Why Has The Ukraine Counteroffensive Against Russia Been So Successful?

The element of surprise only plays a small part.
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visits the town of Izium recently liberated
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visits the town of Izium recently liberated
Handout . via Reuters

Ukraine has retaken huge amounts of land from Russian hands in just five days.

The news has turned the war on its head and made headlines around the world, as Russians have been pushed out of cities and villages in the north-east of Ukraine.

The invaded country claimed on Thursday that it has now seized an area larger than the Devon county in the UK, although the exact size of reclaimed land is yet to be verified by the West.

The Institute for the Study of War said last week that the counterattack has retaken more territory than Russia gained through all its operations since April.

Russia’s Defence Ministry has also admitted to abandoning the Kharkiv region by claiming it is “regrouping” its forces.

Still, Russia is now thought to occupy just a fifth of Ukraine. So how did Ukraine do it?

Element of surprise

Ukraine has been very tight-lipped about its plans throughout the entire counteroffensive, which is to be expected. It means Russia has not been able to anticipate any of its enemy’s next moves.

But Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy did not even confirm that the attack was going ahead last week in his nightly address, only saying: “If they want to survive, it is time for the Russian military to flee.”

This has also been a theme throughout the whole of Ukraine’s defence strategy.

After all, Moscow allegedly expected to take the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv within three days after it launched its invasion back in February, only for the Ukrainian forces to repel their opponents very effectively.

Russia then moved its focus to the east as president Vladimir Putin attempted to consolidate his power in Ukraine after being driven out of Kyiv.

But, not long after that, Ukraine is thought to have struck in an area which Russia long-thought was safely under its control – Crimea.

There were mysterious attacks within the southern Ukrainian peninsula, a territory Russia first seized in 2014. The explosions unnerved Russian forces, although Ukraine has not taken publicly taken responsibility for such strikes as Kyiv continues to hold its cards close to its chest.

PA Graphics via PA Graphics/Press Association Images

Russian forces were already struggling

Reports of low morale within Russian camps have been coming from British intelligence for months now, and it’s something Ukraine has partly credited for its recent success.

Ukraine’s deputy defence minister Volodymyr Havrylov told the BBC’s Today programme on Thursday that the speed of their operations in the east demonstrates “how fragile and inconfident [sic] the Russian military is”.

Havrylov claimed their opponents’ troops are “demoralised”, and seniors have “lost the logistics, lost the command and control structure”.

He continued: “That’s why the successes of our military sometimes was even higher than we expected.”

Soldiers from other Ukrainian territory now controlled by Russias have allegedly refused to fight back against Ukrainians as well, according to UK intelligence.

Havrylov also pointed out that weapons and equipment in working condition have been abandoned in fields by fleeing Russians, while Ukraine has seized plenty of “old, broken” equipment from them too. To top it all off, he claimed Ukraine has taken “lots of prisoners of war” as well.

“This is a demonstration of the degradation of the Russian military,” the Ukrainian politician said.

The interview came just after the UK’s Ministry of Defence claimed it will take years for Russia to rebuild its “severely weakened” forces.

Weapons from the west

The West has been sending both money and weapons to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion. As Havrylov told the Today programme, Ukraine has been able to prove that it can use such aid from the West efficiently through this counteroffensive – thereby strengthening Kyiv’s request for further assistance.

Ukraine was typically considered the underdog compared to Russia, especially in terms of military power, before the war. But, through Europe’s help, it has overturned this image completely.

Havrylov explained: “This war is about the technological superiority, and we’re building up superiority in military.”

The West is keen for a quick win for Ukraine too, especially as the invasion has triggered an energy crisis across Europe. Russia has been squeezing its natural gas and oil exports to the continent in retaliation for the its support for Ukraine, while Europe has been trying to wean itself off Moscow’s supply at the same time.

Mobilisation

Russia has not been able to mobilise its troops because it has not called the invasion a war, and therefore cannot introduce conscription.

According to Reuters news agency, anyone who calls it a war or an invasion have been prosecuted under laws passed earlier this year about discrediting the armed forces.

There are around two million men with military service within the past five years who could be mobilise as part of Russia’s reserves, but if Putin were to call them to action, it would be accepting the war effort was not going to plan.

This would be especially unfortunate for his reputation because the president presented it as a small mission, not an all-out war.

Elite troops have also been dispatched to deal with another offensive in the south too, which left the other Russian soldiers vulnerable in the east.

Despite these advances, Russia is still refusing to mobilise its troops.

As Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “At the moment no, there is no discussion of this.”

So, is Russia close to giving up?

No, but there are signs of frustration emerging from even the most pro-war factions of the Russian population. Pundits on Kremlin state TV are pointing out that Russia needs to at the very least change its strategy.

A ferocious return attack is anticipated too. In recent days, the Kremlin has bombed a major dam, prompting flooding fears, and attacked the power grid in Kharkiv. This could indicate that Russia is looking to implement heating and electricity outages for Ukraine over the winter – potentially prompting a fresh wave of refugees fleeing the country.

Right now, Ukraine is in a very strong position ahead of the winter, especially as active warfare is likely to slow down due to the the grim weather.

Putin is meeting with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping soon as well, prompting speculation that he might lean on the cordial relations between their countries to help prop up his war effort.

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