Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 551, 15 September 2022

Ukraine: Counteroffensive in Kharkiv and Kherson
Padmashree Anandhan

In the news
On 8 September, Ukraine Armed Forces Commander General Valerii Zaluzhnyi reported on the Ukraine counteroffensive in the northeast of Kharkiv where the forces had advanced 50 kilometres into the Russian-controlled area.

On 10 September, the Russian Defence Ministry brief on the special military operation in Ukraine stated: “an operation was carried out to curtail and organize the transfer of the Izyum-Balakley group of troops to the territory of the Donetsk People's Republic.”

On 11 September, “The Armed Forces of Ukraine continue to liberate territories occupied by Russia. Since the beginning of September, more than 3,000 sq km have been returned.”

On 13 September, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy claimed that close to 8000 sq km were reclaimed by the Ukraine forces in the northeastern region of Kharkiv, and “stabilization measures” have half progressed. US President Joe Biden, when questioned about it, said: “It is clear the Ukrainians have made significant progress. But I think it's going to be a long haul.”

Issues at large
First, Ukraine’s counteroffensive. Eastern and Southern Ukraine are the key regions of the counteroffensive, with the offensive focused on the northeast, southeast of Kharkiv, Izyum-Slovyansk, Kupiansk in Eastern Ukraine, and northwest Kherson in the south. Although Ukraine has captured close to 2000 sq km this week, it had advanced just about 150 sq km in July, and 400 sq km in August, which gives rise to speculation. As per the daily reports from the Institute for the Study of War, the forward position of Russia appears to have receded and Ukraine, with its continued strong counteroffensive on the front lines, has been able to recapture the lost territories targeting Russia’s forces, logistics, and ground level communication systems by strategically deploying West-made weapons in its operations. Another possible reason for Ukraine’s success in the counteroffensive can be the dual strike in eastern and southern Ukraine where Russia is perceived to face a resource concentration dilemma. 

Second, Russia’s withdrawal. Kharkiv (shelled down in May) and Kherson (occupied since February) are now witnessing the withdrawal of Russian forces, a limited war, and a weaker military. Such sudden movements indicate two possibilities. One, Russia is unable to sustain the supply of its military weapons and personnel in Ukraine’s eastern and southern counteroffensives. Two, Russia is focused on its larger objective of annexing the Donbas region by seizing Luhansk and Donetsk cities. This can be achieved only by cutting down on unnecessary military operations and expenditures.

Third, geographic significance. Kharkiv is the second largest Ukrainian city and serves as its major communications centre. With its major large train junctions, truck highway systems, and highways, it connects Russia with Kyiv, western Ukraine, Zaphorzhzhia, Crimea, and the Caucasus. Kherson, on the other hand, serves as a fortress to the Black Sea and was once a Russian naval base. It holds the strategic port on the west bank of the Dnieper River which controls the passage to Crimea and has become a major industrial area in shipbuilding, oil refining, and cotton-textile manufacturing.  However, it is Donbas, compared to Kharkiv and Kherson, that has a large proportion of the population speaking Russian and are ethnically Russian. A similar situation ensues in Zaporizhzhia, Kharkiv, and Odesa, but only in Crimea, do ethnic Russians have a majority. Therefore, Russia’s withdrawal does mean letting go of the resources and industrial rich zone in exchange for the Russian-majority population in Donbas.

In perspective
First, Ukraine is regaining territory. Since the start of the war, Ukraine was able to only put a strong defence against Russia in the Luhansk and Donetsk battle, with few limited victories in Kyiv, taking down a Maersk ship, and signing a grain deal. On the ground, Russia has held the upper hand in the war of attrition, whereas Ukraine, despite the use of Western weaponry was able to reclaim only a few areas. Therefore, Russian troop withdrawal is a sign of Ukraine advancing in the war. However, the question remains if it can re-capture any more of the Russian-occupied territory.

Second, Kremlin’s no care attitude. With Ukraine boasting itself on one side over wins in a counteroffensive, the Russian military and media have kept maintained silence. On the ground, to achieve Russia’s larger objective of annexing the Donbas region, Izyum is the only hurdle that stands. Izyum serves as an entry axis into Donetsk and Luhansk and has emerged as an aggressive battle zone along with the Kharkiv offensive. And on the diplomatic front, Europe’s energy dependency and the grain deal will still be two trump cards for Russia to play.

Third, the future of western military support to Ukraine. Thus far the US has provided more than USD 15 billion, followed by Poland, the UK, Germany, and other EU member states who are committed to providing USD 0.25 billion to two billion each by incorporating the increase in their respective military budgets. With Europe heading into an energy crisis along with spiralling inflation, as a regional block and as individual member states there is likely to be a rethink of their continued military support to Ukraine. Germany, for instance, has already been frequently blamed by Ukraine for not providing more weapons. Europe’s energy affordability and measures to control inflation will be the determining factors that will shape future military aid to Ukraine. 

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