Ukrainian troops assault a Russian position in the east.
Via social media
Eight days after Ukrainian forces counterattacked in southern Ukraine on Aug. 30, advancing miles toward Russian-occupied Kherson and a key Russian pontoon bridge, a separate Ukrainian force launched a second counteroffensive–south of Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine.
The Kherson counteroffensive has been successful. The Kharkiv counteroffensive has been even more successful–punching through thin Russian defenses and barreling into the Russians’ unguarded rear area. Now a key Russian supply hub, and all the troops it feeds and arms, are in big trouble.
As Russia’s wider war in Ukraine grinds into its seventh month, the momentum clearly is with Ukraine. The battered Russian army is buckling along at least two fronts. It’s not clear the Kremlin can mobilize enough fully equipped and trained reserves to prevent a catastrophic collapse.
Ukraine’s southern counteroffensive came as no surprise. Officials in Kyiv hinted as early as May that liberating Kherson, a strategic port with a pre-war population of 300,000, was Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s top priority. That month, the Ukrainian armed forces began a long campaign of deep strikes–rocket barrages, drone strikes, commando raids–targeting Russian supply lines all across Ukraine, but especially in the south.
The deep strikes isolated the Russian battalions in and around Kherson, but also signaled to the Kremlin that a Ukrainian counteroffensive was coming. Anticipating the attack, the Russians shifted a dozen of their 100 or so battalions in Ukraine from the northeast and east to the south, growing by a third the starving Kherson garrison–but at the cost of thinning out defenses in the Donbas region in the east as well as around Kharkiv.
As the Russian 2nd and 20th Combined Arms Army around Kharkiv hollowed out, the Ukrainian 25th, 80th, 92nd Brigades–as well as the powerful 3rd Tank Brigade–were ready. They unexpectedly attacked on Wednesday and “punched through the thinly-occupied Russian defense line at Verbivka,” around 30 miles southeast of Kharkiv, wrote Tom Cooper, an independent military analyst and author.
Verbivka is adjacent to the Russian-occupied town of Balakliya. The Ukrainians initially bypassed Balakliya as well as several other Russian-held towns. The Ukrainian forces had a bigger target: Kupyansk, a key Russian logistical hub 50 miles east of Kharkiv.
The roads and railways running through Kupyansk connect Russian forces in the east to Russia proper. Sever those supply lines, and the whole Russian army in Donbas could suffer the same fate as Russian forces in the south. Cut off from supplies and reinforcements, withering from inside as the Ukrainians press them from outside.
Whether, and how soon, the Ukrainians reach Kupyansk depends on whether, and how soon, the Russians can reinforce the eastern front. Absent fresh forces from outside, there’s not much to stop the Ukrainian brigades. “There was absolutely nothing behind the Russian ‘front line,’” Cooper noted. “No minefields, no fortifications, no strongholds and no other Russian units capable of launching counterattacks.”
Ukraine’s Kherson counteroffensive might still be Zelensky’s top priority. But it’s now performing double duty. Not only is the southern assault a concerted effort to liberate a strategic port, it now also is a fixing effort. That is, it has fixed in place so many Russian troops that it’s creating weak spots in Russian lines elsewhere. Weak spots that well-led Ukrainian forces are exploiting.