Breaking the Rhythm of War: The Lightning Advance that Reshaped the Battlefield in Ukraine

On September 12, 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced that the country’s forces had recaptured 6,000 square kilometers (approximately 2,320 square miles) of territory in a “lightning offensive,” following the guidelines of an elaborate counteroffensive strategy devised by U.S. and Ukrainian officials during the summer. 

Beginning on August 29, Ukraine’s military announced offensive operations centered on Kherson, a strategic port city that was the first major city to fall to Russian forces in March of 2022, leaving as many as 300 civilians and soldiers dead. Kakhovka, a Ukrainian operational group, broke through defensive lines manned by the 109th Donetsk People’s Republic regiment, forcing them into retreat. High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems were used to assault Russian ammunition depots and bridges across the Dnipro river, disrupting communication and supply lines. Similar long-range strikes prompted Russian naval forces to relocate Kilo-class submarines from Sevastopol in Crimea to Novorossiysk, Russia. Other military units—including intelligence and special operations—conducted sabotage against critical infrastructure and attempted assassinations against Moscow-appointed government officials in Kherson Oblast. 

Photo via the Center for Strategic & International Studies, 2022

The advance was first proposed following a declaration by Zelenskyy that he wanted to demonstrate the abilities of his forces to withstand Russian onslaughts. Relying heavily on the west for weaponry, humanitarian support, and financial aid, but facing fears that support might fade as Russia continuously made small gains on the frontlines and the war stagnated into normality, Ukrainian officials began to draft plans for a large-scale blitz that would rally support from allies and boost morale among soldiers. 

Hopes for such an offensive were abysmally low. Ukrainian generals, as well as American officials, predicted that such an attack would result in an absurd amount of casualties while yielding minimal territorial gains. Amidst a war that was already tallying hundreds of deaths a day, the offensive—if unsuccessful—would’ve proved to be a suicide mission for Ukrainian forces. Failed war games by U.S., Ukrainian, and British officials during the summer added to Ukrainian anxieties, and the counteroffensive was taken back to the drawing board. In order to keep morale high and to continue to receive Western support, the military needed to demonstrate an ability to not only hold, but to reclaim territory.

Another factor was at play in the desperation for a military blitz as well. For Ukraine, it was critical that they achieved a momentous victory before the first snow of winter, when Russian President Vladimir Putin would be able to weaponize his control over gas to pressure European leaders into decisions more closely aligned with his goals. 

Stakes were high. Failure was not an option—the military had to succeed, else hope of winning the war and avoiding total Russian annexation would plummet. 

During August, per the request of Ukrainians, the U.S. increased intelligence reports that helped identify potential weaknesses in the Russian lines. Ukrainians realized that the Russian army had begun to relocate their best forces to the south in preparation for the anticipated Kherson counteroffensive, and as a result would possibly struggle to quickly reinforce their lines in the northeast. This gave Ukrainian officials reason to believe that some small parts of the Russian military might be weaker than they appeared at first glance. 

Military strategists and foreign officials still had doubts about the propensity of the operation to succeed, however. Seeking to develop a more unique strategy, Ukrainian officials proposed a second counteroffensive in the northeast, one that would catch the Russians off guard as their focus remained on the south. The second offensive, planned for Kharkiv, was subsequently brought to the table. Unlike last time, war games now indicated that success was possible, provided the U.S. supplied Ukraine with a series of weapons they deemed necessary. Weekly and bi-weekly Pentagon shipments of weaponry and ammunition fulfilled those requests, thus laying the groundwork for the operation’s success. 

The Kharkiv counteroffensive began on September 6. As Ukrainian generals and strategists suspected, due to the focus on the counteroffensive in Kherson, Russian forces were largely unable to detect military buildup in the northeast. Taking advantage of their position, Ukrainian forces punched holes in Russian lines and successfully recaptured the town of Balakliya over the following days. The advance continued farther into the east, blitzing their way through several hundred miles of Russian-occupied territory before seizing Kupyansk, a town which served as a key railway supply hub, on September 10. Izyum, a command center and staging ground for the Russian northern front, was reclaimed by Ukrainian forces on the same day. The seizure resulted in the first official announcement by Russian officials of a withdrawal from their decimated frontlines, formalizing a chaotic retreat that’d already been underway. According to U.S. defense officials, “As Ukrainian soldiers moved into areas in the northeast over the weekend, Russian forces crumbled. In some places around Kharkiv, Russian troops just walked away from the battle, leaving behind equipment and ammunition.” 

Photo via the Center for Strategic & International Studies, 2022

Other accounts of frantic Russian retreats detail signs of desperation at every turn—food left on tables, clothes left on lines, and weapons left abandoned paint a picture of frantic troops fleeing as Ukrainian soldiers closed in on previously-occupied towns. Russian troops reportedly ran for whatever transport was available, jumping on moving trucks as they departed. Civilian accounts further illustrated a portrait of a Russian army plagued by “morale and communications breakdowns,” as well as ill-disciplined, anxious, and unpredictable soldiers. Igor Levchenko, a retiree living in the town of Balakliya, said of the fleeing Russians, “They didn’t have a fighting spirit. They were afraid.”

The success in Izyum allowed Ukrainian forces to continue northward towards the border as they attempted to set a new defensive line on the eastern bank of the Oskil River. But while the success on the eastern front was motivating, both U.S. and Ukrainian officials agreed that the south was the most important theater of the war, and thus focus should still be centered there. 

Following the success in Kherson and Kharkiv, Ukrainians began to regain hope of reclaiming Crimea—the peninsula whose 2014 annexation into Russia served as a harbinger of and catalyst for the current war—in a drastic increase of ambition from the earlier months of the war. Initially barely confident in their ability to survive, Ukrainians—now eight months into a grinding conflict that shows no signs of resolving anytime soon—are now thinking it may be possible to recapture the land that not only serves as an important cultural site for the indigenous people of Ukraine, but also as an important geostrategic site for the U.S. and NATO

“Crimea is the key base for [Russian] army reserves. It’s where they have their bases for ammunition, hardware and soldiers, so of course destroying these bases is a major part of de-blockading our territory,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior aide to Zelenskyy, commenting on the strategic importance of the peninsula. 

“Everything began with Crimea and everything will end with Crimea,” Zelenskyy said in an August speech, compounding the importance of the role the peninsula plays in the conflict.

Unfortunately, liberating Crimea is likely out of reach for the Ukrainians, at least for the foreseeable future. No credible military analyst has suggested Ukraine is anywhere near a position in which it can seize the peninsula. Kyiv currently lacks enough long-range HIMAR missiles to use on Crimea, and thus far, the U.S. has refused to provide weapons with even longer range.

Other developments have complicated the reclamation of the Crimean Peninsula as well. On September 21, following Ukraine’s military blitz, Vladimir Putin announced plans to mobilize up to 300,000 reservists, sparking protests across the country that led to nearly 1,200 arrests. Nine days later, on September 30, the Russian President unveiled plans to annex the Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson Oblasts in a move that appeared to commit both countries to an even more prolonged war.

Unsurprisingly, Putin’s announcement drew international backlash from several western powers. The United Nations adopted a U.S.-sponsored resolution with a vote of 143-5, with 35 abstentions, to officially condemn the action. U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield spoke of the importance of the resolution before the vote, giving voice to the fears many citizens of countries neighboring Ukraine have been experiencing since the first strikes descended on February 24. 

“Today it is Russia invading Ukraine,” said Greenfield. “But tomorrow it could be another nation whose territory is violated. You could be next.”

Unfortunately for Russian forces, their annexations did little to curb the Ukrainian advance. As the Russian President was delivering his speech, Ukrainian troops allegedly moved closer to encircling Russian-occupied Lyman, a rail hub in the Donetsk region. Just a day after Putin’s declaration that the region belonged to Russia, Russian troops withdrew from the area in what appeared to be a significant setback and humiliating defeat for Moscow. The loss of the town added more pressure onto the Kremlin’s shoulders, who were already facing lashback from both opponents and proponents of the war following their military failures and subsequent plans to conscript hundreds of thousands more soldiers.

The victory came after the southern counteroffensive left Russian soldiers in Lyman disconnected from several supply lines, once again proving the success of the operation. And, as Ukrainian forces had hoped, the victory put them in a position to reclaim more territory before the first snowfall of the winter, when a global energy crisis could strain western support. Despite being subjected to a deadly war of attrition—one that Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as many international spectators, did not believe they would be able to withstand—Ukrainian forces have continued to succeed in usurping control from the Russians, astounding both leaders and military experts across the globe. While Zelenskyy warned that the next 90 days of fighting would be crucial, analysts reported that “come spring and barring any setbacks, the war could turn decidedly in Ukraine’s favor.”

But while the recent successes set a positive tone for the future of the war, Russia’s annexations cast a grim shadow over the recent victories. Although the United Nations and dozens of countries have officially condemned the actions of the Russian Federation, not enough is being done to stop the Russification and brutalization of citizens in these territories. In reality, efforts to “Russify” the newly-annexed regions have been underway since 2019, when hundreds of thousands of Russian passports were handed out to citizens of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. These areas have also seen Ukraine’s currency, the hryvnia, be almost entirely replaced with the Russian ruble, as well as their access to Ukrainian TV and mobile phone networks stripped and replaced by Russian service providers. But far more intense efforts—including the forced adoption of a pro-Russian curriculum in schools—are catalyzing a cultural genocide that threatens to eliminate the parts of Ukrainian identity that separates the country from its eastern neighbor. 

This attempted grab of land that Russia does not fully control either politically or militaristically sets a dangerous precedent not only for the future of Ukraine, but for the future of other post-Soviet states and European countries as a whole. In a July 2022 interview, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba, warned, “If we do not stop them in Ukraine, Russia will continue its attempts to control, destabilize and destroy other countries,” a goal that Putin has alluded to in speeches given throughout the months since the start of the war. In fact, Putin wholly admitted the details of his imperial vision in June, stating, “Apparently, it is now also our responsibility to return (Russian) land,” clearly referencing the conflict in Ukraine. According to the Atlantic Council, the list of former Russian imperial possessions that now comprise the list of potential targets includes Finland, the Baltic States, Poland, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the nations of Central Asia. 

As the Atlantic Council states, “Today’s brutal colonial war in Ukraine is a reminder that unlike the other great European empires of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Russia never underwent a period of de-imperialization.” Instead, Russia’s imperial identity became a “pillar of the Putin regime,” a phenomenon that has manifested itself in the most dangerous threats to the post-World War II global security system since the Cold War. 

Putin’s actions have made it increasingly clear that there is no foreseeable end to the War in Ukraine, at least anytime in the near future. Still, many Ukrainians and their allies hold out hope bolstered by recent victories that the Russian regime will ultimately face defeat. For the future of global security, it is imperative that a Ukrainian triumph becomes a reality, preferably sooner rather than later. While victory is inevitably a long way off, military experts seem to believe that—at least for now—Ukraine has the ability to succeed against a numerically larger and more technically advanced force.

“These days, the Russian army is showing its best—showing its back,” President Zelenskyy told the nation in his Independence Day address on August 24. “And, in the end, it is a good choice for them to run away. There is and will be no place for the occupiers in Ukraine.”