Ukraine’s successes stir once-unthinkable hope of beating Russia


The extraordinary speed and success of Ukraine’s northern counteroffensive is raising possibilities that few entertained when Russia invaded Ukraine in February: That its military could be defeated, or that it might even collapse.
A rapid meltdown remains unlikely, with even the day’s battlefield developments unclear, let alone the plans and precise conditions of the Russian and Ukrainian militaries. Russia still controls about one-fifth of Ukrainian territory, dwarfing even the 3,000 square kilometers (1,158 square miles) Ukraine says it retook this month.
Nonetheless, for Russian and western military observers alike there was little doubt that the latest offensive marks a turning point in the largest armed conflict Europe has seen since World War II, at a minimum disrupting President Vladimir Putin‘s stated goal of capturing all of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
“I would say it’s both pivotal and dangerous,” former CIA director and US defence secretary Leon Panetta said Monday in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Balance of Power With David Westin.” Worrying that Russia could escalate the conflict, including with a potential tactical nuclear strike, if it feels at risk of losing, Panetta said, “It’s dangerous because Putin, if he’s boxed in, he has to strike back.”
Lawrence Freedman, a military historian and emeritus professor of War Studies at King’s College London, wrote in a weekend blog posting that “this offensive has overturned much of what was confidently assumed about the course of the war.”
So much so, according to Freedman, that a widely shared assumption that the war was doomed to stalemate through the winter has been upended. Even a sudden Russian collapse can no longer be ruled out.
“As with bankruptcy so with military defeat,” Freedman wrote. “What appears to be a long, painful grind can quickly turn into a rout.”
Footage and reporting of the chaos of the Russian retreat, leaving behind substantial if yet unquantifiable stocks of Russian armor and munitions, continued to emerge on Monday, stunning many.
Russia’s abandonment of Izyum, a key staging point for troops and weapons, was widely seen as critical. “The Ukrainian recapture of Izyum ended the prospect that Russia could accomplish its stated objectives in Donetsk Oblast,” the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, said in its daily report on the conflict.
Much of how the Ukrainian success impacts on the war more widely will depend on Russia’s response, having seen first the attempt to seize the capital Kyiv, and now the fallback goal of taking all of the Donbas region thwarted. So far, Putin has been reluctant to formally declare war and mobilize the nation, to strike out at Ukraine’s allies or to follow through on hints at a potential nuclear response.
Presaging winter
As of Monday there was little sign that Russia has the ready reserves to strike back quickly. Instead, on Sunday and Monday, long-range missiles struck civilian power infrastructure in Kharkiv, Dnipro and other Ukrainian cities, causing blackouts that could presage a long and cold winter for Ukrainian civilians. On Russian TV, commentators welcomed the strikes and called for more.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the “special military operation” in Ukraine would continue until it had achieved its original objectives. Putin showed no outward signs of concern, telling an economic meeting on Monday that he had spent the morning working on next year’s budget.
“We’re still looking at this going into next year, unless the Russians make a political decision to withdraw,” said Jack Watling, senior research fellow for land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute in London, in a phone interview. “That is largely because the Ukrainians don’t have the reserves to exploit this and go all the way.”
The speed of the Kharkiv counteroffensive revealed that Ukraine now enjoys a clear advantage in manpower, showing an ability to rotate and deploy fresh troops on multiple fronts in ways that appear to elude Russia, Michael Kofman, a Russian military specialist at the CNA security think tank in Washington, said in a Sept. 10 Twitter space interview.
“All of that’s leading them, from my point of view, to one place,” Kofman said. “The war is not sustainable for the Russian military, both because of the manpower issues, both because of the force quality issues and both because of the competence issues.”
Yet the details of the last week’s fighting are still too hazy to understand just how heavy a blow the sweeping Ukrainian victory in Kharkiv province will prove to be, Kofman said.
As a result of the recent reverses, the Kremlin has put off referendums planned in the coming months annexing Ukrainian territory in the eastern Donbas regions of Luhansk and Donetsk and the southern provinces of Kherson and Zaporozhzhia, two people familiar with the matter said.
Tempered celebrations
Ukrainian officials, including defence minister Oleksii Reznikov in a Financial Times interview, tempered their celebrations with calls for caution and consolidation, rather than risk tired and overstretched forces being crushed in a Russian counterattack.
“The phase of a breakthrough, rapid advance, tsunami was replaced by a phase of consolidating the results and fighting for the occupation of the most advantageous lines – as springboards for the next jumps,” said Oleksiy Arestovych, adviser to the Ukrainian president’s office, in a Twitter post on Monday.
Even so, despair and anger at the course of the war also continued to grow among Russia’s nationalist military bloggers and even crept onto national TV, where former Russian MP Boris Nadezhdin said Putin had been misled into launching a “colonial” war that was “impossible to win.” Other guests called for Russia to unleash its full military capacity on Ukraine.





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