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How Much Territory Can Ukraine Take Back from Russia?

Russia Tank Ukraine
A Russian tank under attack by a drone from Ukraine. Image Credit: YouTube/Ukrainian military.

Last week, Ukrainian forces executed a stunning offensive in Kharkiv Oblast, driving Russian troops back in a near panic and recovering thousands of square kilometers of territory. The advance appears to have shocked Russian defenders, who, for the most part, retreated in good order but left behind enormous stockpiles of equipment and munitions. On Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy conducted a photo op in recently recaptured Izyum, a city that had seen intense fighting in the first months of the war and that lays astride a network of critical rail communications.

In effect, the offensive has introduced a new stage of the war, which may well involve the re-conquest of territory captured by Russia in the first week of the conflict.

Ukraine vs. Russia: Competing Information Economies

The successful offensive may serve as another demonstration of significant problems with Russia’s information economy. Numerous independent commentators on the Russian side appear to have sounded the alarm about the Ukrainian buildup and the weakness of Russian defenses, but these warnings went unheeded in senior command and political circles. Moscow’s attention seems to have been firmly focused on Kherson, where Ukraine is waging another offensive, albeit at a much slower pace. The Ukrainians, by contrast, seem to have their information ops wrapped up tight, and to have developed a strong intelligence sharing relationship with the United States. They immediately wrapped the offensive into their broader narrative about the war, which frames it as a heroic struggle for national existence.

The Political War

The offensive is a massive political victory for Ukraine, which had struggled to demonstrate to domestic and international audiences that it could reclaim territory conquered by Russia. The success could not have come at a better time as it would seem to answer complex questions being asked in Berlin, Paris, and Washington about the prospects of additional arms transfers. Ukraine now has very good answers to those questions: Keep the flow of equipment coming, and we will drive the Russian invaders out of our country.

For Russia, the message is less pleasant; in one of the greatest breakup letters of all time, President Zelenskyy made clear that Ukraine could and would look forward to a future with Russia.

Ukraine Escalation Concerns

The Ukrainian victories have reignited concerns about escalation, which had slept uneasily over a summer characterized by stalemate. The advance would seem to create a massive political and military problem for the Kremlin, demonstrating that Ukraine is showing no signs of subdual after six months of war. Russia is suffering from both equipment and manpower problems, possibly limiting its ability to mount a significant counter-offensive in the near future. Moreover, the opening of Kharkiv Oblast opens considerable room for Ukrainian HIMARS to strike deep into the Russian logistical network.

Given these developments, some Westerners have worried that the Kremlin might become more aggressive, either initiating a full mobilization or launching more deadly attacks into Ukraine proper. The latter concern appeared to play out with several precision-missile strikes against Ukrainian water and power infrastructure over the last several days. Some have even breathed the possibility that Russia might resort to the use of nuclear weapons to demonstrate a fait accompli and quickly break Ukrainian resistance.

Another separate but related concern revolves around the newfound proximity of Ukrainian forces to the Russian border. Thus far, Russia proper has remained largely untouched by the war, apart from a few air and missile strikes and possibly some special operative activity. Ukraine now has the position and the equipment to strike deep into Russia, with the potential to cause serious damage to both civilian and military infrastructure. While at least the latter would be perfectly permissible under the Law of Armed Conflict, it would also cause heartburn in Western capitals. Indeed, the successful Ukrainian advance opened up questions about the possibility of retaking Crimea, which many believe could be a Russian “red line” for massive retaliation.

Work Left to Be Done in Ukraine

Much remains to be done. At the moment of this writing, Russian forces appear to have established a defensive line at the Oskil River and behind the international border. Indeed, the Ukrainian advances may have actually extended the overall length of Kyiv’s defensive lines, as Ukrainians still need to account for Russian forces remaining in Russia proper. Russia remains firmly in control of large parts of the Donbas and the south, where Ukrainian offensive action has yet to meet with the same obvious degree of success that they’ve enjoyed in the northeast.

If the Ukrainians can drive Russia out of Kherson at an acceptable cost, we’ll have an entirely new war (and a new set of political and strategic problems) on our hands.

Expert Biography: 19FortyFive Contributing Editor Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph. D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Jon

    September 15, 2022 at 8:09 pm

    Yet another article where the content doesn’t match the title.

    How about, “Ukraine Can Reclaim All Its Lands”?

  2. Jacksonian Libertarian

    September 15, 2022 at 9:51 pm

    They can take it all back, the Russians don’t have the men, the material, or the morale, to stop them.

    Combat Power rule of thumb: 1 smart weapon = 500 dumb weapons

  3. Bobby

    September 15, 2022 at 9:56 pm

    The author might want to re-read the ‘breakup letter’…it said ‘without you’ numerous times.

  4. 403Forbidden

    September 16, 2022 at 5:06 am

    Zelenskiyy is very much like turkiye’s erdogan. Completely can’t trust what comes out of his mouth.

    The ethnic russians and other russian-speaking inhabitants of donbass and crimea ain’t accepting any falsehoods from him as they’re aware he’s working for washington, not ukraine or even europe.

    The loss of territory is temporary, as witnessed during eastern front fighting in ww2.

    What’s important is that zelenskiyy going to meet same fate as hitler or martin bormann or heinrich himmler. Finished, kaput, gone case.

  5. Yrral

    September 16, 2022 at 8:02 am

    We have spent almost 60 billion on a lost cause, Russia is still systematic destroying Ukraine as functional government, Ukraine do not have the basis ability to any do anything and is at the mercy of others,just like helpless ,hapless child wondering merciless,the leadership of Ukraine are at the psychological mercy of others,lack the ability to make decisions for themselves,and the West has become an enabler for theirs failure,

  6. SurfBird

    September 16, 2022 at 8:54 am

    Saying that Russia, or any other army, retreated in good order while leaving behind enormous quantities of equipment and munitions is an oxymoron. The very definition of an orderly retreat is that you were able to bring your equipment and munitions with you.

  7. Yrral

    September 16, 2022 at 8:55 am

    Ukrainain are reaping what they sowed to a degree,by selling weapon to rogue nation and enemies of the US, through their corrupt arms practices , instead of using weapon for their own protection,they choose to sell weapon to countries,that use Ukrainain weapon to inflict misery on the lives of other countries citizens Google Ukraine Selling Arms To Rogue Government

  8. Andrew P

    September 16, 2022 at 9:51 am

    If Russia can’t muster the forces (and ammo) they need on the ground and can’t fly their bombers over Ukraine, then they have no choice but to use nuclear weapons – massively. Not only do they need to break Ukrainian resistance, but they need to deter the USA, which means they need to use at least 100 nukes and at least a few of them must be multimegaton monsters.

  9. Gary Jacobs

    September 16, 2022 at 10:55 am

    Yrral + 403 forbidden,

    It’s so funny watching you two spew the same failed Pro-Putin talking points. desperately grasping at any thin thread to try and disparrage Ukraine while ignoring Russia’s responsibility for so much of the problems in Ukraine. And even when there is some pretense of acknowledging Russia’s responsibility it’s always an attempt to push surrender rather than helping Ukraine rid itself of Russian oppression. Most people with half a sense of critical thinking arent buying the BS your selling. You should try something new. You just look like toddlers throwing a temper tantrum because you arent getting your way.

  10. I. Martin

    September 16, 2022 at 1:17 pm

    More tanks for Ukraine! T-72s, T-62s, M-60s, whatever! Mobile warfare is the way!

  11. Yrral

    September 16, 2022 at 5:23 pm

    If you want to lobby for Ukrainain,you go register as foreign lobby for Ukrainain,I am not Russian,never met a Russian,these are my personal views,not associated with Russian,these are views as an American ,it not my responsibilities to hold Putin accountable for anything,the west have not held him responsible,that the responsibility of the people of Russia not mind

  12. xheavy

    September 16, 2022 at 5:52 pm

    Its hard for UKR to be Mobile under excessive real time survillance and interdiction by RU and vice versa.

    The state of the war is decided at the Rivers currently.

    RU will have to send fresh Tank Armies through Belarus towars Lviv. That will undermine and destroy the foundations of UKR defenses and finally grasp Odessa for RU and spark that Moldovian Problem to chisel deeper into Europe.

  13. Goran

    September 16, 2022 at 8:00 pm

    Trying to storm those urban areas where the majority of the civilian population actually supports Putin’s vision would result in carnage. Instead, they should be offered a peace agreement that lets them have cultural, educational and other forms of autonomy within Ukraine. Kherson and other areas where local resistance is feasible and where people are terrorized on a daily basis, need to be liberated by any means necessary.

  14. Yrral

    September 17, 2022 at 9:11 am

    Gary,Putin number # 1 ,spy is head of Zelensky administration acting as a go between between Ukrainain and the US,the British Intel was so concerned they summoned Zelensky to London for a Intel brief,do you think the CIA should inform Biden of a Russian mole inside Zelensky government Google Yermak Bellingcats Google Zelensky Bellingcats Google Zelensky MI6

  15. Gary Jacobs

    September 18, 2022 at 10:39 am

    Yrall,

    LoL googled the 1st thing you mentioned, and the results proved my point, not yours. Russians sent Mercs from Wagner all over the place to support rogue regimes, and the Ukrainians lured them into a trap because of their crimes in the Donbas.

    You really should stop pretending you know what you are talking about. It isnt a good look for you.

  16. Glen Tomkins

    September 19, 2022 at 11:23 am

    How solid is the Russian defensive line on the Zaporizhzhia to Melitopol axis? Ukrainian breakthrough and exploitation there would collapse the whole Russian position in the south

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