Ukraine’s Counteroffensives in Kharkiv and Kherson and the Road Ahead

Ukraine’s stunning victory in Kharkiv Oblast has reshaped the battlefield and dealt a powerful blow to Vladimir Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine. Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces continue to wage a more gradual but no less important counteroffensive in southern Ukraine. This analysis will unpack them both and highlight some factors that will shape the road ahead.

Kharkiv Counteroffensive

The Ukrainian General Staff, with Western assistance, formulated a plan to retake territory on two fronts: Kherson Oblast in southern Ukraine and Kharkiv Oblast in the east. For months, Kyiv telegraphed its intention to launch a counteroffensive in Kherson, while keeping its plans in Kharkiv under wraps. This led Russia to bolster its previously thin presence in the south, including by redeploying much of its forces from the area around Izyum, where Russian forces had been trying — without success — to push toward Slovyansk, one of two major cities in the Donbas that remain under Ukrainian control.

In recent weeks, Russian military correspondents and commentators began warning of a Ukrainian buildup south of Izyum and particularly near Balakliya, a city key for protecting the northwestern flank of Russia’s Izyum grouping. Ukraine had already been pressuring at Russian positions south of Izyum and around Balakliya, where Russian forces had been left thin. Yet the Russian military command evidently did not add reinforcements. The top Russian-installed official in Kharkiv Oblast later said Ukrainian forces outnumbered Russian troops by eight to one during the counteroffensive.

Ukrainian forces in the Balakliya area included some of the country’s most capable units, comprising elements of the 14th and 92nd mechanized brigades, 25th Airborne Brigade, 80th Airborne Assault Brigade, 3rd and 4th brigades, 214th Separate Rifle Battalion, 112th and 113th territorial defense brigades, and possibly the 10th Mountain Assault Brigade, along with a battalion from the 1st Special Purpose Brigade and various other special operations forces. Near Izyum, Ukraine had elements of its 30th and  93rd mechanized brigades, including the latter’s Carpathian Sich Battalion, as well as the 95th and 79th airborne assault brigades, 81st Airmobile Brigade, and 71st Jaeger Infantry Brigade. Elements of several artillery brigades were also deployed in the area.

Prior to launching the counteroffensive, Ukraine conducted shaping operations targeting ammunition and fuel depots, command-and-control nodes, and other high-value targets in the Russian rear. Early on September 6, Ukraine reportedly massed armor and punched into western Balakliya and the nearby suburbs of Verbivka and Yakovenkove as well as Chkalovs’ke to the north, while pushing toward road junctions at Volokhiv Yar and Shevchenkove.

Russian lines broke quickly. Forces from the so-called “people’s republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, who typically are poorly trained and equipped and have low morale, reportedly manned the front line around Balakliya. Two units from Rosgvardia, or Russia’s national guard, which is not trained or equipped for heavy combat, apparently manned the second line. Rosgvardia generally has low interoperability with regular Russian forces, reportedly resulting in poor coordination between those Rosgvardia units and their artillery support (likely provided by forces from the 288th Artillery Brigade of Russia’s 1st Guards Tank Army). Personnel from the “Redut” private military company reportedly were also in the area.

Russia seems to have had few reserves nearby that could stem the Ukrainian advance. Russian forces in the area consisted primarily of understrength units from the Western Military District, which took debilitating losses during the first phase of the war. Elements of the 20th Combined Arms Army’s 144th and possibly 3rd motor rifle divisions were in the area, including the former’s 488th Motor Rifle Regiment. So were elements of the Baltic Fleet’s 18th Motor Rifle Division, including its 7th Motor Rifle Regiment, along with the 26th Tank Regiment of the 1st Guards Tank Army’s recently formed 47th Tank Division. Some elements of the 150th Motor Rifle Division, part of the Southern Military District’s 8th Combined Arms Army, also appear to have been in the area. Unconfirmed accounts from Ukrainian and Russian sources suggest at least some regular Russian units simply abandoned Balakliya.

The Russian Air Force also appears to have been ineffective in staunching Ukrainian advances. While open-source information provided a very partial picture of the air domain, it appears Ukraine had dense air defense coverage of the area, having deployed additional air defense systems near Balakliya during its buildup there. This reportedly led Russian aircraft to be particularly cautious, degrading their ability to support Russia ground forces — a task with which the Russian Air Force has already struggled throughout the war. The Ukrainian General Staff reported Russian airstrikes in three or four different settlements in the Balakliya-Izyum area on September 6 but none thereafter. The chaotic battlefield may have caused friendly-fire concerns or made Russian forward air controllers — on whom Russian aircraft reportedly relied almost exclusively for target acquisition — unable to deliver timely coordinates.

Ukrainian forces quickly exploited their initial breakthrough. Ukrainian commanders employed shrewd operational art, largely bypassing Volokhiv Yar and Shevchenkove to penetrate deeper behind Russian lines, pressing toward Vesele, Sen’kove, and Kup’yans’k, while also pushing northward — and eventually southward — toward Izyum. Ukrainian forces appear to have been effective in combining infantry and armor, much of the latter donated from the West.

Russia scrambled to send reinforcements, including elements of the 90th Guards Tank Division and possibly parts of the newly formed 3rd Army Corps. But they did not arrive in time to halt Ukrainian advances, although one Russian source indicated the reinforcements in Izyum may have bought Russia some time to avoid the encirclement of its forces there.

By September 10, Ukraine had taken part of Kup’yans’k, the key road and rail hub supporting the Russian grouping at Izyum. This left Moscow little choice but to abandon the Izyum axis or risk the encirclement of a large portion of its forces. Russia’s Defense Ministry announced that Russian troops in the area would retrograde across the Oskil River, attempting to spin the defeat as a refocusing on Moscow’s original goal of taking the rest of Donetsk Oblast.

However, Ukraine’s stunning victory in Kharkiv Oblast has almost certainly dashed Russia’s (already small) chances of taking Slovyansk and nearby Kramatorsk. Russia’s enormous equipment losses during the counteroffensive will further degrade its offensive potential. The Oryx blog documented over 580 visually confirmed Russian equipment losses from September 7 to September 13, many of them abandoned by fleeing Russian troops.

What is more, Russian positions in Luhansk Oblast and norther Donetsk Oblast, for which the Russian military sacrificed a great deal of blood and equipment during the summer, are now at risk. Indeed, Ukrainian forces have already retaken or contested a number of towns in those areas.

Kherson Counteroffensive

Kherson Oblast and its eponymous capital city carry greater strategic importance for Ukraine than does the east. Kherson is a key port city and holds considerable political significance as the only regional capital taken since Putin launched his full-scale war in February. Militarily, retaking Kherson would close the door to an (already unlikely) Russian push toward Mykolaiv and Odesa. Kyiv also sought to thwart Moscow’s plans for a sham annexation referendum, which a Russian-installed official last week said had been “paused” due to the security situation.

Ukraine preceded its Kherson counteroffensive with a monthslong effort to strike high-value Russian targets such as ammunition and fuel depots, command-and-control nodes, air defense systems, and several key bridges on which Russian forces relied to move supplies across the Dnipro and Inhulets rivers. Ukrainian forces conducted long-range precision strikes using HIMARS rocket artillery systems and other Western-provided weapons, while Ukrainian special operations forces and partisans worked conducted sabotage and provided intelligence behind Russian lines.

Russia has sought to compensate by dispersing its depots and using pontoon bridges and ferries, which Ukraine has also targeted. Russia has continually repaired the damaged bridges, enabling a lower volume of light vehicles to use the bridges in between Ukrainian strikes. But now, at least one of the bridges has fully collapsed, and the others are likely on their last legs. The strain on its logistics makes it harder for Russia to supply its troops on the western side of the Dnipro River and has likely resulted in a decrease in the rate of Russian artillery fire there.

Following several days of particularly intense strikes, a spokesperson from Ukraine’s southern command announced ground operations had commenced on August 29, although they may have begun slightly earlier. Ukrainian forces have advanced along three axes. The main effort centers on Ukraine’s pre-existing bridgehead over the Inhulets River near Andriivka, with auxiliary efforts in the Vysokopillya and Posad-Pokrovs’ke areas.

Ukraine evidently aims to split the Russian grouping on the western side of the Dnipro by pushing from its bridgehead to split the grouping of Russian troops on the Dnipro’s western bank, while continuing to squeeze Russian logistics. Kyiv likely hopes to force the Russian command to abandon an untenable position and withdrawal across the river, allowing Ukraine to liberate Kherson city without a destructive urban battle.

So far, Ukrainian forces have made modest progress, with the most notable gains coming in the Andriivka area, where Ukraine has expanded its bridgehead by around 15 kilometers. While it is difficult to discern through open sources exactly how Ukraine allocated forces between the Kherson and Kharkiv counteroffensives, it is clear the Kherson effort is well-resourced, although it will likely take time given the substantial Russian presence there.

Russia likely retains advantages in massed artillery, electronic warfare, and aviation despite Ukraine’s success in using Western-supplied weapons to degrade Russian logistics and free up Ukrainian manned and unmanned aircraft by suppressing or destroying Russia’s capable air defense and electronic warfare systems. Ground warfare generally favors the defender, and the region’s open terrain and irrigation canals enhance that advantage.

The Road Ahead

Ukraine appears to have seized the strategic initiative and will likely continue to pressure Russian defenses across multiple fronts. The Ukrainian military has proven it can resource two simultaneous counteroffensives, while Moscow faces a dilemma between allocating its increasingly thin and exhausted forces between the east and south, and redeploying forces between the two takes time. Ukraine has already capitalized on these challenges through its Kharkiv counteroffensive and will likely look to continue exploiting them to maintain its momentum and retake additional territory.

In addition to pressing in Luhansk Oblast as discussed above, Ukraine could launch a counteroffensive in the Vuhledar or Zaporizhzhia areas. Over the past week, Russian observers have warned that Ukraine is massing forces and removing minefields in the Vuhledar area, potentially seeking to retake Volnovakha, a road and rail hub, and then push down to Mariupol, thereby severing Russia’s “land bridge” to Crimea. Russian sources have offered similar warnings about the Zaporizhzhia direction.

In fact, Kyiv reportedly initially planned to pursue something along these lines but opted to go with the Kharkiv counteroffensive on U.S. advice. Russia is now reinforcing its defensive lines in Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia oblasts with elements of the 3rd Army Corps and units withdrawn from Kharkiv Oblast, according to Ukraine’s General Staff.

Indeed, manpower has been Russia’s central weakness since the war’s second phase began and will remain so. As the analysts Michael Kofman and Rob Lee have shown, many Russian units came into war significantly understrength. Russia’s heavy casualties during the Battle of Kyiv exacerbated that problem. Russian forces continued to take significant casualties during the summer campaign in Luhansk Oblast, achieving relatively meager gains while undermining Russia’s ability to sustain the war effort.

Putin could ameliorate his manpower issue by deploying conscripts en masse or conducting a partial mobilization. Conscripts comprise around 30 percent of Russia’s military and a slightly higher percentage of its Ground Forces, making them a substantial pool of potential manpower. Likewise, mobilization would allow the Russian military to take in additional troops, particularly reservists with key specialties. It would also impose criminal penalties for servicemen who refuse to participate in the war, whereas they currently are not supposed to face criminal consequences for refusing to fight. This has led many Russian troops — probably in the thousands — to quit the conflict, a number that will likely increase as Russia’s forces grow increasingly exhausted.

However, these measures would be politically unpopular, and Moscow has repeatedly promised they are not on the table. Instead, Russia has pursued half-measures: offering high pay to recruit former servicemen and untrained volunteers on short-term contracts, forcibly mobilizing men from occupied Donetsk and Luhansk, and relying on private military companies, chiefly Wagner, which has been recruiting in prisons.

In addition to having lower training and motivation (with the exception of some Wagner forces, who are relatively few in number), these pools of manpower are also finite. Piecemeal solutions will likely offer diminishing returns as the war progresses and Moscow exhausts the number of Russians willing to volunteer and the number of Donbas men who can be pressed into service. Still, the Kremlin continues to resist growing calls from Russian hawks for mobilization.

Meanwhile, Russia is cannibalizing its regular forces. Although Putin will not deploy conscripts, Russia likely has deployed many of the officers and non-commissioned officers responsible for training and leading them. Russia is also trying to fill shortfalls in infantry with personnel from other types of units, degrading their effectiveness. For instance, personnel from the 11th Army Corps’ 152 Missile Brigade appear to have fought as infantry during the Kharkiv counteroffensive, which tracks with Ukrainian military intelligence’s previous reports that Russia is attempting to recruit missile specialists and sailors to fight as part of ground units. Likewise, one Russian source blamed Russia’s shortage of infantry for its failure to destroy Ukrainian air defense systems during the Kharkiv counteroffensive, as personnel ordinarily tasked with locating such systems were instead diverted to the front lines.

Conversely, Kyiv possesses a large pool of well-motivated manpower, which has enabled Ukraine to replace losses and fill out reserve units with Western kit. However, many of these people have no prior military experience, which particularly limits their effectiveness in offensive operations. To address this issue, the United Kingdom in July launched Operation INTERFLEX, seeking to provide basic training to 10,000 mobilized Ukrainian troops every 120 days. A number of other Western contributors have since joined the effort. The Ukrainian General Staff said this week that almost 5,000 have completed the program, which reportedly is now being expanded from three to five weeks per training cycle to allow for more advanced training.

Overall, the correlation of forces will likely continue to shift in Ukraine’s favor — provided Western military aid continues to flow. Kyiv’s needs are vast. The country is increasingly reliant on Western largesse to sustain the war effort. Ukraine’s stocks of ammunition for its Soviet-made artillery systems are running low, and Kyiv is clamoring for more tanks and armored vehicles to enable further offensive success. Last week, General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, the Ukrainian military’s commander-in-chief, wrote that he hopes for enough Western kit to equip 10 to 20 combined-arms brigades, which Kyiv could use “to launch several consecutive, and ideally, simultaneous counterstrikes throughout 2023.”

In this respect, Ukraine’s success in Kharkiv Oblast was important because it demonstrated to Kyiv’s Western backers that Ukraine can put their aid to good use in retaking territory. For Kyiv, maintaining enthusiasm among its Western supporters will be critical as the Kremlin squeezes Europe’s gas supplies this winter and U.S. and European governments deplete their own stockpiles of materiel.

The war is far from over. There will likely be many months of hard fighting ahead. But there is room for cautious optimism that the conflict has reached a turning point.

John Hardie is the deputy director of FDD’s Russia Program and a contributor to FDD's Long War Journal.

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