The war is unlikely to end with this offensive, but it has placed Ukraine in a stronger position. It has exposed Russian vulnerabilities and also made Putin’s own position less secure.
The Ukrainian counter-offensive was a surprise. It came at a time when most expected the war to continue in an interminable stalemate. None also imagined that it would come in the north-eastern Kharkiv region, especially since Ukrainian actions were focused in the south in the preceding months. None also expected the scope and speed of the offensive, in which the Ukrainians regained 6,000 square kilometers of occupied territory in just a fortnight or so—area which had taken the Russians three months to capture. With the success of this offensive, the momentum of the war seems to have shifted Ukraine’s way.
The Ukrainian offensive began on 6 September, when after two days of intense artillery bombardment, around six Ukrainian brigades which had assembled undetected in their Concentration Areas, hit the weak link in the Russian positions near the town of Balakliya. Ukrainian forces encircled the town, while their mechanized forces moved deeper eastwards towards the line of the Oskil River, capturing the bridges and cutting off the Russian route of withdrawal. After just two days of fighting, the Russian forces in Balakliya—made up largely of militia and weak units—capitulated. Most surrendered, with some changing into civilian clothes to escape in cars and bicycles.
Simultaneously, Ukrainian thrusts also headed in the north towards Kupyansk—a rail and road junction which formed a vital logistical hub for the Russian forces. Another thrust moved towards Izium—the gateway to the Donbas which the Russians had seized in July and was their major command and communication center. Kupyansk fell in just three days, in a repeat of the actions at Balakliya. The very next day Izium fell, and the Ukrainian Defence Ministry put up photographs of soldiers in the town with the emoji of a bunch of grapes (Izium means “raisins” in Ukraine). And just a week after the offensive had commenced, Zelenskyy raised the Ukrainian flag in the town square, with the promise that it would come up soon in “every town and village” of Russian occupied areas.
The success of the Ukrainian offensive changed the outlook of the war. The blitzkrieg was a far cry from the plodding attrition warfare waged by the Russians; within a week, they recovered areas that had taken the Russians months to capture. Russian forces fled without a coordinated fight, surrendering in droves and leaving behind almost two brigades worth of equipment. This was Russia’s greatest defeat in the war, even graver than their withdrawal from Kyiv in March. It negated months of effort and put paid to their plans of taking over all of Donbas. Russian weaknesses—especially their lack of trained and motivated manpower—has been exposed and for the first time, their military defeat seems a distinct possibility.
PLANNING AND CONDUCT
The offensive was reportedly the brainchild of General Oleksandr Syrsky, who was also responsible for the successful defence of Kyiv in the crucial days of March. The offensive had been planned over three months, and equipment and manpower developed slowly and in great secrecy. US intelligence had identified the weak spots in Russian positions and based on it the Ukrainians had the options to strike southwards along the coast or in the east. It was decided to attack in both places, but at different timings. In August, Ukrainian forces launched an offensive in the south, in the area of Kherson, with the aim to push the Russians back along the coastline of the sea of Azov and recapture the port towns. This offensive was heavily publicized (perhaps as part of an overall deception plan to divert attention from the coming offensive in the east). It recaptured around 500 square kilometer of territory in the south and pushed the Russians back to the Dnieper River along the rough line of Zaporizhzhia-Melitopol-Kherson. But the offensive made little headway thereafter and stalled, leading to speculation that the offensive had spent itself. But it succeeded in drawing out over a dozen Battalion Tactical Groups which were pulled out from the east to reinforce the line in the south. This was perhaps part of an overall design that helped create gaps in the Russian positions in the east which were later exploited.
A month later, in September, the Ukrainians launched their offensive in the north-east—in the Kharkiv sector, where they had attained their last victory by pushing the Russians out of the town. The Ukrainians concealed their preparations well. They deliberately thinned out artillery batteries and heavy equipment from the eastern front to help reinforce the perception that their focus lay in the south. When they did launch their offensive, they used a relatively small number of tanks and combat vehicles in the initial waves to disguise their strength till they hit the Russian main positions.
The Ukrainian ranks were beefed up by over 60,000 newly-trained reservists who were amalgamated with the forward units. Newly arrived western equipment also helped overcome their weaknesses—especially in artillery and air defence systems. The much-publicized M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System with GPS guided ammunition gave the Ukrainians the ability to launch precision strikes deep into the rear. The strike on Russia’s Saki airbase deep in the Crimea, which destroyed seven Russian fighters on ground (effectively one third of the Russian naval aviation fleet) has been attributed to the use of these munitions. (Though some sources attribute it to sabotage.) Their air defence too was beefed up with HARM anti-radiation missiles, which downed one aircraft and two helicopters on the first day of the offensive, in effect negating the Russian use of their superior air power.
The timing of the offensive was designed to retake maximum territory before the first snows. The offensive actually has two offensives—one in the south, another in the east; separated by over 400 kilometers but both complementing each other. The success in the east has opened avenues for the Ukrainians. They could move up to the line of the Oskil River (which seems to be the aim in this phase of the offensive), and retake the occupied areas of north eastern Ukraine. From here the next step would be the retaking of the vital towns of the Luhansk—Rubinzhne, Lysychansk and Severodonestsk—which the Russians captured with great difficulty and much fanfare in July. This will also give them a launch pad to carry the battle into Russian territory and strike at Belgorod—60 kilometers inside Russia which forms the supply hub for their entire offensive. Concurrently, they could divide Russian reaction by reactivating the southern offensive and make a renewed bid to capture Kherson and parts of the coastline along the Sea of Azov. This would hamper Russian plans to develop a land bridge to Crimea. But it would be a harder task, since Russian defences are far stronger in the south and in the Donbas. Should they pursue their offensive, the Ukrainians may be able to push forward till the line of the Dnieper River in the south and the Donetsk River in the east. Beyond that, it seems difficult, at least till the winter.
The Ukrainian counter offensive is a stunning reversal of roles but it is not a complete victory. Russia has withdrawn its troops from the Kharkiv region for “regrouping” (the same term used after their withdrawal from Kyiv) and moved them deeper into the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces of the Donbas, where they can consolidate. Yet, this is a major setback and was acknowledged as such even within Russia. For the first time, stirrings of discontent have come out openly within Moscow, with even die-hard Putin loyalists questioning his handling of the war. The first calls for his resignation have also been raised by fifty municipal legislators from Moscow and St Petersburg.
The Ukrainian victories will galvanize the United States and their allies to send in more military hardware—especially long-range munitions—which have made all the difference. Additional reservists will also be called up to make up the Ukrainian losses—as it is, there seems to be an endless stream waiting to fill the ranks. Russia, by contrast, seems to have lost more heavily—by western estimates around 70,000-80,000 men have been killed or injured. These losses cannot be made up unless Putin calls for general mobilization, which will be seen as a sign that the war is not going well, and raise further murmurs within the country. This success will also boost wavering allies like Germany, Italy and France and even enable them to face the energy crunch, brought about by Russia shutting its gas flow into Europe, with greater fortitude.
The war is unlikely to end with this offensive, but it has placed Ukraine in a stronger position. It has exposed Russian vulnerabilities and also made Putin’s own position less secure. It could provoke him to lash out, but may also bring sufficient pressure on him for a negotiated end to the war. This could mean a withdrawal to the pre-February positions. (Perhaps as a face-saver, he could be allowed to keep Crimea.) There is a window till around November or so for both sides to make or lose their gains. After that winter will set in and both sides will be likely to consolidate along the line which they hold. (Which could be along the river lines.) The coming two months will determine the war. It seems to have moved Ukraine’s way, but let us not forget that even now, Russia holds 20% of Ukraine’s territory—an estimated 600,000 square kilometers. Recovering all of it will not be easy. But then neither will it be easy for Russia to hold on to it. The war has had many twists and turns so far. Let us see which way it twists now; whether Ukraine reclaims its areas, whether Russia holds on, or whether the winter-induced stalemate carries the war interminably into the next year and beyond.
Ajay Singh is the award-winning author of five books and over 200 articles. His book “The War in Ukraine” is due for release this year.