Russia suffers 'stunning' defeat in Kharkiv

·6 min read

As of 48 hours ago, a conservative estimate of the land Ukraine’s military had recaptured from Russian forces in the northeast region surrounding the city of Kharkiv was 2,500 square kilometers. On Monday, Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister asserted in a Facebook post that the stretch was closer to 6,000 square kilometers.

The abrupt turnaround is not the result of intense fighting but rather the absence of it. The Russians have simply run away, according to military sources in Kyiv, allowing the Ukrainians to roll in at their leisure.

According to an order handed down from Moscow to Russian forces in the area in and around Kharkiv, the withdrawal is simply a “regrouping operation.” That phrase is widely viewed as a euphemism for a defeat that has been increasingly difficult to disguise as details of Russia’s moves in recent days have been meticulously documented in the international press and on social media, including among hardline Russian nationalists and military analysts.

A Ukrainian soldier passes by a Russian tank
A Ukrainian soldier checks a Russian tank damaged in a battle in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine, Sept. 11. (AP)

In truth, there appears to have been nothing “operational” about this withdrawal. Russian soldiers fled on bicycles and in cars stolen at gunpoint from Ukrainian villagers, according to Ukrainian eyewitnesses interviewed by the Washington Post. They stripped off their uniforms and put on civilian clothes to evade Ukrainian reconnaissance drones, no doubt because some retreating forces were suffering heavy losses from Ukrainian firepower. There were also reports of trapped Russian soldiers who radioed to their commanding officers begging for rescue, which never came.

There is little dispute about how far Ukrainian troops have advanced in recent days, with both Ukrainian and Russian sources agreeing that the remnants of the Russian army in Kharkiv oblast have now been pushed back across the border into Russia. At least one pro-Russian Telegram channel suggested the Ukrainians even penetrated the border, allegedly dispatching a raiding party into Belgorod, the oblast directly north of Kharkiv, in armored vehicles before shooting up a settlement there, stealing “several pieces of equipment,” including mortars and automatic grenade launchers. (Yahoo News cannot independently verify this claim.)

The sheer volume of Russian hardware left behind also attests to a lack of planning on Moscow’s part. Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs, quipped about the generosity of “Russian lend lease” of military equipment. One verified video posted on Sep. 11 shows two Russian tanks, a T-80BVM and a T-72B3, simply abandoned in Izyum, a central logistical hub for the invaders, in seemingly perfect condition. The T-80BVM, one of Russia’s most recent models of tank, only entered into service in 2017. A photograph of it circulated on Russian social media on Sep. 9; but two days later, as one online weapons tracker pointed out, the tank was in the exact same spot, suggesting it hadn’t been operated at all before the Ukrainian blitzkrieg.

Even Ukrainian tractors – a much-memed symbol of the country's plucky resistance during the battle of Kyiv – have made cameo appearances in Kharkiv, hauling off a purloined Russian tank in one clip posted to social media.

“Just from what’s visually confirmed, the Ukrainians have taken enough armor off the Russians – tanks, combat vehicles and artillery – to be able to outfit multiple brigades,” Joel Rayburn, a retired Army colonel and the former U.S. special envoy to Syria, told Yahoo News. “So where Russia’s inventory ledger bleeds red, the Ukrainians’ got a whole lot blacker.”

According to Jakub Janovsky, an open-source compiler of Russian equipment losses for the Oryx blog, “Russia has lost around 400 pieces of heavy equipment in just the last seven days, including over 70 tanks and 200 other armored vehicles — almost all of it in Kharkiv Oblast. The haul appears to be large enough to potentially improve Ukrainian chances in future offensives.”

One of those is already underway in Ukraine’s south in the Kherson region. This campaign, telegraphed for months by Kyiv, got underway two weeks ago. Analysts now argue that it was at least a partial deception to hoodwink the Russians: “It resulted from a patient military buildup, excellent operational security, and, maybe most important, the diversion of some of the Russian army’s most powerful units from Kharkiv Oblast itself,” Phillips Payson O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews, wrote in the Atlantic. Yet even here Ukraine says it’s making gradual progress despite the large Russian garrison on the west of the Dnipro River.

Ukrainian flag
Ukrainian flag waves after the nation's army liberated the town of Balakliya on Sunday. (Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

On Monday, the Ukrainians once again struck the Antonovsky Bridge, the main road link across that waterway, reminding Russian troops there that one of their arteries of potential escape to the east is in the sights of Ukrainian artillery. Natalia Humenyuk, head of the press center of the South Operational Command, claimed Monday that Kyiv has liberated 500 square kilometers [about 190 square miles] of territory, killed more than 1,800 Russian soldiers and destroyed “more than 500 vehicles and armored vehicles, 120 tanks, two jets, two helicopters and about 10 cruise missiles.”

It is more difficult, however, to verify events in Kherson than in Kharkiv owing to an ongoing Ukrainian media blackout in the south. But the Biden administration remains bullish on Kyiv’s prospects for further battlefield victories. Asked today by a reporter if the offensive in Ukraine can be sustained, President Biden, with his back turned, gave a thumbs up.

One senior U.S. official characterized Russia’s loss in the east as “stunning,” and told Yahoo News: “Ukrainian commanders have proven savvier and their forces more motivated than Russia’s overstretched and under-equipped units. It also proves that Western military hardware can tilt the battlefield in Ukraine’s favor, and eventually turn the tide of this war.”

Ukrainian service members prepare to transport a Russian tank captured during a counteroffensive operation
Ukrainian service members prepare to transport a Russian tank captured during a counteroffensive operation. (Press service of the commander in chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine/Handout via Reuters)

Already there are cracks showing in Russia’s matrix of propaganda. Commentators on state television are beginning to grudgingly accept a less optimistic version of how the war is progressing.

“We’re now at the point when we have to understand it is impossible to defeat Ukraine using [current] resources and colonial war methods,” former State Duma Deputy Boris Nadezhdin acknowledged yesterday in an appearance on NTV.

Asked if by this he advocated mass mobilization in Russia in order to bolster ground forces in Ukraine, something Vladimir Putin has been reluctant to implement, Nadezhdin replied that, on the contrary, what he wanted was “peace talks” to end the war.