Last week saw an astonishing transformation of the battlefield in eastern Ukraine, as Ukrainian forces swept a swift armored offensive across Russian lines of defense and reclaimed more than 3,000 square kilometers of territory.
This is more space than Russian forces have captured in all of their operations in Ukraine since April.
As brilliantly as the attack was conceived and executed, it was also successful due to Russian shortcomings. Throughout the Kharkiv regions, Russian units were poorly organized and equipped – and not much resistance was offered.
Their failures, and their disorderly retreat to the east, made the goal of President Vladimir Putin’s special military operation to seize all of Luhansk and Donetsk regions more difficult to achieve.
Over the weekend, the Russian withdrawal from the border areas that had been occupied since March continued. Villages located five kilometers from the border were flying the Ukrainian flag.
The collapse of Russia’s defenses has sparked mutual accusations between bloggers and influential Russian military figures in the Russian state media.
As the Ukrainian flag has been raised in community after community over the past several days, one question has focused: How is the Kremlin responding?
Ukrainian officials had telegraphed that the attack was imminent – but not where it actually happened. There was a lot of hype about a counterattack in the south, and even US officials spoke of Ukrainian operations to “shape the battlefield” in Kherson. Russian reinforcements – perhaps as many as 10,000 – poured into the area over a period of weeks.
There was indeed a Ukrainian offensive at Kherson, but his intent appears to have been to reform the Russian forces, while the real effort came hundreds of miles to the north. It was a disinformation that the Russians might have been proud of.
The deception worked, says Katerina Stepanenko of the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based analytical group.
“Ukrainian military officials have reported that elements of the (Russian) Eastern Military District that previously supported offensive operations towards Slovensk have redeployed to the southern axis,” she told CNN.
Their replacements were clearly not up to the job – a mixed bag, as Stepanenko said, of “Cossack volunteers, volunteer units, DNR / LNR militia units, the Russian Rosgvardia (National Guard). These forces were not enough to defend a broad and complex front ” .
The Ukrainians chose the weakest point of the Russian defenses for their initial orientation – an area controlled by the Luhansk militia with retreating Russian National Guard units. They were no match for a high-mobility armored attack that made artillery quickly irrelevant.
Igor Strelkov, the former chief of the militia of the Donetsk People’s Republic and now a stinging critic of Russia’s military shortcomings, noted the poor training of these units and “exceptionally wary of the actions of Russian aviation.” In short, Russian front-line units were hung to dry without adequate air support.
Multiple videos identified and analyzed by CNN, as well as local accounts, depicted a chaotic withdrawal of Russian units, with large amounts of ammunition and hardware left behind.
It is difficult to comprehend the poor quality of Russian defenses along the important north-south axis sustaining the Donetsk offensive. As soon as the Ukrainian offensive was launched, the intention of the Ukrainian offensive was quite clear – to destroy the resupply artery. Within three days, they did—not least because Russian reinforcements were slow to mobilize.