Sergey Poletaev: Ukraine has upped the ante in its conflict with Russia, how will Moscow respond?
After Russia and its local allies liberated Severodonetsk and Lisichansk in early July, the fighting in Ukraine subsided somewhat. It seemed as if Moscow was deliberately letting the conflict settle into something with an air of the routine. Relatively little resources were being spent on it, while the state apparatus was working to overcome the effects of sanctions and to adapt the economy.
During this time, the military operation was taking place in a kind of ‘standby mode’ against the background of turbulence in the global economy and the deepening energy crisis in Europe.
However, in late summer and early autumn, events on the Ukrainian front called into question the prospects for such a frozen state. As we had anticipated, the operational pause on the part of the Russian army led to the Ukrainian Armed Forces (AFU) seizing the initiative and eventually launching two counter-offensive operations.
In Kherson Region, Russian-controlled territory between the Ingulets and Dnieper Rivers is supplied through three crossings: the railway and road bridges in Kherson itself and the dam and bridges of the Kakhovka hydroelectric complex. Since mid-summer, Ukrainian forces have been shelling these crossings with varying success.
Nevertheless, despite the relative effectiveness of these efforts and the collapse of some sections, they failed to disrupt the supply of both the Russian army group and the city of Kherson, located on the right bank of the Dnieper River.
Since August 20, Ukrainian forces have been engaged in a major offensive in several parts of the front. Most notably, they captured a bridgehead on the southern bank of the Ingulets River near Andreevka. Apparently, the plan was to use this to reach the Kakhovka Dam and Berislav from the south-southeast and cut off the northeastern grouping of the Russian forces, forcing them to retreat.
The Russian side managed to contain the initial onslaught by the AFU and used its air superiority to inflict a major defeat on the advancing troops. According to some estimates, Ukrainian losses in seven to ten days amounted to as many as 4,000 killed out of 15,000 advancing troops. A huge amount of video footage appears to confirm the order of magnitude of the figures, while heavy AFU losses in the Kherson theater are also reported openly in the Western press.
As of mid-September, the AFU’s successes near Kherson included the occupation of the village of Vysokopolye in the northeastern part of the Kherson front, and several small villages near Andreevka, where the depth of the breach was reduced from a maximum of 20-22km to a bridgehead measuring approximately 7-12km. On the evening of September 14, there were reports that the Karachun reservoir dam in Krivoy Rog had been destroyed, which had induced a sharp rise in the water level of the Ingulets River, posing a threat to Ukrainian bridgehead crossings. Still, the fighting near Kherson is not yet over and the situation remains fluid.
The Kherson attack, however, was quickly overshadowed by events in the north. On September 6 in Kharkov Region, the AFU launched an attack on the Russian-controlled regional towns of Balakleya, Izium and Kupiansk. A day later Balakleya was completely blockaded, and two days later the AFU approached Kupiansk, located on the Oskol River, threatening to encircle Izium to the south.
The attackers operated in light mobile groups, breaking into settlements, blocking roads and going behind the small Russian garrisons. Their superior numbers (an eight-to-one, according to some estimates) allowed them to quickly flood a vast territory and create the impression of a ubiquitous presence.
No major fighting took place and for a couple of days the wooded area between Balakleya and the Oskol River was a patchwork of terrain, with little control by either side.
As early as September 8, Russia started transferring reserves to the front, for which heavy Mi-26 helicopters were deployed. At the same time, there began a withdrawal of forces from Balakleya, which had been encircled operationally. The Ufa and Samara SOBR (Special Unit of Quick Response — RT.) detachments that had been blocked in the town were the last to leave, doing so without major losses, as early as September 9-10.
On September 10, the Russian Defense Ministry announced a complete withdrawal of forces to the Oskol River in eastern Kharkov Region. As a result, Balakleya, Izium and the western part of Kupiansk, which was divided by the Oskol, have come under Ukrainian control.
Despite official statements by the Russian Defense Ministry about the withdrawal and redeployment of the Izium-Balakleya group of troops to the territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic, the Kharkov events were perceived by many in Russia almost as a disaster. It has become clear that Ukraine is in a position to conduct offensive operations and there is a feeling that the Russian army has no way to respond here and now.
As a result of the strike, Moscow’s forces had to hastily abandon territory where Russia’s presence had seemed permanent: passports and license plates had been distributed to locals; Russian businesses had entered Izium, Kupiansk and Balakleya; local teachers had been retrained and were preparing to start the new academic year with Russian programs.
The effect was magnified by the swiftness of events: the AFU managed to move the front 60-70km in three days, while in Donbass a movement of 1-2km a week is considered a success.
What is next? Depending on how much offensive potential it has remaining, the AFU could try to push forward in several ways.
First, it might attack east of the Oskol or from the south through a bridgehead at Krasny Liman in order to occupy the remaining Russian-controlled part of Kharkov Region and enter the territory of the Lugansk People’s Republic from the north.
Second, it could embark on an attempt to reverse the situation near Kherson and still go on the offensive there.
Third, a strike somewhere else could be forthcoming. There have been reports of large AFU forces accumulating near Ugledar, which may indicate preparations for an offensive along the Volnovakha-Mariupol line. Mariupol is just 70km from Ugledar, which is comparable to the depth of AFU operations in the Kherson and Kharkov theaters.
Fourth, attempts to shift infantry fighting to Russian territory near Belgorod cannot be ruled out. Provocations in the form of shelling there are constant and have been intensifying in recent days, and it seems that the Ukrainian forces are probing Moscow's reaction.
What about Russia itself? On July 7, President Putin said that Russia had not yet started anything in earnest in Ukraine. It seems that it is impossible to achieve the operation’s goals without defeating the Ukrainian army, which means that Russia needs to seize the initiative and change its approach to combat operations.
In what form this will happen – whether air strikes will be stepped up and geographically expanded, or the Russian force grouping will be increased and major offensive operations prepared, or some form of mobilization will eventually come to pass – we will find out sooner or later.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.