As the war in Ukraine marked 200 days Sunday, the Ukrainian military enjoyed its most consequential victory over its Russian invaders. With a surprise offensive in the Kharkiv Oblast, the Ukrainians have now taken back more territory in roughly one week than the Russians had taken since April. It’s a move that sent the Russians cutting and running, struck a savage blow into the heart of Russian morale, and has very likely left the Kremlin scrambling for its next move.
Kharkiv Redefines Itself as Ukraine Takes Back Region
The offensive began in the Kharkiv Oblast in northeastern Ukraine on September 6. According to some reports, as of Tuesday Russia had relinquished more than 3,500 square miles—more territory than Moscow had gained in nearly half a year. Towns and villages throughout the region wasted no time “erasing” signs of Russian occupation, raising Ukrainian flags, tearing down Russian billboards and other propaganda, as police urged citizens to report crimes committed by Russian occupiers and any of their Ukrainian accomplices. “What is happening is, frankly, immensely consequential,” said retired U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Peter Zwack, former U.S. Senior Defense Attache to Russia. “The Ukrainian military, the nation, has pulled together its capabilities. It has used intelligence, smart application of force, initiative to identify vulnerability in the Russians in this area near Kharkiv, the second largest city, and have surprised the Russians.”
Surprise Kharkiv Attack Was Joint U.S.-Ukrainian Planning
Ukraine’s territorial victory was the result of counterattacks that caught the Russian military off guard. The Kremlin had anticipated an offensive in the south and redeployed a large number of its troops there. The result? Ukrainian forces outnumbered Russians by eight to one in the Kharkiv region when last week’s offensive struck, according to Russia’s top occupation official there. This strategy was months in the making. U.S. and Ukrainian military and intelligence officials revised planning continuously throughout the summer, along with input from British officials. “That just tells you how bad Russia’s overall strategy is and how bad their command and control is,” Rebecca Grant, National Security Analyst with IRIS Independent Research, tells Political IQ. “It tells you Russia doesn’t have a good view of Ukrainian intentions or their movements in that area. And that’s great. They were able to catch them thinly-stretched.”
Will Fleeing Be “Contagious”?
According to a Ukrainian official, Russian soldiers fled so rapidly they left behind “half of their equipment,” including numerous tanks—or what the Ukrainians are jokingly referring to as “lend-lease supplies” from the Kremlin. Grant notes that losing resolve and fleeing can be contagious—if Ukraine sets the same conditions on other battlefields that it did in Kharkiv. “Troops flee when there’s no one to push forward, and there’s no hot food and ammo and it looks hopeless, or they don’t trust their leadership. And it can happen real fast, even if there are superior numbers.” Retired U.S. Army four-star General Barry McCaffery said Monday, “A fleeing army must be pursued relentlessly. So the question will now be, do the Ukrainians have the resources, the power to continue the process of unraveling these Russians?”
Russian Media Takes on Gloomy, Defiant Tone
Moscow initially tried to spin its soldiers’ flight from Kharkiv, with Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov on Saturday implying it was a tactical move so that troops could be regrouped “in order to achieve the stated goals of the special military operation to liberate Donbas” in the south. However, military bloggers, usually loyal to Russian President Putin, took on a markedly different tone. While Putin attended an event Saturday celebrating Moscow’s 875th birthday, one blogger on the social network Telegram huffed, “You’re throwing a billion-ruble party…What is wrong with you? Not at the time of such a horrible failure.” That same night Igor Strelkov, a former FSB officer in Donbas said, referring to three key cities in Kharkiv, “Tonight the capital of our Motherland, the city of Moscow, will salute the surrender of Balakleya, Izyum and half of Kupiansk to the enemy with high-altitude fireworks.” Russian media monitor for the Daily Beast, Julia Davis, meanwhile notes that Russian TV—100% owned by the Kremlin since the year 2000—has been “full of doom and gloom.” She also points to a Russian radio host who said flat out, “I’m worried. Naturally, we want for our guys to crush [the other side] and only to advance, but life doesn’t work that way.” Michael McFaul, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, said he’s observing a sense of “panic” among Russian officials on TV. “You’re starting to see people pointing fingers at each other: who is responsible for this loss?” McFaul said Monday on MSNBC. “That, to me, is a very good sign. And that debate, I think, will continue. Whether it leads to Putin’s downfall, that’s a bigger, harder thing to predict, but doubt in the Kremlin, I think it’s pretty apparent.”
Putin’s Next Move May Be Weaponizing Energy
If Putin can’t count on his soldiers, he still has oil and gas. “Putin’s bet is that he’s going to be tougher than the Ukrainians and the Europeans and the Americans, that he can wear down the Ukrainians, strangle their economy, [and that] the Europeans, facing what’s going to be a difficult winter with high energy prices, are going to lose resolve,” CIA Director William Burns said on Thursday. There’s about a six-week window before the first potential snows fall in Ukraine—and on parts of Europe dependent on Russia for heating fuel. “I think the European nations are prepared for what’s coming this winter, some better than others, but they are all getting ready,” says Grant. “So to go into that with success by Ukraine on the battlefield just makes it that much easier for Europe to hold the line until this all comes to an end.”
Debate Over Putin Using Nukes
Some analysts, like former National Security Adviser John Bolton, fear that with the trouncing in Kharkiv, Putin may be closer than ever to using a tactical nuclear weapon. “I think he won’t,” says Grant. “I think China would be very upset, and that’s a problem for him.” Amb. McFaul echoed her sentiment on Monday, noting that the spotlight will be on Putin and Chinese President Xi when they meet in Uzbekistan later this week. “He’ll have all kinds of dictators around him that will be praising him. He uses a tactical nuclear weapon, he becomes a pariah,” McFaul said. He added, “The Ukrainians, in my view, if Putin used a nuclear weapon against them, you would see terrorist attacks in downtown Moscow because they are motivated to take back their country.”
Talk of “Ukrainian Victory” Likely Premature
Just a month ago, analysts were speculating that this could turn into a 20-year conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Now, following the fast-moving offensive in Kharkiv, political analysts are discussing in tangible if not imminent ways what a Ukrainian victory and a Russian defeat will mean for those two countries and for the rest of the world. “There’s no one on the military side saying, ‘Hey, we’re done,'” Grant cautions. “They still need to take a lot of ground. But the momentum is very much with Ukraine at this point.” Brig. Gen. Zwack says of the Kharkiv offensive, “This is not the end of the war, and bad things happen. But it is also giving the Ukrainian people huge spirit and pride, and it shows the world that Ukraine is in it for the long run.”