YEREVAN – Weapons are the province of chemistry, ballistics and engineering; strategy is the domain of mathematics, economics and politics. But there is a reason warfare is considered an “art” and not a science by its greatest theorists.
The Ukrainian military has – once again – defied expectations about its limited resources and capabilities, by all accounts achieving a notable victory in the eastern province of Kharkiv – liberating more than 1,200 square miles of occupied territory in just days.
That’s an area the size of Yosemite National Park, and the swift advance of Ukrainian forces undid months of Russia’s territorial gains that cost thousands of lives on both sides.
Ukraine’s advance in Kharkiv is a tangible success that can’t be easily brushed off by Russian propagandists. It is a clear victory that meshes well with Kyiv’s immediate need to demonstrate progress against Russian forces – and bolster support from international allies. But the battles ahead on the southern front will be much more critical – and difficult – for Ukraine as it fights to liberate occupied territories and end the war.
As reports began to spread that the Ukrainian military was making sizable gains in Kharkiv province, I checked in with a government source and asked if he could update me on how things were going.
“Not bad,” was his laconic reply.
Could he summarize the situation? Yes, he said: “Our army has success in the east.”
That’s the typical mildly fatalistic, non-answer you get from Ukrainian military officials – but it was easy to see what he meant by “success.” Videos and pictures were surfacing showing triumphant Ukrainian forces dashing through village after village and town after town being greeted by newly liberated civilians with hugs, food and flowers: even the Russian ministry of defense acknowledged Ukrainian forces were advancing in Kharkiv. Soon, Russian military commentators began describing the event as a “catastrophe.”
What was particularly surprising is that before this apparent success in the east, all eyes were focused on Ukraine’s southern front, where Kyiv’s forces were focused on liberating the city of Kherson.
Prior to the surprising collapse of Russian defenses in Kharkiv, this debate over whether the “Kherson counteroffensive” was succeeding or failing obscured a fundamental truth about this stage of the conflict. After the failure by the Kremlin’s forces to capture Kyiv and oust President Volodomyr Zelensky and his democratically elected government, and after the assault by Russian forces in the south and east was fought to a standstill by the defenders and the frontlines had been stabilized, it is now Ukraine that has the initiative – and the ability to dictate where it chooses to fight.
Russia must react to its enemy’s moves. And that’s a problem for the Kremlin.
Amid what the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz described as war’s “clouds of great uncertainty,” there was something refreshing in seeing this Ukrainian advance acknowledged by their enemies.
Meanwhile, the Russian defense ministry portrayed the retreat of their forces from Kharkiv as a strategic “redeployment.”
From the perspective of the information war, it is irrelevant whether Russia intended to withdraw from Kharkiv or was ousted by force: either way, it is clear that Ukraine achieved a breakthrough – and demonstrated that its military has the ability to negate Russia’s strategy of grinding attrition.
The Ukrainians will need more of this kind of creativity and cunning in the months ahead.
After weeks of public declarations that Ukraine was preparing to conduct a massive counteroffensive in the south of the country, since mid-August the country’s military carried out a concerted campaign to “corrode” and degrade Russian logistics and supplies in the area around the southern city of Kherson using long-range artillery rockets supplied by the U.S. and its allies. All of this activity convinced Russian commanders – and outside observers – that the main Ukrainian effort before the onset of winter was aimed at this area.
But all warfare is based on deception, as Sun Tzu wrote. So even as Russia pulled 25 Battalion Tactical Groups – as many as 15,000 combat troops or more – out of the east to reinforce soldiers defending the territories it had seized in the south, Ukraine was cobbling together an ad hoc fighting force in the east designed for maneuver warfare – rapid movement to dislocate and disrupt the enemy’s ability and will to fight – successfully hiding it from the eyes of Russian drones and reconnaissance.
Thus, within a week of Ukraine announcing that it was carrying out major operations in the area around Kherson, along the southern front, it began a major thrust 700 miles away to the northeast, near Kharkiv.
“Swiftness of action along major lines of communications – Ukrainian forces covered 75 kilometers [about 47 miles] toward Kupyansk in three days – led to the complete collapse of the Russian front line and unorganized withdrawal of units,” as Mykola Bielieskov, a research fellow at Ukraine’s National Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote. “The offensive’s accomplishments are especially impressive in light of the fact that Ukrainian forces are still grappling with a deficit of critical artillery and armor and lack air superiority, which is considered an essential requirement for any successful offensive operation.”
This area was the scene of intense combat I witnessed with a Ukrainian air assault reconnaissance company in June; Ukraine has now retaken several of the cities that had fallen in that fighting.
The timing of the liberation of dozens of urban areas in Kharkiv is propitious for Ukraine, which needs to achieve visible and substantial victories on the battlefield to bolster flagging and increasingly fractious Western support. With soaring energy prices promising a hard winter across Europe, solidarity with Ukraine could well fall victim to public anger over heating bills.
Even as early as June, polling in European countries indicated that 35 percent of citizens in EU countries wanted a peace deal to end the war in Ukraine, while only 22 percent wished for an outright defeat of Russia – and 43 percent either had no opinion or couldn’t decide. Against this ambivalence, politicians who believe it is in their country’s interest to continue providing arms and other aid to Kyiv will have a much easier time justifying economic sacrifices if the perception is that Ukraine is winning the war.
All of that being said, it is too early for a victory parade, no matter how many superlatives analysts use to describe Ukraine’s ouster of Russian forces in Kharkiv province. The newly liberated area is only about 2.5 percent of the more than 46,600 square miles of territory that Russia has seized since 2014 – one fifth of all of Ukraine.
The battlefront in Ukraine is over 1,500 miles long, stretching from Kharkiv in the north, along a wide crescent sweeping east and then south through Donbas, then west toward Kherson in the south-central portion of the country. Six months of continuous battle have sapped the strength and resources of invader and defender alike.
“It is very difficult for us,” acknowledged General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the top officer in Ukraine’s military. “But we are moving forward.”
That appears to be true. There is even evidence of Ukrainian soldiers advancing to the border of Russia itself, although they said they stopped short of crossing into Belgorod province despite encountering no armed opposition.
Still, “moving forward” in battle costs lives and equipment: while Ukrainian defense officials understandably choose to highlight videos of hugs and flowers, in this conflict there is no such thing as a bloodless victory – even if the price being paid is not publicly disclosed. No reliable accounting of the dead from this war currently exists, but even conservative estimates indicate that tens of thousands of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers and civilians have been slain to date. Ukrainian officials said in late August that at least 9,000 soldiers and more than 2,000 civilians had been slain; they also claimed to have killed more than 50,000 Russian soldiers.
And there will be more bloodshed.
In Kharkiv, Russian forces have been pushed back to the Oskil River – a major natural barrier, as true for the defenders as for the attackers. While Ukrainian forces have taken control of key logistics and transport hubs like Izyum and Kupyansk that allow them to threaten Russian forces in Luhansk and Donetsk, it isn’t clear that Kyiv has sufficient forces to further exploit these gains.
The military governor of Luhansk province, Serhiy Hayday, was blunt in his assessment: “The Kharkiv rapid scenario will not be repeated. We will have to fight hard for our oblast [province].”
Ukraine will need every trained soldier it can muster if it hopes to continue liberating territory seized by Russia. Although thousands of Ukrainian soldiers are now being rotated through training in the United Kingdom with a coalition of NATO personnel, and with more specialized training being conducted or considered in the United States and in Europe, over the summer I witnessed multiple instances in which individual soldiers and units up to battalion-strength with minimal training were being sent as replacements to battle-scarred brigades on the front lines.
“You can’t just take a guy and throw him on the line after four weeks of training,” Dr. Richard D. Hooker Jr., a retired U.S. Army airborne infantry commander and former senior director for Europe and Russia on the National Security Council, told me. “You’ve just gotta bite the bullet and fully train these guys. Throwing hordes of hastily trained soldiers onto the battlefield is not the way to do that.”
Hooker has argued previously that units with heavy losses should be pulled from the line and sent back for temporary refit and reinforcement, allowing experienced veterans to train the newcomers and create a semblance of unit cohesion before returning to the fight. “The effort to reorganize in the midst of an ongoing war will be wrenching. Nevertheless, it is necessary if Ukraine is to wrest back its national territory.”
In June, Oleksii Danilov, the top official on Ukraine’s national security and defense council, estimated that six new brigades – about 25,000 well-equipped, professional soldiers – would be required to liberate all of the territory currently under Russian control.
These soldiers will also need weapons and munitions, and while Western goodwill may be strengthened by the perception of progress, Western stockpiles of key munitions and weapons are beginning to run low.
Of course, there is plenty of data that Russia is facing the same pressures in terms of manpower and supply of munitions, and this is why it actually does matter whether its forces fell apart in Kharkiv, or conducted a “strategic withdrawal” – no matter how messy – abandoning land it had conquered in order to consolidate its lines. It’s an easily understood dynamic: the less territory Russia is holding, the more troops it will have available to defend them with greater concentrations of firepower. And that will mean even more casualties for Ukraine as it claws back its lands, and slower progress in liberating further territories.
But President Volodymyr Zelensky and his military leadership seem to understand that they are up against the clock, which is why they pushed to make something happen before winter. The liberation of eastern cities solidifies Ukrainian morale and boosts faith in the military’s ability to win the conflict in the long-term. It also demonstrates to foreign allies that their weapons and aid matter – that they are backing not merely a moral cause, but a winning one. But it doesn’t change the fact that Ukraine needs more trained soldiers and Western weapons to win.
That doesn’t mean the clock is ticking in Russia’s favor, either. By seizing so much territory early in the war, Russia may have already achieved some of its key goals on paper. But taking territory and holding it are two different things. Ukrainian partisans have already begun to make life difficult for the occupiers. At some point, however, the Ukrainian military will have to begin major operations to oust the invaders.
Liberating the southern city of Kherson is an obvious immediate strategic goal for the Ukrainian military, and a necessary precursor to any efforts to reclaim occupied territory further south.
“If the city falls, they’ve had success,” Dr. Hooker, the former NSC official, told me. “It might be the tipping point where people now start to think ‘Yeah – Ukraine has a real chance to win this.’”
Kherson, a regional economic and administrative capital, is a port city that sits on the upstream end of the Dnipro River estuary as it flows into the Black Sea. Its pre-war population was around 290,000 – nearly half of which has fled since the fighting began in February. Having fallen to Russian forces in early March, Kherson is the only major city held by Russia on the western side of the winding Dnipro, the major waterway that divides Ukraine in a wide arc, from the border with Belarus in the north, to the Black Sea west of the Crimean Peninsula in the south.
Grasping this geography is essential to understanding the challenges and goals of a Ukrainian counteroffensive in southern Ukraine, as well as the Russian defensive strategy.
The Dnipro River to the south of Kherson, and the Inhulets River to the east of it, form formidable natural barriers to the rapid movement of men and material around the city. The key crossing of the Dnipro from Russian held-territory into the area around Kherson is the Antonivsky Bridge, a three-quarters-of-a-mile long span that carries the main regional highway north-south, from one bank to the other.
That bridge was the scene of major fighting in the opening days of the invasion: it changed hands several times, until finally falling to Russian forces streaming out of Crimea in late February, after a desperate defense by Ukrainian forces.
The next river crossing is at Nova Kakhovka, about 30 miles upstream of the Antonivsky Bridge, and the last crossing point until more than 125 miles upstream to the northeast, in the city of Zaporizhzhya.
These two bridges then, are the gateways to the southern territories and Crimea, and as such, they have been the focal point for military activity. For Russian forces operating in Kherson to stay resupplied and reinforced, there must be a reliable path to cross the Dnipro, and that means intact bridges.
“If you drop the bridges, and force the Russians to rely on pontoon bridges, it’s a major issue. Pontoon bridges are more vulnerable and can carry less weight,” Hooker told me. “If you are able to do it, and cut off the Russian forces around Kherson, it obviously sets conditions for further operations in the direction of Crimea.”
Ukraine’s military leadership has been dutifully close-mouthed about the details of their operations, but the government did confirm an operation is underway: “Ukrainian troops have already broken through the first line of defense of the occupiers near Kherson,” Ukraine’s official strategic communications account posted in the messaging app Telegram.
And they admit to focusing on the Antonivsky Bridge.
“It is precisely because we used caution and precision when hitting the bridges which are the main transport arteries across the Dnipro that they became impassable for heavy machinery. This is why the enemy is trying to set up alternative crossings,” Natalia Humeniuk, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s Operational Command South, said in a briefing in Kyiv on Tuesday.
I asked a friend, a former U.S. Navy special warfare officer who specialized in explosives and demolitions, whether there wasn’t an easy way for Ukraine to destroy the bridges with the weapons it had.
“A HIMARS strike could render a bridge essentially inoperative for cars and trucks to cross. But actually dropping bridge spans into the water is much harder, and usually means you have to attack the stanchions or rig explosives underneath the spans by hand,” the former demolitions and munitions expert told me, asking not to be named due to sensitivities regarding his current role.
As word of Ukraine’s gains in Kharkiv spread, the news managed to pierce the increasingly tenuous narrative of endless military success promoted by the Kremlin – and set conditions for “collapsing the Russian information space,” as analysts at the Institute for the Study of War described it – basically a jargony way of saying “showing that the official story is bullshit.” This in turn has generated space for critics inside Russia to publicly call into question the efficacy not just of their country’s military leadership, but also their political leadership.
Within hours of Russian official sources admitting to the setback, people were calling Vladimir Putin an “idiot” on social media – hardly a common activity in a country with newly formulated laws that can result in a 15-year prison sentence for someone who criticizes the war.
No matter how skilfully you spin it, watching your soldiers retreat while the enemy raises their flag over towns you abandoned simply cannot be called victory.