Ex-Russian T-80 tanks now belonging to the Ukrainian army's 93rd Mechanized Brigade. Ukrainian defense ministry photo
Ukrainian forces around Kharkiv, in northeastern Ukraine, appear to have pushed Russian troops east past Ternova, a settlement on the Russian border.
If confirmed, the Ukrainians’ liberation of Ternova could mark an inflection point in Russia’s 10-week-old wider war in Ukraine. In late March, Ukrainian forces drove Russian invaders from northern Ukraine. Now it appears they’re driving the invaders from northeastern Ukraine, too.
Heavy fighting continues around Izium, south of Kharkiv—and also around Kherson on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast. The Russians late last month briefly advanced around Kherson before stalling out. And Russian battalions more recently have captured a few settlements around Izium.
But those Russian gains are in jeopardy owing to Ukrainian gains around Kharkiv, a city of 1.4 million just 25 miles from Russia. As the Russian front collapses around Kharkiv, it could free up powerful Ukrainian brigades to push south, toward Izium, potentially tipping the fighting there in Kyiv’s favor.
The general staff of the Ukrainian armed forces was the first to hint at the Russian retreat across the border near Kharkiv. Battalions from the 138th Separate Mechanized Brigade, part of the Russian 6th Combined Arms Army, fled across the border to the Belgorod region of Russia “due to significant losses,” the general staff stated on Tuesday.
The U.S. Defense Department’s daily Ukraine briefing didn’t mention the purported Russian retreat. But heat-detecting satellites operated by NASA did register significant fires around Ternova starting around Friday—fires that could signify intensive fighting. The fires seem to have faded by Monday.
If indeed the Ukrainian forces around Kharkiv, including the battle-hardened 92nd and 93rd Mechanized Brigades, have pushed all the way to the Russian border, they not only can prevent Russian artillery from targeting Kharkiv—they could fire their own guns at Russian staging areas on the far side of the border.
And they also would be free to pivot right and head toward Izium, 60 miles south of Kharkiv. The Russian army has 99 front-line battalion tactical groups in Ukraine. A dozen of the best BTGs slowly are advancing in fits and starts south and west past Izium.
Think of any Ukrainian brigades rolling toward Izium from the north as a hammer. The Ukrainian brigades south of Izium, including the 4th and 17th Tank Brigades and the 95th Air Assault Brigade, would be the anvil. The conditions are becoming clearer for a major Ukrainian victory.
Monday, May 9th was Victory Day in Russia—the day the country celebrates its defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945. Many observers expected Russian president Vladimir Putin to use Victory Day as an opportunity to announce a major escalation of the war in Ukraine.
That didn’t happen. The Russians might not be losing the war quite yet. But they’re definitely not winning it. The Kremlin clearly assumed Ukraine’s defenders would cave soon after Russian tanks crossed the border on the morning of Feb. 24.
They didn’t cave. And 76 days later, Ukraine’s army arguably is as strong as ever. Its reserves have mobilized. It has captured more than 1,200 Russian vehicles. It’s finally begun using in combat some of the hundreds of artillery pieces that the United States and other allies have donated.
“Russia's underestimation of Ukrainian resistance and its 'best case scenario' planning have led to demonstrable operational failings, preventing President Putin from announcing significant military success in Ukraine at the ... Victory Day parade,” the U.K. Defense Ministry explained.
What happens next depends on Kyiv’s assessment of its own strength—and Moscow’s weakness. Do Ukrainian commanders believe Russia lacks the reserves to re-invade northeastern Ukraine? If so, will these commanders send south the two best brigades in the Kharkiv area?
And can those brigades sustain an advance all the way to Izium in order to initiate what could be one of the most important battles of the war?