Ukrainian troops search for Russian weapons left behind ahead of Ukraine's eastern counteroffensive on Sept. 12. Photo by Security Service of Ukraine via Twitter.
KYIV, Ukraine — The rainy weather here in Ukraine’s capital city on Monday, Sept. 12, did nothing to dampen the jubilant mood as the good news continued to roll in.
About 300 miles to the east, Ukrainian forces have spent the past week raising their country’s flag over scores of settlements that had been under Russian occupation for up to six months. Ahead of the barreling Ukrainian advance, Russian units are fleeing, sometimes without a fight.
“Everything is good. We’re beating the Russian occupiers. Thanks to the help of the latest weapons from the United States of America and Great Britain, victory will be ours,” Alexander Pochynok, a Ukrainian army sniper currently deployed to the eastern war zone near the city of Avdiivka, told Coffee or Die Magazine via text message.
Over the weekend, Ukraine’s armed forces achieved a sweeping breakthrough of Russia’s defensive lines in the northeastern Kharkiv region. Russian resistance largely dissolved in the days that followed, resulting in a wholesale rout as Ukrainian forces have retaken hundreds of square miles of territory. The Ukrainians’ forward line advanced to the Russian border in places — forcing some Russian units to evacuate Ukrainian territory altogether.
"Our offensive operation was crowned with unprecedented success. This is only the beginning, believe me," Andriy Kobzar, a Ukrainian army artilleryman, told Coffee or Die.
On Monday, pedestrians streamed past piles of destroyed Russian military hardware on display outside Kyiv’s National Military History Museum. It was after work hours and raining, and many people walked by the ruined Russian vehicles with an air of indifference. Yet, some passersby stopped and stared a moment. A few paused for a triumphant selfie in front of a burnt-out Russian tank, or beside the shredded and scorched rear stabilizer of a Russian Su-25 attack plane.
Minutes later, an air raid alert sounded. To this correspondent’s eye, no one on the sidewalk reacted.
Life in Kyiv has returned to a bizarre new normal more than six months after Russian invasion forces poured over the border, intent on capturing the capital city within 72 hours. Faced with implacable Ukrainian resistance, Russian units retreated from Kyiv’s outskirts at the end of March, and the war’s center of gravity then shifted to the southern and eastern front lines. As Russia’s artillery-dependent forces creeped ahead in the east, it looked as though the full-scale invasion had devolved into a drawn-out war of attrition.
“I do think this is a very protracted conflict, and I think it’s measured in years. I don’t know about decade, but at least years for sure,” Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee in April.
Yet, over the past two weeks, Ukraine’s battlefield performance has reshuffled the war’s outlook once more.
Pedestrians walk past destroyed Russian military hardware in Kyiv in September 2022. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die.
“Ukraine’s success accomplishes a couple of things. Most importantly, it gives the Ukrainian people a huge morale boost while at the same time gives Ukrainians stuck behind enemy lines hope that they will soon be liberated, too,” said Luke Coffey, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who specializes in national security and foreign policy.
“Ukraine has also proven that arming them was the right decision and that the West’s return on investment has been very good,” Coffey told Coffee or Die.
According to a Monday intelligence update by the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense: “In the face of Ukrainian advances, Russia has likely ordered the withdrawal of its troops from the entirety of occupied Kharkiv Oblast west of the Oskil River. Isolated pockets of resistance remain in this sector, but since Wednesday, Ukraine has recaptured territory at least twice the size of Greater London.”
At some places, Ukraine’s forces are approaching the erstwhile limits of the front lines in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which had remained relatively static during some eight years of limited, positional warfare prior to the Feb. 24, full-scale invasion.
Ukraine’s military has proven its ability to mount an effective combined arms campaign, using Western weapons, such as the US-provided M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, to pummel their Russian adversaries into a chaotic retreat. Operational deception and iron-clad information discipline have also played key roles in the success of Ukraine's Kharkiv counteroffensive.
“From Donbas to Kherson the dominoes are falling for Russia. The full collapse of the Russian lines could still take weeks, so policymakers need to be patient,” the Hudson Institute’s Coffey said. “Then it could still take many more months for Ukraine to finish the job properly. This is why the US and the West must not pause for even one second in supporting Ukraine at this critical time. I believe what is happening is a turning point in this phase of the war, but there will still likely be a long struggle ahead as Russia retreats to entrenched positions around Donetsk and Luhansk.”
When Russian forces retreated from Kyiv at the end of March, the Kremlin said it was to focus on taking ground in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Similarly, Russia’s Defense Ministry claimed the Kharkiv retreat was a “regrouping” of forces meant to reinforce control over Ukraine’s Donbas region.
Ukraine’s air force reported that its anti-aircraft defenses downed nine out of 12 Russian missiles launched into Ukrainian territory on Sept. 11. Even so, Russian strikes hit power plants near the cities of Kharkiv and Kremenchuk that night, causing blackouts in multiple areas.
Despite the ongoing missile strike campaign against all of Ukraine, Russia has exhausted its offensive momentum on the ground in the south and east. For their part, Ukrainian forces have now retaken the battlefield initiative in the Kharkiv region — while a separate Ukrainian counteroffensive in the southern Kherson region simultaneously gains ground, albeit at a slower rate.
On Monday, Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense announced that its forces had retaken about 500 square kilometers, about 193 square miles, of territory in the Kherson direction over the past two weeks. Relentless Ukrainian attacks on bridge crossings over the Dnipro River have left Russian forces in Kherson trapped on the waterway’s western bank and cut off from supplies and reinforcements. Natalia Humeniuk, spokesperson for the Ukrainian armed forces’ southern command, told reporters on that some Russian soldiers near Kherson attempted to negotiate their surrender.
“Demoralization is so high, even the commanders now realize they don’t have anywhere to go,” Humeniuk said Monday.
For weeks, Ukrainian officials telegraphed the possibility of an attack on Russian occupation forces in the Kherson region. Consequently, Russia shifted forces from other areas to defend its positions near Kherson. Russian units also built multiple lines of defense near Kherson — pre-battle preparations, which were largely ignored in the Kharkiv region.
With Ukraine’s Kharkiv advance pressing ahead, it's unclear how long Ukrainian supply lines can support the rapidly advancing forward edge of battle. In just a matter of days, Ukraine’s military has been able to reverse gains that took the Russian side some six months to achieve.
With some 80% of its ground troops engaged in the war in Ukraine, according to a recent NATO estimate, Russia does not have the available manpower to quickly amass a reserve force that can counter Ukraine’s recent advances. At best, Russian President Vladimir Putin could order a mass mobilization — a move that would likely spark domestic political blowback — to bolster Russia’s overstretched ranks. However, even a mass mobilization would take months to produce forces ready for combat.
“The rapid Ukrainian successes have significant implications for Russia's overall operational design. The majority of the force in Ukraine is highly likely being forced to prioritise emergency defensive actions,” the UK’s defense ministry reported Monday, adding: “The already limited trust deployed troops have in Russia's senior military leadership is likely to deteriorate further.”