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HomeWorldDefender to attacker: Ukraine's counterattacks in Kherson, Balakliya herald new phase in...

Defender to attacker: Ukraine’s counterattacks in Kherson, Balakliya herald new phase in war

Last week, Ukraine began a new phase in the nearly 200-day war, strategising to attack Russian ground lines of communication, logistics and infrastructure.

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New Delhi: Last week, Ukraine launched a counteroffensive in the southern region of Kherson to take back territory from the Russians.

This was widely attributed as the beginning of a new phase in the nearly 200-day war. A moment when Ukraine transitioned from being the perennial defender to the attacker.

Accelerating the counteroffensive on Wednesday, Ukraine conducted a surprise attack in Kharkiv Oblast in the east of the country, taking two settlements and encircling Russian troops in the eastern town of Balakliya.

The operation in Kherson was the culmination of months of deft strategy by the Ukrainians to slowly reclaim territory and shape the battlefield in the region. This has allowed them to attack Russian ground lines of communication, logistics and infrastructure, explained Dr Mike Martin, visiting fellow at the King’s College’s Department of War Studies.

The capture of Verbivka and Volokhiv Yar in Kharkiv, and the advances in Balakliya could position Ukraine’s troops nearly a dozen miles behind enemy lines while enabling them to disrupt Russia’s supply lines to Donbas.

Phillips P. Obrien, Professor of Strategic Studies at the University of St Andrews, unpacked the military rationale behind the offensives in Kherson and Kharkiv. He said, “The Ukrainian move to draw Russian forces into Kherson is clearly one of the great strategic moves of the war. It brought some of the best Russian units into Kherson where they can’t be supplied and are being methodically worn down. Consequently, this made the Russians thin their line in Kharkiv.”

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy alluded to the advances in Kharkiv in his daily briefing Wednesday and said: “This week we have good news from the Kharkiv region… Now is not the time to name the settlements to which the Ukrainian flag returns.”

Battle for Kherson

Ukraine’s operations launched last week in Kherson were first described as “shaping operations” — essentially, it is military parlance for campaigns which diminish enemy defences before a stronger attack is undertaken.

While Kyiv has maintained an information blackout about their operation in the south, few signs explained their progress. The Washington D.C.-based think tank Institute for the Study of War (ISW) has assessed that Ukrainian forces over the past week prioritised striking “Russian logistics nodes, equipment depots, and command and control points in Kherson Oblast”.

They also pointed out that by 5 September, Ukraine had strategically attacked many Russian ground lines of communication in central Kherson Oblast, carrying out a missile campaign throughout the region.

In terms of territorial advancements, ISW assessed that by 7 September, Ukrainian forces had made significant advancements in western Kherson Oblast, specifically reaching about 65 kilometres northeast of Kherson City and making inroads along the Inhulets River.

According to reports, apart from striking at Russian ammunition depots and command centres to weaken their attacker’s military setup in Kherson, Ukraine has used American-supplied High-Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) to strike at infantry and front-line positions in Kherson too.

These operations in Kherson were aimed at weakening Russia’s forces and logistics in the south of the country. As a result of this strategy to assiduously diminish Russia’s military presence, and focus on incremental gains, some experts assessed that Ukraine could capture Kherson by winter.

Encirclement in Balakliya

Ukraine’s surprise offensive in the eastern Kharkiv Oblast on Wednesday has led to assessments that they have been able to advance approximately 20 kilometres into Russian-held territory in the region and recaptured reportedly 400 square kilometres.

Apart from “capturing” Verbivka and Volokhiv Yar in Kharkiv, the Ukrainians have encircled Russian troops in the city of Balakliya, which lies near Kharkiv city.

Further reports suggested that Russian troops in Balakliya were unable to communicate with other Russian units due to the Ukrainian onslaught. Some reports said that Russian units were leaving Balakliya due to Ukraine’s movements. However, these remain to be confirmed.

A Ukrainian official explained to The Telegraph the priorities for the swift counter in Kharkiv — to displace Russians from Kherson, and to create a base to launch an attack on Izyum, which lies south of Kharkiv.

Essentially, the success of these two counteroffensives could have broader significance than just territorial gains. With winter approaching, it could ensure the West’s continued commitment to Ukraine and assure them that the sophisticated weaponry being provided was proving to be a catalyst on the battlefield.

Also read: Ukraine war: a dangerous time to be a Russian-installed official in occupied territory


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