“Ukraine can win this war,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg declared yesterday, and it didn’t take long for Ukrainian forces to give evidence for the proposition. The Russian efforts to seize Kharkiv had stalled weeks ago, and Ukraine began a counteroffensive earlier this month to lift the semi-siege around the country’s second-largest city. Russia began losing ground in earnest last week as Western artillery systems finally evened the odds.
Today, however, Ukraine claims that it has rolled Russians out of Ukraine altogether. And they have video evidence of it, with one unit celebrating their control of a portion of their eastern border near Kharkiv:
Ukrainian military unit pushed #Russia back to the border and reinstalled #Ukraine border sign. #Kharkiv region. It’s a start. More work to be done on this pic.twitter.com/Br3s3EGwKT
— Lesia Vasylenko (@lesiavasylenko) May 16, 2022
The Telegraph added closed captions, along with an error:
The captions read “April 15,” but that’s clearly a mistranslation. Ukrainian forces were nowhere near the border at that time, but in the last few days they had pushed back hard against the Russians. Reuters reports that the video was taken yesterday:
Ukrainian troops counter-attacking against Russian forces in the country’s northeast have pushed them back from the city of Kharkiv and advanced as far as the border with Russia, Ukrainian officials said on Monday.
The developments, if confirmed, would signal a further shift in momentum in favour of Ukrainian forces nearly three months into a conflict that began when Russia sent tens of thousands of troops over the border into Ukraine on Feb. 24. …
Ukraine’s defence ministry said on Monday the 227th Battalion of the 127th Brigade of Ukraine’s Territorial Defence Forces had reached the border with Russia.
“Together to victory!” it said.
The troops in the video don’t look like a large force — perhaps more like a recon group or a platoon on patrol. They also don’t appear to be under any pressure to defend themselves either. One video won’t tell us how much of the border Ukrainian troops now control, or precisely where this took place for that matter, but these troops don’t seem worried at all about Russian forces while taking this video.
The closest part of the border runs across the north of the city, which in itself doesn’t necessarily have a direct impact on Russian operations in Donbas. However, it certainly could prove fatal for those operations, depending on how well the Ukrainians exploit this. If Ukraine has either split Russian forces retreating from Kharkicv or turned their flank, that will allow the Ukrainians to begin compressing Russian troops into a killing zone, likely first in Luhansk, if they can keep turning the flank along the border as it runs east and south. That would also cut off the lines of communication to Russian units. More likely, it would start a flood of desertions that would stream back across the border, assuming the Chechen troops don’t murder them before they get there.
There is another option, however, for Ukrainian troops in the Kharkiv theater, depending on where retreating Russians are going. We’re assuming Russia will redeploy these forces to Donbas to bolster the stalled Russian offensive in the southeast, but that may not be possible. If Ukraine has secured the north of Kharkiv and sent Russian units falling back southward toward Luhansk, the Russian city of Belgorod would likely be left undefended. Belgorod has been an important center of military communications and logistics, and an attack on it would likely create a massive hit to Russian morale. The Ukrainians might be more focused on preserving troops to liberate Ukrainian territory rather than give Russian civilians a taste of what Ukrainians have suffered, but the option becomes realistic once Russians fall back — if they fall back to Donbas.
If they fall back to Belgorod to defend the city, what about the Donbas? Russia claims to be making progress in their offensive, but Stoltenberg says it has stalled out:
“Russia’s war in Ukraine is not going as Moscow had planned.
“They failed to take Kyiv. They are pulling back from around Kharkiv. Their major offensive in Donbas has stalled.
“Russia is not achieving its strategic objectives.
“Ukraine can win this war.”
The Ukrainians that are liberating the towns around Kharkiv may be in no mood to move far in either case. They’re convinced that the defeated Russian troops have gone back into Russia, likely to wheel to the south for the Donbas offensive. But they’re also convinced that Russia will make a second attempt to seize Kharkiv:
[T]hey believed the Russians, while trying to keep them pinned down, have been pulling their forces out in a withdrawal to their border. From there, they think, those troops are redeploying south to bolster a Russian drive to seize the entire Donbas region, which largely has stalled.
“There is less shelling from the Russians,” said Mikhayl, one of Obolenskiy’s lieutenants, giving only his nom de guerre as he sat in a basement ripe with the odor of the unbathed troops encamped in its gloom. “We think they are retreating.”
Yet, the troops holding the village, deserted by all but a few of its 5,000 residents and a horde of abandoned cats and dogs, are not ready to celebrate what some media outlets have begun hailing as their victory in the Battle of Kharkiv. …
Moreover, Obolenskiy and his aides said they remained concerned that despite high loses in men and equipment, Russian President Vladimir Putin could launch a new offensive against Kharkiv, 20 km south.
“We think it’s possible that the Russians will come back,” said Mikhayl, a large man who declined to reveal the contingent’s total casualties. “Putin will never forgive us. It will be difficult for him to explain to the Russian people why his special operation is over.”
Plus, they are mindful what an attack on Belgorod could mean:
“I want to go all the way to Novosibirsk. The videos that I have seen of what they have done leave me no choice,” growled Mihkayl, referring to a city in Siberia, and to alleged war crimes committed by Russian forces against Ukrainians. Moscow denies targeting civilians.
Obolenskiy, however, said he is concerned that Russian forces will shell Ukrainian troops from inside their border in a deliberate ploy to trigger return barrages that would allow Putin to justify an escalation of the conflict to suck in NATO.
“Putin wants to start a war with NATO,” said Obolenskiy, who believes an escalation should be avoided by creating 10 km-wide buffer zones on either side of the border.
That would be a settlement issue for after the war. At the moment, though, Ukraine has to defeat the Russians emphatically in order to produce the proper environment to set those terms. And besides, the way this war is going, Russia can’t really spare artillery and ammunition for false-flag stunts around Kharkiv. They will need everything they have just to keep what Russia already has in Donbas, and even that likely won’t be enough for anything other than the short term.