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Ukraine’s counter-offensive catches Russia off guard

Ukrainian forces have retaken dozens of towns and villages near the border and caused Russian troops to retreat

Ukrainian soldiers on patrol in the Kharkiv region on September 9 after a counter-offensive liberated dozens of localities.
Ukrainian soldiers on patrol in the Kharkiv region on September 9 after a counter-offensive liberated dozens of localities.Anadolu Agency (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The war in Ukraine has over the past few hours taken its biggest and most unexpected turn since Russia launched a land, sea and air invasion of its neighboring country on February 24. Ukrainian armed forces on Saturday celebrated the most significant advances yet achieved on the ground after months of static warfare. The order to retreat from various strategic positions in the east issued by the Kremlin – the largest withdrawal from a front in Ukraine since March, when Russian troops were pulled back from the assault on Kyiv – represents an unprecedented military success in the Ukrainian counter-offensive, which has been praised for its speed and surprise element by the United States and the UK, two of the biggest contributors to the supply of arms to Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government.

Kyiv says it has retaken control of around 30 towns and villages in the southeast of the Kharkiv region, the eponymous capital of which is Ukraine’s second-largest city and stands around 30 miles from the Russian border. Among the places liberated from Russian forces are strategic points that were key to the Kremlin’s strategy, including Izyum, a staging point for Russian attacks, and the logistics hub at Kupiansk. Having been driven back from Kyiv, Russia announced in March that it would concentrate its military efforts in the Donbas region, comprising Donetsk and Luhansk, an industrial stronghold with a predominantly Russian-speaking population that has been in conflict since 2014 when pro-Russia militia groups, backed by the Kremlin, launched attacks against the Ukrainian government.

On Saturday, the Russian Defense Ministry claimed that retreat in the Kharkiv area formed part of their strategic plan. “In order to achieve the goals of the special military operation, a decision was made to regroup troops in the areas of Balakliya and Izyum in order to build up efforts in the Donetsk direction,” said the ministry’s spokesman, Igor Konashenkov, who described the retreat as a “diversionary measure.”

The huge territorial losses suffered by Russian forces over the last few days contrasts sharply with the passivity displayed by Vladimir Putin, to whose hyper-leadership Russians have deferred every decision over the past two decades. On Saturday, Putin was unveiling “Europe’s largest Ferris wheel” in Moscow, while Russian troops were abandoning their logistics center in Kupiansk.

The area liberated from occupation in Kharkiv has now opened the door for Ukrainian forces to pursue the battle in Donbas with greater assuredness. Above all, the rapid collapse of the Russian troops in the region has raised eyebrows. “The Ukrainians kicked down the door and the building caved in,” says defense and security analyst Jesús Manuel Pérez Triana, who has been calculating the territorial losses and gains of both sides over the last few weeks. In July, Russia took 57 square miles of Ukrainian soil, an area the size of Brooklyn, New York. In August, they seized more than 150 square miles and in less than a week, Ukrainian force have pushed Russian troops back and retaken an area of some 770 square miles. “This kind of push, forcing enemy troops back dozens of miles in a day, is very unusual,” says Pérez Triana. “The magnitude of the Ukrainian advance takes us back to historical episodes like Desert Storm [the 1991 invasion of Iraq by the US and its allies].”

Zelenskiy also made mention of the territory regained in a speech on Sunday. “These last few days, the Russian army has shown us its best side - its back,” the Ukrainian president said.

Although a Ukrainian counter-offensive in Kherson in the south is foreseeable, Putin made the decision not to call off the Vostok 2022 military maneuvers in the far east of the country between August 31 and September 7. However, despite not wishing to send an alarmist message, the number of participants was reduced from 200,000 to 50,000.

The Vostok military exercises were directed by the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Valery Gerasimov, whose pre-war popularity has been eroded and who has barely been mentioned in Russian media since March, once a seemingly lightening offensive was halted. Putin himself and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu also played a part in the maneuvers last Monday. Images of the three betrayed a certain coldness between them, in contrast to the warmth and cordiality of previous years.

There may be an explanation for the Russian collapse in Kharkiv behind this battle for control of Kherson, according to Pérez Triana. “The Russians weakened their deployment in the northeast of the country to reinforce their positions on the right-hand side of the Dnieper River, in anticipation of the much-heralded Ukrainian offensive. This movement of troops left a hole that the Ukrainians have been able to exploit.”

A Ukrainian autumn counter-punch was expected by many analysts and military strategists in Russia. One of the most obstinate of these has been Igor Girkin, a former member of the Federal Security Service who was sent into Donbas with a militia group in 2014 to foment a rebellion and who participated in the Siege of Sloviansk.

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“With regard to this brilliant operation to transfer Izyum, Balakliia and Kupiansk to our esteemed Ukrainian partners [...] I propose to hand over the Russian region of Belgorod to the Ukrainian Kharkiv. They are already shooting there as freely as on the other side of the border,” Girkin posted on his Telegram channel having demanded total mobilization on the part of the Kremlin since spring, because the alternative “is defeat.”

Despite the apparent military superiority is has been displaying over the past few days, Kyiv is continuing to ask for more arms supplies from its allies. “It is essential to continue to send arms to Ukraine,” said Oleg Nikolenko, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“The lesson of the last few days, beyond making individual decisions, should be putting an end to training volunteer regiments from scratch in Russia and the liquidation of the mobilized regiments in Donetsk and Luhansk,” wrote the well-known separatist military blogger, Murz, of Russian military strategy. “It is a senseless waste of already very limited human resources.

“I expected something like this. Federal channels keep saying: ‘We have not yet exhausted our offensive capability.’ That ‘yet’ insinuates that this is about to happen,” wrote Alexandr Jodakovski, a noted pro-Russian separatist commander, on Telegram. One of few local military leaders in Donbas, Jodakovski warned that Russia should “attack somewhere, in another direction, and demonstrate strategic thinking.” Otherwise, he foresees a stalemate between two forces with no offensive capability “and then the main war will begin: the war of ideas and the war of economies. And whoever is strongest in this war will win.”

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