In the past week the Ukraine has scored a major victory in its effort to drive Russia from its territory, pushing the Russians back across a wide swath in the areas north and east of the city of Kharkiv. The two maps to the right, created by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and simplified, reduced, and annotated to post here, show these gains, with the top map from their August 30, 2022 analysis and the bottom from their September 11, 2022 update. Red or pink areas are regions controlled by the Russians. Blue areas are regions retaken by the Ukraine. Red-striped areas are regions captured by Russian in its 2014 invasion. Blue-striped areas are regions inside Russian-occupied territories that have seen strong partisan resistance.
The green lines on both maps mark rivers that act as important military barriers. The blue arrows on the lower map east of Kharkiv show the Ukrainian military push this past week, first to the east to the river Oskil. From there the forces moved north and south. To the south the Ukrainians used the Oskil river to their left as a wall protecting them from Russian forces. That same river acted to pin the Russians down in the south, forcing them in the past day to quickly retreat to the east across the one remaining bridge under their control, but in the process abandoning large amounts of armaments that the Ukrainians can now use.
In the south, the Dnipro River also acts as a barrier for the Russian occupying forces north of Kherson.
The Ukrainians have spent the last month or so aggressively attacking the handful of bridges that cross this river, thus restricting Russian transport to and from its northern forces. As the Ukrainians made these attacks, they were remarkably public about their plans to follow up with a major campaign in the south to retake Kherson and all territory north of the Dnipro.
In that public campaign lies the key to this whole counter-offensive. As ISW noted in its update of September 11, 2022:
The Ukrainian success resulted from skillful campaign design and execution that included efforts to maximize the impact of Western weapons systems such as HIMARS. Kyiv’s long discussion and then an announcement of a counter-offensive operation aimed at Kherson Oblast drew substantial Russian troops away from the sectors on which Ukrainian forces have conducted decisive attacks in the past several days. Ukraine’s armed forces employed HIMARS and other Western systems to attack Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) in Kharkiv and Kherson Oblasts, setting conditions for the success of this operation. Ukrainian leaders discussed the strikes in the south much more ostentatiously, however, successfully confusing the Russians about their intentions in Kharkiv Oblast. Western weapons systems were necessary but not sufficient to secure success for Ukraine. The Ukrainian employment of those systems in a well-designed and well-executed campaign has generated the remarkable success of the counter-offensive operations in Kharkiv Oblast. [emphasis mine]
The Ukrainians used their better intelligence and equipment provided by the west to attack important Russian supply links prior to the counter-offensive. They also took advantage of their better understanding of the geography, since this is their country, recognizing the military importance not only of the Dnipro River in the south, but the Oskil River in the north. While the Russians have been struggling in the past two months to keep their supply lines across the Dnipro open, it appears the Russians missed the importance of the Oskil entirely.
This last error by the Russians also illustrates another major factor in this war: The Russian’s military leadership from day one has generally done a very poor job. It has not planned its attacks realistically, first by vastly overestimating its ability to capture the Ukraine, thus forcing a major retreat in April, and then overestimating the ability of its remaining forces to hold the territory it still possessed. To keep Kherson that leadership stripped Kharkiv, leaving it exposed.
The Ukrainians strategy anticipated this possibility, planned on it, and when the Russians foolishly obliged immediately took full advantage.
The counter-offensive is not over. In the north the Ukrainians are now pushing east. There is a good chance in the next week they can sweep up additional the Russian holdings, especially along the southern parts of this front. The ISW analysis also notes that for the Russians to hold back the Ukrainians it needs to pull back to better lines of defense, something that Russian leadership seems loath to do. And if they do not, they will find themselves overrun again.
In the south the Ukrainians have not let up their attacks on Russia’s forces north of the Dnipro, all of which are very exposed because the river at their back prevents their easy escape while limiting any resupply to them. Though nothing is guaranteed, it would not be a surprise if those Russian forces soon pull back across the river, giving up Kherson. Based on the battle situation, it likely would be the prudent and wise thing to do.
Then again, that Russian leadership has not shown itself to be either prudent or wise during this entire war, from Putin on down to his generals.
In my last update on August 30, 2022 I called the war “a brutal stale-mate, with Russia so far showing the only real gains, though all those gains have been small, difficult, and costly.” That stale-mate has now been broken, but not by Russia. The Ukraine has now proven Russia’s attempt to conquer it is an utter failure.
None of this means the war will end soon. As long as Putin is in power, Russia is not likely to retreat or give up what it holds in the Ukraine, without a fight. Nor can the Ukraine quickly or easily push Russia out. As Russia’s holdings shrink, it will have an easier time retaining control. It will have smaller interior lines of defense, making an offensive against it more difficult.
Nonetheless, Russia’s failure in this war has now clearly demonstrated it is no longer a strong military threat to Europe, or to the west. Its nuclear weapon capabilities are certainly a concern, but no one need fear its ability to invade and conquer any of its neighbors. In fact, its only practical and realistic option is to stop trying to conquer its neighbors but instead to live with them, as neighbors. This is actually what the Ukraine — and the west — has always wanted. And Russia would only benefit by accepting that option.
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