On Thursday, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken arrived in Kyiv for an unannounced visit with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Blinken is reportedly there to share more good news, in the form of a new $2 billion package of assistance that includes $560 million in additional military equipment for Ukraine. Zelenskyy is certain to be happy about this, and at the moment, he has to be feeling pretty good about Ukraine’s relationship with the U.S. and the level of backing it has received from all the NATO allies.
Even so, it wouldn’t be surprising to find that Zelenskyy is a bit distracted. That’s because, right now, this moment, Ukrainian forces are driving ahead on the most daring advance of their counteroffensive, plunging deep into Russian-occupied territory, freeing town after town, and threatening to destroy a huge slice of Russia’s invasion force.
In the daily announcements from the Ukrainian general staff, Gen. Oleksiy Hromov was practically ecstatic as he gave out the statistics for what has happened so far—more than 20 towns and villages liberated in the lightning-fast advance across Kharkiv Oblast. Ukrainian troops have now moved close to 50 kilometers up the P07 highway from Balakliya to Shevchenkove and beyond. The operational details may be under wraps, but the stream of captured Russian equipment, and panic bubbling out of Russian social media, makes it clear this isn’t exactly a secret operation. Russian forces are in danger of losing their entire Izyum force. And they know it.
Obviously, this single action is the focus of everyone’s attention on Thursday. The blue areas on the map above represent those areas known to be under Ukrainian control. The yellow area is the “fog,” where forces have reportedly advanced, but the certainty of events drops way down.
In the last hour (9AM ET / 4PM in Kyiv), there are reports that fighting has begun in Hrushivka, less than 10km from Kupyansk. There are also reports that Shevchenkove has been liberated and the last Russian forces there have surrendered. Other reports put Ukrainian forces as close as 2km to Kupyansk.
Before buying into all these claims, there are several things to note here:
- Russian forces in the area are expressing messages of panic. Combined with a lot of shooting and explosions, it’s a great recipe for false reports. It’s a lot easier to explain why you’re running if you can claim there are a thousand rumbling tanks at your heels.
- Ukrainian supporters are overjoyed to see this major counteroffensive. Reports that might have gotten a lot more scrutiny a few days ago, are more likely to be passed along without review.
- Both Russia and Ukraine have reasons for why they might inflate the scale of events.
A static situation may be boring, but it’s possible to get very confident that the lines are being drawn correctly. This isn’t quite chaos; we’re getting a lot of genuine information, some of which is geo-confirmed through images or backed up by statements from the Ukrainian command—but expect a fair amount of chaff among the wheat.
And, as always, beware of finding reports too friendly to what you want to hear. Ukraine is doing something amazing here, but they’re not about to annex Moscow. Check your sources.
At the opposite end of the scale, there are reports from official Russian media outlets this morning that admit that Ukrainian forces did try to take Balakliya, but they were “thrown back.” Everything in Balakliya is running normally, and stalwart Russian forces repelled every attempt to take other sites in the area. Needless to say, don’t believe that one either.
Some reports now put the entire Ukrainian force advancing toward Kupyansk at 9,000 men. There are also reports that Ukraine pushed into the area around Balakliya with an armored column led by 15 tanks. The forces going in certainly looked like they understood this was their moment.
When it comes to Balakliya, there were reports overnight that Ukraine had fully liberated the town. There have also been a number of images showing Russian soldiers captured after attempting to escape the town wearing civilian clothing. As of this writing, there are fresh reports that the last Russian forces inside Balakliya have surrendered. This has yet to be fully confirmed, but it looks like that yellow circle around Balakliya is about to disappear.
Earlier reports indicated that Ukraine had left a partial force around Shevchenkove while the main force continued to the east. Overnight, there were reports of fierce fighting at Shevchenkove. The DeepState channel on Telegram, which has been a dependable source of frontline information, reports that as of Thursday afternoon (local time) Shevchenkove has been completely liberated. So the blue area may be about to spread up the road at least that far.
Just about every source agrees that the main area of fighting is now around Hrushivka. Russia has reportedly grabbed every unit it could find and rushed them into this area while they desperately try to prepare a defense for Kupyansk—a location they definitely weren’t ready to fight over. There are also reports that Ukraine has already begun artillery bombardment of the rail lines leading out of Kupyansk. Russia has announced a partial evacuation in the area.
Russia took Balakliya in March, in the first two weeks of Russia’s illegal invasion. Now Ukraine has freed that town, and did it without the kind of mass destruction seen in so many locations taken by Russia. And there is, so far, no sign that the Ukrainian advance, here or elsewhere, has been checked.
Again, this is what’s likely happening in just the last couple of hours: Balakliya has been liberated. Shevchenkove has been liberated. Ukrainian forces are fighting at Hrushivka after making a 50km sweep through Russian-occupied territory. The rail hub and bridge at Kupyansk are under bombardment from Ukrainian artillery. That is a very, very good day.
Seems like a good time for a …
Parade of destroyed and captured Russian equipment
And now, a couple of reminders that Kharkiv isn’t the only place where things are happening.
More posts are popping up with images and video of Balakliya. All on its own, the liberation of this town is a big deal. Meanwhile, Russian media is still reporting that everything is fine in Balakliya. Nothing to see here. All good.
Mark Sumner ·
There are reports that Russian forces have withdrawn from Hrakove and Chkalovske. That red slice between the two largest areas of advance may be collapsing.
Here is how Ukraine is using its Humvees:
155mm M777s are big guns, and they’ll sit well be hind the lines. Their error range is too big to use anywhere near infantry. 105mm howitzers are prized for offensive operations. They can be towed by Hummers, and ride just behind the vanguard like we’re seeing in Kharkiv. Britain and Australia already sent a bunch. US piling on means that Ukraine 1) has asked for it, and 2) plans on a lot more offensive operations in the coming months.
Ukraine’s current successes in Kherson and Kharkiv will supercharge donor enthusiasm to deliver the weapons Kyiv needs to finish the fight. From a political standpoint, this counter-offensive could not have been better timed.
Good visualization of the logistical importance of Kupiansk.
Follow the rail lines, it’s not just Izyum and Lyman (though they are most affected). Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk are affected, and beyond. There is another rail line further east, but that requires more trucks to carry ammo, fuel, and supplies to the front, and Russia already struggles with their logistics.
Notorious Russian propagandist:
That whole thread is funny—goes from “we’re winning!” to “we’re doomed!” in three tweets. But the key here, aside from “entire front collapse,” is “left without reserves.”
For three days, pro-Russian sources have talked about how the reserves were coming. They’ve finally realized no such thing exists. The backfield is empty.
I’m dying here:
Troops: we need to save Kupiansk for Izyum! For Sievierdonetsk! For the Donbas!
General: but we still haven’t recaptured Dovhen'ke!
My serious theory is that local commanders have orders and they can’t think for themselves, and the commanders who gave those orders are dead, so it’s last order standing.
I love this! Another Ukrainian advantage—they don’t have to worry about insurgents firing an RPG as they pass by.
Soldiers coming home, and liberation videos are my two favorites.