(CN) — Over the weekend, NATO-backed elite Ukrainian troops forced Russia into a humiliating retreat from the northeastern Kharkiv region in a major defeat for the Kremlin.
Six days ago, Ukraine launched a large-scale offensive on Russian troops holding towns and cities where the region of Kharkiv borders the pro-Russian breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk.
By Saturday, faced with fast-paced advances by Ukrainian forces backed by NATO weapons, intelligence and planning, Russia's defense ministry ordered its forces to pull back to avoid getting encircled. Reinforcements were sent in, but they apparently weren't sufficient to help Moscow hold out.
Both sides claimed massive losses – numbering in the thousands – were inflicted on the enemy. Videos and images on social media and distributed through official channels showed ambulances streaming into Kyiv, bloody close-range combat, dead soldiers on the battlefields, large blasts rocking towns and destroyed convoys.
On Sunday, Russia launched missiles at major thermal power plants in eastern and central Ukraine, causing massive blackouts in several regions. By Monday, Ukraine said it had restored power in many areas.
Russia claimed its strikes were in retaliation for Ukrainian strikes on power grids in Russian-held areas of Ukraine. In recent weeks, Ukraine has continued to shell Russian-held territories, causing some civilian deaths. Russian shelling is also killing and wounding civilians.
Ukraine's military advances were hailed by many in the West as a decisive win that may have turned the tide of the war in Kyiv's favor and hopes of a Ukrainian victory are growing.
On Saturday, Moscow said its troops were “regrouping” and focusing on the “liberation” of Luhansk and Donetsk, two important mining and industrial regions that make up the so-called Donbas.
Fighting has raged in Donbas ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion on Feb. 24, declaring that Russia needed to end a long-simmering war there. The Donbas is home to large ethnic Russian populations. But previous peace agreements brokered by Germany and France failed to end the fighting.
The Donbas slipped into war in 2014 following the so-called Maidan Revolution which saw the overthrow of a pro-Russian Ukrainian president. Ever since, Ukraine has been in crisis with the conflict in eastern Ukraine taking on many aspects of a civil war.
“In order to achieve the declared goals of the special military operation for the liberation of Donbas, it was decided to regroup the Russian forces stationed near Balakleya and Izyum to boost efforts in the Donetsk direction,” said Lieutenant General Igor Konashenkov, the Russian defense ministry's spokesman.
Russian troops withdrew from the strategic small cities of Izyum and Kupyansk and took up position across the Oskil River and reservoir to the east of Ukrainian forces, according to battlefield reports.
“The speed of the Ukrainian advance is absolutely stunning,” said Franz-Stefan Gady, a military expert at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, on Twitter. He said it appeared Russia suffered a “massive intelligence failure” by not being better prepared for Ukraine's attack from the Kharkiv direction.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington military think tank, called Ukraine's counteroffensive a “routing” and argued that Russia's northern Donbas front collapsed.
“Ukrainian forces have penetrated Russian lines to a depth of up to 70 kilometers [about 43 miles] in some places and captured over 3,000 square kilometers [about 1,158 square miles] of territory in the past five days,” the think tank said in its latest report.
Ukraine has retaken “more territory than Russian forces have captured in all their operations since April,” it said.
It called Ukraine's likely total capture of Izyum “the most significant Ukrainian military achievement” since it forced Russia to abandon its efforts to storm Kyiv in March.
That's because Izyum was being used by Russia to carry out attacks from the north on Donetsk, which remains the theater of battles. Luhansk, the other Donbas region, has been completely taken by Russian forces, though Ukraine is now attacking it too.
Gady, the military expert, said Ukraine proved capable of carrying off a major operation but he cautioned that it was still too early to know for sure the state of each army in terms of reserves, fighting morale, casualties, equipment losses, remaining ammunition stocks.
Nonetheless, the past week has given Ukraine and its supporters a major morale boost and it's seriously weakened the hand of Putin and his regime, which has come under fierce criticism over Russia's failures in Ukraine and its geopolitical plight as a heavily sanctioned pariah in the West.
There are signs of growing dissension and anger among Russia's elites. For example, Ramzan Kadyrov, a pro-Putin warlord and leader of Russia’s Chechen Republic, criticized the decision to withdraw from Kharkiv. Chechen fighters under his command have been fighting in Ukraine from early in the invasion.
“If today or tomorrow no changes in strategy are made, I will be forced to speak with the leadership of the defense ministry and the leadership of the country to explain the real situation on the ground to them,” Kadyrov said, as reported by RT, a Russian state news outlet. “It’s a very interesting situation. It’s astounding, I would say.”
On Russian media and social media, debates raged over what Russia should do next. There is increased discussion about whether Putin should formally declare Russia at war and order a mass mobilization of Russian men. On the other hand, voices urging the Kremlin to step up efforts to resolve the conflict through negotiations are also growing.
For now, though, the war seems to be on a path of escalation as Ukraine makes gains on the battlefield and Russia increasingly describes itself battling not just Ukraine's army but NATO and the entire West.
There is growing evidence, news reports and official acknowledgment that Ukraine's offensive and battlefield successes can be attributed not only to Ukrainian bravery but also – and perhaps mostly – to billions of dollars in Western arms shipments, extensive NATO training of Ukrainian forces, NATO military planning and coordination with Ukraine's military commanders and the alliance providing Ukraine with its vast intelligence resources.
Russia, then, faces a new reality as it struggles to fight a much larger force that is, in essence, a NATO force. Russian soldiers in Ukraine number about 200,000 while Ukraine is relying on an army of about 260,000 troops backed by up to 600,000 reservists.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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