Ukraine was reported today to have inflicted a crippling blow on Russian forces with a lightning push through enemy-occupied territory in the northeast that has liberated strategic towns and villages, in what could prove a turning point in the war.
Military analysts said Russia appeared to have been caught by surprise, describing the collapse of its front line in the northeast as the most significant shift in Ukraine’s favour since the end of March, when Moscow’s forces retreated in disarray from the entire region around Kiev.
“It’s of historic importance,” said Sir Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London. “It might be a tipping point, we don’t know quite how this will work out but there’s a lot of panic and anxiety among Russian troops right now.”
Social media was awash with images of Ukrainain civilians lining the streets of their villages shouting “thanks boys!” as their “liberators” drove past; and of a bedraggled Russian army in retreat with burnt-out vehicles bearing the “Z” symbol of the invasion, boxes of ammunition and other kit abandoned on roads. It was not known how many Russian soldiers had been killed, wounded or captured.
Natalia Popova, a regional official, posted photos of troops raising the nation’s flag over Kupiansk, an important railway hub and one of Russia’s key supply routes to the east. Its capture has the potential to leave an estimated 10,000 Russian soldiers trapped and cut off from supplies in Izium, Russia’s main stronghold and logistics centre in the northeast.
Ukrainian forces were reported to have been seen today at the northern entrance to the city but reports that Russian troops had retreated from Izium and that it had fallen could not be immediately verified.
The Ministry of Defence in London said in an intelligence update that the Russian force at Izium “is likely increasingly isolated” and added that the capture of Kupiansk would be “a significant blow to Russia because it sits on supply routes to the Donbas front line”.
Kyiv appears to have taken advantage of Russia’s redeployment of some of its best troops from the northeast to the southern city of Kherson, focus of a much-advertised Ukrainian offensive that began just over a week ago. This left Russian positions in the northeast thinly-held and vulnerable.
Ukraine punched through them: President Zelensky claimed that at least 30 “settlements” had been liberated in the Kharkiv region since the offensive began on Tuesday.
“The Ukrainians saw an opportunity and did a very good job to seize it,” said General Sir Richard Barrons, a former British army commander. “It’s good news they’re on the offensive, showing the Russians can be beaten. It’s very bad for Russian morale in the military and at home.”
He sounded a note of caution, however. “There will be exuberance, overselling. But Russia still sits on 20 per cent of Ukrainian territory. The battle for Kherson is what really matters strategically,” he said, referring to the southern city, a gateway to Crimea and the ports on the Black Sea. “This is going to go on for some time.”
Freedman called Ukraine’s offensive “quite spectacular” and predicted it would have “knock-on effects” such as undermining Russian propaganda. “It wouldn’t surprise me if things carried on moving quite quickly now, these things have a momentum of their own,” he said.
“All those people nagging at the Ukrainians to accept negotiations, that doesn’t look so good now.”
Moscow acknowledged that its front line had collapsed in the Kharkiv region but said that it was rushing reinforcements to the area.
Russian-installed regional officials had called for civilians to evacuate Kupiansk and Izium; and Vitaly Ganchev, a Russia-appointed official, admitted on Friday that Ukraine had won what he called a “significant victory”.
Ukrainians commentators were ecstatic. Illia Ponomarenko, a reporter for the Kyiv Post, called the apparent rout “one of the most spectacular f***-ups in Russian military history”.
Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, has yet to refer to any battlefield setbacks. He was seen inaugurating a new ferris wheel in Moscow, saying, with a laugh: “140 metres tall, there’s nothing like it in Europe” (it is 5m taller than the London Eye).
The rout in northeastern Ukraine was not the only bad news for Putin.
It emerged that a group of district council members in St. Petersburg, his home town, had called for him to be charged with treason and removed from office in a rare domestic protest against the war in Ukraine.
Predictably, the councillors were informed by police that they were facing legal charges “due to actions aimed at discrediting the government”.
Ukraine’s rapid advance in the east is by far its most striking success in months after a long period in which the war seemed to have turned into a slow and relentless grind along entrenched front lines.
It came a week after Kyiv began a long-awaited counter-offensive to take back Russian-occupied territory at the other end of the front line, hundreds of miles to the south in Kherson.
Less information has been made public about that operation, although Ukraine has claimed some success in cutting supply routes to thousands of Russian troops on the west bank of the Dnipro river. “We see success in Kherson now, we see some success in Kharkiv and so that is very, very encouraging,” Lloyd Austin, the US defence secretary, said on Thursday.
Mark Hertling, a retired four-star general and former commander of US ground forces in Europe, tweeted: “Make no mistake, Ukraine is executing a brilliant manoeuvre focused on terrain objectives to ‘bag’ Russians. But the Russians are helping them — by doing very little to counter.”
Speaking about the Ukrainian offensive at the Nato headquarters in Brussels on Friday, Tony Blinken, America’s secretary of state, said: “The initial signs are positive, and we see Ukraine making real, demonstrable progress in a deliberate way.”
He, too, sounded a note of caution, however: “This is likely to go on for some significant period of time. There are a huge number of Russian forces in Ukraine, and unfortunately, tragically, horrifically, President Putin has demonstrated that he will throw a lot of people into this at huge cost to Russia.”