Military Affairs Strategic Thinking

Analysis of the offensive near Kharkiv. What factors were behind Ukrainian success?

Matej Rafael Riško

Ukrainian forces gained the initiative and successfully carried out a counter-offensive in eastern Kharkiv. Its implementation is important in terms of disrupting the Russian ability to realistically pursue offensive combat activity in the medium term without mobilisation. In addition to the indisputable military success, the significance of the offensive lies primarily in the demonstration of Ukrainian capabilities internally – towards the domestic population, and also externally, towards the countries supporting Ukraine. The result is thus a strengthening of the cohesion of one’s own society and the army and at the same time a demonstration that external military support of Ukraine makes sense and brings results.

There are several reasons to see the whole operation in the Kharkiv region as a development connected with the events on the Kherson front. Roughly three weeks before the launch of the offensive near Kharkiv in north-eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian military and political leadership emphasized a counteroffensive against the Russian bridgehead on the right bank of the Dnieper in the Kherson area. Systematic rocket artillery attacks on ground lines of communication (GLOC), especially bridges, together with a limited attack on Russian troops, forced Russia to strengthen this area at the cost of weakening other parts of the front. Nevertheless, the operation cannot be considered purely as PSYOP, that is, a psychological operation aimed at influencing the emotions and thinking of the enemy. For it to be believable, it was necessary to create conditions that would correspond to the preparation of a large-scale operation in Kherson, and it is likely that the Ukrainian command will later want to make use of this preparation.

The offensive itself had the character of modern manoeuvre warfare. The initial impetus for the offensive came apparently from reconnaissance by fire. However, the possible axis of the advance to Izjum was already discussed several weeks before. The causes of the extremely rapid advance and the disintegration of the front can be characterized primarily by six variables. The underarmed and undersized Russian forces in the area, the problem of morale and low rotation of Russian forces and effective PSYOPS, the speed of the offensive which did not give time to organize an effective defence, the scale of the breakthrough, which prevented effective counterattacks, the effective use of internal lines of communication by the Ukrainians, and the collapse of the command system. 

The operation was conducted as a multi-domain synchronous operation on the ground, in the air and in information space. The success of the offensive can be evaluated precisely on the basis of the successful interconnection of the operational domains. Information dominance and the ability to dominate the operation cycle emerged as the key factors.

Ukraine’s initial breaking of Russian defence lines in the area appears to be interesting. Apparently, it occurred in several sections simultaneously. The defensive lines were made up of relatively few Russian troops, which were, moreover, relatively lightly armed, and a large part of the defence rested on the units of the separatist republics, whose level of training and equipment is generally lower than the average of the invading Russian army in Ukraine. From the available records, it appears that the defensive positions were qualitatively and quantitatively undersized, and the second and third lines were already characterized by higher dispersion of deployed units. The overall dispersion of Russian forces in the area was above average. At the same time, however, these units suffered from a shortage of infantry, which is a basic problem of the Russian concept of the tactical battalion group (BTG). Related to this is the lack of rotation and ignoring the problem of resupply.

The units formed by the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, which formed a large part of the forces holding the defensive lines in the area, were not being replenished due to the fact that a large part of the forces recruited from the population of the DNR and LNR is already deployed at the frontline and the Russian command does not show a high willingness to support these units. In the case of Russian units, the situation is similar, but there is a preference and at least a partial effort at replenishment. Nevertheless, this has shown to be rather unsuccessful. The low rotation of forces has become a significant factor. Some of the troops have apparently been in the field without rotation for six months, which has a negative effect on the psychology and willingness to conduct a decisive and effective defence. As a result, these forces were therefore less resistant to conventional and psychological operations conducted by Ukraine.

The scale of the Ukrainian breakthrough, which was made simultaneously over a relatively large stretch of the front, made it resistant to locally-led counterattacks by Russian troops and their efforts to tactically encircle the often isolated advancing Ukrainian units. This created a relatively stable zone where it was possible to conduct manoeuvre warfare without the risk of isolating and interdicting the attacking units.

The dispersion of Russian forces on the ground allowed the advancing Ukrainian troops to develop great speed and eventually disrupt the Russian command system on a tactical level. There have been incidents where Russian soldiers have called home to ask their relatives to contact the Ministry of Defence to try to find out what the orders are.

The effective use and management of the procedure and logistics along the internal lines proved to be crucial. To a certain extent, it can be argued that this offensive is mainly due to Ukrainian information domination. From the initial reconnaissance of critical points of Russian defences to the management of extremely rapid advances and the reconnaissance and the isolation and interdiction of local pockets. The use of non-material factors has included, for example, the flying of Ukrainian flags in villages by reconnaissance units. This took place before the arrival of the main Ukrainian forces, and often just after the withdrawal or even surrender of the local Russian units.

Lastly, the huge amount of captured Russian equipment is probably due to a combination of a low range of several types of Russian tanks (especially the T-80) and technical failures, together with real wear and tear on some of the equipment (especially the gun barrels). This explains why Ukraine was able to undertake a successful counter-offensive with such a low number of tanks, relying mainly on infantry fighting vehicles and partly on wheeled armoured vehicles, and their ability to advance rapidly.

Photo credit: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, Flickr