Irreversible failure is the trajectory that Vladimir Putin has placed his forces on in Ukraine while simultaneously Russia’s incoherent and inhumane tactics only reinforce that his military is riding a downward spiral. Instantaneous collapses of two Russian fronts from surprise Ukrainian counter offensives in September and October revealed incredibly poor planning, intelligence and morale of the Russian military. A hastily announced “partial mobilization” of Russian citizens into the military resulted in anti-mobilization riots and draft dodgers fleeing Russia en masse, while those unlucky ones sent untrained and ill equipped to the front are being killed in inconceivable numbers.
Ukraine’s methodical targeting of Russian ammunition depots, ground lines of communication, railroads and bridges throughout Kherson Oblast in September and October forced Russia to abandon Kherson city as of November 9, the only administrative city Russian forces have taken since the February 24 invasion. Meanwhile Russian tactics in Ukraine turned ever more away from any resemblance of sound military doctrine and became dependent on terrorism by launching hundreds of precision strikes against civilian infrastructure intent on destroying the will of the population to resist.
As of September 1, Russian forces occupied at or near 15 percent of pre-February 24 Ukrainian territory. Their defensive line ran more than a thousand miles from just east of Kharkiv city near the Russian border and meandered southwest to Kherson city on the Black Sea. Occupied regions from north to south included half of Kharkiv Oblast, all of Luhansk Oblast, half of both Donetsk and Zaphoriza Oblasts and roughly all of Kherson Oblast. Considering however that Ukraine was expected to collapse within days of the invasion, for Russian forces to only be in full possession of two out of twenty-four oblasts after more than six months of war, serves simultaneously as a poor projection of Russian military capabilities and a testament to Ukraine’s.
Due to appallingly high losses in both manpower and equipment in those first six months of war, the Russian Armed Forces (RuAF) largely culminated by September 1. The singular axis of advance attempting any offensive action was being carried out by Wagner mercenaries in the operational direction of Bahkmut in Donetsk Oblast. To counter the much-heralded Ukrainian counter offensive expected across Kherson Oblast, Russian defensive lines elsewhere deemed by the RuAF to be of low priority, were stripped to threadbare forces. Many elite units of the Eastern Military District, including Airborne and Rosgvardia forces were shipped west to reinforce Russian lines on the western edge of Kherson Oblast running north from Kherson city to the Inhulets River.
A significant weak point in the Russian defensive lines developed, which Ukrainian Intelligence (GRU) painstakingly mapped out and the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) exploited. This was the Isyum-Slovyansk axis in Kharkiv Oblast, which as of May was planned by the RuAF to serve as a major launching point of a southeastern offensive to encircle Ukrainian troops holding the Donetsk-Luhansk line. Due to high losses this plan was long abandoned and as of September 1, the Isyum-Slovyansk axis was manned solely by a few volunteer battalions maintaining an operational depth of only a singular defensive line.
Using a U.S. military inspired “Thunder Run,” several Ukrainian armored battalions were secretly moved to the front supported by fast moving mechanized infantry units. Since no Russian secondary or tertiary defensive lines existed on the Isyum-Slovyansk axis Ukrainian armor would punch holes through Russian defensive lines. Ukrainian mechanized infantry would immediately exploit these gaps by penetrating behind Russian lines, cutting off supplies, capturing ammunition depots and collapsing Russian defenses.
The Ukrainian attack on the Isyum-Slovyansk front launched on September 7 with such surprise that Russian lines instantly broke. This inspired a popular Twitter meme in which the “fastest runners on earth” were shown to be a Russian soldier leading out ahead of both a horse and a cheetah. Ukrainian special forces performed forward reconnaissance and seized crucial bridges while artillery and MLRS rocket batteries poured through gaps in the Russian lines. These units quickly placed the E-40 and R-79 highways under fire control, paralyzing Russian resupply and reinforcement by road.
With the RuAF almost entirely dependent on railroads for logistics, AFU mechanized infantry battalions immediately advanced upon major Russian held railway hubs, which caused Russian defenses to wholesale collapse. Russian held rail lines running through Kharkiv Oblast originated in Belgorod Russia, meandered southwest through the occupied Ukrainian cities of Kupyansk and Isyum, and continued down into Donetsk Oblast. When Ukrainian mechanized infantry seized Kupyansk on September 9 panic ensued and the RuAF abandoned Isyum the following day without a fight.
By September 14 Ukrainian forces had liberated an incredible 8,500 square kilometers of Kharkiv Oblast, which included 388 cities, towns and villages. With nearly all of Kharkiv Oblast stripped from Russian hands in one-week, Ukrainian forces were in position and poised to penetrate the northern regions of occupied Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts. Among the most vulnerable cities were the major railway hub of Lyman (Donetsk Oblast) as well as Severodonetsk (Luhansk Oblast), both of which had been laid to waste by the Russian offensive in the spring and early summer.
Ukrainian forces were met with both triumph and tragedy. The streets of every liberated settlement in Kharkiv Oblast were immediately saturated with celebrating civilians who inundated their “heroes” of the AFU with hugs, kisses and flowers. Thousands of tons of abandoned Russian ammunition was confiscated by Ukrainian forces during the rout. Using sarcastic humor, Ukrainian officers announced in a press release that it was “illegal in Ukraine to accept gifts from terrorists, so we promise to return every round to the Russians in full.”
Simultaneously, the realities of Russian occupation unfolded before the eyes of the world. Throughout liberated Kharkiv Oblast more than two dozen Russian torture chambers were uncovered along with a mass grave in Isyum which contained the bodies of 447 Ukrainians. Of the civilians found were 215 women, 194 men and five children, while twenty-two were military personnel. Many of the bodies showed signs of execution and or torture, including bound hands, bullet holes to the backs of skulls, and castration.
Meanwhile, Putin’s behavior became more erratic by the day. On September 7, as Ukrainian forces launched their offensive into Kharkiv Oblast, he was hosting the dedication ceremonies of a grand new Ferris wheel in Moscow. With the complete collapse of his forces in Kharkiv, he hastily announced the partial mobilization of citizens into the Russian armed forces on September 21 but left it up to local government precincts to establish their own quotas and methods of selection.
This immediately resulted in scores of anti-mobilization demonstrations throughout Russia along with tens of thousands of arrested protesters of all ages and health conditions being forcibly pressed into military service. Additionally, a panicked mass exodus ensued in which upwards of 700,000 men fled Russia seeking to avoid the draft.
Caution however should be applied before projecting any sympathy for the Russian protesters. Prior to September 21 not a single significant demonstration against the war occurred in Russia while tens of thousands of ordinary Russians took to their Telegram accounts on a daily basis cheering on the war and mocking bombed out Ukrainian towns and dead Ukrainian civilians. Few if any ethic Russians offered so much as a passing concern about the thousands of minorities in their own empire dying on the front lines in the Russian army, but only rose up in protest when they were told that they had to fight.
Massive Russian missile and drone attacks were launched against both civilians and the essential infrastructure of Ukraine throughout September and October. The stated purpose of this assault was to knock out heat, electricity and water throughout the country in order to both freeze and starve the Ukrainian population into submission throughout the upcoming winter. Not only was forty percent of Ukraine’s energy production damaged or destroyed, but also tragic stories of random death from the skies amassed.
A renowned doctor was killed in her car while driving through Kyiv while another woman, seven months pregnant, along with her husband were killed in their sleep. An entire family was wiped out by a night attack against a home in Dnipro with the only survivor being their dog Crym. He was left concussed, disoriented, and died of a broken heart just over a month later. As horrible as each story is, Russia expended hundreds of millions of dollars of hardware in these attacks without achieving a single militarily strategic objective, while each tragedy further emboldened the Ukrainian population to resist.
Putin further took the bizarre step on October 4-5 of formally annexing into Russia the Ukrainian Oblasts of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaphorizia and Kherson. His armies however were not even in control of all these regions and the annexation ceremonies in Moscow were set to the backdrop of further Russian defeats in the field. Lyman, the railroad hub in Donetsk Oblast fell on October 1 to the Ukrainian offensive pressing south out of Kharkiv.
To bulk up wavering Russian lines in northern Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts the RuAF transferred multiple units from northern Kherson Oblast along the front stretching between the Dnieper and the Inhulets rivers. With the Ukrainian Kherson offensive focused on the western edge of Kherson Oblast, this northern front was viewed by the Russian command to be at low risk.
Exploiting this transfer, the AFU promptly launched another surprise Thunder Run against this vulnerable northern flank of Kherson and advanced south along the right bank of the Dnieper River.
Rivers are described by the way in which they flow, and since the Dnieper runs north to south, its right bank lies to its west and its left bank to the east. In a near mirror image of what the AFU pulled off in Kharkiv not quite a month before, Ukrainian armor followed by mechanized infantry punched through Russian defenses and by October 4 were more than 30 kilometers behind their lines. Since Ukraine was pressing their attack along the Dnieper, south was the only direction retreating Russian forces could go.
Without immediate reinforcement, the entire Russian hold of Kherson Oblast was in danger of collapsing upon itself in the early days of October. Russian units stationed in both Kherson city along with those manning the defensive lines on the western edge of Kherson Oblast were depleted to reinforce the disintegrating northern front. Although this succeeded in temporarily slowing the Ukrainian advance, it left the western borders of Kherson Oblast open to further Ukrainian attacks.
Tens of thousands of conscripted Russian soldiers were shipped en masse into Kherson Oblast throughout October to reinforce the disintegrating lines of the RuAF. These men proved however to be nothing more than cannon fodder. With no more than a few days training, derelict weapons, little ammunition, some still in civilian clothes and flip-flops, and first aid kits that contained tampons for bullet wounds; Putin’s conscripts stood no chance against the advancing legions of the AFU.
From mid-October through early November 700-900 conscripts were killed every day throughout occupied Ukraine from AFU bombardments, soaring the total Russian body count for the war up over 80,000. Horror stories abounded from captured Russian soldiers ranging anywhere from conscripts being held in dungeons to officers threatening them with guns to their heads until they agreed to fight. Blocking units were set up behind the front lines to shoot conscripts attempting to either surrender or retreat while the bodies of many dead soldiers were intentionally left behind so the Russian government could avoid paying benefits to their families.
Severely degraded from incessant Ukrainian attacks, the Russian command announced their withdrawal from Kherson city on November 9 to positions on the left bank of the Dnieper. What was expected to be at least a weeklong process of moving thousands of troops and tons of equipment out of the city turned into a mad dash across the river. Within forty-eight hours of the announced withdrawal, and in their final act in Kherson city, the Russians blew up the last four major bridges in the area, including three over the Dnieper and one over the Inhulets in an attempt to stall the Ukrainian offensive. Trapped in the city were possibly several thousand Russian soldiers who will not likely hold out for long, if at all, against Ukrainian de-occupation forces swooping into Kherson city from multiple directions simultaneously
At every turn, Putin finds his reality in Ukraine to be irreversible. His armed forces have been decimated with staggering losses in both manpower and equipment with no means to immediately replenish either. With every shift his forces make in response to a Ukrainian offensive, it weakens another front, which the AFU exploits with a corresponding attack. Throughout the nearly nine months of war, even with a population just one fourth the size of Russia’s, Ukraine has managed to methodically recruit, train, and field a larger and far superior force than what Russia can muster. With conscripts being wholesale slaughtered, the Russian military has no ability to train and develop replacements, which will likely result in continued collapses of further battlefronts.
The western world providing maximum amounts of essential arms, ammunition and supplies to Ukraine now is the single best way to shorten the war and to reduce the risk of a Russian escalation with chemical or nuclear weapons. Putin understands only force, and he must be shown that the war is un-winnable in order to convince him to leave Ukraine. Giving in to his aggressions and pressuring Ukraine into some form of negotiated peace would be a repeat of Munich and would only result in an emboldened Putin demanding more. Feeling the pressure of collapsing fronts, witnessing a unified west honoring its commitments to Ukraine and shipping in a continuous stream of weapons which have proven far superior to their Russian counterparts all while running out of excuses for the thousands of body bags returning from the front will create the type of collective coercion that is most likely to get Putin to end the war and ensure future peace.
Editor’s note: Jeffrey Owens is a Jeffersonville native, a 1995 graduate of Miami Trace High School and 2000 graduate of Ohio University. As a lifelong history buff, Owens published “Victory In Europe; A People’s History of the Second World War”, a more than 700-page analysis of World War II in Europe in 2015. Since 2015, Owens has hosted more than a dozen educational symposiums on a variety of military history topics at the Grove City Library. He is a resident of New Holland.