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  • Borislav Ivanov

War News: Ukraine Counteroffensive going incredibly well; Russians are fleeing

In the span of a week, Ukraine has gained more territory than Russia has since April.

A quick armored advance by Ukrainian troops broke through lines of Russian fortifications and reclaimed more than 3,000 square kilometers of terrain in eastern Ukraine during the previous week, resulting in a remarkable alteration of the battlefield. That is more land than Russian soldiers have taken since April in all of their operations in Ukraine.

While the operation was expertly planned and conducted, it also succeeded because of Russian shortcomings. Russian soldiers were inadequately organized and equipped throughout large swaths of the Kharkiv region, and many gave little opposition.

Their failures, as well as their disorganized withdrawal to the east, have rendered President Vladimir Putin’s special military operation to seize control of the whole Luhansk and Donetsk areas far more difficult to achieve.

The Russian pullback from border territories occupied since March resumed throughout the weekend. Within five kilometers of the border, villages raised the Ukrainian flag.

Russian defenses’ failure has sparked recriminations among influential Russian military bloggers and characters in Russian official media.

As the Ukrainian flag has been flown in one village after another over the last few days, one question has arisen: how will the Kremlin react?

Ukrainian flags are placed on statues in Balakliya, Krarkiv Province. Credit: Juan Barreto; Getty Images

Freedom at the speed of light

Ukrainian officials had hinted at an impending onslaught, but not where it would take place. There was a lot of discussion about a counter-attack in the south, and even US officials mentioned Ukrainian actions near Kherson to “shape the battlefield.” Over the course of many weeks, Russian forces – maybe as many as 10,000 – poured into the region.

There was a Ukrainian offensive in Kherson, but it appears to have been aimed at repairing Russian forces, while the actual effort came hundreds of kilometers to the north. It was a misinformation campaign that the Russians might have been proud of.

According to Kateryna Stepanenko of the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based research organization, the deception succeeded.

“Ukrainian military officials indicated that units of the (Russian) Eastern Military District that had earlier supported offensive operations against Sloviansk had been redeployed to the Southern Axis,” she said in a statement.

Stepanenko described their replacements as a “mixed bag” of “Cossack volunteers, volunteer units, DNR/LNR militia groups, and the Russian Rosgvardia (National Guard), which were plainly unable to defend a huge and complicated front line.”

For their initial assault, the Ukrainians chose the weakest point in Russian defenses: an area held by the Luhansk militia, with Russian National Guard soldiers further back. They couldn’t stand a chance against a highly mobile armored attack that swiftly rendered artillery obsolete.

Igor Strelkov, former head of the Donetsk People’s Republic militia and now a harsh critic of Russian military shortcomings noted the poor training of these units as well as “the exceptional caution of Russian aviation’s actions.” In short, Russian front-line units were left hanging without adequate air support.

We geolocated and studied many recordings, as well as local sources, that show a disorganized evacuation of Russian soldiers, with substantial amounts of ammunition and weapons left behind.

The low caliber of Russian fortifications along a vital north-south route that is supporting the Donetsk advance is difficult to comprehend. Once begun, the Ukrainian offensive’s goal was clear: to cut off that artery of supplies. They had done so in three days, owing in part to the tardy mobilization of Russian forces.

In yellow - territories, regained by Ukraine during the past week. Credit: Institute for the Study of War

Chaos and accusations

The Russian Defense Ministry attempted to depict Kharkiv’s surrender as a planned diversion of resources to the Donetsk area on Saturday, but it really hampers such efforts.

Until recently, Russian forces could strike Ukrainian positions in Donetsk from three directions: north, east, and south. The northern axis is now gone, and the threat to the industrial belt in and around Sloviansk, as well as the likelihood of Ukrainian defenses being surrounded, has greatly lessened.

Simply put, the eastern Ukrainian battlefield has been redrawn in a matter of days.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has contributed hundreds of militants to the onslaught, was the most vocal – and maybe unexpected – public critique of the situation. In a Telegram post on Sunday, he stated that he would be contacting senior Defense Ministry officials to clarify his message.

“It’s obvious that mistakes were made, and I believe they will draw some conclusions,” he added.

Kadyrov said that “if Russia’s General Staff did not want to go, the (troops) would not back out,” – but Russian soldiers “didn’t have sufficient military training,” which caused them to retreat.

Influential Russian military bloggers have been even harsher. Zakhar Prilepin, whose Telegram channel has over 250,000 followers, shared a message in which he called the events in Kharkiv a “catastrophe” and a “complete failure of intelligence.”

“Now we can see the outcome of those who were responsible for this direction’s criminal irresponsibility,” the article concludes before adding, “The special military operation is long finished. There is a war going on.”

Another pro-Putin blogger, Kholmogorov, uploaded an equally damning report from the front lines by the Partizan Telegram channel, which effectively accused the Russian administration of abandoning the troops.

“The troops were on foot with one machine gun and a bag, abandoned by the leadership and walking at random,” according to the article.

The poster, who identifies as a Russian Orthodox patriot, claims that as hate of the opponent develops, so does “hatred of the government and leadership.”

Kholmogorov added his own sentiments, saying, “Lord, spare the Russian warriors from frontal strikes and even more from backward blows.”

A similar insight emerged from Pyotr Lundstrem’s Telegram channel.

“In the army, there are NO thermal imagers, NO bulletproof jackets, NO reconnaissance equipment, NO secure communications, NO copters, and NO first aid kits.”

Referring to this weekend’s commemorations in Russia for Moscow’s birthday, he continued, “You are commemorating the billionth holiday; what’s wrong with you?”

Putin was inaugurating a Ferris wheel in Moscow on Saturday, as the rout continued.

The pullout statement “further alienated the Russian milblogger and Russian nationalist communities who embrace the Kremlin’s grandiose ambition of seizing all of Ukraine,” according to the Institute for the Study of War.

Ramzan Kadyrov; Credit: Reuters

What’s next?

Prominent Russian media elites are attempting to portray this week’s disaster as a coordinated effort. According to television personality Vladimir Soloviev, the “enemy, buying into an easy advance on a certain area of the front, drives into a trap.”

“Currently, Russian forces are actively regrouping,” the analysis said, despite the fact that there is little evidence of this.

That begs the issue of how the Kremlin will continue to conduct the battle after suffering its worst week of the campaign. It looks to be deficient in high-quality units. Some existing battalion tactical units have been recreated, and volunteer battalions from around Russia have been formed to form a Third Army Corps. According to US authorities, the Russians are running low on ammunition and have turned to North Korea for assistance.

According to Stepanenko of the Institute for the Study of War, the exceptional success of the Ukrainian counter-offensive will require a rethinking of how the new army corps is employed.

According to Stepanenko, who researches Russian military recruiting and organization, the Russians “may still try to utilize these troops to block the Ukrainian counter-offensive in Kharkiv, but throwing ill-trained and unprepared raw forces into such operations would be a very perilous enterprise.”

Given Russia’s need for new recruits, she feels “it is possible that the Russian military is deploying these components directly onto the front lines in any event, based on reports that certain volunteer battalions are already fighting on the Kherson front lines.”

The Russian military can still project significant power with its rocket, artillery, and missile units. Despite one high command turnover, its ground operations are poorly managed, with little liberty ceded to commanders. The recent week has brought to light concerns about motivation and leadership.

Russian bloggers who backed the offensive argue that a fundamental reassessment is needed. “A different strategy to the conflict in Ukraine is required,” one person said. “Mobilization of the economy and industry. Establishment of a political control center for the war.”

Strelkov reached the same conclusion, declaring that it is time to “start fighting for real (with martial law, army mobilization, and economic mobilization).”

Throughout the crisis, Putin has avoided widespread mobilization, which may backfire domestically.

It’s unclear if the Kremlin would now double down in an attempt to complete the special military operation or seek a diplomatic settlement.

Given the events of the previous week, the first alternative appears to be a tall task; the second would be embarrassing. The third, and possibly most likely, an alternative is that Russia will continue its grinding inch-by-inch offensive despite gaining little to no new land. However, it now faces an enemy with the wind in its sails and fresh infusions of Western military help planned for the winter months.

Ukraine’s combat achievements have reenergized allied backing, with a conference in Germany this weekend yielding more long-term assurances.

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