Russia is holding its collective head in its hands today as Putin’s puppet propagandists try to work out where it all went wrong for their army after Ukraine’s stunning counter-attack led to a rout of their troops.
Typically loyal Kremlin mouthpieces flooded the airwaves Monday night with rare admissions of a ‘serious defeat’ around Kharkiv while warning Russia is at risk of losing the war – which they said could prove ‘fatal’ to the country.
Karen Shakhnazarov, a film-maker and Kremlin loyalist, told viewers of Vladimir Solovyov’s nightly show that Russia is now in a ‘serious position’ in what he admitted is a ‘war’ with a ‘strong adversary’ – adding that Moscow’s armed forces ‘were not ready’ for the fight they are now facing.
At the same time, President Zelensky was speaking of yet more territory gained by his armed forces – reassuring people that borders are being secured and pockets of Russian resistance wiped out in an area of around 3,000 square miles that has been recaptured since the start of the month.
‘I thank all our fighters who ensured such a large-scale and quick defeat of the invaders in the territory of the Kharkiv region,’ he said in his nightly address.
The contrast could not have been clearer: As the war nears the end of its seventh month, Ukraine is beginning to see a path to victory emerge while Russia is coming to terms with the very real possibility of total defeat.
Karen Shakhnazarov, a regular talking-head on Russian state TV, told viewers of a ‘serious defeat’ for the Russian military in Kharkiv that could prove ‘fatal’ to the whole country
Russia’s typically-loyal Putin propagandists were highly critical of the war effort on state TV on Monday night as they contemplated the possibility of total defeat in Ukraine
President Zelensky used his late-night address to hail the continued success of Ukraine’s counter-attack in northern Ukraine, saying that even more territory had been seized and pockets of Russian resistance were being wiped out
Underlining that sense of impeding victory, the Ukrainian mayor of the occupied city of Melitopol said overnight that Russian troops are starting to withdraw – having held that territory since the early days of the war.
Ivan Fedorov wrote on Telegram that columns of military equipment were reported at a checkpoint in Chonhar, as Russian troops apparently beat a retreat to occupied Crimea.
If Ukraine has forces capable of re-taking the city, then it would break the so-called ‘land bridge’ that Russia spent months establishing between occupied areas of Donbas and Crimea.
That would mean Russian forces currently fighting tooth-and-nail for the city of Kherson would be all-but cut off from resupply from the mainland, except for the vulnerable bridge crossing the Kerch Strait.
It would also open up an avenue for Ukraine to attack Mariupol – the now-destroyed city that Russia made one of the main targets of its ‘special military operation – and further weaken the position of its forces in Donbas.
Russian troops in Donetsk and Luhansk – the two regions which together make up the Donbas – are already in a precarious position after Ukraine’s counter-attack out of Kharkiv severed some of their main supply routes.
The cities of Izyum, Kupyansk and Vovchansk which formed the staging post for its attacks in the region and contain key railway lines to get ammo and other supplies to its soldiers are now under Ukrainian control.
Kyiv’s rapid advance has now slowed as Russian troops regroup and try to re-establish a frontline, with fighting said to be ongoing around Lyman, Rubizhne, Lysychansk and Severodonetsk.
In the newly freed village of Chkalovske in the Kharkiv region, Svitlana Honchar said the Russians’ departure was sudden and swift.
‘They left like the wind,’ Honchar said Tuesday after loading cans of food aid into her car. ‘They were fleeing by any means they could.’
Some Russians appeared to have been left behind in the hasty retreat. ‘They were trying to catch up,’ she said.
It was not yet clear if the Ukrainian blitz, which unfolded after months of little discernible movement, could signal a turning point in the nearly seven-month war.
A Ukrainian soldier hold up a mud-stained Russian flag after driving Putin’s forces out of a huge area to the east of Kharkiv
RUssian tanks and armoured vehicles destroyed in fighting are revealed behind the backs of Putin’s retreating forces
A graveyard of rusting Russian tanks and armoured vehicles is uncovered as Putin’s troops retreat from the Kharkiv region
An armoured vehicle destroyed earlier in the war is revealed as Ukraine’s forces recapture territory around Kharkiv
But the country’s officials were buoyant, releasing footage showing their forces burning Russian flags and inspecting abandoned, charred tanks. In one video, border guards tore down a poster that read, ‘We are one people with Russia.’
Momentum has switched back and forth before, and Ukraine’s American allies were careful not to declare a premature victory since Russian President Vladimir Putin still has troops and resources to tap.
In the face of Russia’s largest defeat since its botched attempt to capture Kyiv early in the war, Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said troops were hitting back with ‘massive strikes’ in all sectors. But there were no immediate reports of a sudden uptick in Russian attacks.
Reports of chaos abounded as Russian troops pulled out – as well as claims that they were surrendering en masse. The claims could not be confirmed.
Ukrainian Deputy Minister of Defense Hanna Maliar said Kyiv is trying to persuade even more Russian soldiers to give up, launching shells filled with flyers ahead of their advance.
‘Russians use you as cannon fodder. Your life doesn’t mean anything for them. You don’t need this war. Surrender to Armed Forces of Ukraine,’ the flyers read.
In the wake of the retreat, Ukrainian authorities moved into several areas to investigate alleged atrocities committed by Russian troops against civilians.
Since Saturday, the Kharkiv regional police have repeatedly reported that local law enforcement officers have found civilian bodies bearing signs of torture across territories formerly held by Russia. It was not possible to verify their statements.
On Tuesday, regional police alleged that Russian troops set up ‘a torture chamber’ at the local police station in Balakliya, a town of 25,000, that was occupied from March until last week.
In a Facebook post, the head of the police force’s investigative department, Serhii Bolvinov, cited testimony from Balakliya residents and claimed that Russian troops ‘always kept at least 40 people captive’ on the premises.
Meanwhile, military analysts sought to understand the blow sustained by Moscow.
British intelligence said that one premier force, the 1st Guards Tank Army, had been ‘severely degraded’ during the invasion, along with the conventional Russian forces designed to counter NATO.
A Ukrainian soldier sits on top of a captured Russian vehicle after Putin’s men fled and left hundreds of them behind
An overturned Russian armoured vehicle sinks into a quagmire beneath a road bridge after apparently driving itself off the road amid a chaotic retreat from the area around Kharkiv
The remains of an armoured vehicle (centre right) are seen on a destroyed road bridge in the newly-recaptured city of Izyum
Russia artillery shells captured by the Ukrainian Armed Forces during its counter-attack near Kharkiv are seen in Izyum
‘It will likely take years for Russia to rebuild this capability,’ the British officials said.
The setback might renew Russia’s interest in peace talks, said Abbas Gallyamov, an independent Russian political analyst and former speechwriter for Putin.
But even if Putin were to sit down at the negotiating table, Zelenskyy has made it clear that Russia must return all Ukrainian territory, including Crimea, Gallyamov said.
‘This is unacceptable to Moscow, so talks are, strictly speaking, impossible,’ he said.
Putin’s previous actions ‘have restricted his room to maneuver,’ so he ‘wouldn’t be able to put anything meaningful on the table.’
For talks to be possible, Putin ‘would need to leave and be replaced by someone who’s relatively untarnished by the current situation,’ such as his deputy chief of staff, the Moscow mayor or the Russian prime minister, Gallyamov said.
The retreat did not stop Russia from pounding Ukrainian positions. It shelled the city of Lozova in the Kharkiv region, killing three people and injuring nine, said regional Gov. Oleh Syniehubov.
And Ukrainian officials said Russia kept up shelling around Europe’s largest nuclear facility, where fighting has raised fears of a nuclear disaster. The Nikopol area, which is across the Dnieper River from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, was shelled six times during the night, but no injuries were immediately reported, said regional Gov. Valentyn Reznichenko.
Strikes have also continued unabated on the city of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest and one that has been hammered by artillery for months.
Among Kharkiv’s battle-scarred apartment buildings, one man who returned to feed the birds struck a defiant tone, saying that the success of the Ukrainian counteroffensive would likely prompt harsh Russian retaliation against civilian targets. But he said the Kremlin would not succeed in intimidating ordinary Ukrainians.
Putin ‘will strike so we don’t have water, electricity, to create more chaos and intimidate us,’ said Serhii who only gave his first name. ‘But he will not succeed because we will survive, and Putin will soon croak!’
Ukraine has pulled off ‘one of the greatest counter attacks in modern history’: Military expert JUSTIN BRONK says Vladimir Putin has NO good options and Russia’s entire invasion force could COLLAPSE in worst defeat since WW2
Vladimir Putin has no good options for how to react after a lightning offensive by Ukraine inflicted Russia’s most serious and rapid military defeat on the battlefield since the Second World War, a military expert said today.
JUSTIN BRONK, a research fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute, has analysed the latest situation in an article for MailOnline today as Ukrainian troops continued to pile pressure on retreating Russian forces.
Ukraine is now seeking to hold onto its sudden momentum that has produced major territorial gains, with Russian troops surrendering en masse amid hopes that a turning point in the war has finally been reached.
The counter-offensive left the Kremlin struggling for a response to its largest military defeat in Ukraine since Russia pulled back from areas near Kyiv after a botched attempt to capture the capital early in the invasion.
Mr Bronk said Ukraine has ‘baited Russia into accepting an attritional battle in a very militarily disadvantageous position’, adding that Russia ‘will be hard pressed simply to avoid any more disasters before winter’.
The long awaited Ukrainian counter-offensive to retake the southern city of Kherson finally began late last month.
However, many were dismayed by the relatively cautious pace at which Ukrainian forces were advancing, and pointed out that by making it so obvious that a counter-offensive was being prepared in Kherson, Kyiv had given the Russian Army more than a month to move some of its most elite remaining units and large numbers of supporting reserve units to block it.
The brilliance of this strategy his been revealed as of Wednesday last week, as a second Ukrainian force launched a smaller scale but much more mobile counter-offensive in the Kharkiv region to the north.
After initially breaking through the Russian frontlines at the town of Balakliya, Ukrainian armoured and mechanised brigades did not stop to consolidate their gains, but instead drove rapidly throughout the next two days and nights, deep into Russian-occupied territory.
As the Ukrainian commanders urgently rushed reinforcements in to consolidate and widen the narrow corridor of liberated towns, the spearhead units isolated and then bypassed the limited Russian reserve forces that tried to halt them at the small village of Sevchenkove and reached the southern edge of the crucial junction city of Kup’yansk on Friday morning.
At this point, panic began to take hold in the Russian units stationed throughout occupied Kharkiv Oblast, since the crucial highway and railway links between Russia itself and the fortified stronghold of Izyum all passed through Kup’yansk, meaning that an entire flank of the Russian line was suddenly cut off from reinforcement, resupply or orderly retreat.
Reacting quickly to the unexpectedly rapid success of their spearheads at Kup’yansk, Ukrainian forces stationed to the south of Izyum in Donbas began attacking northwards, while the original breakthrough force headed down the Ozkil river to complete the encirclement.
With the major roads and railway cut off, and total encirclement a looming possibility, the heavily fortified Russian forces in Izyum abandoned their heavy equipment and weaponry and fled on foot and in stolen civilian vehicles along the remaining small roads to the East.
Within days of starting its northern counter-offensive, the Russian Ministry of Defence had confirmed that it was ‘regrouping’ all its forces in Kharkiv Oblast to the Donbas or back to Russia itself.
Ukrainian military vehicles move on the road in the freed territory of the Kharkiv region yesterday
In less than a week, more than 3,000 square kilometres of Ukrainian territory had been liberated, massive stockpiles of ammunition, weapons and armoured vehicles captured for use by Ukrainian forces, and the entire Russian position in North-Eastern Ukraine completely destabilised.
Russian forces have not suffered such a serious and rapid military defeat on the battlefield since the Second World War.
Worse still for Putin is that fact that he has no good options for how to react now.
The majority of his potentially mobile and elite units in Ukraine are still concentrated in Kherson to the south, and are facing a serious and ongoing Ukrainian counter-offensive operation that cannot be ignored.
Furthermore, by signalling for so long that Kherson was target for liberation, Ukraine has baited Russia into accepting an attritional battle in a very militarily disadvantageous position.
The region of Kherson Oblast that Russia is trying to hold onto is on the Western bank of the wide Dnipro river.
The US-supplied long range HIMARS rocket artillery system has allowed Ukraine to effectively destroy the only two crossing points – the Antonovsky Bridge and the bridge at Nova Kahkovka – and regularly destroy the temporary pontoon bridges and ferry crossings that the Russian Army has tried to build instead.
As such, the large concentration of Russian forces defending Kherson are dependent on highly disrupted and bottlenecked supply lines, meaning that they are rapidly running low on medical supplies, food and above all ammunition.
This is an attritional battle that favours Ukraine due to the territory involved but for Putin, Kherson has to be defended politically due to its status as the one major Ukrainian city taken roughly intact during this invasion.
Now with his northern flank collapsing, Putin cannot easily withdraw elite units from Kherson, since it would risk a second major rout in the face of the ongoing Ukrainian counter-offensive operations there.
Even if he tries to withdraw some forces, the blown up bridges and frequently-struck temporary crossing points over the Dnipro mean it will be difficult to transfer heavy equipment and vehicles out of Kherson.
If his forces stay put in the south, then the majority of Russia’s usable combat power will be trapped with their backs to the river and steadily ground down by a Ukrainian force that has much better supply lines, more troops and so can sustain an attritional artillery duel for longer.
Ukrainian service members pose for a photograph in the recently liberated settlement of Shevchenkove last Saturday
However, if the Kherson front were to collapse, it would be such a political and military disaster coming soon after the stunning defeat in Kharkiv that Russian military morale might totally disintegrate, or Putin might even find himself threatened by discontented factions within the Russian power structure at home.
Since redeploying forces away from Kherson is such an unappealing choice, and the Russian Army is so overstretched elsewhere in Ukraine, Putin’s only other conventional choice is to throw in newly conscripted troops that have been mobilised since Russia began partial mobilisation in late-June.
However, it takes time to train new recruits or conscripts to be at all useful on a modern battlefield, and most of those conscripted would simply be cannon fodder with so little time to train.
Furthermore, the need to send those under training or in second-line formations in Russia to Ukraine to try and steady the line in the Donbas means any hope that Putin had of reconstituting a serious force for renewed offensive operations in Spring 2023 is gone.
He could declare war and commence full mobilisation, but even that might produce usable formations too late to counter a Ukrainian offensive in Spring.
Furthermore, it would be highly unpopular in most of Russia and risk further destabilising the regime.
Even if Ukraine takes little additional territory back from Russian forces before the worsening weather shuts down most major movements for both sides in November, the current counter-offensives represent a major turning point.
Ukraine now has the initiative, and Russia will be hard pressed simply to avoid any more disasters before winter.
Ukraine’s Western partners now have proof that Ukrainian forces can decisively beat the Russian Army if given enough material support, and that will make it politically much easier to sustain that support at the necessary level through what promises to be a difficult winter from a food and energy security point of view.
Russia, meanwhile has no good options, and will be faced with the knowledge that even if it can avoid losing the war this year, its battered forces will face an even better equipped Ukrainian Army in 2023.