Russian Forces Flee Ukraine’s Kharkiv Offensive In Stunning Rout (Updated)
Russia confirms what is clearly a frantic withdrawal toward Donbas as Ukraine’s counteroffensive steamrolls deep into occupied territory.
Russian forces are withdrawing from Kharkiv Oblast and elsewhere en masse with Ukrainian forces retaking territory across the eastern frontline.
Ukrainian troops have raised the flag over critical cities of Izyum, Lyman, and Kupiansk after nearly a week of gains with a mix of mechanized, special forces, and motorized troops punching through and overrunning Russian positions.
Estimates vary, but it’s believed Ukraine may have pushed as far as 70 kilometers into Russian-held territory. Ukrainian troops have likely undone much of Russia’s gains in the east since its second phase began in April.
The Russian Ministry of Defense acknowledged the retreat from the Izyum-Balakleya corridor but called it a “regroup to build up efforts in the Donetsk Direction.” If that sounds familiar, it's a similar refrain to late March when Russia abandoned its failed campaign to take Kyiv in a "repositioning" to the eastern and southern fronts.
The regrouping/repositioning claim doesn't hold water as the Russians left (or Ukrainians overran) incredible stockpiles of ammunition, equipment, and vehicles in their wake, leaving little if any for those forces to "regroup" with.
There are also reports that Ukraine has advanced as far forward as Lysychansk, immediately opposite the Siverskyi Donets River from the strategic city of Severodonetsk. Ukraine held the factory city well into June in vicious urban warfare, with the Russian campaign there marred by its infamous failed river crossing nearby. Video showed Ukrainian troops on the move passing an oil refinery only a few miles southwest of Lysychansk.
What began as a Kharkiv offensive may well be snowballing into a broader strategic debacle for Russian troops. Igor Girkin, a veteran of Russia’s previous fighting against Ukraine and frequent commentator on the war since February, gave a scathing account of the Russian retreat on Telegram.
Girkin pointed out the ease with which Ukraine retook territory it held against Russian attacks for weeks in the summer and called the situation an “ongoing acute operational crisis.”
At the Russian border in Belgorod Oblast, videos show long lines of civilian traffic attempting to cross into Russia, and the mood on Telegram has gone from grim to panic-fueled calls for mobilization and nuclear strikes. The Russian government separately announced it is deploying resources to handle a surge of refugees fleeing the Ukrainian advances in Kharkiv Oblast.
A mass exodus of collaborators, sympathizers, and anyone else not wanting to be there when Ukrainian troops arrive could be panic alone or indicative of a wider withdrawal with the momentum firmly on Kyiv’s side. The question now is how Russia will react should Ukraine maintain that momentum in Kharkiv and elsewhere.
Strangely enough, you won't find much panic with Russian President Vladimir Putin, or so it seems. Putin appeared at a new martial arts center and dedicated a 140-meter-tall ferris wheel in Moscow on Saturday, and oddly did not look like a man whose military is actively unraveling in its "special military operation."
In an incredible bit of irony, the ferris wheel broke down Saturday evening.
We also must note that although these gains are impressive and promising, they are not assured. What Russia will do next remains unknown eventually new 'battle rhythm will emerge along newly established lines.
We will continue to update this story until we state otherwise.
One area that needs to be addressed is the stunning lack of effectiveness, once again, of Russian airpower. It has largely been absent and/or ineffective at working to beat back this offensive, especially considering there are major columns of troops moving on established roadways through what was just Russian-controlled territory. Now Ukraine can push its longer-ranged air defenses forward to deny further Russian Air Force operations much deeper in the east.
Like HIMARS, an S300 battery pushed far forward even in narrow areas of gain can really spell trouble for Russian aircraft operations for dozens of miles in a circle around the battery. And now Ukraine can potentially even roll in its own airpower, even if for just pointed strikes, with the help of HARM.
Ukrainian S300s are operating forward and have been for some time, but now they can take advantage of territorial gains and threaten aircraft deep into Russian-held territory. This pushes RuAF aircraft down into the MANPADS envelope and elevates operational risk. It also really degrades many advantages of the RuAF's tactical jet fleet for, instance.
The shock of these gains certainly plays a factor here in terms of the RuAF's lack of impact on the battlefield, but it remains stunning just how poorly Russian combat aviation forces have performed in this conflict.
Apart from events on the Kharkiv frontline, there are still unconfirmed reports that Ukrainian forces are fighting at the former Donetsk International Airport. Ruined in vicious battles between Ukrainian and separatist forces in 2014 and 2015, the wrecked airfield has been on the frontline since then with trenches and fortifications at the runway's west end. The Ukrainian side held the neighboring ruined town of Pisky, where fighting has been ongoing after separatist assaults earlier this summer.
Ukrainian forces have held positions as close as 300 meters to the airport since it fell to separatists in 2015, so it is not inconceivable that it's the target of a ground attack. But considering its greater symbolic than operational value, and absent other reports of attacks indicative of a move on Donetsk proper, the skepticism is warranted.
The Russian panic isn't unique to lines of cars leaving the region and nervous messages on Telegram, if this montage of Russian state TV is any indication. The degree to which commentators are both leaning into the skid of bad news from the frontlines, not to mention buttering up North Korea as an ally for weapon shipments and supplies, really says it all.
In the Black Sea, it appears a Romanian Navy minesweeper was damaged after striking a mine. The Musca-class ship LT Dimitrie Nocolescu was seen with damage near the stern after it reportedly struck a mine on September 8, though none of the crew were injured.
We wrote about the dangers mines in the Black Sea could pose both now and in the future, which you can read about here.
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