Ukrainian Offensive Seen as Reshaping War’s Contours

From a New York Times story by Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Marc Santora headlined “Ukrainian Offensive Seen as Reshaping the War’s Contours”:

KYIV, Ukraine — A lightning Ukrainian offensive in the country’s northeast has reshaped what had become a grinding war of attrition. In a matter of days, Russian front lines have buckled, Moscow’s troops have fled and one village after another has come once more beneath Ukraine’s yellow and blue banner.

Ukrainian officials said on Saturday that their troops had taken the eastern city of Izium, a strategically important railway hub that Russian forces seized in the spring after a bloody, weekslong battle.

“Izium was liberated today,” the city’s mayor, Valeriy Marchenko, said in an interview.

Russia’s Ministry of Defense — which a day earlier had said it was moving to reinforce its defensive positions in the region — confirmed on Saturday that it had pulled its forces out of Izium to “regroup.” While the statement sought to portray the withdrawal as a pre-planned move, the military equipment left scattered about pointed to a hasty retreat to avoid encirclement.

While the 12,000 remaining residents of a prewar population of 40,000 celebrated Izium’s liberation from Russian control, their joy was tempered by the destruction wrought over the past six months.

“There’s no single residential building that wasn’t damaged,” Mr. Marchenko said. “Heating is the biggest problem. I doubt whether we would be able to restore the heating system before winter.”

Ukraine’s capture of Izium could represent a turning point in the war, dwarfed only by Russia’s humiliating defeat around the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, in the spring.

The successful Ukrainian offensive, which began this past week near Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, serves as a testament to the endurance of Ukrainian troops and, once more, the shortcomings of the Russian war machine.

“Ukrainian forces didn’t stop after reaching the first town, but deliberately chose to bypass towns in order to advance deeper behind Russian lines,” said Rob Lee, a military analyst at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

The success of the Ukrainian offensive in the north comes at a critical juncture. Besides lifting the country’s morale and short-circuiting Russian plans to annex occupied territory, it is arriving ahead of winter, when front lines are expected to freeze and a global energy crisis could strain the West’s support for Ukraine.

“The path to the return of our entire territory is all there, every day it becomes clearer. We see the contours of restoring the territorial integrity of our state,” President Volodymyr Zelenksky of Ukraine said on Saturday. He warned that the next 90 days of fighting, as the seasons change and temperatures drop, would be crucial.

But now, before the first snowfall, Ukrainian troops have dealt a serious blow to their Russian foes, ensuring that, come spring and barring any setbacks, the war’s outcome could turn decidedly in Ukraine’s favor, analysts say.

“The further forces advance, the more difficult it typically is to sustain, but it doesn’t appear Russia had sufficient reserves ready to stop the breakthrough or to hold these towns,” Mr. Lee said.

The Russian military’s collapse that led to the loss of Izium can largely be attributed to one simple fact: Russian forces left their flanks undefended, perhaps because of growing troop shortages, exhausted conscripts and low morale.

Since the beginning of the summer, Russian troops have been deployed to the Donbas, the mineral-rich region of mining towns and rolling fields just east of Izium. The seizure of Ukraine’s eastern steppe is one of Moscow’s primary war aims, and in June and July its forces managed to capture the two industrial cities of Sieverodonetsk and Lysychansk.

But in recent weeks, tens of thousands of Russian troops were also shifted to the south, to buffer against a well-publicized Ukrainian offensive that began last month in the Kherson region.

Though the southern offensive might appear to have been a feint, preparing the battlefield in the northeast for Kyiv’s stunning breakthrough, both attacks were well planned and backed by a sizable number of ground troops.

“We need to wait to see how far they can go, but the offensive in the northeast and Kherson tells us Ukraine has a manpower advantage and can use it effectively,” Mr. Lee said. Casualties in the south, troops deployed there said recently, have been significant, though Ukrainian forces have retaken several villages.

Manpower and ammunition have been two defining elements of the six-month-old war in Ukraine. In nearly every category Russia has had more of each, saturating Ukrainian positions with bone-shattering artillery barrages and steadily advancing with lines of troops despite often horrific casualties.

Western intelligence agencies estimate that both sides have losses in the tens of thousands, making Ukraine’s recent gains even more remarkable, while highlighting the fatigue in the Russian ranks, which have suffered 80,000 wounded and killed since the war began, according to the agencies.

“There is still a lot that we don’t know about the offensive, but it is clear this was well planned and executed by Ukrainian forces,” Mr. Lee said. “It looks like a very effective combined arms operation with tanks, mechanized infantry, Special Operations forces, air defenses, artillery and other systems.”

But with the battlefield changing by the hour it still remains unclear how the coming days will unfold. Pro-Russian bloggers have posted numerous images of Russia’s Third Army Corps headed toward Izium, though the shift in forces appears to have come too late.

The Russian military still has large numbers of troops and, notably, air power, and it is likely to try to counterattack or at least harass Ukrainian forces as they advance.

After Russian forces seized Izium in the war’s early months, it gave them a decided advantage in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Luhansk and Donetsk — known collectively as the Donbas. That left strategically important Ukrainian-held cities in the region trapped in a slowly closing pocket as the Russian troops advanced.

Russia’s control of Izium ensured that Ukrainian forces would have to be deployed there to keep Russian forces from advancing further west. This in turn meant that important resources and troops could not be committed elsewhere on the front line.

But the Russian advances in the Donbas stalled over the summer, as its exhausted units paused to rest and tried with uncertain success to replenish their ranks and stores of weapons, armor and ammunition.

Those problems will be further compounded by the loss of Izium. An important supply hub, the city was a military way station for Russian forces in parts of the Donbas. With those lines severed, as seems increasingly likely, Russian forces, especially their artillery batteries, will come under increasing strain.

With Izium now under Ukrainian control, the dynamic in the east has been reshaped. It has left Kyiv’s forces with more geography from which to launch further offensives, and relieves pressure on cities that have been subjected to relentless Russian shelling, such as Kramatorsk and Sloviansk in the Donbas.

The Ukrainians will likely have to process hundreds if not thousands of Russian prisoners captured during their sweep across the northeast, while also distributing highly prized Russian military equipment.

Unverified videos posted to social media in recent days have shown hastily abandoned armored personnel carriers and tanks, types of equipment that the Ukrainian military is severely lacking as their Soviet-era armament has been ground down from months of fighting.

Though captured Russian equipment has proved increasingly important for depleted Ukrainian troops, Western-supplied artillery, long-range HIMARS rocket systems and anti-air defenses have played a significant role in the offensives’ outcome so far.

But Western analysts have also attributed Kyiv’s recent victories to superior tactics, better planning, higher morale and a decentralized command structure, all of which seem to have combined to enable its military to seize the initiative and, for now, to succeed against a numerically superior force.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff is the Kabul bureau chief and a former Marine infantryman.

Marc Santora is the International News Editor based in London, focusing on breaking news events. He was previously the Bureau Chief for East and Central Europe based in Warsaw. He has also reported extensively from Iraq and Africa.

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