Withdrawal of Russian troops: Advance on a broad front

Spectacular offensive against the Russian occupiers east of Kharkiv: Ukraine made up for five months in five days.

A soldier hoists the Ukrainian flag

Raising of the Ukrainian flag in liberated Balakliia on Saturday Photo: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine/Handout via Reuters

Even sober analysts resort to superlatives when it comes to Ukraine's recent successes against occupying Russian forces. "The most impressive and successful counter-offensive since Israel's Operation Gazelle during the Yom Kippur War," marvels "Jomini of the West," the US Twitter account of an anonymous, very knowledgeable military expert.

The renowned Institute for the Study of War in the US calculates that in five days Ukraine has recaptured more territory than Russia has taken in all its operations over the past five months – “Ukrainian forces have broken through Russian lines at a depth of up to 70 kilometers”. It is considered the biggest Ukrainian success in the ongoing war since Russia's withdrawal from the region around the capital Kyiv at the end of March.

What began on September 6 with a few Ukrainian pinpricks against Russian positions south-east of Ukraine's second largest city of Kharkiv developed into the extensive collapse of the Russian front in the north of the Donbass by the weekend. First, Ukrainian units pushed eastwards deep into Russian-held territory and reached Kupyansk, the largest city in the Russian-held part of Kharkiv Oblast and the seat of the Russian military administration for the area, largely without a fight. Then they fanned out in other directions, seized control of the main routes of communication, and cut off the Russian units from each other.

They captured the frontline town of Balakliya and also reached Izyum, the region's most important transport hub, which had been the hub of the Russian offensive to conquer the Donbass since Easter. These are aiming south from Izyum, but the Ukrainians surprised the Russian units practically behind their own lines, from the north. On Saturday, the Russian Defense Ministry officially announced the withdrawal from Kupyansk and Izyum.

Behind the Oskol river we continue

The Moscow ministry said the focus would now be on the “liberation of the Donbass” and published a map that no longer shows any Russian-controlled territories west of the Oskol River in the Kharkiv region, not even in the immediate border area with Russia itself. While Ukrainian units were still in the process of moving into the settlements vacated by Russia on Sunday, the Russians said they had completely withdrawn behind the river, which forms a natural new line of defence.

What Moscow called a "regrouping" was in fact an often chaotic escape. Countless photos and videos document the gigantic amounts of armor material left behind. The combat strength of several battalions is said to have left Russia to Ukraine when it retreated. On Sunday it was unclear how far the chaos could have spread to other areas of the front, such as in southern Ukraine around Cherson.

Southern Ukraine had actually been the main focus of Ukrainian counter-offensives against Russia in recent weeks. Central to this was the targeted destruction of Russian supply lines and military infrastructure thanks to the artillery and missile systems with longer ranges supplied by NATO countries. To compensate, Russia shifted significant forces from eastern Ukraine to southern Ukraine.

In the Donbass, Russia only concentrated its troops at a few points, where it repeatedly advanced a few kilometers with difficulty, leaving large, nominally occupied areas practically idle. Ukraine has now exploited this and completely taken the Russian side by surprise, as the Russian military analyst Andrew Korybko admits on his blog: He diagnoses “serious intelligence deficits” on the Russian side.

Big communication difficulties

"Russia had only one line of defense, Ukraine broke through," Mykola Bielieskow analyzed on Sunday National Institute for Strategic Studies in Kiew. He does the math: Russia has 200,000 to 250,000 soldiers deployed in Ukraine, along a 1,300-kilometer front line, of which 80,000 have now been killed or wounded. The rest is far too little for a layered defense in addition to attacking actions. As soon as Ukrainian units break through the front Russian lines, everything is wide open to them.

Some experts now believe it is possible that Russia will again lose the entire area north of the "People's Republics" of Luhansk and Donetsk. All Russian supply lines in eastern Ukraine are "compromised" by the loss of Kupyansk, says Australian military expert Mick Ryan, adding: "We could see a cascade of Russian tactical retreats and defeats in different regions."

Military expert Andrew Perpetua sees the problem in the rigid, hierarchical Russian military doctrine: “The problem (of the Russians) is that their units usually don't operate together. In exceptional situations, they therefore have great communication difficulties. The officers don't know where to go or who to report to. And even if they did, the officer may not have any more soldiers to command, they flee in disorder.”

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