During the past week, Ukraine has inflicted a major operational blow against the Russian military, recapturing a swath of territory in eastern Ukraine including the city of Izyum in its most significant military success since the Battle of Kyiv in March, according to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). In a first since the war began, Russia acknowledged its defeat in the region.
Ukraine’s counteroffensive, which began on September 6, took the Kremlin by surprise, both in terms of speed and the dynamism of advances with large pockets in Kharkiv oblast being reclaimed. According to the British defence ministry, in recent days, Ukrainian forces have captured territory at least twice the size of London.
Ukrainian fighters were able to take advantage of a weaker presence of Russian forces in eastern Ukraine, following the redeployment of Russian fighters to Donetsk and the southern axis, where a Ukrainian offensive in Kherson presented a threat.
The map below shows the areas recaptured by Ukraine since September 6.
According to the ISW, local sources reported on September 7 that Ukrainian forces had struck Izyum and Kupiansk, likely to stop Russian forces from reinforcing the front lines in these cities. Western-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) appear to have played an important role in maximising the effect of the Kharkiv offensive.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said on Monday that Ukrainian forces had made “significant progress” and, “benefitted from significant support from the United States and many other countries in terms of making sure that Ukraine has in its hands the equipment it needs to prosecute this counteroffensive”.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine, the US has committed at least $14.5bn in security assistance to Ukraine, including 16 HIMARS and ammunition, according to the Department of Defense.
Russian efforts to seize the Donbas region in its entirety have been thwarted by the precision efforts of Ukrainian forces, with Kupiansk and Izyum – both significant logistical hubs for Russian forces – being reclaimed by Kyiv in recent days.
“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 Bremen University, told Al Jazeera.
One narrow road connects the de-occupied towns of Kupiansk and Izyum to the Russian border, but the Russian retreat did not clog it up, Mitrokhin said, suggesting that a deliberate decision was made by the Kremlin to leave the area and redeploy manpower to the Donbas.
“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 has claimed that the withdrawal of troops on September 10 from the Balakliia-Izyum line was part of a “regrouping” effort.
However, there were some signs of a shift in tone from Russian state media and pro-war reporters and bloggers regarding the pullback and Kremlin-ally and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov stated that if there were no changes to the Russian “special military operation”, then he would contact the Kremlin to “explain the situation on the ground”.
While Ukraine’s counteroffensive does not signal an end to the war, it could suggest a shift of momentum in favour of Ukraine. According to the ISW, Kyiv will likely dictate the location and nature of the fighting, with Russia potentially responding to Ukraine’s military campaigns.
Ukraine’s counteroffensive on the southern axis near Kherson has continued simultaneously with the one in Kharkiv. In the past week, Ukrainian forces targeted Russian ground lines of communication, ammunition depots and military and transportation assets.
According to the ISW, Ukrainian forces made gains at several significant locations on the western bank of the Dnieper River, cutting two bridges across the river and interfering with Russia’s efforts to maintain supplies via barge and ferry.
Now as the front lines have shifted further east, placing Ukrainian forces within tens of kilometres of the border with Russia, President Zelenskyy seeks to go further, stating in a speech on Monday, “We will oust them from our border.”