KYIV, Ukraine — To hear pro-Russian military analysts tell it, in the last 72 hours Ukraine has managed to simultaneously recapture about 1,000 square kilometers of terrain in the northeast of the country and hundreds more square kilometers in the south.
Although it is difficult to independently confirm these figures, the very fact that they’re coming from cheerleaders of Vladimir Putin’s war highlights just how disastrously things have gone for the Russian president in a month that has seen him resort to a chaotic mobilization to replenish manpower shortages, and a heralded “annexation” of Ukrainian territory that is slipping through his fingers by the hour. And he is losing ground not just in one of the oblasts he has illegally claimed as his own, but in all four.
Rumors of deep Ukrainian advances into Russian-controlled areas of Kherson, directly north of the Russian-occupied peninsula of Crimea, have been confirmed by pictures of victorious Ukrainian soldiers hoisting the Ukrainian flag above liberated villages. The Ukrainians have been advancing down the west bank of the Dnipro River, using the natural barrier of the waterway to secure their left flank, while threatening to encircle the Russian troops to their east. And their progress has been so rapid that pro-Russian voices on the global messaging service Telegram are in a state of total panic, begging any of their readers with a well-placed contact in the Russian military to immediately send air support, although none appears forthcoming. “We need aviation more than ever!” begged one Russian Telegram channel. “If anyone has access to command, send it to us!!!”
According to a conversation said to be between Russian soldiers intercepted by the SBU, Ukraine’s domestic security service, the use of U.S.-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) has been as devastating in the south as it has been elsewhere along the frontline. One Russian soldier is allegedly recorded saying, “Here the legs are shaking. [The HIMARS] hits, the earth is shaking. Here, ours are all trembling.” In another intercept, a Russian soldier calls his father back home encouraging him to avoid mobilization. Eight of his comrades, the soldier says, recently left a hospital in Kherson without arms and legs. And Ukrainian advances on the west bank of the Dnipro have now brought the majority of the Kherson Oblast within range of Ukraine’s supremely accurate Western-supplied artillery, giving them a host of new Russian targets to destroy.
The Russian troops on the west bank have been increasingly poorly supplied due to Ukrainian strikes against the bridges crossing the Dnipro, massively complicating Russian logistics. In addition to Western artillery platforms, the Russians have been subjected to countless harassment attacks from small Ukrainian drones, many of them repurposed civilian models, which have been dropping grenades and mortars onto unsuspecting targets, often under cover of darkness. Kyiv’s combined arms approach has contributed to the steady degradation of the Russians’ capability in Kherson, where many Russian troops have been fighting since the beginning of March without interruption.
According to Joel Rayburn, a retired U.S. Army colonel and Washington’s former special envoy for Syria, “The Russians won’t be able to support anything on the right bank of the Dnipro. Those guys will be trapped and will run out of ammo. I’m discounting Russian cross-river fire support, including aviation, because they don’t appear to be able to use it. A hasty defense is very vulnerable to armored forces. The Russians apparently didn’t prepare any fallback defensive lines, and now it’s too late. They’re not dug in.”
Russia’s defensive concept in the area was to use strongpoints with no real firepower or mobile reserves in a discontinuous, rather than continuous, line. The Ukrainians are thus able to easily bypass the strongpoints and cut them off, leaving them isolated in the field. “It’s what the Germans did to the U.S. 106th and 99th Divisions at the Battle of the Bulge,” Rayburn told Yahoo News. “The whole episode shows us the Russians never expected to have to defend these areas from attack, so they didn’t prepare a defense in depth.”
As the Russians fall back, the Ukrainians have been capturing their usual array of abandoned Russian equipment, including ancient T-62M battle tanks, relics of the early Cold War forced back into service as Russia’s attrition rate of its more modern vehicles has become increasingly unsustainable.
The Ukrainian advances in Kherson have been complemented by incremental progress in Zaporizhzhia, to the east, and further territorial gains in Kharkiv. Ukrainian forces have also reentered Luhansk, with battles now underway near the Oskil River and the Svatove-Kreminna highway north of the crucial railway hub of Lyman, which Ukrainian forces recaptured last week. “The de-occupation of Luhansk Region has already begun!” Serhiy Hayday, head of the Luhansk Regional Military-Civil Administration, posted on Telegram.
In a sign that Russia is struggling to reconcile its illegal Ukrainian land grab with diminishing control of Ukrainian land, Putin’s press spokesperson Dmitry Peskov admitted during a call with journalists on Monday that the Kremlin doesn’t even know where its own declared boundaries of annexation are. “We will continue consultations with the population regarding the borders of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions,” he said.
Meanwhile, Putin’s army is in a state of disconsolation, with seemingly no idea of how to conventionally stem the Ukrainian advances across the country. And his ultraist allies at home have begun recriminating against incompetent field commanders — and floating an unconventional response to regain the Russian initiative.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the warlord president of the semiautonomous Chechen Republic, has been particularly outspoken in his contempt for Col. Gen. Alexander Lapin, commander of Russia’s Central Military District, whom Kadyrov blamed for losing Lyman to Ukraine last weekend.
On Telegram, Kadyrov assailed Lapin for failing to provide forces in Lyman with adequate communications and artillery resupplies. “It’s a shame not that Lapin is mediocre,” Kadyrov wrote. “But he is being covered up at the top by the leaders in the General Staff. If I had my way, I would demote Lapin to the rank-and-file, deprive him of his awards and, with a machine gun in his hands, send him to the frontline to wash away his shame with blood.” Kadyrov advocated instituting martial law in the border areas between Russia and Ukraine and deploying “low-yield nuclear weapons” to make up for losses on the battlefield.
Igor Girkin, a former FSB officer who commanded Russian proxy forces in the Donbas seven years ago and has been credibly implicated in a host of war crimes, has been a long-standing Cassandra about the current campaign in Ukraine. Girkin has now taken to referring to Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, once considered the second-most-popular political figure in Russia, as a “Plywood Marshal, whose continued tenure at the head of the Ministry of Defense is finally becoming unbearable for everyone who is not keenly interested in defeat in this war.”
“I can’t explain this surrender from a military point of view,” posted State Duma Deputy Andrey Gurulev, a retired major general in the Russian army and the former deputy commander of the Southern Military District, who recently advocated Russian missile strikes on the United Kingdom. “Probably, this is a significant milestone not only militarily, but also politically, especially now. … Until something completely different appears in the General Staff, nothing will change. Everything else is a consequence of the policy pursued from there.”