September 9-11 will go down in history as a period of great significance in the Russo-Ukrainian war. Both belligerent parties crossed very important thresholds, which taken together suggest that the war is entering a new phase. On the 9th and 10th, Ukraine achieved its first concrete success of the war by retaking all the Russian-held territory in Kharkov Oblast west of the Oskil river, including the western bank of Kupyansk and the transit node of Izyum.
Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin convened an emergency meeting of his national security council, which precipitated Russia’s own escalation on the 11th, when Ukrainian infrastructure was at long last subject to attack, plunging much of the country into darkness.
It seems clear that the war is entering a new phase, and it seems highly likely that both parties will attempt to take decisive action in the near feature. For now, let’s try to parse through the developments of the past week and get a handle on where the war is heading.
The Kharkov Counteroffensive
At the risk of sounding very pedantic, Ukraine’s counteroffensive in eastern Kharkov Oblast is an excellent demonstration of the difficulties in evaluating military operations. Everyone agrees on the basic geography of what has happened: Ukraine cleared everything west of the Oskil river of Russian forces. Nobody agrees on what this means, however. I have seen all of the following interpretations posited – note, people reached all of these conclusions from the same set of data:
- Russia has drawn Ukraine into a trap and will soon counterattack
- Russia voluntarily withdrew from Kharkov to prioritize other fronts
- Russia drew the Ukrainians out to hit them with artillery
- Russia suffered a massive intelligence failure and did not see or respond to Ukraine’s offensive
- Russia suffered a defeat in battle and was forced to retreat
Let’s do a methodical autopsy and see what we come away with.
The first thing we want to note is that the disparity of forces on this front was absolutely laughable. Ukraine assembled a strike group of at least five full brigades, and aimed at a line of contact which had no Russian regular troops at all. The Russian frontline defenses in the region were manned by allied Donbas militia and national guardsmen. It seems there was a lone Battalion Tactical Group (BTG) in Izyum, but little else.