September 10, 2022

Institute for the Study. Of War: Russian positions in northern Donbas collapse as Ukraine forces advance toward Russian border

Institute for the Study of War

The Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kharkiv Oblast is routing Russian forces and collapsing Russia’s northern Donbas axis. Russian forces are not conducting a controlled withdrawal and are hurriedly fleeing southeastern Kharkiv Oblast to escape encirclement around Izyum. Russian forces have previously weakened the northern Donbas axis by redeploying units from this area to Southern Ukraine, complicating efforts to slow the Ukrainian advance or at minimum deploy a covering force for the retreat. Ukrainian gains are not confined to the Izyum area; Ukrainian forces reportedly captured Velikiy Burluk on September 10, which would place Ukrainian forces within 15 kilometers of the international border.[1] Ukrainian forces have penetrated Russian lines to a depth of up to 70 kilometers in some places and captured over 3,000 square kilometers of territory in the past five days since September 6 – more territory than Russian forces have captured in all their operations since April.

Ukrainian forces will likely capture the city of Izyum itself in the next 48 hours if they have not already done so. The liberation of Izyum would be the most significant Ukrainian military achievement since winning the Battle of Kyiv in March. It would eliminate the Russian advance in northwest Donetsk Oblast along the E40 highway that the Russian military sought to use to outflank Ukrainian positions along the Slovyansk – Kramatorsk line. A successful encirclement of Russian forces fleeing Izyum would result in the destruction or capture of significant Russian forces and exacerbate Russian manpower and morale issues. Russian war correspondents and milbloggers have also reported facing challenges when evacuating from Izyum, indicating Ukrainian forces are at least partially closing a cauldron in some areas.[2]

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced the withdrawal of troops from the Balakliya-Izyum line on September 10, falsely framing the retreat as a “regrouping” of forces to support Russian efforts in the Donetsk Oblast direction – mirroring the Kremlin’s false explanation for the Russian withdrawal after the Battle of Kyiv.[3] The Russian MoD did not acknowledge Ukrainian successes around Kharkiv Oblast as the primary factor for the Russian retreat, and claimed that Russian military command has been carrying out a controlled withdrawal from the Balakliya-Izyum area for the past three days. The Russian MoD falsely claimed that Russian forces undertook a number of demonstrative actions and used artillery and aviation to ensure the safety of withdrawing Russian forces. These Russian statements have no relation to the situation on the ground.

The Russian MoD’s inability to admit Russian failures in Kharkiv Oblast and effectively set information conditions is collapsing the Russian information space. Kremlin-sponsored TV propagandists offered a wide range of confused explanations for Ukrainian successes ranging from justifications that Russian forces are fighting against the entire Western Bloc, to downplaying the importance of Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCS) in Kupyansk.[4] The Kremlin’s propagandists appeared unusually disorganized in their narratives, with some confirming the liberation of certain towns and others refuting such reports. Guest experts also were unable to reaffirm the hosts’ narratives that Ukrainian successes are not significant for the Donbas axis. Such programming may reveal the true progress of the Russian “special military operation” to the general Russian public that relies on state media and the Russian MoD for updates.

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. Russian milbloggers condemned the Russian MoD for remaining quiet, choosing self-isolation, and distorting situational awareness in Russia.[5] One milblogger even stated that the Russian MoD’s silence is a betrayal of Russian servicemen that fought and still fight in Ukraine.[6] A Russian milblogger also noted that the Russian MoD has repeatedly ignored or demeaned the milblogger community that raised concerns with Russian military leadership and lack of transparency on the frontlines.[7] The milbloggers called on the Russian MoD to take the information space into its own hands and stop relying on silencing information.

Prior to the withdrawal announcement, the Russian MoD released footage of Russian military convoys reportedly moving to reinforce the Kharkiv direction on September 9.[8] Many Russian outlets and milbloggers expressed hope that these reinforcements would stabilize the frontline and repel Ukrainian advances on Izyum despite the Russian MoD failing to address the unfolding situation days prior. Russian milbloggers would have likely accepted MoD’s announcement of a withdrawal like they previously did with the Russian retreat from the Snake Island and other tactical Russian losses if the Russian information space was not oversaturated with footage of Ukrainian successes. Such inconsistencies in messaging further support ISW’s assessment that the Russian MoD faces challenges in responding to unexpected developments within the established informational framework, which portrays Russian invasion of Ukraine as an easy and faultless operation.[9] Most importantly, such unaware information practices erode the Russian public’s trust in Russian MoD messaging and disrupt the Kremlin’s propaganda facade.

Russian milbloggers also criticized the Russian occupation authorities for failing to organize evacuation measures in Kharkiv Oblast. Some milbloggers noted that occupation administrations are disoriented and lack initiative.[10] The Ukrainian counteroffensive is effectively paralyzing the Russian occupation leadership that is likely afraid for its fate.

Key Takeaways

  • Ukrainian forces in Kharkiv Oblast are collapsing Russia’s northern Donbas axis, and Ukrainian forces will likely recapture Izyum itself in the next 48 hours.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced the withdrawal of troops from the Balakliya-Izyum line on September 10, and the Russian MoD’s failure to set effective information conditions is collapsing the Russian information space.
  • The withdrawal announcement and occupation authorities’ failure to organize evacuation measures is further alienating the Russian milblogger and Russian nationalist communities that support the Kremlin’s grandiose vision of capturing the entirety of Ukraine.
  • Ukrainian forces reached positions within 15–25km of the Russo-Ukrainian border in northeastern Kharkiv Oblast, Izyum’s northern outskirts, and Lyman’s south and southwestern outskirts, and captured the western half of Kupyansk.
  • Russian forces are reinforcing frontline positions in Kherson Oblast while Ukrainian forces conduct positional battles and continue their interdiction campaign against Russian logistics lines.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground assaults north of Kharkiv City, south of Bakhmut, and west of Donetsk City.
  • Russian recruitment drives are generating some criticism among Russian milbloggers and regions.
  • Russian forces are reportedly intensifying filtration measures in Kherson and Zaporizhia Oblasts in response to Ukrainian counteroffensives on the Southern Axis.

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