Ukraine’s gains expose thinly spread Russian invaders. More could follow

Moscow diverted best troops to southern city of Kherson, leaving south-east of Kharkiv lightly defended

In five days, Ukraine’s northern counteroffensive has changed everything. What began as a push in a part of the front largely ignored by military analysts became an advance of 43.5 miles (70km), capturing “more territory than Russian forces have captured in all their operations since April”, according to the Institute of the Study of War.

Before Wednesday, Ukraine had struggled to make much progress with offensive operations. Yet, south-east of Kharkiv, Kyiv has shown it can dynamically exploit military circumstances in its favour – opening up the prospect of further dramatic gains before winter settles in.

Russia had diverted thousands of its best combat troops to defending the southern city of Kherson, in response to a Ukrainian offensive that it said it had begun a couple of weeks ago. Exhausted by months of continuous war, the Kremlin left the sector south-east of Kharkiv lightly defended.

The more recent offensive appears to be the second stage of a two-pronged – Kherson then Kharkiv – counterattack. Either way, Ukraine had quietly amassed forces in the north over the past week or more – a build-up disastrously missed by Russian military intelligence – to strike against defenders in part from the Rosgvardia national guard, press-ganged separatist forces from Luhansk. It does not appear that Russian reserves were in theatre.


Ukraine’s forces first encircled Balakliia, 45 miles south-east of Kharkiv, then pressed north to reach the broad Oskil River south of the rail and supply hub of Kupiansk, entering the city thereafter. That cut off Izium, a key military centre, to the south and prompted the Russians to abandon a city seized at the end of March.

Ukraine’s success has partly been achieved by use of both tanks and infantry, on a front where the enemy was weakened by long-range artillery strikes (most likely from US and other MLRS rocket artillery). It made good use of intelligence to spot the Russian weak point, and exploited the geography – the river – to maximum advantage. But above all it showed use of combined arms in appropriate strength not seen before.

Russia had been proceeding on the assumption that it could, with the relentless use of heavy artillery – 15,000 to 20,000 shells a day – grind its way west. Now it suddenly appears that Russia spent months engaged in an attritional conflict that at first only brought it limited gains – Sievierodonetsk – then latterly almost nothing at all as it failed to capture Bakhmut.


The latest battle for Izium demonstrates how thinly spread the invaders have become. Russia’s overall force quality has gradually degraded, at about 100,000 soldiers, who are rarely rotated out to recuperate, and have to cover the vast Ukraine front. Its use of air power remains limited. Meanwhile, because the Kremlin refuses to label its war in Ukraine as such, Moscow can mobilise limited additional resources.

Nevertheless, is not clear how far Ukraine can sustain its momentum. The combination of western-supplied intelligence, weapons and training finally appears to be bearing fruit, but pushing too far forward in one go can bring its own risks. On the other hand, maps released by Russia’s ministry of defence on Sunday indicate that it plans to retreat to the Oskil River line the length of Kharkiv province – and it is not clear if the front will stabilise there.

Ukraine can now target supply lines into northern Luhansk province. A Russian loss of Izium relieves the pressure on Sloviansk from the north-west, and allows Ukraine to try to reverse the losses it has sustained in the Donbas – the collective name for Donetsk and Luhansk provinces – starting in the direction of Lysychansk. At the same time, there may now be an unfolding opportunity to make progress around Kherson in south, where Russia is likely to have to withdraw forces.

Critical, now, is what political impact this will have. Barring extraordinary events on the battlefield, Ukraine is unlikely to be able to defeat Russia definitively before winter sets in. However, Kyiv has shown what a difference western support can make and could make next year, heading off potential external criticism as energy price rises bite this winter.

Morale in Ukraine remains high, and its political aims are broad: regain all territory, demand reparations from Russia, and ensure that a war crimes tribunal is held.

These are not points that will be conceded by the Kremlin for now. But Vladimir Putin and the Russian army leadership – the subject of rare criticism by the Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, on Sunday – face serious questions. How they respond could determine if their war is still winnable.


Dan Sabbagh Defence and security editor

The GuardianTramp

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