Things are moving quickly in Ukraine, so you guys get a bonus update. Even better, it’s all great news! My Sunday update covered the first big moves of Ukraine’s multi-front counteroffensive, which I saw as the long-awaited culmination of Russia’s war effort. Mark Sumner mapped many of the changes on Tuesday, and this morning he updated big overnight advances. Since then, Ukraine has punched through Russian lines in the Kharkiv front and is romping in their rears. That is what prompted me to do a second Wednesday update.
To recap, Ukraine spent months talking about going on the offensive around Kherson. It was obviously a trap, so much so that the linked story is literally headlined “Russian lines recede south of Izyum as Russia rushes to potential Kherson trap.” The Kherson region is bound by several large rivers to the Russian-occupied south and east, with few bridges providing access.
It behooved Ukraine to draw as many Russian soldiers and equipment into Kherson oblast, to then trap them by taking out those few bridges. Russian forces would quickly run out of artillery shells, small ammo, food, water, spare parts, and fuel. Their fighting power diminished (especially with artillery), they would end up easy pickings for Ukrainian liberators.
Ukraine’s intent was obvious, everyone saw it coming, yet stupidly, Russia bought into the scheme hook, line, and sinker. It’s like a bad horror movie, where stupid teens make every obvious bad decision, and the audience thinks “no one is that stupid!” Russia is that stupid.
To be fair, Russia was in a bad place. Without Kherson, Russia would lose the only regional capital captured since the February 24 invasion. It would shatter Vladimir Putin’s grandiose notions of stretching the Russian empire all the way to Moldova. It would be a public relations catastrophe, betraying Russia’s weakness and inability to hold territory it considered part of Russia itself.
Reinforcing Kherson made sense, but here is where Ukraine caught the biggest break possible: No one expected Russia to send all their troops to Kherson.
Russia clearly surmised that Ukraine wouldn’t have juice for offensive operations in two separate theaters. And it guessed that Kherson would be Ukraine’s focus. Undoubtedly, Ukraine was very obvious about its arms buildup around Kherson, leaving armor in open sight of Russian satellites and drones. It undoubtedly did the exact opposite around Kharkiv. So Russia emptied out its forces in the Kharkiv area and around Izyum to bolster their southern flank.
Some day we’ll find out if the Kharkiv offensive was planned all along, or if it was sparked by surprise opportunity. But our first clue of Russia’s weakness came after those Ukrainian raids across the Siverskyi-Donetsk river, where they found the entire area devoid of any Russian military presence and “liberated” Ozerne and Staryi Karavan as they roamed around taking selfies at various empty towns.
In recent weeks, Ukraine had been chipping away at Russia’s hold south of Izyum, gradually erasing what was a salient, and was now barely a bump. Meanwhile, HIMARS regularly struck Russian ammo depots, fuel supplies, and Russian command and control. We were so focused on Ukraine “shaping the battlefield” around Kherson, that we missed them doing the same around Kharkiv.
As I write this, Russian Telegram sources were reporting that Russia was retreating from Balakliya, which some might remember as the town sold out to the Russians by its mayor early in the war. Ukraine will be salivating at all the awesome new loot from a huge ammo depot located in town, which it presciently didn’t destroy. The popular Russian war reporter Starshey Eddy wrote:
It can be stated that in the Balakleya operation, the Armed Forces of Ukraine at the moment have completely outplayed in operational art the [Russian] command [...] Izyum prepares for battle. We wish good luck to our warriors, veterans, ordinary soldiers and officers. The enemy is preparing a strike not only from the north, but also from the south. In the area of the settlement of Dolyna, reserves are accumulating, the enemy is deploying tanks in attacking formation. Our aviation is actively working, the night will be hot.
Dolyna was featured in my Sunday update—the town south of Dovhen’ke—which had been clearly cleansed of a Russian presence indicating Russian lines had been pushed further north (toward Izyum) than anyone had previously assumed. Russia is now in a pickle, facing potential encirclement in the area. But Ukraine doesn’t need to attack Izyum just yet, given the starling progress of the Ukrainian advance further north. If Russian defenses at Kupiansk fall, the entire front collapses. Here’s the path:
Ukraine reached Balakliya, left a few troops behind to pin those Russians in place (until they slithered out), then sped to Volokhiv Yar, Semenivka, and Shevchenkove, where they apparently did the same. And just like that, Ukraine advanced 30-40 kilometers with low casualties, leaving neutered Russian garrisons behind, with surrender or escape (without their equipment) their only real options.
(This is what Russia tried to do early in the war in Sumy and Chernihiv, but those cities were too big for full containment, allowing Ukrainian forces inside those cities to raid Russian supply lines. These are small towns, easily containable.)
At this moment, Balakliya is fully liberated. Maybe Shevchenkove is as well (conflicting reports). The others, it’s unclear. It doesn’t matter. Multiple Russian sources have reported that Ukrainian forces are fast approaching Kupiansk, a mere 25 kilometers from Shevchenkove. And we know there’s nothing much defending in the middle, as multiple (gory) videos have emerged of Ukrainian infantry ambushes of Russian vehicles. This one, of a Russian GRAD MLRS rocket artillery, is VERY graphic, so click at your own risk. But I include it to make this important point: GRADs have a 52-kilometer range, they sit way back from the front lines, and they’re being ambushed and destroyed by Ukrainian infantry. This is the rear rear. There are no defensive lines, and Russian forces are being caught by complete surprise. There is also a complete absence of land mines, which is slowing Ukrainian advances around Kherson.
We knew Russian defenses would struggle after they culminated, but no one dared hope it would look like this!
Now look at this map:
The green lines are railways, and the circle? That’s Kupiansk. It is literally the logistical hub of the entire eastern front. Those rail lines heading north go to Russia, which supplies the bulk of the supplies for this entire part of the map.
A few months ago, when Ukraine pushed Russia back from Kharkiv, we dreamed of getting within artillery range of Kupiansk (which never happened). Now we’re talking about possibly occupying it! And given how deep it is behind front lines, there’s a very good chance that Russia doesn’t have much in the way of fortifications or defenses. The question then becomes—does the battle devolve into house-to-house combat, or do the Russian occupiers say “f’ this!” and retreat east?
We do need to be mindful of Ukraine’s own supply lines. They are not immune to the laws of war. NATO standards is to travel with three days worth of combat supplies. We’re in day two. The spearhead will soon need an operational pause. Ideally, it gets to do so inside Kupiansk, feasting on Russian supplies.
I colored in a darker color the areas 100% dependent on Kupiansk’s supply lines:
An addition to the Izyum area, Kupiansk supplies Russian forces all the way down the Donbas front. All of that will be severed. There are other railways and roads that will try and pick up the slack, but none of them will be as efficient. And we know that Russian logistics are already inefficient enough.
As for Donetsk oblast north of the Siverskyi-Donetsk river, I shaded it a little darker—it’s not 100% cut off, but that rail line to its east is now defunct. They’ll have to truck in supplies from that light green line further out east. I doubt it’ll cut it, and Russia will also be forced to retreat from those positions to more defensible and suppliable (new word) lines.
Therefore, if Ukraine reaches Kupiansk, even its outskirts, they won’t need to push Russian forces out of Izyum. Cut off and isolated, fighting for nothing they care for, mass surrender may be in the cards. Just today I counted around four dozen POWs in various videos. Russians and their proxies don’t seem too afraid to surrender.
The quick progress behind enemy lines has proven a bonanza of new equipment for the Ukrainian army. Visually confirmed, Ukraine already has six new tanks, 12 armored personnel carriers, three anti-aircraft guns, five artillery guns, and some other assorted random stuff like trucks. We’ll likely count far more as more video emerges from the advance.
Meanwhile, I’m really enjoying those smug Russian propagandists suddenly losing their shit.
Early this morning:
Later in the day:
So we’re now at the “purge the non-believers” phase of Russian propagandists. Still, I wouldn’t be opposed to Moscow burning down…
Oh, Ukraine made additional advances elsewhere, but we can recap those later. None are anywhere as dramatic, or strategically significant, as what we’re seeing in Kharkiv.
Just another map showing the same thing, because it’s so much fun:
Balakliya will be marked Ukrainian in tomorrow’s update.
Strikes me that the more Ukraine said "don't look at Kherson!" the more people looked at Kherson, allowing them to do whatever they needed to do to move in Kharkiv. Even the whole "we wargamed with the US and decided to do a single front" story might've been misdirection.
I really want to know, after the war is over, whether this was always the plan all along. Regardless, this collapse of a major part of the Russian front could be contagious, destroying Russia’s will to fight. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but I will—this is looking like the beginning of the end of the war.
Thread. The video is graphic, if you decide to watch it.