Questions loom over Ukraine’s counteroffensive in Kharkiv

Ukraine has managed to turn the tide of war, at least for now. What may happen next?

Ukrainian soldiers hold a flag at a rooftop in Kupiansk, Ukraine in this picture obtained from social media released on September 10, 2022 [Telegram @kuptg/via Reuters]

Kyiv, Ukraine – The speed of the Ukrainian military’s counteroffensive in the eastern Kharkiv region is nothing short of breakneck.

Three dozen towns and villages have been liberated from the Russian forces who fled eastwards and offered little or no resistance, analysts say.

“Within four days, Ukraine nullified four months of success of the Russian army that cost them a huge amount of victims,” Nikolay Mitrokhin, a Russian expert at Germany’s University of Bremen, told Al Jazeera.

But the speed and ease with which Ukraine regained control of the area that lies west of the Russian border and north of the separatist “Luhansk People’s Republic” are raising questions.

Kharkiv map

The Russians abandoned next to no artillery or armoured vehicles, and their retreat from the heavily-fortified area did not look like a panicked flight that followed heavy fighting, according to videos from the area and Ukrainian military reports.

There is only one narrow road that connected the de-occupied towns of Kupiansk and Izyum to the Russian border.

But the retreat did not clog it up – and lasted days, not hours, Mitrokhin said.

To him, this signifies a deliberate decision made in the Kremlin to leave the area and use the manpower and weaponry near separatist-controlled areas.

“The Russian Defence Ministry made a decision – that apparently came from the very top – to fully withdraw forces from Kharkiv and to use the available resources to hold on to the positions in Donetsk, and perhaps, the border of Luhansk,” Mitrokhin said.

“The aftertaste is that all of this is but a remake of Russia’s retreat from northern Ukraine in April,” he said.

Moscow called the April retreat from four regions, including Kyiv, a “goodwill gesture,” but Ukrainian officials and analysts said it was caused by grave miscalculations and heavy losses in manpower and military equipment.

‘All of them have been trained very badly’

Other observers disagree about what happened in Kharkiv.

The retreat followed the deployment of poorly-trained Russian national guardsmen and civilians who were forcibly mobilised and herded to the front line from separatist Luhansk and neighbouring Donetsk.

“All of them have been trained very badly, had no combat experience, often didn’t understand what was going on and why they had to risk their lives,” Russian defence analyst Yuri Fyodorov wrote in an op-ed published by the Novaya Gazeta daily.

There is mounting evidence that after heavy losses of manpower that may reach tens of thousands, the Kremlin is deploying untrained convicts who have been lured to the front line by the promises of amnesty and payments.

Between 7,000 and 10,000 convicts have already been recruited to fight in Ukraine, Olga Romanova, of the Rus Sidyashchaya human rights group that monitors Russian prisons, said on Facebook on Friday.

The Russian military’s weakness was exacerbated by the dire miscalculations of top brass who completely snoozed the concentration of forces in Kharkiv and could not deploy additional forces to aid them, Romanova wrote.

A former Russian mercenary who fought in the notorious Wagner private army and whose former brothers-in-arms are fighting in Ukraine said that the defeat showcases a much deeper problem within Russia’s top brass.

“This spot [in Kharkiv] showed how our generals have finally and irreversibly lost connection with reality by showing utter unprofessionalism and allowing the defence of certain areas by such units that are essentially weak,” Marat Gabidullin told Al Jazeera.

“Russia’s defence ministry is a kingdom of fake reporting and eye-washing,” said Gabidullin, who wrote about his experience of fighting for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

And the defeat triggered a rare case of public criticism from one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest allies.

“If today or tomorrow there are no changes in the strategy of the special military operation, I will have to approach the heads of the defence ministry and Russia’s leaders to tell them about the situation,” Ramzan Kadyrov, a Kremlin-appointed leader of Chechnya whose loyalists have been active in Ukraine, said in a voice message posted on his Telegram channel.

Ukraine punishes collaborators

The towns of Izyum and Kupiansk are the most important gains.

They served as logistic hubs for the Russian advance in Luhansk and Donetsk – and were used for almost daily shelling of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.

Ukraine also regained control of several areas and checkpoints on the Russian border that had been used as supply lines.

The triumphant de-occupation of some 2,000 square kilometres (772 square miles) is already followed by painstaking restoration of administration in the de-occupied areas.

Police units return to them – and Ukraine’s leader has urged their residents to report the war crimes committed by Russian forces.

“I am asking Ukrainians in liberated areas to please inform our forces about the occupants’ crimes on Ukrainian land,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Friday.

At least a thousand civilians died in Izyum alone, mostly because they lacked access to healthcare, town council head Maksim Strelnikov said in televised remarks.

Moreover, shelling destroyed some 80 percent of the town’s buildings, he said.

The restoration of power is being followed by persecution of officials and law enforcement officers who collaborated with Russians.

Roman Dudin, Kharkiv’s top intelligence official with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), has already been charged with treason, Ukraine’s General Prosecutor’s Office said on Monday.

Meanwhile, economic restoration is only possible with direct government intervention, a Kyiv-based analyst said.

“Firstly, there have to be government guarantees of commissions,” mostly through the procurement of locally-produced foodstuffs and construction materials, Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera.

These goods will have to be distributed to locals as humanitarian aid – while the government should also grant tax breaks and pledge to compensate for lost assets, he said.

Russia retaliated the counteroffensive by deliberately striking power stations throughout Ukraine that led to blackouts in five regions on Sunday and Monday morning.

A renowned Kremlin propagandist hailed the strikes.

They “switch off lights, stop water supply, disconnect [cell phones] and stop trains”, Vladimir Solovyov, one of the most outspoken Kremlin propagandists, said during his talk show on the Rossiya-1 television channel.

Source: Al Jazeera