A Blog by Jonathan Low


May 6, 2022

Ukrainian Army Has Gone On the Attack Against Russia, Which Is Retreating

Despite claims they would not be ready to counterattack for at least a month - evidently intended to mislead the Russian army - battle tested Ukrainian armored forces have begun an offensive in the northeast around Kharkiv. 

This could cut off the Russians and end their Donbas offensive. Picture is of Ukrainians attacking with captured Russian T-80 tanks. JL  

David Axe reports in Forbes:

Ukrainian formations including the battle-hardened 92nd and 93rd Mechanized Brigades in recent days began pushing north and east from Kharkiv,  just 25 miles from the Russia-Ukraine border. Russian troops retreated across the Donets River, blowing bridges behind them as they fled toward the border. If Ukrainian brigades pushing from Kharkiv can consolidate their gains and turn south, they might sever the logistics of the Russian army around Izium. That could encircle many of Moscow’s best remaining battalions. The offensive might be a prelude to disaster for the Russians. Ten weeks into Russia’s war on Ukraine, the Russian army is exhausted. Its best battalions shattered.

The Ukrainian army reportedly has gone on the offensive in the country’s war-torn east. For the faltering Russian war effort, this is very, very bad news.

Ukrainian formations—apparently including the battle-hardened 92nd and 93rd Mechanized Brigades—in recent days began pushing north and east from Kharkiv, in northeastern Ukraine just 25 miles from the Russia-Ukraine border. Russian troops retreated east across the Donets River, blowing up bridges behind them as they fled toward the border.

The Russian army is advancing, too—seizing a few villages along the axis running southwest through Izium, 60 miles south of Kharkiv.

But the Izium offensive might be a prelude to disaster for the Russians. Ten weeks into Russia’s wider war on Ukraine, the Russian army is exhausted. Its best battalions are shattered. A dozen of its top commanders are claimed by the Ukrainians to be dead. Tens of thousands of Russian and allied troops have been killed, wounded or captured.

All that is to say, the Russian advance is fragile. And it might get more fragile as the Russians keep pushing past Izium, thinning out their forces and stretching their supply lines. For the Ukrainians, that’s an opportunity. A potentially war-winning one.

If the Ukrainian brigades currently pushing north and east from Kharkiv can consolidate their gains and turn south, they might be able to sever the logistical tail of the Russian army around Izium. That maneuver could encircle many of Moscow’s best remaining battalions.

There’s no guarantee that might happen, of course. The Russians clearly aren’t winning the war in Ukraine but it’s not yet apparent they’re actively losing it. The Ukrainians have suffered steep losses, too—and might struggle to mobilize and equip reservists in time to take advantage of shifts in the war’s momentum.All that said, the conditions for a Ukrainian victory are becoming clearer. Mechanized brigades around Kharkiv could push local Russian forces all the way to the border. They then could turn south and cut behind the Russian battalions around Izium. The Kharkiv brigades could unite with the brigades currently holding the line south of Izium and together they could pivot west to finish off the trapped Russians.

Valeriy Zaluzhny, chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, announced the Kharkiv counteroffensive on Thursday. “I have briefed my American counterpart on the operational situation,” Zaluzhny stated, referring to U.S. Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Ukrainian advance north and east of Kharkiv was apparent days earlier. Russian engineers blew up the main road bridge across the Donets River around Tuesday, hoping to slow the Ukrainians. The withdrawing Russians lost at least one of their best T-90M tanks.

Zaluzhny announced a Ukrainian counterattack around Izium, too, but it’s unclear whether he was referring to an effort by the Kharkiv units or a more localized offensive by units south of Izium.

In any event, Ukrainian moves around Izium take place at the same time Russian forces continue to push south and west past Izium, seizing a few settlements. The Donets River, threading around the southern edge of Kharkiv, again is a barrier for Ukrainian units moving from north to south—but some Ukrainian troops reportedly crossed the river on or before Thursday.

Just how far south Ukrainian troops might push is an open question. The Russians control the air over eastern Ukraine and, despite losses to Ukrainian missiles, continue to send Su-24 and Su-25 attack planes on treetop-level bombing runs targeting Ukrainian positions. Russian artillery, including the heaviest 2S7 guns, pounds away.

But the Ukrainians have 2S7s and other big guns of their own—and more artillery is on the way from foreign donors. The Ukrainians skillfully have deployed small octocopter drones carrying tiny anti-tank bombs.

Sometimes leveraging intelligence from the Americans, Ukrainian gunners have targeted Russian command posts across the war zone. Ukrainian artillery on April 30 bombarded a Russian headquarters near Izium around the time Gen. Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s top army officer, was visiting. The attack killed a senior Russian electronic-warfare coordinator.

If the Ukrainians can keep the Russians off-balance and keep up the strength of their front-line formations, they might be able eventually to advance all the way to Izium, 50 miles from the Donets River crossing. Just southeast of Izium is where the Ukrainian army has concentrated its best units, including the 4th and 17th Tank Brigades and the 95th Air Assault Brigade.

A pair of mechanized brigades. A couple tank brigades and an air-assault brigade. Several other brigades plus lots of drones and artillery. The combined Ukrainian force might be adequate to complete a decisive encirclement of the roughly two-dozen under-strength Russian battalions inside the elongating Izium salient.

Don’t think the Ukrainians don’t know what they’re doing. Ukrainian commanders, many of them veterans of the Soviet army, understand Russian doctrine—and how to exploit the flaws in Russian doctrine. Cutting a salient is a classic tactic for defeating a Russian offensive.

The key is that Russian battalions by design are heavy with artillery but light on infantry. Firepower, not manpower, lies at the heart of Russian doctrine. That lack of infantry, so evident during Russia’s abortive attempt to occupy Kyiv early in the current campaign, means that an attacking Russian force often struggles to defend its rear.

To make up for their own lack of infantry, Russian commanders tend to assign pro-Russian paramilitaries—undertrained, lightly-armed locals—to guard supply lines. For the Ukrainians, these weak rear-area forces are the way through and around a Russian advance.

They’ve done it before. In August 2014 during the initial Russian-backed attack on eastern Ukraine, the 95th Air Assault Brigade penetrated more than a hundred miles behind Russian lines, punching right through the separatists the Russians had assigned to protect their rear.

The 95th “destroyed and captured Russian tanks and artillery, relieved several isolated Ukrainian garrisons and, finally, returned to their starting position,” U.S. Army Capt. Nicolas Fiore recalled in a 2017 paper for Armor, the official magazine of the Army’s tank corps.

If the Kharkiv brigades succeed in linking up with the brigades on the opposite side of Izium, the 95th might get a chance to repeat its 2014 feat.

There’s a lot that can go wrong for Kyiv. The Ukrainians can’t risk leaving their own rear unguarded. In a rush to deliver a potentially decisive blow, Kyiv could risk overextending its advance the same way Moscow appears to be doing in its own advance.

The brigades the Ukrainians are counting on for an encirclement maneuver around Izium are the same brigades that defended Kharkiv for two hard months. If those brigades move south, what forces will fill in behind them to ensure the city of 1.4 million remains safe and free? “It appears as if the Russians still have designs on Kharkiv,” an unnamed U.S. Defense Department reminded reporters on Wednesday.

Reservists are one answer. Ukraine has mobilized tens of thousands of reserve troops that could reinforce existing units as well as form new ones. They need equipment, of course. Fortunately for Kyiv, the flow of weaponry from foreign allies—fighting vehicles, tanks and artillery—shows no sign of slowing.

If Ukrainian reserves can fill in behind the Kharkiv-to-Izium counteroffensive, they could prevent the Russians from doing back to the Ukrainians what the Ukrainians are currently trying to do to the Russians. Let them advance. Get behind them. Then destroy them.


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