On the Eastern Front, a breathtaking week of Ukrainian successes and Russian failures
That’s more territory than Russian forces have captured in all of their operations in Ukraine since April.
Their failures and disorderly retreat east made President Vladimir Putin’s special military operation goal of taking all of Lugansk and Donetsk considerably more difficult to achieve.
Over the weekend, the Russian retreat continued from the border areas occupied since March. Villages within five kilometers of the border hoisted the Ukrainian flag.
The collapse of Russian defenses has sparked recriminations among influential Russian military bloggers and Russian state media personalities.
As the Ukrainian flag was raised in one community after another over the past few days, a question arose: how is the Kremlin reacting?
A lightning operation
Ukrainian officials had telegraphed that an offensive was imminent – but not where it actually happened. There was much noise about a counterattack in the south, and even US officials spoke of Ukrainian operations to “shape the battlefield” in Kherson. Russian reinforcements – possibly as many as 10,000 – poured into the area over a period of weeks.
Kateryna Stepanenko of the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based analysis group, says the deception worked.
“Ukrainian military officials reported that (Russian) elements from the Eastern Military District that had previously supported offensive operations towards Sloviansk had redeployed to the southern axis,” she told CNN.
Their replacements were clearly not up to snuff – a mixed bag, said Stepanenko, of “Cossack volunteers, volunteer units, DNR/LNR militia units and the Russian Rosgvardia (National Guard). Such forces were not sufficient to defend a vast and complex front line.”
The Ukrainians chose the weakest point of the Russian defenses for their initial push – an area controlled by the Lugansk militia with Russian National Guard units further back. They were no match for a highly mobile armored assault that quickly rendered artillery irrelevant.
Igor Strelkov, a former head of the Donetsk People’s Republic militia and now a sharp critic of Russian military shortcomings, noted the poor training of these units and “the exceptional caution of Russian air force actions”. In short, frontline Russian units were hung to dry without sufficient air support.
Several videos geotagged and analyzed by CNN, as well as local accounts, depict a chaotic withdrawal of Russian units, with large amounts of ammunition and equipment left behind.
The poor quality of Russian defenses along a critical north-south axis supporting the Donetsk offensive is difficult to understand. Once launched, the intention of the Ukrainian offensive was perfectly clear: to destroy this artery of supply. In three days they had done it, partly because Russian reinforcements were slow to mobilize.
The recriminations begin
Russia’s Defense Ministry attempted on Saturday to portray the abandonment of Kharkiv as a planned redirection of efforts towards the Donetsk region, but it actually complicates those efforts.
Until this week, the Russians could attack the Ukrainian defenses in Donetsk from three directions: north, east and south. The northern axis has now disappeared: the threat hanging over the industrial belt of Sloviansk and its surroundings has greatly diminished, as has the prospect of encirclement of the Ukrainian defences.
Simply put, the battlefield in eastern Ukraine was redrawn in a matter of days.
The most influential – and perhaps surprising – public critic of the situation was Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who contributed thousands of fighters to the offensive. In a Telegram post on Sunday, he said he would contact senior Defense Ministry officials to spell out his message.
“It is clear that mistakes were made. I think they will draw some conclusions,” he said.
Alluding to disarray among commanders, Kadyrov said ‘if the Russian general staff didn’t want to leave, the (troops) wouldn’t back down’ — but the Russian soldiers ‘hadn’t received proper military training’ and this led them to retreat.
Influential military bloggers in Russia were even more blunt. Zakhar Prilepin, whose Telegram channel has more than 250,000 subscribers, reposted a comment describing the events in Kharkiv as a “disaster” and a complete intelligence failure.
“We can now observe the result of the criminal irresponsibility of those who were responsible for this direction,” the message read, before concluding: “The special military operation is long over. There is a war in Classes”.
Another pro-Putin blogger by the name of Kholmogorov reposted an equally scathing account from the Partizan Telegram channel from the front lines, which essentially accused Russian authorities of abandoning troops.
“The soldiers were on foot with a machine gun and a bag. Abandoned by the command, not knowing the way, they walked at random,” the post said.
The poster, who describes himself as a Russian Orthodox nationalist, says that if the hatred of the enemy grows, “the hatred of the government and the command grows even more”.
Adding his own thoughts, Kholmogorov said: “Lord, save Russian soldiers from blows from the front and even more from blows from behind.”
A similar analysis came from Pyotr Lundstrem’s Telegram channel.
“There are NO thermal imagers, NO bulletproof vests, NO reconnaissance equipment, NO secure communications, NO helicopters, NO first aid kits in the army.”
Referring to commemorations in Russia this weekend for Moscow Day, the city’s birthday, he added: “You are celebrating a billionth holiday. What is wrong with you?”
On Saturday, as the rout continued, Putin inaugurated a Ferris wheel in Moscow.
The Institute for the Study of War notes that “the announcement of the withdrawal has further alienated the Russian milblogger and Russian nationalist communities who support the Kremlin’s grandiose vision to capture all of Ukraine.”
Putin’s next move
Leading media figures in Russia are trying to portray this week’s calamity as a planned operation. TV host Vladimir Solovyov reposted a Telegram comment which insisted that “the enemy, buying an easy advance on a given sector of the front, is falling into a trap”.
“Currently, Russian units are deliberately regrouping,” the commentary adds, although there are few signs of this.
This raises the question of how the Kremlin continues the war after suffering its worst week of the entire campaign. It seems to lack high quality units. Some existing battalion battle groups were reconstituted; volunteer battalions were raised across Russia to form a Third Army Corps. US officials say the Russians are running out of ammunition, even turning to North Korea for supplies.
Stepanenko of the Institute for the Study of War told CNN the remarkable success of the Ukrainian counteroffensive will force a reassessment of how the new army corps is used.
Stepanenko, who studies Russian military recruitment and organization, says the Russians “could still try to use these units to stop the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kharkiv, albeit rushing poorly trained and unprepared raw units in such operations would be a very dangerous undertaking.”
She believes that given the Russian need for fresh manpower, “it is likely that Russian forces will deploy these elements directly to the front lines in any case based on reports that some volunteer battalions are fighting already on the front lines of Kherson”.
The Russian military can still bring considerable power in terms of rocket, artillery and missile forces. But despite a reshuffle of the high command already, its land operations seem poorly organized, with little autonomy granted to the commanders. The past week has laid bare the issues of motivation and leadership.
Russian bloggers who have backed the offensive say a radical overhaul is needed. One commented: “A change in approach to the war in Ukraine is needed. Mobilization of economy and industry. Creation of a center of political control of the war.
Strelkov came to the same conclusion, saying it was time to “start fighting for real (with martial law, mobilizing the military and the economy.)”
Throughout the conflict, Putin has avoided a general mobilization, which could be unpopular at home.
It is unclear whether the Kremlin will now double down on its efforts to complete the special military operation or begin to seek a negotiated settlement.
The first option seems like a tall order given the events of the past week; the second would be humiliating. The third possibility, perhaps the most likely, is that Russia persists in its meteoric inch-by-inch assault while taking little or no additional territory. But he now faces an adversary that is on the rise and new infusions of Western military aid in preparation for the winter months.
Ukraine’s advances on the battlefield have rejuvenated Allied support, with a meeting in Germany this weekend yielding new pledges of long-term support.