The last week has seen a stunning transformation of the battlefield in eastern Ukraine, as a swift armored offensive by Ukrainian forces rolled through lines of Russian defenses and recaptured more than 3,000 square kilometers (more than 1,100 square miles) of territory.
That is more territory than Russian forces have captured in all their operations in Ukraine since April.
As much as the offensive was brilliantly conceived and executed, it also succeeded because of Russian inadequacies. Throughout swathes of the Kharkiv region, Russian units were poorly organized and equipped – and many offered little resistance.
Their failures, and their disorderly retreat to the east, has made the goal of President Vladimir Putin’s special military operation to take all of Luhansk and Donetsk regions considerably harder to attain.
Over the weekend, the Russian retreat continued from border areas that had been occupied since March. Villages within five kilometers of the border were raising the Ukrainian flag.
The collapse of Russian defenses has ignited recriminations among influential Russian military bloggers and personalities in Russian state media.
As the Ukrainian flag was raised in one community after another over the last several days, one question came into focus: how does the Kremlin respond?
A lightning operation
Ukrainian officials had telegraphed that an offensive was imminent – but not where it actually happened. There was plenty of noise about a counter-attack in the south, and even US officials talked about Ukrainian operations to “shape the battlefield” in Kherson. Russian reinforcements – perhaps as many as 10,000 – streamed into the region over a period of weeks.
There was indeed a Ukrainian assault in Kherson, but one whose intention appears to have been to fix Russian forces, while the real effort came hundreds of miles to the north. It was a disinformation operation the Russians might have been proud of.
Kateryna Stepanenko at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based analytical group, says the deception worked.
“Ukrainian military officials reported that (Russian) Eastern Military District elements that had previously supported offensive operations towards Sloviansk had redeployed to the Southern Axis,” she told CNN.
Their replacements were clearly not up to the job – a mixed bag, Stepanenko said, of “Cossack volunteers, volunteer units, DNR/LNR militia units, and the Russian Rosgvardia (National Guard). Such forces were not sufficient to defend a vast and complex front line.”
The Ukrainians picked the weakest spot in Russian defenses for their initial thrust – an area controlled by the Luhansk militia with Russian National Guard units further back. They were no match for a highly mobile armored assault that quickly rendered artillery irrelevant.
Igor Strelkov, formerly the head of the Donetsk People’s Republic militia and now a caustic critic of Russian military shortcomings, noted the poor training of these units and “the exceptional caution 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 CNN, as well as local accounts, depict a chaotic withdrawal of Russian units, with large amounts of ammunition and hardware left behind.
The poor quality of Russian defenses along a critical north-south axis sustaining the Donetsk offensive is hard to fathom. Once underway, the intent of the Ukrainian offensive was crystal clear – to destroy that artery of resupply. Within three days, they had done so – not least because Russian reinforcements were slow to be mobilized.
The Russian Defense Ministry on Saturday sought to portray the abandonment of Kharkiv as a planned redirection of efforts to the Donetsk region – but it actually complicates those efforts.
Until this week, the Russians were able to attack Ukrainian defenses in Donetsk from three directions: north, east and south. The northern axis is now gone: the threat to the industrial belt in and around Sloviansk has much diminished, as has the prospect of Ukrainian defenses being surrounded.
Simply put, the battlefield in eastern Ukraine has been redrawn in days.
The most influential – and perhaps surprising – public critic of the situation was Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has supplied thousands of fighters to the offensive. In a Telegram post Sunday, he said he would be contacting senior officials at the Defense Ministry to spell out his message.
“It’s clear that mistakes were made. I think they will draw a few conclusions,” he said.
Hinting at disarray among commanders, Kadyrov said that “if Russia’s General Staff did not want to leave, the (troops) wouldn’t back out” – but Russian soldiers “didn’t have proper military training” and that led to them to retreat.
Influential military bloggers in Russia have been even more blunt. Zakhar Prilepin, whose Telegram channel has more than 250,000 subscribers, reposted a commentary that described events in Kharkiv as a “catastrophe” and a wholesale failure of intelligence.
“Now we can observe the result of the criminal irresponsibility of those who were responsible for this direction,” the post reads, before concluding: “The special military operation is long over. There is a war going on.”
Another pro-Putin blogger who goes by the name Kholmogorov reposted an equally scathing account by the Partizan Telegram channel from the front lines, which that essentially accused the Russian authorities of abandoning the troops.
“The soldiers were on foot with one machine gun and a sack. Abandoned by the command, not knowing the way, they walked at random,” the post said.
The poster, who describes himself as a Russian Orthodox nationalist, says that while hatred of the enemy grows, “hatred of the government and command is growing even more.”
Adding his own thoughts, Kholmogorov said: “Lord, save the Russian soldiers from blows from the front and even more from blows in the back.”
A similar analysis came from the Telegram channel of Pyotr Lundstrem.
“There are NO thermal imagers, NO bulletproof vests, NO reconnaissance equipment, NO secure communications, NOT enough copters, NO first aid kits in the army.”
Referring to commemorations in Russia this weekend for the Day of Moscow, the city’s birthday, he added: “You are celebrating a billionth holiday. What’s wrong with you?”
On Saturday, as the rout continued, Putin was inaugurating a ferris wheel in Moscow.
The Institute for the Study of War notes the “withdrawal announcement further alienated the Russian milblogger and Russian nationalist communities that support the Kremlin’s grandiose vision for capturing the entirety of Ukraine.”
Putin’s next move
Prominent media figures in Russia are trying to spin this week’s calamity as a planned operation. Television host Vladimir Soloviev reposted a Telegram commentary that insisted the “enemy, buying into an easy advance on a given sector of the front, drives into a trap.”
“Currently, Russian units are purposefully regrouping,” the commentary added, even though there is little sign of that.
That begs the question as to how the Kremlin prosecutes the war after suffering its worst week of the entire campaign. It appears to be short of high-quality units. Some existing battalion tactical groups have been reconstituted; volunteer battalions have been raised across Russia to form a Third Army Corps. US officials say the Russians are running short of munitions, even turning to North Korea for supplies.
Stepanenko, at the Institute for the Study of War, told CNN that the remarkable success of the Ukrainian counteroffensive will force a reappraisal of how the new army corps is used.
Stepanenko, who studies the recruitment and organization of the Russian military, says the Russians “might still attempt to use these units to stop the Ukrainian counter-offensive in Kharkiv, although rushing ill-trained and unprepared raw units into such operations would be a highly dangerous endeavor.”
She believes that given the Russian need for fresh manpower, “it is likely that the Russian forces are deploying these elements directly onto the front lines in any case based on the reports that some volunteer battalions are already fighting on the Kherson front lines.”
The Russian military can still bring considerable power to bear in terms of its rocket, artillery and missile forces. But despite one shuffle of the high command already, its ground operations seem poorly organized, with little autonomy devolved to commanders. The last week has laid bare issues of motivation and leadership.
Russian bloggers who have supported the offensive say a radical rethink is required. One commented: “A change of approach to the war in Ukraine is needed. Mobilization of the economy and industry. Creation of a political control center for war.”
Strelkov came to the same conclusion, saying it is time to “start fighting for real (with martial law, the mobilization of the army and the economy.)”
Throughout the conflict, Putin has avoided a general mobilization, which might be unpopular at home.
It’s impossible to know whether the Kremlin will now double down in an effort to complete the special military operation or begins to look for a negotiated settlement.
The first option looks a tall order given the events of the last week; the second would be humiliating. The third possibility, perhaps the most likely, is that Russia will persist with its grinding inch-by-inch onslaught while taking little to no additional territory. But it now faces an adversary with the wind in its sails and fresh infusions of Western military aid being prepared for the winter months.
Ukraine’s battlefield advances have rejuvenated allied support, with a meeting in Germany this weekend producing further pledges of long-term support.