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Ukraine has made stunning advances in a rapid counter-offensive that has caught the Kremlin by surprise, with intelligence experts hailing a ‘major turning point’ in the six-month war.
It has led to the recapture of several key towns in the east as Vladimir Putin’s forces fled in disarray from a collapsing frontline.
The speed of advance, with photographs shared by Kyiv officials of their troops raising the Ukrainian flag in liberated towns after advancing more than 30 miles, has sparked open talk in Moscow that their invasion will end in humiliating defeat.
Towns entered by Ukrainian troops include Kupiansk, a key rail centre whose loss would severely hinder Russian supply lines. There are also reports of Putin’s troops and collaborators fleeing Izyum, another crucial logistics hub for the invasion.
The Ukrainian advance has been so swift that fleeing Russian troops have left behind a logistics bonanza of ammunition, equipment and most of all seemingly fully-functioning heavy weapons, of the sort that Kyiv has been crying out for from its Western partners for months.
The offensive south of Kharkiv, which began last Tuesday, took the thinly defended Russian lines by surprise, leading to Western intelligence agencies speaking of mass retreats, mass surrenders and mass casualties that the Russian Ministry of Defence has dressed up as a ‘re-grouping.’
Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Saturday that troops fleeing from the Balakliya and Izyum areas would be regrouped to Ukraine’s occupied Donetsk region.
Ukrainian soldiers hold a flag at a rooftop in Kupiansk as their lightning offensive causes Russian lines to collapse
Ukrainian solders pose for a photo beneath the sign of Izium, a key logistics hub and prize capture
Ukrainian service members pose for in the recently liberated settlement of Vasylenkove in the Kharkiv region
Destroyed armored vehicles litter the road in Balakliya, Kharkiv region after Ukrainian forces smashed through Russian lines
Ukrainian servicemen raises his fist aloft in victory as his unit drives near Bakhmut in the Donetsk region
The blue patch represents almost a thousand square miles of territory liberated by Ukraine, and shows the counteroffensive taking aim at Limán and Lysychansk
Zelensky hail’s Russia’s decision to flee
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said that Russian forces were making ‘a good decision’ in fleeing a counter-offensive by his country that has made significant gains in the east and south.
Mr Zelensky’s comments, in a video released by his office, came hours after Moscow said it was pulling back troops in part of the Kharkiv region, where Ukrainian forces have taken control of substantial territory in recent days.
‘The Russian army in these days is showing the best that it can do – showing its back,’ the president said.
‘And, of course, it’s a good decision for them to run.’
Natalia Popova, adviser to the head of Kharkiv regional council, shared images on social media of Ukrainian troops holding their flag in front of Kupiansk city hall with a crumpled Russian flag at their feet.
The town was seized by Russia within days of their invasion in February. ‘Kupiansk is Ukraine. Glory to the armed forces of Ukraine,’ wrote Popova.
Russian military journalists yesterday reported that their troops fled Izyum on the only remaining road in another sign of the apparent rout, which has seen Putin’s forces lose control of an estimated 3,000 square kilometres in days.
The dramatic advances follow President Volodymyr Zelensky’s declaration last Friday night that 30 settlements had been liberated in Kharkiv region over the past few days as his forces sliced through a weak spot in Russian lines.
The capture of Kupiansk, if confirmed, is a huge setback for Putin that potentially leaves up to 10,000 Kremlin troops cut off from supplies. Abandoned boxes of ammunition in the town underlined the speed of their retreat.
The latest reports indicate that the town of Limán fell to Ukrainian liberators with little resistance.
It is located just 25 miles from the twin cities of Lysychnask and Severodonetsk that fell to Russian forces at the start of July after a long and grinding battle.
There are even unconfirmed reports of Ukrainian forces entering Donetsk international airport, the subject of two separate battles between Ukrainian and pro-Moscow forces in 2014 and 2015.
The airport has been in rebel-held hands for over eight years, and its return to Ukrainian control would signal Kyiv’s first recovery of territory lost that pre-dates Putin’s Feb 24 invasion.
This morning, Kyiv soldiers were pictured with their own nation’s flag as they claim to have retaken Kupyansk – something Russia disputes
A commanding officer of an anti-air unit of Ukraine’s Armed Forces loads a rocket launcher in his SUV as they prepare to support infantry in liberating Balakliya in eastern Ukraine on Thursday, Sept 8
A Russian tank destroyed by Ukrainian forces as they moved to recapture Balakliya earlier in the week
Denis Pushilin, the head of the separatist Donestk People’s Republic, reported on the fighting amid rumours that he had fled Donetsk.
The situation in Limán ‘remains quite difficult,’ he said in a video post from a moving car. ‘Just like a number of other locations in the north of the republic.’
And Serhiy Haidai, the Russia-installed governor of the Luhansk region, said that Ukrainian units had even reached the outskirts of Lysychansk itself.
‘Lysychnask, a great Ukrainian city. There will be a lot of reconstruction work,’ he said in a cryptic message.
In Hrakove, one of the recaptured villages, eyewitness told of seeing burned-out military vehicles bearing the hated ‘Z’ symbol of the Kremlin invasion.
There was also more evidence of Russian atrocities. One local man disclosed that the occupiers forced him to bury two bodies at gunpoint. He then led police to a grave that contained a pair of corpses showing signs of torture.
Maria Avdeeva, a security analyst who visited Hrakove after it was liberated three days ago, told The Mail on Sunday that the 50 remaining residents were in ‘very bad condition’ after spending six months ‘terrified’ while hiding in basements. ‘They could hear the generators providing electricity for the Russians but they had no power, no phone connection, their village is almost totally destroyed and they have had no idea what has been happening.’
A destroyed car bearing the Russian Z marking is seen in the village of Hrakove, liberated by Ukrainian forces just days earlier on September 9
A local man helps authorities exhume two bodies from a grave as part of a war crimes investigation in a village liberated by Ukrainian forces just days earlier
Why has Ukraine’s offensive been so successful?
After seven months of repelling Russian offensives to a stalemate, what explains Ukraine’s sudden, tumultuous success on the attack?
It appears to be the product of a brilliant strategy concocted by Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi, who organised the defence of Kyiv.
The first phase was to lure Russian troops to the southern Kherson region by announcing a forthcoming counteroffensive to recapture the regional capital.
‘[It] was a big special disinformation operation,’ said Taras Berezovets, press officer for the Bohun brigade of Ukraine’s special forces.
‘Meanwhile [our] guys in Kharkiv were given the best of western weapons, mostly American,’ he said.
Among these were US-supplied HARM missiles, which were designed to take out Russian air defence radars, paving the way for Ukrainian air support.
Once the Russians had massed around 30,000 troops around Kherson to ward off the counterattack, precision missiles took out the fixed bridges along the Russians’ rear over the Dnipro River, leaving them effectively stranded.
This left Russian lines in the Kharkiv region poorly defended and without many strategic reserves to plug any holes if the Ukrainians broke through, which they did.
The Ukrainians amassed tanks in the Kharkiv region, which Russian commanders took no notice of, and then launched a classic lightning attack to smash through Russian lines.
But to really explain why the Russian lines collapsed so spectacularly, one has to look at the quality of the troops manning them.
It is reported that the lines around Kharkiv were defended by ‘slave soldiers’ forcibly conscripted within the breakaway DPR with very little will to fight.
These solders reportedly abandoned their posts and their equipment to flee, some apparently disguising themselves as civilians and the Ukrainian offensive becoming more of a manhunt.
There are reports of hundreds killed and thousands taken prisoner by the Ukrainians.
And finally, the Russian army has long been hollowed out by corruption at every level, which leaves its equipment unmaintained, its troops poorly equipped and morale at rock bottom.
Ukraine’s unexpected advance in the east came as a surprise as it is just one week since Kyiv announced the start of a long-awaited counter-attack to reclaim Russian-occupied terrain hundreds of kilometres away at the opposite end of the battlefront in Kherson in the south.
Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at St Andrews University, said Kyiv has exploited Russia’s movement of its strongest forces to shore up defences in Kherson. ‘This is big,’ he said. ‘Once troops start being pushed back, then it can be hard to stop. If Russia cannot mobilise more forces, they are in serious trouble.’
Even one Russia-appointed stooge official in the Kharkiv region, Vitaly Ganchev, admitted: ‘The very fact of a breach of our defences is already a substantial victory for the Ukrainian armed forces.’
Earlier Saturday, the British Ministry of Defence told reporters that Russian forces were likely taken by surprise by the speed, scale and ferocity of the Ukrainian assault.
‘The sector was only lightly held and Ukrainian units have captured or surrounded several towns,’ the British military said, adding that the loss of Kupiansk would greatly affect Russian supply lines.
The Institute for the Study of War, an influential US-based think-tank, said it appeared that ‘disorganised Russian forces [were] caught in the rapid Ukrainian advance.’ They cited social media images of apparent Russian prisoners seized in the advance around Izyum and surrounding towns.
The Institute for the Study of War said Kupiansk’s recapture would ‘severely degrade’ Russian ground lines of communication.
Russian social-media channels published footage of traffic jams formed by cars fleeing the fighting, admitting they included panicking collaborators who feared reprisals from Ukrainian police or partisans. In another setback for Putin, pictures emerged last week of an officer on his knees after being captured.
He is thought to be Lieutenant General Andrei Sychevoi, the highest-ranking Russian officer taken prisoner since the Second World War. Oleksandr V Danylyuk, an intelligence expert and head of the Centre for Defence Reforms think-tank, said: ‘We are witnessing a major turning point. You can expect some more surprises soon.’
Moscow’s defence ministry published video footage that purported to show reinforcement troops rushing towards the Kharkiv region. But there is increasing dissent from prominent pro-war and nationalist figures, often with military links, who accuse defence chiefs of bungling the invasion.
These include the influential Igor Girkin, a former intelligence colonel involved in the pro-Russian separatist insurgency in Donbas eight years ago, who cited military sources in discussing the ‘outstanding audacity’ of Ukrainian attacks.
He has predicted the war will end with the ‘complete defeat’ of Russia.