Ukraine Advances in the East, Spoiling Russian Annexation Plans
Success in Kherson begets success near Kharkiv
Ukraine is winning a war of attrition. Despite their motto that Russian-occupied territories “are Ukraine,” however, the attrition strategy in Kyiv is not designed to win back territorial objectives.
Instead, it is aimed at breaking the Russian Army. There are signs that this may be working, that the operational effects of entrapment and reduction of the Russian force in Kherson Oblast are paralyzed, depleted, and poorly-led Russian forces elsewhere.
Polemology Positions is a reader-supported publication. To support my work, please subscribe for just $5 a month
The rhythm of Ukrainian operations has been consistent. It is visible in the execution of their fire plans. Today, Ukrainian troops and tanks appeared in Balakliya, a small town on a rail junction near Izyum in the contested east (see above photo). Ukrainian long-range fires struck the local ammunition dump and headquarters on Day 1, then the bridges on Day 2, followed by an advance this morning, as if by clockwork.
Fog of war is always a problem, but we can see that something has definitely happened in Balakliya. Not only are locals posting photos of Ukrainian troops on social media (see above), Russian Telegrammers are reporting the loss of the town and saying that higher command had been warned that Ukrainian forces were building up in the area over recent days, but no countermeasures were taken.
Russians have reportedly withdrawn a few kilometers away from the town. Their normal doctrine would now be to fling as much artillery fire as they can at Balakliya and organize a counterattack. A clock is also ticking on the next Ukrainian move. The enemy always gets a vote. Whether Russia hits back, or Ukraine retains the initiative to preempt them, is an open question given the total absence of Russian command response to a local threat building up over more than a week.
There are only two good explanations for being surprised. Either Russian generals are even more incompetent than anyone ever realized, and their staff system is entirely broken, especially their intelligence, or there are simply no Russian reserves left anywhere near Izyum. Of course, both can also be true at the same time.
With the core of Russian combat manpower being squeezed in Kherson, the combination of accurate deep fires, local air superiority, and efficient logistics make Ukraine a threat anywhere else, and Russia seems unable to counter them.So while Balakliya is not the most significant objective in Kharkiv Oblast, it could be a harbinger of things to come.
Whatever happens next in this one little town, the whole operation used vastly less explosive firepower than similar Russian attacks have employed for months in this region, yet it was far more successful.
If Ukraine replicated these tactics at scale, the entire fight would be this one-sided. However, they don’t have to be this good everywhere all at once — just in the places where it hurts Russia most, more and more, bit by bit, until they win.
By contrast, Russian attacks in the east had declined in scope and success recently. According to last night’s report from the Institute for the Study of War, “Russian forces did not conduct any confirmed ground attacks along the Izyum-Slovyansk line” at all yesterday.
The effects on Russian annexation plans are already apparent:
These counteroffensive actions also have intentional radiating effects on Russian occupation authorities. The head of the Kherson Oblast occupation regime, Kirill Stremousov, told Russian media outlet TASS that his administration has paused annexation referendum plans in Kherson Oblast due to “security” concerns. The Ukrainian Resistance Center similarly reported that Russian occupation authorities are abandoning plans for referenda due to the ongoing counteroffensive. Shortly after TASS published his comment, Stremousov posted on Telegram denying he called for a pause because his administration had never set an official date for the referendum. Both of Stremousov’s statements indicate a high level of disorganization within occupation regimes that is likely being exacerbated by the effects of the counteroffensive. Ukrainian forces intend to slowly chip away at both Russian tactical and operational level capabilities in Kherson Oblast, and in doing so will likely have significant impacts on the administrative and bureaucratic capabilities of occupation officials.
The war is by no means over. However, even a Potemkin village of a victory is increasingly out of Vladimir Putin’s reach. Instead of risking his rule by calling for wartime mobilization, Putin is already starting to blame his army for his own strategic errors. He knows he is losing this war. He simply assumes that he can get Russians to blame someone else for his defeat.
Polemology Positions is a reader-supported publication. To support my work, subscribe for just $5 a month.