The past week has seen a stunning transformation of the battlefield in eastern Ukraine, as a rapid armored offensive by Ukrainian forces rolled through Russian defenses and recaptured more than 3,000 square kilometers of territory.
That is more territory than Russian troops have taken in all of their operations in Ukraine since April.
As brilliant as the offensive was conceived and executed, it succeeded because of the Russian shortcomings. Throughout the Kharkov region, Russian units were poorly organized and equipped – and many offered little resistance.
Their failures and their disorderly retreat to the east have made the goal of President Vladimir Putin’s special military operation to capture the entire regions of Luhansk and Donetsk much more difficult.
Over the weekend, the Russian retreat continued from the border areas occupied since March. The Ukrainian flag was raised in villages within five kilometers of the border.
The collapse of the Russian defense has led to recriminations among influential Russian military bloggers and personalities in the Russian state media.
As the Ukrainian flag has been hoisted in community after community over the past few days, one question has popped up: How is the Kremlin responding?
A lightning operation
Ukrainian officials had sent a telegram that an offensive was imminent, but not where it actually happened. There was a lot of noise about a counterattack in the south, and even US officials spoke of Ukrainian operations to “shape the battlefield” in Kherson. Russian reinforcements – perhaps as many as 10,000 – poured into the region over a period of weeks.
There was indeed a Ukrainian attack in Kherson, but one that seems to have been aimed at pinning down Russian forces, with the real effort coming hundreds of miles to the north. It was a disinformation operation that the Russians could be proud of.
Kateryna Stepanenko of the Institute for the Study of War, an analytical group in Washington, says the deception has worked.
“Ukrainian military officials reported that (Russian) elements of the Eastern Military District that had previously supported offensive operations towards Sloviansk had been transferred to the Southern Axis,” she told DailyExpertNews.
Their replacements were clearly no match for the job — a mixed bag, Stepanenko said, of “Cossack volunteers, volunteer units, DNR/LNR militia units and the Russian Rosgvardia (National Guard). Such troops were not enough to support a huge and complex front line.”
The Ukrainians chose the weakest spot in the Russian defense for their first attack – an area controlled by the Luhansk militia with units of the Russian National Guard further back. They were no match for a highly mobile armored attack that quickly rendered artillery irrelevant.
Formerly the head of the militia of the Donetsk People’s Republic and now a caustic critic of Russian military deficiencies, Igor Strelkov pointed to the poor training of these units and “the exceptional prudence of the actions of Russian aviation”. In short, Russian front-line units were hung out to dry without sufficient air support.
Multiple videos, geolocated and analyzed by DailyExpertNews, as well as local accounts, show a chaotic withdrawal of Russian units, with large amounts of ammunition and hardware left behind.
The poor quality of the Russian defense along a critical north-south axis supporting the Donetsk offensive is hard to fathom. Once en route, the intent of the Ukrainian offensive was crystal clear – to destroy that artery of supply. They had done so within three days – not least because the Russian reinforcements were being mobilized slowly.