The past week has seen a stunning transformation of the battlefield in eastern Ukraine, as a rapid armored offensive by Ukrainian forces broke through Russian defense lines and recaptured more than 3,000 square kilometers of territory.
That’s more territory than Russian forces have captured in all of their operations in Ukraine since April.
As brilliantly as the offensive was conceived and executed, it succeeded thanks to Russian shortcomings. In swaths of the Kharkiv region, Russian units were poorly organized and ill-equipped – and many offered little resistance.
Their failures and disorderly retreat east made President Vladimir Putin’s Special Military Operation goal of taking all of Luhansk 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.
There was indeed a Ukrainian assault on Kherson, but the intention seems to have been to fix the Russian forces, when the real effort came hundreds of kilometers to the north. It was a disinformation operation the Russians could have been proud of.
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 the task – a mixed bag, Stepanenko said, 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 Luhansk 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.