Ukraine’s counterattack around Kharkiv defeats Russia

A military truck bearing the “Z” symbol of the invading Russian forces lies in the town of Balakliya, which Ukrainian troops liberated over the weekend.

Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Ukraine’s surprise counterattack in the country’s northeast has sent shock waves through the Russian military, with military strategists saying occupying forces have likely been forced to withdraw from the entire region around from Kharkov.

This crucial area is home to the second largest city in Ukraine and is close to the border with Russia. That should have made Russia’s defense easier, but Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said on Sunday that its forces had been able to retake dozens of towns and villages in the region over the past few days.

These include the strategically important city of Izyum, which Russia had used as a supply hub and base for its forces in the region, and Kupiansk, a key rail hub in the region.

Ukraine’s territorial gains come after its forces launched a series of counterattacks in the northeast last week. The surprise decision caught Russia off guard; the Kremlin had redeployed many troops to southern Ukraine for a much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive there.

Instead, strategists now widely believe that Ukraine planned to use the redeployment of Russian troops as an opportunity to redouble its efforts in the northeast of the country.

Kharkiv counts

Kharkiv is 30 miles from the Russian border, just above the strategically important Donbass region in eastern Ukraine where two self-proclaimed pro-Russian “republics” are located, in Donetsk and Lugansk.

Despite this proximity, however, forces from Moscow have been unable to occupy the city since they began their unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

Since its initial large-scale invasion of Ukraine was scaled back, with the withdrawal of Russian forces from the area around the capital Kyiv in April, Russia has claimed it wants to “liberate” Donbass.

Thus, the loss of key towns and villages in the Kharkiv region makes Russia’s hold on the territory of Luhansk (which it claims to fully occupy) and Donetsk (where it has made small advances in the past) more vulnerable. summer) and casts further doubt on Russia’s ability to achieve its goal in the Donbass.

For its part, Ukraine has repeatedly said it aims to recover all of its lost territory, including Donbass and Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.

Strategists at the Institute for the Study of War noted on Sunday that “Ukrainian leaders discussed strikes in the south much more ostentatiously, but managed to confuse the Russians about their intentions in the Oblast of Kharkov. [province].”

He noted that Ukraine had executed a “skillful campaign”, maximizing the impact of Western weapons systems such as HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, donated by the United States) to attack Russian ground lines of communication. in Kharkiv and Kherson.

A Russian armored vehicle captured by Ukrainian troops is taken out of Kharkiv on September 8, 2022.

Metin Atkas | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

On Sunday, The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said the counteroffensive was underwaywhile the Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, said the forces had recovered 3,000 square kilometers (about 1,158 square miles) of territory occupied by Russia already this month, and is now pushing Russian forces towards the border with Ukraine.

“In the direction of Kharkiv, we began to advance not only to the south and east, but also to the north,” General Zaluzhny said, adding that the Ukrainian forces were now about 50 kilometers away (about 30 miles) from the Russian border.

The Russians are “retreating”

Russian troops stationed in Balakleya and Izyum had regrouped and redeployed towards Donetsk to “reinforce efforts” there, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov told reporters. according to the Russian news agency Tass.

The British Ministry of Defense noted on Monday that Russian troops were likely to withdraw from much of the Kharkiv region, although pockets of resistance remained.

“Faced with the Ukrainian advances, Russia probably ordered the withdrawal of its troops from the whole of occupied Kharkiv Oblast west of the Oskil River”, said the ministry on Twitteradding that since the counterattacks began in earnest last Wednesday, “Ukraine has recaptured territory at least twice the size of Greater London.”

The ‘Z’, the symbol of the Russian forces, and the inscription ‘ZSU’, which is the abbreviation of the initials of the Ukrainian armed forces in the Cyrillic alphabet, are seen on a military vehicle as the Russian-Ukrainian war continues in Kharkiv, Ukraine on September 09, 2022.

Methane Acta | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Strategists say while Ukraine appears to have used the redeployment of Russian troops in the south as an opportunity to attack in the northeast, its counteroffensive around Kherson in the south is not a ‘feint’ or a simulation of an attack intended to divert attention.

Ukrainian forces reportedly attacked and made gains at several key locations on the western bank of the Dnipro River,” the Institute for the Study of Warfare noted on Sunday, adding that “Ukraine has committed considerable combat power and concentrated a significant portion of the Western-provided long-range precision systems it has on this axis, and it is unlikely that it did so simply to lure Russian forces into the area.”

What happens next?

Military strategists are keen to point out that while Ukraine has succeeded in its initial counter-offensives in both the northeast and the south of the country, the war is far from over.

Dmitry Gorenburg, a senior researcher at the CNA security research and analysis organization, said Russian commanders would be reluctant to withdraw their forces from occupied territory, even for the purpose of preserving those forces. It would be a “political black eye” for Moscow, he told CNBC.

“It really looks like the Russian forces have exhausted themselves in terms of their ability to move forward. They haven’t really gained any territory to speak of since that last push into Lugansk in late June, early July,” Gorenburg noted. On the other hand, Ukraine is likely to make “continuous efforts” to regain territory, he added. “They see it as a long-term, gradual process.”

This photograph shows a destroyed Russian military vehicle in Balakliya, a town in the Kharkiv region that was taken over by Ukrainian forces.

Juan Barreto | AFP | Getty Images

The UK Ministry of Defense said in its assessment of the situation that “rapid Ukrainian successes have significant implications for Russia’s overall operational design”, with the majority of Ukrainian forces “most likely being forced to prioritize actions emergency defences”.

“The already limited confidence of deployed troops in senior Russian military leadership is likely to deteriorate further,” the ministry added.

Ukraine’s pressure on Russian forces in Kherson, combined with the rapid counteroffensive in Kharkiv, “presents the Russians with a terrible dilemma of time and space”, according to an analysis by the Institute for the Study of the war. He said Russia could risk losing Luhansk, as well as having to withdraw from neighboring Donetsk.

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“Russian President Vladimir Putin risks making a common but deadly mistake by waiting too long to order reinforcements to the Luhansk line, thereby compromising the defense of Kherson or ending offensive operations around Bakhmut [a city in the Donetsk region] and the city of Donetsk without putting troops in position to defend in time against the continued Ukrainian attacks in Luhansk,” the ISW said.

“The Ukrainian countryside seems destined to present Putin with precisely such a dilemma and to benefit from almost every decision he makes.”

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