How Russia Lost in Kharkiv Region

Believing in their own invincibility, generals totally underestimated the potential strength of Ukraine’s military.

How Russia Lost in Kharkiv Region

Believing in their own invincibility, generals totally underestimated the potential strength of Ukraine’s military.

Destroyed Russian military vehicles lay abandoned in the outskirts of Kupyansk, Kharkiv region, Ukraine.
Destroyed Russian military vehicles lay abandoned in the outskirts of Kupyansk, Kharkiv region, Ukraine.
Destroyed Russian military vehicles lay abandoned in the outskirts of Kupyansk, Kharkiv region, Ukraine.
Destroyed Russian military vehicles lay abandoned in the outskirts of Kupyansk, Kharkiv region, Ukraine.
Wednesday, 14 September, 2022

Ukrainian analysts have put the stunning success of Kyiv’s counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region down to careful planning, high morale, Western-supplied heavy weapons – and the success of Russia’s propaganda in convincing its own leadership that Ukraine was incapable of such a concerted fightback.

“Obviously, Russian generals relied too much on the worldview Russian propaganda imposed on them. It's not even about underestimating the situation, it's about not assessing the real state of things on the battlefield. They could not even assume Ukraine could strike back,” said Ivan Kyrychevskyi, a military expert with the Ukrainian information and consulting agency Defence Express.

Believing in their own invincibility, Russian generals made several mistakes, totally underestimating the true strength and potential of the Ukrainian military, he argued.

With some six weeks of fighting left until the cold weather and rain of winter begins, the Ukrainian military will be the initiators of the strikes and can change the pace and strategy of the ongoing war.

Earlier in the war, Russia had made Donbas their main target. At the beginning of their battle for the region, the largest group of Russian troops, estimated to be up to 32,000 soldiers, was located in the direction of Izium. Russia seemed intent to make a breakthrough from Huliaipole in the Zaporizhzhia region and Izium in Kharkiv to surround Ukraine's forces in Donetsk. However, due to extensive fighting, the Russians failed to take Barvinkove in the Kharkiv region and also fumbled the Huliaipole offensive. Consequently, Russian plans for the large-scale encirclement of Ukrainian troops had to shift.

After the displacement of their forces north of Kharkiv, the city no longer faced the threat of being encircled by enemy troops. Izium still seemed like a potential threat to Sloviansk, but Russian generals began to use troops there to fuel other assaults, in particular to attack Popasna and Lysychansk.

The large concentration of troops gradually disappeared, but Russia failed to respond and left 200 km of the frontline vulnerable.

"The armed forces took advantage of this Achilles heel and struck a powerful blow,” said Forbes- Ukraine military analyst Volodymyr Datsenko. “Now it is said that this is the largest counterattack since World War II. It will be written about in history textbooks, and military experts will consider it a gold standard. And it is not even over yet.”

Kyrychevsky said that Oleksandr Syrskyi, commander of the ground forces of the Ukrainian army, had been a key player in preparing a large-scale attack in complete secrecy, involving dozens of different units acting together.

“In cooperation with partners, including the British, our leadership assessed the real prospects of an attack from Belarus, which allowed them to effectively distribute the forces and means of the armed forces along the entire front line,” he said.

Oleksandr Musienko, head of the Centre for Military and Legal Studies, explained that the army had created a series of obstacles for Russia in the run-up to the counteroffensive.

“During July and August, Ukrainian forces increased the number of strikes with long-range artillery, including those transferred by our Western partners, and then by HIMARS systems, at warehouses, enemy bases, weapons and ammunition warehouses, as well as disrupting the logistics of Russian troops,” he said.

In an example of what analysts term maneuverable warfare, Ukraine introduced mobile troops to rapidly cut off communications and retreat options. The aim was for the hostile front to collapse due to damage and psychological pressure and a chaotic retreat to ensue with the abandonment of heavy weapons.

The obvious military target of the operation was the elimination of the threat of attack on Sloviansk from the north. Kupiansk played a crucial role in securing all Russian troops north of Sloviansk, and no one knows where this front line will lie now.

“This attack has important political objectives,” Datsenko said. “One of them is to prove to the partners that military aid is working and that Ukraine is capable of defeating Putin on the battlefield. At the same time, there is also a motivational goal. Ukrainian forces have long been tied up in heavy, intense battles with low dynamics. The enemy felt more comfortable in this situation, having a numerical advantage in artillery and the amount of ammunition. Such success changes the motivation of both sides so much that the enemy will clearly find it difficult to stabilise the front.”

If the Russians now lose Kherson or Sievierodonetsk, cities for which so many Russian troops died, it will be extremely difficult to motivate them to continue to wage war, he concluded.

This publication was prepared under the “Ukraine Voices Project" implemented with the financial support of the UK's Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO).

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