Ukraine shifting balances

Ahmed Eleiba , Tuesday 13 Sep 2022

In an unexpected development, Russia appears to be losing, reports Ahmed Eleiba

Ukraine shifting balances
Ukrainian soldiers in the freed territory in the Kharkiv region, Ukraine (photo: AP)


More than six months after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, the battle has begun to shift entirely in favour the latter. Although Russian forces had been advancing very slowly in the past two months, they have suddenly begun to draw back in the face of a powerful eastward thrust of Ukrainian forces into the Kharkiv region. Sweeping into an area of over 3,000 km, the Ukrainian forces have recaptured some 30 towns and villages up to the Ukrainian-Russian border in the east and entered the Russian-held supply towns of Izyum and Kupiansk in the direction of the northern border of the Donbas region. According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence spokesman, Ukraine has also regained 500 km2 of the Kherson region on the southern coast.

On the basis of observations from military analysts and observers, it can be surmised that the significance of the Ukrainian advance has less to do with the large amount of territory it retook from Russian forces in Kharkiv and Kherson than with the strategic importance of some of the sites. For example, the Ukrainians severed the main supply line: the railway between Russia and Luhansk. Since the alternatives Russia has are not as good, Russian forces are likely to suffer a lack of or at least a slowdown in the arrival of provisions to Luhansk and Donbas.

Initially, Russia seemed to acknowledge the retreat. But then Russian military reports began to claim that it had taken out enough Ukrainian forces and military hardware to compensate for its losses. Official Ukrainian sources stated that the Russian counterattacks failed to regain lost territory.

There are several possible explanations for the success of the Ukrainian offensive. One is that in a redeployment of their forces in Ukraine, the Russians withdrew 10,000 troops from their main defence line Kharkiv to Donbas. According to the Ukrainian governor of Luhansk, Russia could no longer return these forces to Kharkiv because this would create a vacuum on the other deployment fronts. Ukrainian forces are consolidating their positions in the recaptured territories too.

A second reason for the Ukrainian success is the confusion in Russian military planning. This was publicly revealed by Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov who said he had opposed plans that ultimately led to the recent retreat. Kadyrov, a Putin ally, fears that Russian command is not fully aware of the situation on the ground. In a message posted on one of his social media accounts, he said that he might go to the Russian leadership personally in order to explain it to them. Some Western sources suggest that Kadyrov is seeking to strengthen his position with the Russian leadership, to which end he plans to contribute thousands of Chechen troops to the Russian operation. However, the sources say, this would not alter the situation on the ground in either Kharkiv or Kherson.

Ukraine’s strategic gain is also a product of a change in its military tactics. Whereas before, Ukrainian forces relied more on guerrilla warfare tactics against Russia’s large standing army, targeting Russian tanks with Stinger or Javelin missiles, for example, they have now shifted to more conventional warfare. In light of their recent advances, Ukrainian operation room management appears to surpass its Russian counterpart. The official Ukrainian army is now also much better equipped than it had been at the start of the war. The Soviet tanks it has received from Eastern European countries are more modern than expected. It also has MIG fighter jets which target Russian sites. This is not to mention the vast quantities of Western weapons from the US and other Western powers that now fill Ukrainian arsenals.

In terms of the balance of power on the ground, Moscow faces a dilemma with respect to mobilising more troops or calling up reserves. To do the latter would contradict the Russian narrative that its intervention in Ukraine is a special operation, as opposed to a war. It would also confirm that this “operation” has run up against problems the general command is unable to resolve. Yet, Moscow may still calculate that sending in more forces in the hope of reversing Ukrainian gains may be worth the risk of losing domestic support for the war. On the other hand, pouring more weapons into Ukraine would fuel the war of attrition the end results of which would not be in Moscow’s favour, especially given that architects of the strategy of attrition among Kyiv’s Western allies calculate that they have the greatest staying power, which will carry the day in the end.

It may be premature to suggest that Kyiv has the ability to win which, for it, means regaining all the territory and sites taken by Russian forces. Kyiv’s ambitions in this regard include the Crimean peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014. On the other hand, conditions may arise that may make it opt for negotiations. While Moscow’s attitudes towards this avenue have fluctuated, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has stated that his government has not closed the door to negotiations, with regard to which a likely mediator would be France. As winter approaches along with freezing temperatures, snow and ice, Russia, better prepared for combat in winter terrains, may gain the upper hand. Whether or not Moscow has figured this factor into its calculations is difficult to say. What is certainly likely, however, is that it will wield the energy card against Kyiv’s European allies in order to pressure them into withholding further military supplies to Ukraine, lifting or alleviating economic sanctions in exchange for loosening the taps on the North Stream pipeline. Whatever the case, it looks like hostilities are far from over.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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