed, self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) and DPR may be designed to provoke the Ukrainian forces into attempting hastily planned deeper incursions into Russian strongholds. Without securing their logistics and flanks, such offensives would be perilous.
Thankfully for Ukraine, its forces seem to be looking to consolidate their advancements even as Russian forces target its power infrastructure, causing power cuts across the country. However, Ukraine has expressed fears that Russia would step up attacks on its energy system to turn the tables on Kyiv this winter.
There is also the very real possibility of Moscow formally annexing some of the regions it currently occupies, through referendums. This would then provide an excuse for declaring war on Ukraine and undertaking mass mobilisation if Ukrainian forces attempt to recapture any of the newly appropriated Russian territories. And while Vadym Skibitsky, Deputy Head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, has argued that mass mobilisation “would mean recognising that Russia has not been able to fulfil all the tasks it declared, that (Russian President) Putin’s so-called ‘special operation’ has not achieved results, and real war is being fought”, there should be at least some consternation in Ukrainian strategic circles regarding the possible military implications of the same.
Former Russian President and current Deputy Chairman of the Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev said that the result of referendums would be permanent and grant Moscow—which possesses the world’s largest nuclear arsenal—complete leeway to protect what it would consider by law as Russian territory. “Encroachment onto Russian territory is a crime which allows you to use all the forces of self-defence”, he stated in a Telegram post, adding that “this is why these referendums are so feared in Kyiv and the West”. He further stated that no future Russian leader would be able to constitutionally reverse their outcome.
Though Ukraine’s recent battlefield successes have resulted largely due to the strategic ingenuity of Kyiv’s military planning, efficient logistics management, and international military assistance, it would be difficult to sustain the momentum of the offensives without leaving vulnerabilities in supply lines and exposing newly reclaimed territories to Russian counterattacks. The task would become even more difficult as winter begins to set in, forcing war planners on both sides to prioritise the survival of personnel over military adventurism.
On the other hand, failure to recapture a significant part of the Donbas before winter may further exacerbate the difficult choices available to Ukraine. It may either be pressured into ceding significant territory to Russia if Western support for its war effort wavers in the face of dwindling Russian energy supplies to European and other supporting countries, or might be faced with the prospect of a prolonged war of attrition post-winter, by which time the Russians would have reinforced themselves in most occupied parts of the Donbas and possibly annexed the same formally.
While much has been made by some western observers of the reduced room for manoeuvrability for Russian strategic planners due to alleged internal hostility to the war and vocal criticism from friends India and China, the Kremlin is likely to double down on its efforts to secure its presence in the Donbas industrial region, which it views as the “yoke” of Ukraine. And with Moscow announcing the partial mobilisation of 300,000 personnel from its pool of reserves to support its military campaign, it appears that the Russians are in no hurry to negotiate with Kyiv from a position of weakness.