Putin's War, Week 29. The Tempo Slows and Ukraine and Russia Plot What Happens Next

AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File

We’re now a little over a week into Ukraine’s offensive in Kharkiv and Kherson, the action in Kharkiv has slowed down a lot, so it is an excellent time to take a look at what has happened and what we should anticipate.

Kherson Front

This is an animation of how the Ukrainian offensive unfolded.

How did this come to be?

No major disaster is ever monocausal. There was an element of strategic deception, or strategic self-delusion, at play in setting up this offensive. On August 29, President Zelensky gave a speech pledging to liberate Kherson and Crimea.

He also pledged to liberate Kharkiv and Donbas. Because the speech was given as an offensive kicked off in Kherson, all attention was focused there. There was good reason for the focus. Using US-provided HIMARS, the Ukrainians had heavily damaged all the crossings of the Dneiper River, effectively isolating all Russian forces north of that river. In addition, Kherson is a major city, forcing the Russians out of that city and the surrounding area would be quite a coup.

If you’ve read my posts on Ukraine, you’ll know that I’ve been predicting that Ukraine would strike first at Kherson. You’ll also know I’ve consistently referred to the Kharkiv front as a backwater. The Russians agreed with my assessment. They moved about 20,000 troops from the Kharkiv front to Kherson and promptly emplaced them north of the Dnieper. This left the Kharkiv front defended by the highly unreliable Luhansk People’s Republic army (quisling Ukrainians) stiffened with a mixture of paratroopers (VDV), riot police (OMON), and riot police SWAT teams (SOBR). Read Putin’s War, Week 28. The Sitzkrieg Goes Blitzkrieg as Ukraine’s Army Moves 50 Kilometers in Two Days for more details. If some of the translations of intercepted cellphone conversations between Russian soldiers and friends and family are to be believed (I’m a skeptic of most), much of the front was composed of outposts that guarded a drone team linked to supporting artillery.


When the Ukrainians hit them with fresh, well-trained, well-equipped formations, the front dissolved.

As the animation shows, Kharkiv Oblast, including the border with Russia, has been returned to Ukrainian control. This geolocated video says it all:

I expected the Ukrainians to call an operational pause on the east side of the Oskil River because a week of fighting and moving and moving and fighting is a long time. To my surprise, they have continued to push. This is what the operational picture looks like today. The front is hard to sketch out because the Russians have broken contact. We do know that local civilians are reporting the Russians have abandoned Kreminna. The Russians were reported to have abandoned Svatove two days ago.

There is a major implication arising out of this operation. The first is that the Russians are fighting blind. They couldn’t detect the massing of Ukrainian forces in front of Kherson by visual or electronic means. The converse also seems true; the Ukrainians could see Russian dispositions and plan accordingly. This is a factor that will color the remainder of this war. If Russia has lost the ability to build an accurate order of battle for the Ukrainian forces facing them, they are working at a severe disadvantage.

Kherson Front

First, a moment of silence:

Small gains are being made all along the front. In some cases, the Russians are withdrawing (I commented on what may be happening here in my last post), and in some places, they are being pushed back. There are Russian and Ukrainian Telegram reports that the Ukrainian Army has broken Russian lines at Davydiv Brid. I addressed the tactical significance of the Ukrainian bridgehead at Davydiv Brid and what happens if a breakout takes place there in a previous post, Putin’s War, Week 14. Advanced Artillery, a Missing General, and a Grind With No Visible End.


The biggest potential story is still in the rumor stage. Russian forces north of the Dnieper River are cut off. All of the bridges have been destroyed. They are supplied only by pontoon barges shuttled across under artillery fire. The rumors of Russian units attempting to negotiate surrender are multiplying. What is true and what is fake remains to be seen.

Next Phase

There have been some small attacks in southern Donetsk; see the two bottom circles in the map below.

This has created a boomlet of predictions that this is the next front with the objective of retaking Mariupol and severing the lines of communications from Russia and Russia-occupied Ukraine to Kherson and Crimea. For instance:


This doesn’t make sense to me from a lot of perspectives. To do this, the Ukrainians would have to abandon a front where they have shattered the enemy, defend their holdings, move a few hundred miles south and throw those units into a fight on unfamiliar terrain. Not only would the troops have to be relocated, but so, too, would their logistics infrastructure. Ukraine may have another echelon of forces coming out of their training installations positioned to do this. However, it still doesn’t answer the question of why you’d abandon a successful campaign to start another.

The second reason this makes no sense is that Donbas is the Russian political center of gravity, the schwerpunkt so beloved by von Clausewitz. A successful offensive targeting the “breakaway republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk would be an undeniable defeat in a way that losing Kherson would never be. I think the next phase of the operation will focus on rolling up Luhansk and creating a massive refugee crisis for Russia as Russian loyalists flee.

Continuing an attack into northern Luhansk strikes directly at a strategic objective; it doesn’t require the movement of men and supplies, and the existing railway network supports it. The Russian troops it would face are broken, they are out of supply, and their command and control systems are disrupted. The Russians who have retreated across Kharkiv’s border with Russia are not part of a coherent fighting force.

Shifting the attack farther south into the speculated Donetsk offensive means breaking through a defensive barrier that has been alerted.

What’s Not Going to Happen

If the Russians can be believed, there will be no mobilization and no new units transferred to the Ukraine war.

If various sources are to be believed, Russia has stopped sending new units to Ukraine and is focusing on keeping the current ones resourced.

That may not be the best move. In Jack Keegan’s epic “Face of Battle,” he quotes military studies on combat exhaustion.

This war has been going on for over 200 days. A lot of information says the Ukrainians are rotating units in and out of combat. The Russians may be doing that, but I’ve not seen anything in major media or on Russian Telegram that would lead me to think that is the case. What is showing up with more frequency are hastily trained replacements.


I don’t like making predictions because, in the words of the prophet Clint Eastwood, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” But what is not going to happen is a major Russian offensive. Many pro-Russian voices say that the advance in Kharkiv only took place because the Russians are setting up a counterattack out of Russia that will take the Ukrainians on the flank and destroy them in a “cauldron” battle. This is bullsh**. The Russians can’t mass significant forces on the flank of the Ukrainian penetration without being detected by either Ukrainian or NATO assets. If they tried to achieve this feat, Ukraine has more than sufficient artillery to destroy the units in their assembly areas. The axis of advance predicted is not supported by enough railway corridors to allow the massing of men, equipment, and supplies. Most important, Russia doesn’t have the strategic reserve of ground forces to pull this off.

Final Thoughts

Were everyone honest with themselves, I think the Ukrainians are probably just as surprised by the outcome of the Kharkiv offensive as the Russians. The difference is that the Ukrainians will come out of this with high morale and increased confidence in their equipment, tactics, chain of command, and themselves. The Russian units that were mauled over the past week and a half will take months to recover, perhaps never.

The challenge for both sides will be sustaining an operational tempo. The Ukrainians will continue their advance, and the Russians will face the challenge of creating a defensible line. However, unless Ukraine has a follow-on echelon of fresh units, the pace from this point on will probably be slower due to the fatigue of men and machines.


As always, the unexpected can rear its head. For the Russians, that “unexpected,” is taking shape in Kherson, where the operation resembles a siege. A sudden collapse of the Russian army in Kherson would put Crimea on the front lines of the war. The unexpected for the Ukrainians is a major unit losing its battle focus due to overconfidence and getting thrashed, thereby eliminating the air in the inevitability of victory the Ukrainians have created in the last week.


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