In one week in September, Ukrainian forces liberated 1,100 square miles in Northeastern Ukraine. This is more than Russia’s military managed to seize in months of costly attritional warfare in the Donbas region. Further withdrawals announced by Russia’s Defense Ministry may result in over 3,200 square miles falling back under Ukrainian control.
Lurking in the shadow of Ukraine’s heavily advertised counteroffensive in Kherson, the Kharkiv campaign took Russian forces by surprise. It became a textbook example of a fast-paced breakthrough and exploitation operation – the very sort of campaign Russian armored units mostly failed to achieve at the beginning of the war.
In this article, we’ll look at how Ukraine’s outgunned forces achieved this stunning, little-anticipated victory.
1—Shaping the Battlefield
After a disastrous war-opening assault on Kyiv, the Kremlin in April reshuffled its battered forces and adopted a strategy of massive artillery bombardments to slowly push Kyiv’s forces out of the Donbas region in Ukraine’s east.
The situation looked grim for Ukraine by early July as casualties piled up and Russia gradually captured one pulverized community after another. But that’s when Kyiv began employing newly received HIMARS rocket artillery systems for precision strikes targeting Russian ammunition supplies, headquarters, air defenses, and bridges. At the same time, donations of superior Western artillery systems to Ukraine reached a critical mass, giving Kyiv qualitatively superior firepower that it used to stave off Russia’s larger artillery arm.
Ukraine’s HIMARS onslaught reportedly reduced Russian shelling to one-third of its former level, and it quickly exhausted Russia’s ability to mount major offensive operations. By early August, Russia’s military had switched to a defensive posture, bracing for an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson.
2—The Kherson Counteroffensive
As explained in this earlier article, Ukraine had compelling political and strategic reasons to target Kherson. Russian forces there were defending a bridgehead over the Dnieper river, protecting an area it could barely supply due to bridge-busting HIMARS strikes.
Kyiv’s repeated and prominent statements foreshadowing a Kherson counteroffensive weren’t missed by Moscow. Its forces there prepared three layers of fortified defenses (example here) around the key port city. By early August, the Kremlin had redeployed elite Russian units out of Eastern Ukraine and placed them in reserve to counter a Ukrainian attack on either side of the Dnieper river.
Ukraine’s counteroffensive began on Aug. 29 with a flurry of attacks on Russian positions across the breadth of the Kherson frontline. Within a few hours, Russian media mobilized to declare the offensive a failure, claims swallowed by some observers due to the lack of a dramatic breakthrough and to reports of substantial casualties.
In reality, the initial assaults did expose weak points in Russia’s defensive lines. These were later exploited by Ukrainian forces, eventually leading to the capture of Vysokopillya in September, and collapsing the northern edge of Russia’s Kherson perimeter.
3—The Fall of Balakliya
Meanwhile, a second counteroffensive, unannounced by Kyiv, had begun secretly mustering more than 270 miles to the northeast, in Kharkiv oblast, whose namesake is Ukraine’s second-largest city.
Despite continuous bombardment by Russian forces, Kharkiv’s defenders had smashed Russian attempts to seize the city in March. In May, counterattacking Ukrainian troops managed to push Russian forces back to near the border, only to lose much of that progress to Russian counterattacks. Afterward, the sector ceased being a focus of either side’s operations.
Open sources suggest the Ukrainian force massing for the new Kharkiv campaign consisted of the:
– 92nd Mechanized Brigade (BTR-4E fighting vehicles);
– 93rd Mechanized Brigade (BMP fighting vehicles);
– 80th Airborne Brigade (motorized with BTR-80 APCs and Humvees);
– 25th Air Assault Brigades (mechanized with BMD and BTR-3 & 4 fighting vehicles, BTR-70, and Saxon and Spartan APCs);
– 3rd Reserve Tank Brigade (T-72 tanks).
Russian bloggers noticed the Ukrainian buildup and the preparatory artillery strikes on Sept. 4-5 that included HIMARS rockets. But the potential significance didn’t filter up the chain of command, which left only a light covering force of Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) infantry. Such separatist forces, their numbers bolstered by forced conscription, were used as cannon fodder during the summer fighting. They suffered from poor morale and lackluster equipment.
At 2 p.m. on Sept. 6, Ukrainian forces converged eastward towards Balakliya, according to a Russian account, spearheaded by a “tank fist” of 15 to 17 tanks supported by special forces. Meanwhile, to the north, the 103rd and 113th Ukrainian Territorial Defense Brigades mounted an attack down the P7 road towards Chkalovsk.
Russian accounts describe Ukrainian tactics thusly: “[T]he advance group with mechanized infantry and special forces operators speeds into the city center, dismounts, suppresses all nearby enemies, then extends control over the settlement.”
The LPR regiment defending outlying villages withdrew abruptly, leaving behind internal security troops – riot police, essentially – to be overrun by the Ukrainian armor.
Russian defenses were unable to cope with the Ukrainian attack. The local reserves that would have counterattacked or carried out hasty delaying actions had been sent to the Kherson region. Ukrainian columns chased Russian logistical, artillery, and air defense support units, which were forced to leave behind valuable equipment.
Russia’s air force tried to intervene by strafing, rocketing, and even gravity-bombing Ukrainian units. But that proved unsustainable: The aircraft struggled to visually distinguish Ukrainian and Russian forces, and Ukraine had massed ground-based air defense in the sector. They promptly downed a Su-25 attack jet (wreck here) and possibly several helicopters, deterring Russian aviation.
Though a man-portable missile downed the Su-25, Ukrainian sources claim radar-directed Gepard armored anti-aircraft guns donated by Germany proved especially effective. Conventional wisdom views this type of weapon as obsolete.
4—Kupyansk, Rail Nexus
By the time Russian forces in Balakliya fled on Sept. 8, Ukrainian forces had already peeled off into southeastern and northeastern combat groups. The latter rolled down the P7 highway towards the offensive’s true prize: Kupyansk, with its bridges over the Oskil River.
#Ukraine: Intense footage of a mixed Foreign/Ukrainian unit in action during a recent Ukrainian offensive, during which a large quantity of US-donated materiel is used; from M1151A1 HMMWV (Humvee) with mounted Browning M2 HMG, to M136A1 AT4-CS AT launchers.pic.twitter.com/uUWInP78Nx
— ?? Ukraine Weapons Tracker (@UAWeapons) September 8, 2022
Videos show light Ukrainian forces mounted in armored Humvees tearing into town, heavy machine guns blazing, while infantry dismount. Such “flying columns” would be foolhardy against a well prepared adversary, but they are effective for rapidly seizing ground when the enemy is fleeing and unable to mount a robust defense.
To give an idea about the strategic significance of Kupyansk, I’ve highlighted it on the rail network map. https://t.co/7Ilp455phJ pic.twitter.com/GBAio75CPl
— Veli-Pekka Kivimäki (@vpkivimaki) September 9, 2022
Many emotional moments were recorded as Ukrainian columns advanced through towns that had been under Russian occupation for six months.
People are greeting Ukrainian defenders in liberated Balakliya. One man in this video even stand on his knees. It’s hard to describe emotions. But it’s a beginning. Still a lot people in Ukraine dream to see their town liberated from Russians. pic.twitter.com/N2vxFaZmpg
— Oleksandra Matviichuk (@avalaina) September 8, 2022
Kupyansk’s importance went beyond its bridges. Russia’s ground forces are much more dependent on trains for logistical support than the U.S.’s more expeditionary military. But Russian forces in Kharkiv and near Izyum could only receive supplies via a single railway line, connected to the northern border with Russia, and running through Kupyansk.
AFU ?? counter-offensive in Kharkiv region for the last three days ? pic.twitter.com/8Mpj3fVPqB
— Tarmo Juntunen ?? ?? ?? NAFO (@TarmoJuntunen) September 9, 2022
By Sept. 9, Ukrainian forces had reached western Kupyansk, effectively blocking its usage as a rail junction. A day later, they fully controlled the city.
5—Izyum Pocket, Deflated
Before Kupyansk’s fall, the southern prong of the Kharkiv offensive had curled south toward Izyum, site of a major concentration of Russian forces that was about to lose its primary logistics link.
Izyum-based units had their backs to the east, and the widest part of the Oskil River. Options for supply, retreat, and reinforcement were now constrained to just one road running through the neighboring city of Lyman.
Worse, Ukrainian forces further south also began attacking Izyum and Lyman on Sept. 8, threatening to trap a large Russian force in a pocket.
KHARKIV/ 2300 UTC 9 SEP/ Late reports on 9 SEP indicate that some UKR task units have engaged Russian armor within the city limits of Izium. At present, UKR artillery commands the only road entering or leaving Izium, the 0-211437. This will seal the urban battle space. pic.twitter.com/6PcvR9xaV4
— Chuck Pfarrer | Indications & Warnings | (@ChuckPfarrer) September 9, 2022
Finally on Sept. 10, Russian forces in Izyum chose to avoid a greater disaster by withdrawing. They left huge quantities of equipment behind. Russia’s garrison in Lyman (two Russian military regiments and LPR conscripts) reportedly is barely holding back repeated Ukrainian assaults.
The flight from envelopment led to several chaotic encounters. In one recorded incident, a retreating Russian tank blundered into a column of Ukrainian trucks full of special forces approaching from the opposite direction. It tried to race past them and crashed into a large tree.
In another unusual skirmish captured partially on video, a Ukrainian armored column led by a T-64 mine-roller tank encountered a Russian BMP fighting vehicle on the road. As its machine gun was non-functional, the roller-equipped vehicle rammed the BMP, killing the occupants.
The fall of Izyum may open an eastward corridor for Ukraine to try taking back Lyschansk and Severodonetsk, locations captured at great cost by Russia in June and July.
Ukrainian mechanized forces also made a probe in Pisky, close to Donetsk’s airport, on Sept. 10, but they were repelled.
By Sept. 11, Moscow began broadly withdrawing forces in areas northeast of Kharkiv, even those that hadn’t come under attack, in an apparent measure to shore up untenable defensive lines.
These withdrawals left behind a huge bounty of captured equipment for Ukraine, including dozens of BMP fighting vehicles and upgraded T-72B3 and T-80BVM tanks; multiple 2S3 and 2S19 Msta self-propelled howitzers; towed MT-12 and KS-19 100mm guns; BM21 Grad rocket artillery; BTR-82 and MT-LB APCs; and Tor-M1, Osa, Shilka, and Tunguska short-range air defense vehicles.
The silver lining for Moscow is that its force’s rapid flight denied Ukraine the chance to encircle larger Russian formations and destroy or capture them. However, routed units will still take time to restore into fighting shape. They have lost vehicles, fuel, and ammunition, and morale has collapsed.
The main question now is whether Ukrainian forces will continue riding the eastward momentum of the Kharkiv breakthrough, and how far they can go before the exhaustion of troops and supplies takes hold. The other question is how long it will be before Russia scrapes together a force that can delay the Ukrainian troops and build a more robust defensive line.
By Sept. 12, preliminary reports suggested that Ukrainian forces issuing from Kupyansk were closing in on Svatove, a key logistical node. If secured, from there they could roll south into Rubizhne and Severodonetsk, forming a pincer with Ukrainian troops advancing eastward. They could reverse one of the few politically important successes of Russia’s summer offensive.
The key supply junction of Starobilsk, east of Svatove, also appears vulnerable, and it may have already been evacuated by Russian forces. Should such dominoes keep falling, Russia’s puppet “republic” of Luhansk could lose most of its territory.
However, some analysts, and even Ukraine’s defense minister, suggest Ukrainian forces might not advance far east of Kupyansk and the Oskil and Siverski Donets Rivers. They might prefer to avoid overextension, consolidate their positions around defensible rivers, and ultimately shift forces to other critical sectors.
Deep advances into enemy territory sometimes expose an attacker’s flanks and exhaust combat readiness, a vulnerability German General Erich von Manstein exploited against overextended Soviet forces in the 1943 Battle of Kharkiv.
That said, Russia currently seems to lack enough reserves to execute a strong counterthrust. Already, elements of the newly formed 3rd Army Corps and 90th Guards Tank Division (badly mauled in March attacking Brovary) were flung hastily into Kharkiv to little apparent effect.
The other big question is whether defeat in Kharkiv will have aftershocks in the more strategically critical Southern Ukraine. Especially important is Kherson, where Kyiv’s counteroffensive continues to chip away, resulting in Russia’s northernmost forces falling back several miles on Sept. 11.
Given Ukraine’s success in quietly massing forces near Kharkiv, there are indications Kyiv may have even more fresh forces ready to attack elsewhere. If it does, that could herald further setbacks for Moscow.
As Kyiv secures Kharkiv, it might also redeploy elite units there to other sectors. Ukraine has already demonstrated its ability to quickly and discreetly shift brigades between fronts, thanks to its shorter and more secure interior lines of communication.
What’s exterior/interior lines?
This map shows the difference between RU and UKR’s lines of supply and support.
A quick glance shows how long it would take to get from one end to another for RU supplies, and how UKR can move more quickly inside their lines 11/ pic.twitter.com/ncErUW2Kt0
— Mark Hertling (@MarkHertling) March 18, 2022
Given Ukraine’s extraordinary battle of maneuver in Kharkiv, Kyiv has now proven it can execute a successful, large-scale combined arms offensive to liberate occupied territory. It has also shown that Russian forces are not some unstoppable juggernaut with inexhaustible reserves of troops and ammunition. This will stiffen Western support for Ukraine, and it is already souring domestic support in Russia for Putin’s invasion.
There will be much more fighting this fall before winter weather slows down the pace of operations. In the coming weeks, Ukrainian forces will seek to sustain or repeat their feat of arms in Kharkiv, while Russia will scramble to firm up new defensive lines and hold onto territory it seized in 2022 — and possibly even in 2014-2015.
Expert Biography: Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com, War is Boring and 19FortyFive, where he is Defense-in-Depth editor. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.
September 13, 2022 at 7:13 am
The Russian soldiers dont want to be there.
They are fighting long time friends not invaders.
Xi sees weakness now if he wants more land.
Russian generals need to act and change its path for its security. A Russia, Eu, England, Austrailia, SKorea, Japan puts world peace a closer reality. The world needs energy and food cooperation the next 100 years.
September 13, 2022 at 11:00 am
Thank you for this report.
God bless Ukraine.
With SBCT, Ukraine military will take back east lands and cut off the supply of Russia.
God bless America.
September 13, 2022 at 11:43 am
This teaches one thing. The Russians are very vulnerable to mobile warfare. This works better than artillery duels.
Dr. Scooter Van Neuter
September 13, 2022 at 1:18 pm
TheDon is absolutely correct: The Russians have no passion nor motivation for this fight, and just want to return home. Add to this equation their breathtakingly bad command structure and logistics and you have the formula for failure.
September 13, 2022 at 1:22 pm
As an American,I know lots of American are gullible,put their faith in an a bunch of insecure Ukrainain,who need others,to validate their existence,even after Biden said no to naming Russia as a state sponsor of terror, Zelensky is still whining and complaining,that is act of somebody scared and desperate,at the end of the day,this will resolve through negotiation,Putin know he can inflict as much misery as he want,an will not be held accountable,while Ukrainain will be living back in the stone age while Putin do what he done always and not being held accountable
September 13, 2022 at 2:57 pm
I have to laugh when I read some of the past articles on this website.
Ukraine is thoroughly kicking Putin’s Butt. I just pray that Vlad the Impaler doesn’t use Tactical Nukes; it’s the only Wild Card he has left to play. Slava Ukraine!
September 13, 2022 at 5:21 pm
Yrral, you seem like you are running around like a chicken with your head cut off not knowing exactly how to reframe your blame Ukraine schtick. Of course Putin can lash out at Ukraine. But to pretend he cannot be held accountable is overly simplistic. Massive sanctions on Russia are beginning to have an effect, not to mention the close to $400 Billion in Russian reserves the west has frozen, which I expect proceedings to begin in the not too distant future on transferring those funds to Ukraine.
Russia has also pushed two new members to NATO that were formally “neutral”, and all around him the phony Putin narrative of Russian greatness is collapsing. Putin wanted to have some great legacy as he pretends Catherine and Peter have…instead he is going down in utter defeat, he has pushed former Russian allies in the EU much closer to the US, and he has reduced Russia to launching standoff missiles at power stations because the supposedly mighty Russian military cannot win on the battlefield against NATO weapons and tactics.
Taiwan has already asked for more HIMARS, ATACMS, and M777. China throws up a bunch of bluster, but Taiwan has the ability to badly bloody their nose…and Ukraine has given them a blueprint to take on a much bigger adversary. Taiwan was also smart enough to develop their own cruise missiles with 1000mile range that can reach Beijing.
Poland has ordered more HIMARS [they want 500], over 300 US made M1 Abrams Tanks, and there will be close to 550 f35s in Europe quite soon.
This progress by Ukrainian is already having a cascade effect…and Putin only has himself to blame for underestimating Ukraine’s will to be free from Russian tyranny, and western resolve to help them attain that freedom.
Have a nice day.
September 13, 2022 at 8:54 pm
Sweden government on the verge of collapse, the European cannot get their act together on oil cap, Ukrainain are floating a delusional non existent security guarantee,both Ukraine and Russia are reaping what they sowed mutually Google Kiev Security Compact Google Swedish Election Google EU Oil Cap
September 14, 2022 at 4:23 am
I will believe it when I see it
September 14, 2022 at 4:29 am
Yrral:”Putin know he can inflict as much misery as he want”
Yeah! vlad putin is a devil, but not very efficient one. Or not the kind of devil who chooses right his allies. Only a fool would trust in the russian armed forces to fight against something else than a small gang or a bunch of unarmed townspeople. Direct contact with a small sized army has long confirmed this, you know.
About your wish russia has small interest, if any, in a true mobilisation of its remainig forces. With what equipment, T34,Mosin-Nagant and Ilyushin Il-2? Remember that russian armed forces are buying north korean hardware (not exactly a guarantee of quality nor high-tech) and their access to western components is more than doubtful. Hence the trains loaded with t62 instead of t14, remember?
Furthermore, Who will operate the ‘new’ russian weapons? Conscripts, peasants,those who yesterday fled like rats from Kharkov?
I’ll give your boss a tip, see if you can pass it on: ‘Dear Vlad; forget your absurd pretensions, assume the position… and take it as a man’.
Old Desert Coyote
September 14, 2022 at 9:46 am
What we are seeing in the Russian Army operating in the Ukraine is their one single fatal flaw. THE LACK OF A PROFESSIONAL NON COMMISSIONED OFFICER CORPS. It is the Sergent who maintains good, order, forms esprit de corps and ensures that orders are carried out. Let not mention that the platoon and company level sergeants are the school masters of newly minted butter-bars (2nd Lieutenants) and at company level 1st Lieutenants. Or as Marine Corps General Lewis Burwerll (chesty) Puller said, when a staff officer advised him to pull back because of the heavy losses of officers in the units, (“Sir we have to with draw because most of our units are being led by no one better than sergeants”) To which chesty replied, “SON IN THE MARINE CORPS THERE IS NO ONE BETTER THAN A SERGEANT!”
Since the Ukraine’s humiliating defeat by the Russians in 2014, The Ukrainian military has reformed itself along western military structures and instituted a professional NCO Corps to undertake the day to day training and leadership of small units.
September 14, 2022 at 11:19 am
you are flailing around desperate to convince yourself that clinging to your failed view of the situation is still something you should continue with. I cant say I entirely know the politics of the coalition in Sweden that is set to win, especially related to Russia, but the notion that support for Ukraine in the EU rests with Sweden is absurd. In a quick browse I did notice the Swedish party being against the influx of refugees that came in from Syria. Syria being a major Russian ally… and Russia a cause of those refugees cant be good for Russia’s image in Sweden.
As well, The UK, Poland, and the Baltics are the biggest backers of Ukraine in the EU. All the other countries could cease support, and Ukraine would still have the support it needs to continue resisting Russian Tyranny. Especially with all the gear Russia just abandoned to Ukraine in the latest offensive.
As for a security promise for Ukraine. If the last 6 months havent convinced you that it wont take Article 5 for the free world to aid Ukraine, then you still have work to do to step out of your fantasy world.
And while it’s a shame the EU hasnt decided on a price cap mechanism for Russian gas, cherry picking that as some indication of mass failure of resolve against Russia is like a toddler clinging to his/her favorite blanket to keep them safe from the one eyed cyclops monster.
Yale University has done fairly comprehensive work on the sanctions effect on Russia. Highly recommended:
Chief Executive Leadership Institute Research Insights: “Business Retreats and Sanctions Are Crippling the Russian Economy”
As well, the EU has stocked up on NatGas for the winter. Here is one article, but you can google those words for many many more. “Sept. 3, 2022
BERLIN — European officials have expressed confidence that they can endure a winter with limited Russian energy”
After this winter, expect the EU to expedite plans for LNG terminals, and the US, Australia, and Qatar to benefit from a lot of extra sales in place of Russia. Germany has a solid plan to build LNG conversion terminals that are future proof allowing for easy conversion to Hydrogen when the supply of green hydrogen cvan meet those needs… and an Israeli company called H2pro has invented a novel approach to simplify the process of extracting hydrogen from water, and considering Israel is a world leader in all manner of water tech… there is of course readily available assistance to ensure that the water is prepared properly for easy extraction of hydrogen. That hydrogen also has the benefit of being a much better solution to long term storage of solar and wind energy than lithium batteries. That hydrogen will allow energy collected in the summer to be stored and used in the winter.
As well, in addition to building fixed LNG conversion terminals… Germany plans to use ‘floating LNG terminals’ as an interim step. “In addition to one or more fixed onshore terminals, the German government plans to lease five so-called Floating Storage and Regasification Units (FSRU) in the short term, two of which could be installed as early as the winter 2022/2023 (plans for the fifth were announced in September 2022). By July, the government had decided that the ports of Wilhelmshaven and Brunsbüttel, Stade and Lubmin would host the terminals.”
Bottom line: Time is not on Putin’s side. And with every atrocity he commits in Ukraine he solidifies the resolve of most Europeans to accept a bit of short term pain for long term gain against Putin’s bully tactics.
Have a nice day.
September 14, 2022 at 12:15 pm
My fellow gullible American, Ukrainain want you foolish American,to finance their budget,while American are suffering from major natural disasters, and others economic hardship,while Ukrainain put your aid towards,their foreign reserves,while Fema funds are being depleted and unable to help American that payed taxes for these be service,I never thought to day I would ever see American being naive,and been used by a backwards country of leaders,here you gullible American evidence of you being used Google Ukrinform
September 14, 2022 at 2:23 pm
If Putin calls for a general mobilization it will lead to riots in the streets. Thr troops, even if they could be raised, would have even worse morale than the ones who just dropped their weapons and ran. Also, what equipment would they give them? We’ve already seen pretty dated equipment being used by the existing Russian troops.
This offensive isn’t the end , nor the beginning of the end, but it is the end of the beginning.
September 14, 2022 at 4:26 pm
Yrral, lol… your blame Ukraine for everything schtick is old and weak.
I dont mind funding their budget as the defeat Russia.
I dont mind funding their military as they defeat Russia.
I dont mind future help to rebuild their country as the defeat Russia.
Russia has been a major source of corruption, tyranny, and instability in the world for centuries.
Ukraine has done the world a great favor by fighting and dying to defeat Russia.
They have earned the respect of most Americans. And our Support.
As well, the budget of the USA is about $4 Trillion per year.
$40 Billion to Ukraine and her neighbors is about one half of %1 of what we spend in a year. Small price to pay to defeat Russia.
Now Ukraine needs our help to finish the job, and to get a fresh start to rebuild their country without Russian interference, without Russian corruption, and without Russia poisoning their political candidates.
Have a nice day.