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.
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:
— The Intel Crab (@IntelCrab) September 11, 2022
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.
First, a moment of silence:
Zelensky’s counterattack on Kherson and Nikolaev has been a complete disaster. Total defeat for the Ukrainian side.
— Ian Miles Cheong (@stillgray) August 29, 2022
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 Armed Forces of Ukraine broke through the Davydiv Brid of the Kherson region pic.twitter.com/kJ4ps43h6b
— ТРУХА⚡️English (@TpyxaNews) September 13, 2022
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.
Not an #OSINT reporter but a friend on the frontline in #Kherson just messaged to say Russian units in front of them are surrendering – they apparently shot through the last of their ammo last night. #UkraineWar #ukrainecounteroffensive #Ukraina #russiansurrender
— Jacob Walker (@jvhwalker) September 12, 2022
Whatever else it is, the Ukrainian military announcing negotiations for the surrender of Russian forces is Kherson oblast west of the Dnipro is a great mindfųck. Comms between RU forces there & their command are not great, trust is low, & both are liable to overreact. https://t.co/iSKtG8996h
— David DiSabatino (@DavidDiSab) September 13, 2022
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:
❗ UAF may launch a new offensive tonight.
It is reported that the new offensive aim of the Ukrainian army is to break the connection between Crimea and Donetsk.
Russian sources report that the attack will be from the Mariupol or Melitopol region. pic.twitter.com/hgFScP539l
— Valeria (@Valere_ia) September 12, 2022
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.
Russian soldiers who escaped drunk from Ukraine are smashing Russian civilians car in Belgorod.
This shit is going to boil over badly (or hilariously from my perspective) https://t.co/bOD4WBZ5Ka
— Petri Mäkelä (@pmakela1) September 13, 2022
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.
Despite Ukraine's advances, Russia says mobilization is not on the agenda – Reuters News
(Reuters) – The Kremlin said on Tuesday there was no discussion of a nationwide mobilization to bolster its forces in Ukraine
— Phil Stewart (@phildstewart) September 13, 2022
If various sources are to be believed, Russia has stopped sending new units to Ukraine and is focusing on keeping the current ones resourced.
⚡️General Staff: Russia stops sending new units to Ukraine.
Ukraine’s General Staff of the Armed Forces said on Sept. 12. that Russia’s military command has suspended sending new units to Ukraine, and that a large number of volunteers are also refusing to fight in Russia’s army
— The Kyiv Independent (@KyivIndependent) September 12, 2022
That may not be the best move. In Jack Keegan’s epic “Face of Battle,” he quotes military studies on combat exhaustion.
32/ Soldiers should also be rotated off the front line regularly – the extract below from John Keegan’s classic ‘The Face of Battle’ explains why. But Russia’s undermanned invasion has meant increasingly exhausted troops staying on the front line for 6 months or more. pic.twitter.com/94OQWsnaNS
— ChrisO (@ChrisO_wiki) September 11, 2022
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.
Another example of how desperate the Russian military is for manpower. This recently captured Russian POW is a sailor from the Baltic Fleet who was given just 1 week of tank training before he was assigned to a tank crew and shipped off to Ukraine. pic.twitter.com/LcXMRY7SuQ
— Ukraine Reporter (@StateOfUkraine) September 12, 2022
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.
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.