Ukrainian Counteroffensive: The Humiliation of Goliath: What the Withdrawal of Russian Troops from the Kharkiv Region Could Mean

When Russian tanks rolled across the neighboring country's border on February 24, military experts predicted almost in unison: Ukraine won't last long.

Ukrainian Counteroffensive: The Humiliation of Goliath: What the Withdrawal of Russian Troops from the Kharkiv Region Could Mean

When Russian tanks rolled across the neighboring country's border on February 24, military experts predicted almost in unison: Ukraine won't last long. Of course, this assumption was not made out of thin air – after all, the roles of David and Goliath were clearly assigned. The Kremlin was also confident of victory, taking Kiev by storm was firmly planned.

What happened instead in the following weeks and months is an unparalleled bloody ups and downs. Now, 200 days after the start of the "special military operations," as the Kremlin goes on to call the brutal attack, the word can be heard again: victory.

The withdrawal of the Russian units from the Kharkiv region on Saturday feeds the hope, if at all, that the Ukrainians could do more than just hold out, defend themselves, delay the inevitable. So is there still hope for the defenders, and thus for the West, that Putin's invasion will fall on his feet far more painfully than ever thought?

It was the "biggest counteroffensive since World War II," tweeted John Spencer of the US Military Academy's Modern War Institute in Westpoint. "Ukraine will win," he is certain. In fact, Kyiv has evidently switched from defense to attack with tremendous success in a short space of time. According to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, around 2,000 square kilometers of Russian-held territory in the north-east of the country have been cleared in the past ten days. The US think tank "Institute for the Study of War" paints an even more impressive picture: since September 6 alone, Ukrainian forces are said to have captured more than 3,000 square kilometers - more than the Russians in all their operations since April combined. In some places, the Ukrainians advanced as far as 70 kilometers behind the front line.

The satisfaction in the capital was correspondingly high when the invaders withdrew from strategically important cities like Isjum on Saturday. "Occupiers have no place in Ukraine and will not have one," Zelensky said in his daily video address. In the Kremlin, however, the meaningful term retreat is not mentioned. Instead, Moscow spoke of a "regrouping" of the units in order to reinforce units in the neighboring Donetsk region. Soft talk at the highest level. The words of Vitaly Gantchev, head of the Kremlin's military administration in Kharkiv, speak volumes. He called on all residents of the region to flee: "I again recommend all residents of the Kharkiv region to leave the area to protect their lives and health," he said, according to the Russian news agency TASS.

But what do the recent successes of Ukrainian troops really mean? Do they really mark a milestone on the way to some kind of victory for Ukraine?

For weeks it looked as if a war of attrition was brewing, as entrenched as the front lines seemed. Earlier this month, however, the Ukrainians put an end to this perceived stalemate - at a speed that few would have dreamed of.

And so, from a Russian perspective, the withdrawal on Saturday really came at the last minute. With their displacement from the small town of Kupyansk, more than 10,000 soldiers would have been threatened with encirclement. Already this loss of the important junction was a heavy blow for the invaders, who are to a large extent dependent on supplies by rail.

The fact that it could come to this at all is not least due to an almost perfectly staged deception maneuver by the Ukrainian general staff, as the "Guardian" reports. On August 29, the military leadership announced a broad-based offensive in the south. A plausible goal, considering how important the port city of Kherson is for supplying the annexed Crimea and that, as "Al Jazeera" notes, it could be an ideal starting point for the further push south - not to mention the symbolic importance. Cherson was one of the first major cities the attackers took.

"It was a big special disinformation operation," Ukrainian special forces press officer Taras Berezovets told the British newspaper. Believing that Ukrainians would concentrate on the Kherson region, the Kremlin moved troops and heavy artillery to the south of the country. Like "waving at an angry, incompetent bull with a red cape," as US magazine The Atlantic aptly put it. Natalia Humeniuk, a spokeswoman for the Ukrainian Southern Command, insisted on a "regime of silence," the Guardian further reports. In the meantime, journalists were even forbidden to travel to the front near Cherson. According to Berezovets, that was also part of the strategy to draw media attention to the south. "Meanwhile, [our] boys in Kharkiv have been equipped with the best Western weapons, especially American ones," the officer said. When the actual advance began in the north-east instead, the invaders were completely taken by surprise. "The Russians had no idea what was going on."

And Putin? So far, he has been wrapped in an eloquent silence. As the US news magazine "Politico" reports, the Kremlin chief took part in the inauguration of a Ferris wheel on Saturday, although the defeat (of course not called that) also reached the Russian state media. In his speech on the occasion of the capital's 875th birthday, he did not address the disappointing developments at the front from a Russian point of view, to put it mildly. Instead, he was happy about the attraction: "It is very important that people have the opportunity to relax with their family and friends," he said, according to the Russian news agency Tass.

Not everyone is as relaxed as the supreme commander about the recent defeat. In politics, critical voices are being raised, albeit on a small scale. In Saint Petersburg city deputies advised the State Duma , even .

In the meantime, something like criticism from the Russian military experts, who have been desperately loyal to date, can even be heard. According to Politico, Daniil Bezsonov, deputy information minister of the Donetsk People's Republic, which is supported by Moscow, allowed himself to be carried away into criticizing the military leadership after the troops withdrew from Izyum. There was "of course ... the result of mistakes by the high command". Igor Girkin, one of the former leaders of the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, even goes a step further. The Russian army is "facing an acute operational crisis in a broad sector of the front, which has already escalated to a major defeat."

As the "New York Times" reports, pro-Russian military bloggers are now also taking to the barricades. After the shutdown of Instagram and Facebook and the ubiquitous propaganda show on state TV, Telegram is the only freely accessible opinion platform in the country. Pro-war bloggers, some stationed at the front at the behest of the Kremlin, are comparatively "independent". One of these well-known war influencers with 2.3 million followers said on Friday that the population would soon no longer believe the Russian military leadership if they continued to downplay the defeats. But that doesn't detract from the obvious humiliation of the self-proclaimed Goliath.

Now one does not like to play the grouch. And indeed, the recent achievements of the Ukrainian Armed Forces are unprecedented.

However, the growing murmur of "victory" should be treated with extreme caution. Yes, recapturing the Kharkiv region could well be a turning point in this war. But in the past 200 days, hope has proven to be a deceptive luxury. After the Russians unexpectedly withdrew from the Kyiv region in April, the media (including the stern) sensed a milestone on the way to serious peace talks.

Compared to April, however, the scales have tipped in favor of the defenders, the situation is only comparable to a limited extent. Basically, the Ukrainian armed forces are no longer that – defenders. The army is significantly better equipped - thanks to constant investments from the West, above all from the USA. The rapid advance as such also literally fuels the machinery. As the "Spiegel" reports with reference to the military blog "Oryx", 15 undamaged Russian tanks and dozens of troop transporters have fallen into the hands of the Ukrainians in the past few days.

On the other hand, the repeatedly discussed falling Russian morale and the obviously sometimes desolate state of the army contribute to the shifted balance of power. Nevertheless, Russia continues to control large parts of the country - including the important cities of Cherson and Mariupol and of course the land bridge to Crimea, which was annexed by Putin in 2014. According to the "Washington Post", parts of the Ukrainian leadership are also stepping on the euphoria brakes. According to Defense Minister Oleksiy Resnikov, his country is still far from being able to celebrate a triumph. "For me, a sign of victory is when I board a plane in Kharkiv and land in Mariupol," he said at a conference in Kyiv on Saturday.

Rob Lee, a military analyst at the US Foreign Policy Research Institute, takes a similar view. He rates Ukraine's recent successes as "a significant event," according to the US newspaper. But that doesn't mean "that Russia will be expelled from Ukraine in the foreseeable future." However, the overall situation speaks for Ukraine, "especially in the medium term." Nevertheless, the New York Times writes, military experts are now warning that the rapid advance in the north could overwhelm the soldiers and make them vulnerable to counterattacks.The Russian military said it had already covered the hasty retreat from Izyum with barrage. In the south, in the Cherson region, the Ukrainian units are likely to have a much harder time, where the risk of a war of attrition is much greater.

In the coming weeks, the question of whether an armistice will be put on the negotiating table (which of course would have to be arranged first) will also be of interest. In July, the Ukrainian chief negotiator, David Arakhamija, announced in an interview with the US broadcaster "Voice of America" ​​that he wanted to start peace talks with Moscow at the end of August at the earliest - hopefully then Kyiv would be in a better negotiating position. In the end, it will be decisive who approaches whom.

At the time, Putin apparently did not see himself in a position to take the first step. Even today, losing face would be extremely dangerous for him if he had to admit his catastrophic war record: Instead of a pushed back NATO, the military alliance has two new members and a border that is twice as long. Instead of a demilitarized Ukraine, the neighboring country was armed with billions. After all: "Russia does not reject negotiations with Ukraine, but the longer the process is delayed, the more difficult it becomes to reach an agreement," said Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on state television on Sunday.

But for the time being it will probably stay with death. Should the Ukrainian offensive in the south bear similar fruit, the Kremlin chief would have little choice in the medium term but at least stretching out his little finger. The question is whether Kyiv is enough – or whether it wants to rip off the whole hand. It would be understandable.

Sources: "Al Jazeera"; "The Guardians"; "politico"; "Washington Post"; "New York Times"; "Mirror"; with dpa

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