Ukrainian rout of Russian forces poses challenge of how to exploit gains

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Ukraine has taken the lead in its war against Russia, retaking more than 1,000 square miles in the northeast Kharkiv region in recent days, according to the country’s military chief.

The Ukrainian army said on Sunday it was retaking villages in the Kupyansk region and Izyum, two towns that Russian forces fled on Saturday as Ukrainian troops advanced towards them.

These two cities had been at the heart of a key war objective of Russian President Vladimir Putin: to seize the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, known together as Donbass. Russian forces used Izyum as a base to strike at other towns in the region.

Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhny, commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, said the military had pushed Russian forces about 1,150 square miles of territory – about the size of Rhode Island – east of Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine, since early September.

Ukrainian troops have advanced across swaths of its Kharkiv region and recaptured Russian-held towns. The Russian Defense Ministry said on Saturday it was withdrawing its forces from key areas in the region. Photo: Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images

The Russian military said on Saturday it was withdrawing from Kupyansk and Izyum, saying it was regrouping its forces to defend Donetsk, which Moscow sent a secret proxy force to seize in 2014.

North of Kharkiv, Ukrainian forces also appeared to be pushing towards the border with Russia. Vsevolod Kozhemiako, one of Ukraine’s top businessmen turned commander, posted a video of himself near the border.

A map of the battlefield released by the Russian Defense Ministry on Sunday appears to indicate that Russian forces have evacuated all northern parts of the Kharkiv region where Ukraine continues to push its counteroffensive and has not claimed the have resumed.

“These days, the Russian military is showing its best side, its back,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a statement on his Telegram channel.

The reversal came suddenly, after months of sputtering, and finally stalled the Russian advances under artillery fire. After crossing a thinly defended Russian front line last week, Kyiv forces rushed forward, routing caught soldiers. As panic spread through nearby Russian-held settlements, sympathetic Moscow troops and occupiers fled, in turn opening a wider path for Ukrainian tanks and infantry to advance.

The Ukrainian army said it was taking over villages in the Izyum region.


Photo:

juan barreto/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The breakthrough is hailed by Western military analysts as a great tactical move. On social media, scenes abounded with ecstatic liberated Ukrainians saluting their troops, who tore down the trappings of Russia’s months-long occupation, including flags and propaganda posters.

Ukraine’s rapid advance is helping its cause on many fronts, starting with a turnaround in morale in its favor. Dynamic, motivated troops advancing tend to fight better than demoralized defenders retreating. The high-speed maneuver has surrounded potentially tens of thousands of Russian troops in recent days, Western analysts said.

The attack also seems to strengthen the Ukrainian armories. Russian troops caught abandoned ammunition and weapons, from guns to tanks and artillery pieces, unawares, according to footage and social media reports. They may also have left behind maps and documents that Ukrainian and Western intelligence analysts will mine to better understand Russian plans, tactics and weaknesses. After Russian forces withdrew from around Kyiv earlier this year, abandoning camps and equipment, they left behind materials that have proven valuable to Ukrainian analysts.

As Kyiv forces push east, more Russian targets will fall within range of Ukraine’s advanced Western rocket launchers, such as the highly mobile Himars systems, which Kyiv did not have when it moved in. withdrawn earlier this year from the areas it is taking over. Ukraine has used precision munitions to destroy Russian supplies and air defense systems, and recent ground advances have brought more Russian-controlled territory within reach.

Outside Ukraine, its success in retaking in days territory that Russian forces have spent weeks winning will bolster Kyiv’s case that it deserves Western armaments, funding and moral support. Mr. Zelensky has repeatedly said that his country can defeat and expel Russian forces, and now that idea seems less ambitious.

While Ukraine is still far from winning, its improved position on the battlefield strengthens its hand in possible peace negotiations with Russia.

Mr Putin has yet to respond to Russia’s losses. Whether the defeats make him more or less threatening to Ukraine and the West remains an open question.

In recent weeks, he has increased economic pressure on Europe by cutting off already dwindling natural gas flows through the Nord Stream gas pipeline to Germany and threatened to cut grain exports from Ukraine.

“Western leaders in Europe need to be able to say to their people: it’s a miserable winter, but after that it gets easier,” said Michael Clarke, professor of war studies at the University of Exeter in UK. Putin’s latest best move, so if we can hold out this winter and the Ukrainians look like they can kick the Russians out, things will turn on Putin.

Ukrainian commanders must now assess how difficult it is to move forward. Military history is littered with examples of armies that raced forward only to be blocked or repulsed.

“It’s great to make quick wins, but the challenge is not to spread your troops too far,” said Jeffrey Edmonds, national security and Russia specialist and senior analyst at the Center for a New American Security. , a Washington think tank. Tank.

Ukrainian forces have the advantage of retaking friendly territory against retreat, so defending their flanks and rear will be less of a concern than striking into hostile terrain. Russia’s initial attack on Kyiv in February failed because its troops sped far ahead of their supply lines, leaving soldiers poorly supplied. This weakened them, opening vulnerabilities to Ukrainian attacks from all directions.

Izyum was used by Russian forces as a base to strike at other towns in the region.


Photo:

Juan Barreto /Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

But even slightly opposite, a charging force requires fuel, ammo, and food that can keep pace. After the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944, US Army General George S. Patton’s troops marched more than 700 miles to Luxembourg in a matter of weeks, but his advance was halted in part because he had passed the supply lines.

“Logistics is the lifeblood of any military,” said Seth Jones, director of the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington. “Overcoming logistics is a challenge.”

Ukraine achieved its breakthrough using deception and surprise. Earlier this summer, Mr. Zelensky announced a new offensive on the southeastern city of Kherson, and his troops began targeting nearby Russian forces. Russia reacted by transferring forces from Donbass there.

After Russia moved the troops, Ukraine last week hit the thinned Donbass defenders with its biggest build-up of troops, tanks and other weapons to date in the war. Some military analysts have compared Ukraine’s counterattack to Israel’s stealth crossing of the Suez Canal during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which allowed it to turn the tide in that fight with its Arab neighbors.

Around Kherson, meanwhile, up to 20,000 troops from Moscow are defending an occupied city that has now been cut off from all supplies by Ukrainian strikes on the bridges to the rear. These bridges over the Dnipro River would also be needed for a Russian breakout. Ukrainian troops are not advancing aggressively on the city, but time may be on Kyiv’s side in the siege.

Write to Daniel Michaels at [email protected] and James Marson at [email protected]

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