Russian Armies Are Starting To Break
A 'thunder run' victory for Ukraine
Yesterday, a Ukrainian soldier published a selfie (see below) at the city limits of Shevchenkove, a village roughly 26 km (22 mi) from Kupyansk, the railroad hub that seems to be the key objective of the surprise Ukrainian offensive this week. As the sun goes down in Kharkiv Oblast today, Ukrainian troops reportedly occupy the center of Kupyansk and Russians have apparently withdrawn some 20 km (12 mi) away from the city. By any objective measure, that is a remarkable military achievement. A thunder run.
The Ukrainian advance has only encountered hasty defenses, for the Russian Army made no preparations at all here. Thousands of prisoners, including flag rank officers, have been taken, as well as hundreds of tanks and vehicles destroyed or captured. Altogether, this operation may very well reduce the Russian Army even more than the ongoing battle in Kherson Oblast, leading Russians to conclude that the operation in southern Ukraine was a “feint” to enable this one, which they now believe was the Ukrainian main effort all along, for it has been so successful. In fact this operation was only authorized when the Kherson operation had succeeded in its designs.
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We know the Kharkiv offensive has succeeded because of a remarkable information environment. Military bloggers with Telegram channels are just about the only “free press” of any kind in Russia. They describe a woeful defense and a frantic retreat north of Izyum during the previous 72 hours. Only one Russian milblogger has denied that Ukrainians hold Kupyansk today, and he had to do it from a city limits sign posted several miles east of the city. Retreat is general and reinforcements are tardy.
A Russian army knows that it is coming apart, that its plans have fallen to pieces, and so already there are fingers of blame pointing at the chain of command. According to the Institute for the Study of War, the defeatist infighting right now is the worst they have seen since May, after Ukrainians annihilated a Russian river-crossing operation in Luhansk. They note the similarities:
[T]he catastrophic Russian losses suffered due to incompetence shook the confidence of pro-Russian milbloggers, sparking criticism of the Russian war effort. Russian milbloggers and social media users accessed satellite imagery that showed devastating losses of Russian military equipment, which caused many to comment on the incompetence of the Russian military and analyze the scene on a tactical level. The Russian MoD did not comment on the situation, fueling burgeoning doubts about Russia’s prospects in Ukraine.
Whereas the Kherson operation had been telegraphed for months, so that Russian reinforcements and defenses were put in place before it began, this was a complete surprise. The Russians in charge of counter-narratives have once again been caught flat-footed by events.
Belated attempts to shore up confidence, for example by posting photos and videos of helicopters allegedly airlifting reinforcements to the area, point to a ponderous and unprepared Russian propaganda machine that was still getting into a fighting stance on Day 5 of the Ukrainian Kharkiv offensive.
The Russian MoD struggles to address unexpected Ukrainian operations because its information strategy relies on portraying the Russian invasion of Ukraine as an easy and faultless operation. This promotes a lack of situational awareness within the Kremlin and the Russian media space.
However, NASA FIRMS reporting shows the most crucial difference between the two operational theaters, Kherson and Kharkiv: an overall absence of fires from intense artillery barrages.
Ukrainian counterbattery using western radars hit Russian artillery very hard this week in Kharkiv, killing a majority of artillerymen and destroying most of their equipment early in the fight. Thus, Russian guns were unable to ever put significant defensive fire on Ukrainians during the advance this week. Ukrainian units were effectively unopposed, quickly established fire control of all the roadways in the the advance, interdicted Russian reinforcements, hit fleeing Russians from the “deep flank” with forces in their rear, and thus destroyed a Russian army grouping in detail — all without producing a great deal of fire flares on FIRMS. They found success on the ground.
Coupled with the woeful support of depleted air regiments deterred by integrated Ukrainian air defense, the absence of fires in the east of Kharkiv Oblast is a striking contrast with the intensity of the Inhulets crossing by Ukraine, or their advance on the northern end of the right bank of the Dnipro, both of which were visible from space last week. Here is the link to the NASA site if you want to get your own picture of what isn’t happening in Kharkiv, and here is my analysis of Kherson from Monday for comparison.
Ukrainian public information sources have been disciplined in their news releases about both theaters. However, the near-complete operational security of Kherson, where very little information gets out over social media, is not matched in Kharkiv, where soldiers are free to stop and take photos that can be geolocated.
During one video released today, a Ukrainian native of the Kupyansk region complains about the damage to what had been a brand-new road surface under the tank treads of occupation. “We’ll fix it soon enough,” he vows. Russians never fortified the city, but they took the time to repaint the signs in the Russian tricolor. One wonders if the letters below are already repainted in horizon blue just a day after this photo was taken.
Nevertheless, even the Ukrainians are letting out positive “official” news about the Kharkiv offensive. They are managing expectations. Whereas the expected offensive continues to strangle a Russian army in relative slow silence, this unexpected offensive is hammering a Russian army to pieces quickly, out loud. As we see, the combination is having a shock effect on Russians.
A press release today mentioned “at least 15” instances of Russians trying to escape encirclement in civilian clothes. This is consistent with social media posts from the right bank of the Oskil River showing scores of prisoners at a time, including at least one two-star general. In this Twitter thread, Trent Telenko explains just how much of an intelligence coup this capture may actually represent.
Although I cannot account for every particular in his thread, Telenko is not wrong about the implications here. If Gen. Sychevoi was in fact captured alive, it suggests that his headquarters may have also been captured intact, in which case there will absolutely be a bonanza of intelligence information.
Document destruction takes time. It is difficult to make paper stacks burn completely unless you shred them first or control the burning process by hand. Machinery is needed to destroy hard drives. Thus efficient destruction is a complex activity that requires crew training, never a Russian strong point.
So yes, Ukraine likely has captured a trove of intelligence, some of which may be used to damage Russia for years to come even after this war.
As an inflection point, however, the importance of Kupyansk is not the captured intelligence or tanks, the destroyed weapons and killed or captured Russians of whatever rank, or the impressive swath of ground reclaimed in a five-day operation after such an immobile and protracted war of attrition.
The true importance of this little town is that by controlling the rail junction it lies on, Ukraine has added hundreds of miles of railroad distance to Russian logistics everywhere else in Ukraine. Russians cannot operate far from a railroad. All things needful for Russian armies this winter — food, fuel, ammunition — now deployed across the entire southern front of Ukraine, from Bakhmut to Kherson, will now have to travel much farther, jammed onto a smaller number of rail lines, that Ukraine can interdict with long-range weapons and partisans.
According to the meteorologists, in four weeks the temperature in eastern Ukraine should drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit (9 C). Russians are tough, but they are not supermen. Russian logistics are terrible on a good day and now they are only going to get worse everywhere that Russian armies are fighting. In time, they can all break, or be broken.
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