How Russia’s defeat in Kharkiv Oblast will affect the course of the war — NV analysis

12 September, 05:55 PM
Russians abandon their equipment en masse, retreating in Kharkiv Oblast (

Russians abandon their equipment en masse, retreating in Kharkiv Oblast (

In just five days, the Armed Forces of Ukraine broke the Russian defense in the east and destroyed the largest enemy concentrations. This success has already radically changed the course of the war in favor of Ukraine.

A colossus standing on feet of clay — this is how Russia appeared before the world community in early September. Its "second army of the world" in the course of the full-scale war was already seen retreating from Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy oblasts. But still, even after that, Russians had the opportunity to demonstrate their strength — the ability to conduct massive artillery fire, gradually destroying Ukrainian defenses in certain areas of the front line in Donbas.

Video of day

However, then the invading forces underwent what can only be described as a total collapse in the area of Izyum.

As a result of this unexpected Ukrainian offensive, one of the most powerful concentrations of Russian troops — the garrison at Izyum — has practically ceased to exist. It was hanging over Slovyansk and Kramatorsk from the north and was supposed to help the enemy to fulfill the task of Russian dictator Putin — to completely "liberate" Donbas by Sept. 16.

Now there are no Russians in Izyum. Ukrainian troops walk the streets of the town instead. It took less than a week for the Ukrainian Armed Forces to carry out such a "rotation".

Before that, Ukrainian forces were active in Kherson Oblast, having liberated several settlements. Therefore, media and experts kept going on about the beginning of a major counteroffensive in the south. And Russians, according to intelligence, began to move troops there from the eastern front.

On the Kherson axis, there were about 10,000 Russian soldiers, and later this number rose sharply to 25,000, military expert Oleh Zhdanov told NV. "This is where the units of Russian troops from the eastern axes have gone," he said.

The events in Kharkiv Oblast turned into a big surprise for the invading army.

"Absolute tactical surprise was achieved," military journalist Yuriy Butusov explained to Radio NV.

"The enemy did not expect an attack at all in the place where our troops attacked, where the breakthrough took place.”

Running to the south and east

The first reports of successful attacks by Ukrainian forces in the area of the then-occupied Balakliya, a town in the south of Kharkiv Oblast and north of Izyum, appeared on social networks on Sept. 6. The General Staff of the Armed Forces did not provide any official comments on this development at the time, and the Russian Ministry of Defense also remained silent, although they had previously got into the habit of convincing their population on a daily basis that"the special operation is going according to plan".

Three days passed, and social media on both sides began to talk about the fact that the Ukrainian military had already reached Kupyansk, a city about 70 km east of Balakliya, located near the northwestern administrative border of Luhansk Oblast.

Kupyansk is a key railway junction that provided logistics for the entire grouping of Russian troops in Kharkiv Oblast.

At the same time, there were reports that the Ukrainian Armed Forces expanded this deep breakthrough to the south, liberating the entire western bank of the Oskil River to Bakhtyn, and even to the village of Oskil — the only supply route for the enemy's Izyum grouping.

Since the beginning of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, the enemy has been constantly disoriented about the true intentions of Ukrainian strike groups, who repeatedly changed the direction of their strikes, explains Viktor Kevliuk, an expert with the Center for Defense Strategies.

At the same time, Russian proxies were throwing a tantrum, either mourning for their soldiers who were surrounded and fled, or launching angry tirades against the Russian military leadership. Igor Girkin, nom de guerre Strelkov, who has been one of the loudest mainstream Russian critics of the leadership of the "Special Operation in Ukraine", directly spoke about the defeat of Russian troops in the area of Izyum and hinted that the failure is not solely Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu's fault.

The Russian Ministry of Defense remained tight-lipped, with Russian propagandists release videos of some columns of military equipment, supposedly as "reinforcements coming to save the Izyum grouping". At the same time, Ukrainian officials and other sources admitted that the counteroffensive is going on and developing successfully, as Balakliya, Kupyansk and other settlements have been liberated.

At the frontline, the news about the liberation of Ukrainian cities by the Ukrainian Armed Forces could not keep up with the Ukrainian military, who were immediately liberating more and more territories. And, judging by data from the operational area, they did not meet any strong resistance.

“We broke through the first line of defense. And then there was no second or third line of defense,” Zhdanov said. “Therefore, Russian troops cannot stop now. In this case, we can say that we are advancing on the shoulders of the retreating enemy.”

As Mykola Sunhurovsky, Director of Military Programmes at the Razumkov Center think tank, clarified in an interview with NV, the conditional second and third lines of defense of the enemy were the police forces: the National Guard (Rosgvardiya) and special services, whose task was to repress civilians, and not to participate in hostilities.

"This is a completely different technical support," explains Sunhurovsky.

"They do not have any heavy weapons.”

By the evening of Sept. 10, the Ukrainian Armed Forces not only liberated Izyum, but also advanced east and south, approaching Svatove, as well as Lysychansk and Severodonetsk, cities in Luhansk Oblast that Russians captured in mid-summer at great cost and sacrifice after long battles.

This pace of Ukraine’s infantry advance is like a World War II blitzkrieg, Butusov believes.

Their high speed was the result of the continuity of actions taking place at an extremely high pace, the refusal to get involved in battles with pockets of resistance, and the change of units operating at the forefront of attacks, explains Kevliuk. The expert adds that it is also due to comprehensive support, steady and continuous management, and the high morale of Ukrainian forces and their focus on victory.

Soldiers of the Armed Forces unfurl the national flag in liberated Kupyansk (Фото:
Soldiers of the Armed Forces unfurl the national flag in liberated Kupyansk / Фото:

At this moment, the Russian military command finally checked in. They claimed that the behavior characteristic of an rout on the part of the Russian army was in fact an "organized regrouping of troops in the area of Balakliya and Izyum". Allegedly, all forces were withdrawn from there to the Donetsk axis.

"In the course of this operation a number of feints and distracting maneuvers were executed to disguise the real actions of the troops,” the Russian Defense Ministry claimed.

“In order to prevent losses among Russian troops, the enemy was hit with air, missile, and artillery strikes.”

At the same time, Ukrainian social media pages published a video from the liberated Izyum with a large number of "means of destruction" left by the enemy — tanks, large caliber self-propelled artillery systems and others. And in Balakliya, the Ukrainian Armed Forces got a gigantic, fully stocked ammunition depot.

As a result of all this "running to the east and south", the Ukrainian army destroyed the monolithic defense of the enemy's operational groups "West" and "Center" within the Kharkiv and the northern part of Luhansk oblasts, explains Kevliuk.

Since the first day of fall, the Ukrainian army has regained control of more than 3,000 square kilometers, said Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, on Sept. 11. Ukrainian forces are 50 km away from the state border in Kharkiv Oblast, according to him. And the offensive continues.

A turning point in favor of Ukraine

Russians have nothing to counteract the inspired attack of Ukrainian forces, except for the troops that are already in the Donetsk area. The invading army is unable to redirect forces from Kherson, from their bridgehead on the right bank of the Dnipro River, as to the east as all the bridges are destroyed, and the Armed Forces of Ukraine fully controls the river with their firepower.

"So that grouping — the largest, consisting of regular units of the Russian army— is closed off," Zhdanov said.

The enemy has the 3rd Army Corps, which has just been formed from various reservists, the expert adds, and it is being transferred to Kharkiv Oblast in parts. But there is no stable front there, and Russian generals are unable to understand where and what forces should be sent.

Western analysts are already comparing the Balakliya-Kupyansk-Izyum operation of the Armed Forces of Ukraine with Operation Storm conducted by the Croats in 1995, which ended with the complete liberation of their country from Serbian soldiers and separatists.

According to analysts of the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War, during the five days of September, Ukrainian forces in the east alone liberated more territory than Russians had captured during all of their operations since April.

The main thing is that the format of the war has changed. "The Ukrainian Armed Forces have seized not only the tactical but also the operational initiative," Kevliuk stated.

"The operational success in Kharkiv Oblast may well be developed into a strategic victory in the northeast of Ukraine. And give impetus to the liberation of Donbas.”

Nevertheless, military expert Ihor Koziy calls for caution, saying that Ukrainians should exhibit prudence.

"It seems that we still do not have enough high-precision weapons to completely squeeze the occupiers from all the lands under their control," he says.

And he assumes that the process of the complete liberation of Ukraine will be delayed until next year.

At the same time, Russia still has enough reserves to carry out pinpoint strikes in certain areas of the front. 

"But basically, there are signs that the military initiative is shifting to us," Sungurovsky said.

However, there is another — non-military — factor that can immediately lead not only the Russian army, but also the entire leadership of the aggressor country to collapse.

"This first breakthrough can actually create such a panic that all other lines of defense will simply collapse," Sunhurovsky told NV.

"At the same time, destructive processes are taking place in Russia. A very strong undermining of Putin has begun there."

Under such conditions, according to Sunhurovsky, Russia will not stand for long.

Now there is a complete disappointment and demoralization of the Russian armed forces, Koziy adds.

"This affects the political system inside the aggressor country," he said.

"We hear some statements about Putin's inability to govern. All this can accelerate the Russian dictator's departure from power.”

This opinion is shared by Zhdanov.

"If next week Putin does not reveal the conspiracy of the generals who surrendered the front, then in two weeks the revolt will be against him," the expert predicts.

"That's why the pessimistic forecast is that [the war will last] until the middle of next year," Sunhurovsky said.

“And the optimistic forecast is that if everything goes the way we want, it will be the end of this year.”

On the afternoon of Sept. 11, when there were reports of Ukrainian forces reaching the border with Russia to the north and northeast of Kharkiv, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said on Russian state TV: "We are not against negotiations [with Kyiv], we do not refuse to negotiate".

Follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Google News

Ukraine Today
Fresh daily newsletter covering the top headlines and developments in Ukraine
Daily at 9am EST
Show more news