For the first half-year of this war, Ukrainians lived in constant fear, wondering where and when the Russian military might strike next. But as the conflict nears the 200-day mark, it’s Russian troops who are suddenly in disarray, caught off guard by a pair of Ukrainian counteroffensives.
Ukrainians, meanwhile, are celebrating military gains in the south and east of the country, including the liberation of several towns that had been under Russian occupation since early in the war. Videos posted online Thursday show Ukrainian troops being greeted by cheering crowds in Balakliya, a town in the eastern region of Kharkiv that had a pre-war population of 27,000.
Meanwhile, a Ukrainian counterattack in the southern Kherson region forced the Kremlin to cancel its plans for a snap referendum on annexing the region. The vote, which would have been illegal under international law, was supposed to be held Sunday.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video message Thursday that Ukrainian troops had re-entered “dozens” of settlements during the recent advances in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions. “More than a thousand square kilometres of our territory have been liberated since Sept. 1,” he said.
Reports on Russian and Ukrainian social media Friday suggested Ukrainian forces were approaching the city of Kupyansk, a key road and railway junction east of the city of Kharkiv. Capturing Kupyansk would sever Russian supply lines in the area. Vitaly Kanchiv, the city’s Moscow-installed mayor, confirmed the lightning Ukrainian advance in remarks to Russian state television. “The very fact of a breach of our defences is already a substantial victory for the Ukrainian armed forces,” he said.
Russia’s Defence Ministry posted footage of helicopters, armoured personnel carriers and troops trucks that it said were being sent to reinforce the Kupyansk area Friday. A barrage of missiles also struck a school and other buildings in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, and Ukrainian officials said 10 people, including three children, were injured.
Russia’s military now looks weaker than at any time since President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops across the border on Feb. 24. Russian forces in the Donbas region – the main thrust of the Russian attack since April, when an early attempt to capture Kyiv was abandoned – have made only incremental progress since capturing the cities of Sieverodonetsk and Lysychansk in June.
Russia has recently been firing anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles at land-based targets, suggesting a shrinking arsenal. According to a U.S. intelligence report made public this week, one of the world’s largest arms manufacturers is running so low on ammunition that it is planning to buy millions of rockets and artillery shells from North Korea. Moscow has dismissed the report as “fake.”
After suffering tens of thousands of casualties, Russia is in the process of creating a new Third Army Corps – made up of an estimated 20,000 recruits – that is expected to be deployed to Ukraine as soon as the soldiers complete basic training.
The Ukrainian military began its advance in the Kherson region two weeks ago, a counterattack that has trapped 10,000 to 15,000 Russian troops on the west bank of the Dnipro River. Their supply and retreat routes have been severed by strikes – using U.S.-supplied HIMARS long-range missiles – that disabled the only two bridges in the area. The trapped forces can only be resupplied by ferry, and the ferry launching points have also been repeatedly hit by Ukrainian fire.
As that advance proceeded – and as Russia scrambled to move units south to help defend Kherson – Ukrainian forces some 600 kilometres to the northeast launched their surprise attack. The opening of a second Ukrainian offensive around Kharkiv appeared to cause something approaching panic among the Russian troops deployed along what had been a quiet part of the front line.
“If measures are not taken immediately, our group in Izyum may be surrounded,” the author of the “Zapiski Veterana” Telegram channel wrote Thursday, referring to an occupied Ukrainian city that has become a major Russian military hub. The account, which translates as “Writings of a Veteran,” is believed to belong to someone in the Russian military. Later postings from the account were filled with expletives and calls for Russia to launch missiles at civilian targets in Ukraine.
Military analysts are divided about whether the Ukrainian advance in the Kharkiv region is part of a broader strategy or an impromptu decision by local commanders to take advantage of weak Russian defences in the region.
“Initially the counteroffensive in the south was not a deception. But simultaneously the Ukrainian military was planning another manoeuvre as soon as the intelligence have calculated the weakest link of Russian defences in the northeast,” said Andriy Tsaplienko, a veteran war correspondent and military analyst for Ukraine’s 1+1 TV channel, in an interview.
Mr. Tsaplienko, who was wounded early in the war while covering the failed Russian effort to capture Kyiv, said the success of the counterattacks demonstrates how much the Ukrainian military has improved over the past eight years with training from Canada and other NATO countries. “The NATO-style Ukrainian army showed that it’s more manoeuvrable, quicker, faster and more effective than the Soviet-style Russian army,” he said.
Mykola Bielieskov, a military expert at the official National Institute for Strategic Studies, said he believed that liberating Kherson remained the main Ukrainian objective. Speaking before Friday’s breakthrough, he said the intent of the Kharkiv attacks was to force Russian generals to decide which part of Ukraine they wanted to continue occupying.
“It’s very difficult to sustain two broad offences for Ukraine. So as for me now, I would say that [the Kharkiv offensive] is more kind of pinning down Russian forces, deflecting attention and posing this dilemma: ‘So, what do you choose? Southern Ukraine or Kharkiv?’”
Recapturing Kherson, the only provincial capital that has fallen to Russian forces since the start of the war, would be a major boost to Ukrainian morale. It would also threaten Russia’s hold on the adjacent Crimean Peninsula, which it seized and illegally annexed in 2014.
Mr. Bielieskov, who also provides strategic analysis for Come Back Alive, a foundation that raises money to buy equipment for the Ukrainian Armed Forces, said one of the goals of the Kherson campaign is to show the West that Ukrainian forces are capable of not only slowing Russia’s advance but of retaking lost territory. He said Kyiv hopes that seeing the Ukrainian army go on the offensive will convince its allies to provide it with even more weaponry, enabling it to drive Russian troops completely out of the country.
He said Ukraine still has far less artillery and heavy weaponry than Russia and lacks the armoured personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles that would allow it to fully capitalize on the holes it has punched in Russia’s defences. But he said the war was, for the moment, finally going in Ukraine’s favour.
“We managed to make them decrease the level of their ambitions. And now we are regaining some initiative and gaining some momentum,” he said. “But for sure it won’t end soon.”