September 11, 2022

Institute for the Study of War: Ukraine inflicts major operational defeat on Russia, turning the tide of war in its favor

Institute for the Study of War

Ukrainian forces have inflicted a major operational defeat on Russia, recapturing almost all Kharkiv Oblast in a rapid counter-offensive. The Ukrainian success resulted from skillful campaign design and execution that included efforts to maximize the impact of Western weapons systems such as HIMARS. Kyiv’s long discussion and then an announcement of a counter-offensive operation aimed at Kherson Oblast drew substantial Russian troops away from the sectors on which Ukrainian forces have conducted decisive attacks in the past several days. Ukraine’s armed forces employed HIMARS and other Western systems to attack Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) in Kharkiv and Kherson Oblasts, setting conditions for the success of this operation. Ukrainian leaders discussed the strikes in the south much more ostentatiously, however, successfully confusing the Russians about their intentions in Kharkiv Oblast. Western weapons systems were necessary but not sufficient to secure success for Ukraine. The Ukrainian employment of those systems in a well-designed and well-executed campaign has generated the remarkable success of the counter-offensive operations in Kharkiv Oblast.

The Ukrainian recapture of Izyum ended the prospect that Russia could accomplish its stated objectives in Donetsk Oblast. After retreating from Kyiv in early April, the stated Russian objectives had been to seize the complete territory of Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts.[1] The Russian campaign to achieve these objectives was an attack along an arc from Izyum through Severodonetsk to the area near Donetsk City. That attack aimed to seize Severodonetsk, Lysychansk, Slovyansk, Bakhmut, and Kramatorsk, and continue to the western boundary of Donetsk Oblast. Russian forces managed to take Severodonetsk on June 24 and Lysychansk on July 3 after a long and extremely costly campaign but then largely culminated, seizing no major settlements and little territory.[2] The Russian position around Izyum still threatened Ukrainian defenders of Slovyansk, however, and retained for the Russians the opportunity to return to the attack on the northern sectors of the arc, which they had largely abandoned by the middle of July in favor of a focus on Siversk (near Lysychansk) and Bakhmut. 

The loss of Izyum dooms the initial Russian campaign plan for this phase of the war and ensures that Russian advances toward Bakhmut or around Donetsk City cannot be decisive (if they occur at all). Even the Russian seizure of Bakhmut, which is unlikely to occur considering Russian forces have impaled themselves on tiny surrounding settlements for weeks, would no longer support any larger effort to accomplish the original objectives of this phase of the campaign since it would not be supported by an advance from Izyum in the north. The continued Russian offensive operations against Bakhmut and around Donetsk City have thus lost any real operational significance for Moscow and merely waste some of the extremely limited effective combat power Russia retains.

There is no basis for assessing that the counter-offensive announced in Kherson Oblast is merely a feint, however. Ukrainian forces have reportedly attacked and made gains at several important locations on the western bank of the Dnipro River. They have cut the two bridges across the river and continue to keep them cut as well as interfere with Russian efforts to maintain supply via barge and pontoon ferry. Ukraine has committed considerable combat power and focused a significant portion of the Western-supplied long-range precision systems it has to this axis, and it is not likely to have done so merely to draw Russian forces to the area.

The Ukrainian pressure in Kherson combined with the rapid counter-offensive in Kharkiv presents the Russians with a terrible dilemma of time and space. Russia likely lacks sufficient reserve forces to complete the formation of a new defensive line along the Oskil River, as it is reportedly trying to do before Ukrainian forces continue their advance through that position if they so choose. Prudence would demand that Russia pull forces from other sectors of the battlespace to establish defensive lines further east than the Oskil River to ensure that it can hold the Luhansk Oblast border or a line as close to that border as possible. But Russian troops around Bakhmut and near Donetsk City continue offensive operations as if unaware of the danger to Luhansk, and Russian forces in Kherson still face attack and the threat of more attacks on that axis. Russian President Vladimir Putin risks making a common but deadly mistake by waiting too long to order reinforcements to the Luhansk line, thereby compromising the defense of Kherson or ending offensive operations around Bakhmut and Donetsk City without getting troops into position to defend against continuing Ukrainian attacks in Luhansk in time. The Ukrainian campaign appears intended to present Putin with precisely such a dilemma and to benefit from almost any decision he makes.

The current counter-offensive will not end the war. The campaign in northeast Ukraine will eventually culminate, allowing the Russians to re-establish a tenable defensive line and possibly even conduct localized counterattacks. Ukraine will have to launch subsequent counter-offensive operations, likely several, to finish the liberation of Russian-occupied territory. The war remains likely to stretch into 2023. 

Ukraine has turned the tide of this war in its favor. Kyiv will likely increasingly dictate the location and nature of the major fighting, and Russia will find itself increasingly responding inadequately to growing Ukrainian physical and psychological pressure in successive military campaigns unless Moscow finds some way to regain the initiative.

Russian officials and milbloggers involved with the Russian war in Ukraine are increasingly blaming the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) for Russian failures on the frontlines. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov stated that if there are no changes to the Russian “special military operation” today or tomorrow, then he will contact the Kremlin to “explain the situation on the ground.”[3] Kadyrov’s statement is a thinly veiled criticism of the Russian MoD for its lack of situational awareness (or honesty) and highlights the MoD’s preoccupation with maintaining the façade of a successful and swift Russian invasion of Ukraine.  The Russian MoD has not acknowledged the successful Ukrainian counteroffensive operations around Kharkiv Oblast, instead promulgating a clearly false narrative of a deliberate Russian repositioning without any meaningful justification. A milblogger also noted that a civilian such as the head of the Wagner Group private military company Yevgeniy Prigozhin should replace Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu because civilians can better handle the harmful nature of the military bureaucracy.[4] The intensifying public attacks on Shoigu and the Russian MoD shield Russian President Vladimir Putin from the responsibility for setting unattainable goals for the invasion and likely micromanaging military operations by pinning all the blame for Russian failures on the MoD and higher military command. Putin may accept and even support these attacks to continue this diversion of blame from him.

The Kharkiv Oblast counter-offensive is already damaging the Kremlin’s relationship with the Russian MoD, further alienating Putin from the higher military command. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated that Putin has postponed all his meetings with the leadership of the Russian MoD and representatives of the Russian defense industry in Sochi—a bizarre decision in the face of the military operational and defense industrial crisis facing Russia.[5]

The Russian defeat in the Battle of Kharkiv Oblast will only intensify public criticism of Shoigu and the MoD, which may lead to personnel changes. The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported that the western grouping of forces has been placed under the command of the Commander of the Central Military District Colonel General Alexander Lapin who is currently commanding the central group of forces in Ukraine.[6] The GUR added that the Kremlin is looking for a replacement for the commander of the western grouping of forces Lieutenant General Roman Berdnikov, who had just replaced Lieutenant General Andrey Sychevoy on August 26.

Ukrainian authorities shut down the last active reactor at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) on September 11. Ukrainian nuclear energy agency Energoatom announced that it began to prepare nuclear reactor no. 6 for a cold shutdown after Energoatom restored a backup powerline connecting the ZNPP to the Ukrainian power grid on September 11.[7] Energoatom stated that the reactor had been producing energy at 10-15% of its capability, the bare minimum necessary to sustain ZNPP operations.[8] Energoatom stated that a cold shutdown is the safest state for the ZNPP as frequent Russian shelling continues to damage power lines necessary to operate the plant safely.[9] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Ukrainian forces shell the ZNPP as part of a broader campaign against energy infrastructure in occupied territories and Russian milbloggers amplified this narrative.[10] Energoatom and the International Atomic Energy Agency reiterated that shelling the ZNPP must end and that Russian authorities must demilitarize and declare a safe zone around the ZNPP.[11]

Russian forces conducted a wave of precision strikes against Ukrainian energy infrastructure on September 11 causing widespread power outages.[12] The attacks are likely meant to let Moscow claim that it is launching a new phase of offensive operations even as it loses on the ground, and possibly also to punish Ukraine for shutting down the ZNPP despite Russia’s desire to keep it operating.

Key Takeaways

  • Ukrainian forces have inflicted a major operational defeat on Russia, recapturing almost all Kharkiv Oblast in a rapid counter-offensive
  • Ukrainian authorities shut down the last active reactor at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant on September 11.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense confirmed that Russian forces are withdrawing from positions throughout all but easternmost Kharkiv Oblast.
  • Russian milbloggers have defined the Oskil River that runs from Kupyansk to Izyum as the new frontline following Russian withdrawal from positions in eastern Kharkiv Oblast.
  • Ukrainian forces have advanced into Vovchansk and Velykyi Burluk, just south of the international border.
  • Ukrainian forces continue to fight positional battles and conduct strikes on Russian military, logistics, and transportation assets along the Southern Axis.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks in the Avdiivka and Bakhmut areas.
  • Russian authorities are continuing to pull combat power from various external sources to support operations in Ukraine and are struggling to compensate volunteers.
  • The success of recent Ukrainian counteroffensives likely contributed to the Russian announcement that annexation referenda will be indefinitely postponed.

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