Ukraine Punches Back In Kharkiv
In a surprise move, Ukrainian forces have driven Russian troops back in Kharkiv district, threatening to unseat Putin’s offensive to seize Donetsk.
Now, disclaimer due up front: it is very early days, and it is entirely possible that Ukraine’s push is being hyped to cover for limited progress in the Kherson region.
But overall, Ukrainian sources have proven themselves far more reliable in terms of basic honesty than Russian or American.
The actual fighting in Ukraine is taking place in the shadow of a larger looming confrontation between Russia and NATO.
Trolls are waging information war on both sides, working to keep domestic populations immersed in a steady flood of propaganda.
Ukrainian trolls are in this game too, but overall the past six months of war has seen official Ukrainian sources generally adopt a sensible policy of reasonable honesty with the international press.
No, Kyiv doesn’t reveal everything about its plans, but monitoring sources like the Kyiv Independent (which I now support with a monthly subscription), Ukrinform, and Liveuamap these past months shows a stark difference between American, Russian, and Ukrainian sourced information.
By and large Ukraine’s leaders appear to have recognized that integrity in public communications is far more important than playing information war games.
For good reason — nobody except pundits or true believers trusts anything an American public official says anymore because, well, WMDs in Iraq, anyone?
And obviously you can’t take what any member of Putin’s regime or state controlled media says at face value either. Or at least, not without applying the necessary Kremlin filter to get at what they’re really trying to communicate.
Americans and Russians spend a lot of time trying to control narratives, because both are hegemonic powers that rely on other countries not realizing how weak they are.
By contrast, Ukraine’s defense relies on maintaining solid relationships with partners abroad who will offer support in foul weather as well as fair.
So lying about the challenges its forces are facing doesn’t help — all that would accomplish is create grounds for a future backlash Ukraine might not survive.
That’s why I scrupulously doubt anything coming from an American or Russian source. The regimes that rule either empire have ways of manipulating the media — Russia directly, America indirectly, through restricting access to “unnamed officials” and engaging in public shaming before some mob.
Just the other day the commander in chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces published a remarkable assessment of where the war is heading in 2023, a sober analysis that stands in sharp contrast to blather coming from the fake experts over at the American Institute for the Study of War.
In it, he broadly confirms much of the analysis I’ve posted on this blog over the past few months.
Ukraine still isn’t getting the right kind of aid from its foreign partners. Its counterattacks are going to take months to finish, and at extreme cost in human suffering.
Russia retains extreme advantages in vital military domains and the ability to replenish its low-tech weaponry pretty much indefinitely, even if its stocks of precision weapons are thankfully running low at last.
To push Russia out of Ukrainian territory without atrocious casualties will require the supply of more modern weapons and training Ukrainian soldiers to use them.
This should have begun on the necessary scale months ago to allow for a broad counteroffensive this year, but Ukraine’s allies have failed to organize the necessary effort, proving that NATO had better hope it never goes to war, because hoo boy would that be a hot mess!
In addition, the International Legion was terribly mismanaged, Ukraine just not having the resources to stand up something that complex when the war began and it was already inducting huge numbers of its own people into the defense forces.
Another missed opportunity.
Contrary to the confident prognostications of the smug analysts in D.C. since they realized they were wrong about Kyiv falling in three days, Russia is nowhere near collapse on any front, military or economic. Putin isn’t dead of cancer or deposed or begging for peace.
All those sanctions American leaders have billed as the death knell for Russia’s economy are slowly but surely being bypassed.
Most of the world hasn’t signed on, so re-exporting goods and fossil fuels will slowly compensate for Russia not being able to buy direct from Europe anymore.
At least prices for food and fuel will stabilize — for some. Europe faces a difficult winter and the prospect of long-term energy dependence on the United States, which is not ideal given that US energy is mostly fracked, requiring large-scale sacrifices of rural land.
This isn’t to say the average Russian won’t feel extreme financial pain in the near future or that Russia’s military industry won’t have to radically adapt to keep up the war effort.
But all that does is level the playing field between Ukraine and Russia a little more. Just like sending 16 HIMARS systems and not 160, when they’re otherwise just sitting in arsenals somewhere.
Nothing Ukraine has received so far is sufficient to deliver a decisive blow by any means. And as Ukraine’s own military leadership admits, the situation for their forces remains difficult everywhere along a front line that looks starkly like something from maps of World War 2.
So why, then, did Ukraine just throw a vicious sucker punch at Russian forces entrenched near Kharkiv?
First and foremost is the dangerous situation between Izium and Sloviansk.
For months Ukraine’s defenders have stopped Russian attacks that, if successful, could partially cut off Ukrainian forces in Donetsk, particularly around the heavily fortified Sloviansk-Kramatorsk area.
To stop Ukraine’s pushback in Kherson, Russian forces have apparently redeployed in large numbers.
But despite satellites and drones being able to pick up big movements pretty easily, at more local levels and finer scales it is possible to use cover to conceal more patient concentrations of forces dispatched over time.
So despite the pain being inflicted on Russian forces across the 1300 km of actively contested front line, it remains a distinct possibility that Putin has managed to hide a major offensive formation somewhere.
Such a reserve could allow for a sudden overwhelming push like those that reached the outskirts of Kyiv in February. If Ukraine commits too much of its combat power in Kherson, where Russia may well have boosted its occupying forces from around 7,000 to three times that specifically to draw Ukraine into a difficult grind, that could leave Kyiv’s forces vulnerable elsewhere.
And while Putin certainly likes owning Kherson, given the massive bridgehead Russian forces presently hold across the strategically vital Dnieper river, trading that for taking control of Donetsk is likely a bargain he’ll gladly accept given that a march to Moldova is incredibly unlikely.
So long as Putin’s forces control all of Donbas, he can claim victory and go over to the defensive, forcing Ukraine to spend the next couple years shedding blood taking on entrenched forces.
All while its partners abroad slowly tire of sustaining the fight at the cost to their economies.
Putin’s basic goal in Ukraine now is to wait out America and Europe. Once Donbas is taken he’ll place the conflict on a steady low boil, using imported North Korean artillery and low quality reserve troops to hold the line.
Without more intensive aid to Ukraine, a strategic stalemate is likely even if Ukraine reclaims some territory. Failure to create a truly global sanctions regimes means that only Ukrainian success on the battlefield can erode his position within the Russian state before America probably falls apart completely in 2025.
At that point, Putin will have an opportunity to renew his assault on the rest of Ukraine.
It is therefore absolutely essential for Ukraine to prevent Putin from achieving the last of his stated aims for the war: seizing all of Donbas. Russia has to keep attacking until that is done, something that now appears to be more difficult each day.
This strategic situation means taking the risk of launching multiple offensives this September, striking at any part of the front that appear vulnerable given Russian force concentrations.
Their aim: to liberate territory and inflict such obvious defeats on the Russian military that Putin can’t hope to go over to the defensive or claim victory.
Ukraine has to strain Russian resources at every point it can to both prove to its partners it can go on the attack and prevent Russia from building up a new offensive capability — or drain what it might already have.
In both Kherson and Kharkiv Ukrainian forces appear to be striking at the flanks of Russian formations in an attempt to cut off front line units from support. They likely want to partially surround Russian salients to force them to retreat — or even better for optics, surrender.
On the Kharkiv front, the line of the Siverski Donets river has become the primary buffer between the two sides, water barriers being difficult to push across if the opposite bank is under enemy control.
But the thing about a riparian area is that it tends to have cover, allowing military units to filter in and mass undetected.
Even punch across the river at a weak point the defenders might assume is too well guarded to seize — until it is too late.
Ukraine appears to have done exactly that southeast of Kharkiv, breaking through the Russian lines.
Their target is clear and some reports has leading elements reaching it already: the town of Kupiansk, which lies along the most direct route for supplies heading to Russian forces fighting south of Izium.
If successful — and advancing fifty klicks in no more than a day or two definitely implies momentum — Ukrainian forces will at least bring the Kupiansk area under direct fire, which will all but eliminate any possibility of Russia punching south from Izium.
Why? Check the map above — Kupiansk is a vital node in the Russian supply lines sustaining operations around Izium, one of the earliest places I identified before February as a likely Russian objective.
And so it was.
Cutting the supply lines to Izium means any plan to repeat what Russia did to force Ukraine out of Luhansk won’t work.
All those red arrows threatening the flank and rear of Sloviansk will be cut off.
If that happens, Putin won’t be able to pretend all is going as planned on any front — thousands of troops in bridgeheads across two vital rivers will be at risk.
There’s a reason Ukraine is once again warning of the threat that Putin will use tactical nuclear weapons.
Truth be told, that might well be his only option if Russia’s ground forces are as badly damaged as it will be reasonable to hope if Ukraine pulls this off.
Fortunately for the world, the way Ukraine has to run its defense means that there are actually not a lot of really good targets for Russian nuclear strikes.
After firing several thousand precision missiles into Ukraine, most potential targets are destroyed or spread out that a nuke won’t accomplish substantially more than a conventional warhead.
And any nuclear use carries a real risk of NATO getting involved, which it is now likely that Putin doesn’t want, given that there is no longer much gain in hitting NATO supply bases after so much gear has already made it into Ukraine — and will, thanks to the country’s long borders with NATO.
Four months ago, the threat of missile strikes on NATO bases in a sudden escalation was deadly real. There’s a reason the US has kept a carrier group, a marine amphibious group, and a couple submarines armed with hundreds of cruise missiles near allies in Europe all year.
Now, there’s not much point in hitting a NATO target unless Russia is ready to go nuclear. And if Putin uses a nuke to terrorize Ukraine by vaporizing a civilian area or just setting one off harmlessly high above Kyiv, NATO might well have to get involved directly, and there is then a real chance World War 3 goes real hot, real fast.
This is likely why Russia is playing such dangerous games with Enerhodar — a release of radioactive material from the nuclear plant might serve as well as a direct use of nuclear arms because Russia is setting the stage to insist Ukraine did it.
It would be difficult to impossible to prove conclusively what happened in the short term, and Putin might see the panic a nuclear disaster would produce as serving his interests.
An incident could potentially freeze military operations across Kherson, for example. Or give Russia an excuse to mobilize its population, something that thankfully has not happened yet.
Right now, Russia is still fighting with a hand tied behind its back for fear of what forcing too many middle class Russians to fight in a war they likely despise would do to the stability of the regime. But an incident of sufficient magnitude might give Putin enough of an excuse to push Russia into true total war.
This is why a UN-backed military force should deploy to establish a humanitarian zone — but fat chance of that happening in a world where the UN is determined to be the League of Nations Mark 2.
In any case, Ukraine striking back in Kharkiv and achieving success has the potential to cement real gains as well as create credibility for Ukraine’s argument that it can and will win, if given enough support.
That’s the only way out of this situation now: total support for Ukraine until Russian forces withdraw.
Something about warfare that is rarely conveyed to the general public is the degree to which literally everything is interconnected.
War is anarchy in its purest form, with all organization being held together under the most difficult of conditions.
It’s why war reveals both the best and worst in human beings — our willingness to sacrifice our lives for those at our sides as well as the brutality we are able to inflict on fellow human beings.
Ukraine has had no real choice in this war — Russia has come to destroy an identity, a people, and until Putin’s regime is gone none can ever trust that the silly “Russian World” ideology he appears to believe in won’t lead to him attacking any place where Russian speakers live.
Which includes the West Coast, by the way. So as far as I’m concerned, my security here is directly bound to Ukraine’s.
That’s the hell of war and violence — the ripples they generate spread.
The entire world ought to be behind Ukraine as it fights to free its people from this brutal assault.
That craven America is backing Ukraine for its own geopolitical purposes does not mean that it truly cares about Ukrainians, but it also doesn’t mean that Russia is a friend to every country that doesn’t get along with America.
Russia and America are the same. That’s how international relations works. I didn’t get a degree in it from Berkeley, taught by some of the field’s leading minds, only to fail to recognize the scientific reality of our times.
A multipolar world is upon us all, like it or not, and pretending there are only two teams, Good and Bad, Democracy and Autocracy, is simply suicidal when thousands of nuclear weapons are still deployed all across the planet, waiting to fulfill their destructive purpose.
Half measures usually lead to the worst of both worlds, not a happy compromise. And on certain principles — like one country not getting to try to destroy another — there can be no compromise, or any hope of securing a lasting future peace simply breaks.
America’s invasion of Iraq broke it, though its leaders refuse to see. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has ended it too, though it may take years for the collapse to follow its due course.
So best of luck, Ukraine — you’re fighting for all of us, and the future.
To Kupiansk, Kherson, and beyond!
In the will to fight to defend one’s home lies all hope for humanity, whether the enemy be merciless empire, hoarded wealth, or a fast-changing climate.