The implications of Russia’s defeat in the Kharkiv front

In the last few days, Ukrainian forces have made significant advances on the Kharkiv front, forcing the Russians into a disorganised retreat. Where did this surprise counteroffensive come from and what is its significance for the war overall?


“Perhaps the less we have, the more we are required to brag.”
― John Steinbeck, East of Eden

How they crowed! Even after so many months of noisy propaganda, the headlines that followed the Ukrainian advances on the Kharkiv front really broke all decibels.

The Daily Telegraph trumpeted:

“Putin is finished. The Ukrainians have him on the ropes with a stunning victory in their sights.”

If we were to judge by the size of the headlines one might assume that the war was already won. The heroic Ukrainian forces had defeated the Russians, who were running back to the border as fast as their legs could carry them.

Our gallant Ukrainian allies would then pursue them right up to the gates of Moscow, where the head of the villainous Putin would already be on display at the top of a pike…

A very pretty picture! Unfortunately, the same imaginary scenario has been constantly played and replayed so many times that one begins to suspect that it is the fruit of wish-fulfilment, rather than reality. Here, the information war seems to be more important than what is actually happening on the battlefield.

In all matters pertaining to Ukraine, it is therefore necessary to maintain a sense of healthy scepticism at all times if we wish to penetrate through the thick fog of lying claims and counter-claims, and arrive at some kind of objective appraisal of what is really going on.

A serious defeat

What is the meaning and significance of this counteroffensive and how is it likely to impact the course of the conflict? Firstly, it is true that the collapse of the Russian forces on the Kharkiv front was a serious defeat. In the last few days, Ukrainian troops have made important inroads in the Kharkiv front. Analysis by the US-based Institute for War talks of 2,500 square kilometres having been retaken from the Russian forces.

The Ukrainian forces have pushed back the Kharkiv frontline about 70km eastwards to the Oskil river and conquered key strategic points, chiefly Izyum and the western bank of Kupyansk.

Liberated Shevchenkove Image Ministry of Defense of UkraineUkrainian soldiers standing in front of the entrance sign to Shevchenkove (Kharkiv region), shortly after its liberation from the Russian army / Image: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine

The propaganda war

In the last few months, as the winter approaches, there was increasing worry amongst Ukraine’s western backers about the development of the war. Billions of dollars, euros and pounds being sent to Kyiv in ammunition, artillery pieces, equipment, intelligence sharing, etc. seemed to have no real impact on the frontline, with the Russians advancing slowly but relentlessly on the basis of significant firepower superiority.

The question started to be raised: is it worth pouring resources into a war which, it seems, cannot be won? This was posed starkly as Russian supplies of gas to Europe were cut off and governments in the EU feared that high energy bills might provoke mass discontent.

Increasingly anxious that the West would lose interest in Ukraine and disengage under growing pressure from public opinion, or at least reduce the flow of arms and money to a trickle, Zelensky was becoming desperate. He needed to show his bosses in Washington that their money was not being wasted, that the war was still ongoing, and that Ukrainians were ready to launch a great counteroffensive.

In other words, he needed some kind of dramatic stunt that would make his donors sit up and pay attention. He needed a quick victory. But how to get one? That was the question.

The ‘Kherson offensive’

Before these latest events, all attention was concentrated on the so-called ‘Kherson counteroffensive’ of Ukrainian forces in the south, which started on 29 August. This had been publicly announced by Kyiv for months.

Now, if Zelensky was really serious about this, it was very strange, because in any war, surprise is a key factor. A real counter-offensive needs to rely on the element of surprise, so why announce it publicly? Yet here was Zelensky loudly proclaiming to the four winds that an offensive against a specific target – Kherson – was imminent.

The reason is that Kherson was never meant to see a real offensive, but rather one designed to draw Russian troops from other sections of the front in order to slow down their advance particularly in Donbass.

Actually, from a military point of view, an attack on Kherson made no sense. The Russian forces were well dug in and the open terrain would inevitably expose the Ukrainian forces to terrible losses. For that reason, a significant layer of the Ukrainian generals were against it – as were the Americans. But Zelensky remained adamant.

The Ukrainian manoeuvre was partially effective. The Russians did move a lot of troops and equipment to the Kherson front. After the Russian takeover of Severodonetsk and Lysichansk at the beginning of July, the Russian advance on the Siversk-Bakhmut-Horlivka Ukrainian line of defence had been extremely slow.

However, just as predicted, the Kherson offensive came at a great human cost for the Ukrainian army. Though Kyiv had declared a complete ban on any information coming out of the front, it is clear and has been reported in the US media, that the Kherson counter-offensive was a meat grinder for the Ukrainian forces. Very little terrain was gained, and some of it was then lost again, at a great cost. Ukraine was playing to its strength: manpower. Russia was playing to its strength: superiority in artillery.

But the Kherson counter-offensive had another result. By concentrating the attention of the Russians on that front, it inevitably weakened their position on other fronts. At this point, the Ukrainian high command stepped up intelligence sharing with the US allowing them to identify the weakest points of the Russian frontline and launch a surprise offensive.

This information was invaluable to the Ukrainians. There is a well-known principle of warfare that states: full strength at the point of attack. The weakest point was identified as the area north of the key strategic point of Izyum. The city was taken by the Russian army at great cost at the end of March. Izyum is important because it is a crucial railway hub, but also because it opens the main road towards Sloviansk from the north. The front here had been more-or-less static for months.

Thus, while all the attention was concentrated on the Kherson front, on 8 September, the Ukrainian army launched a surprise offensive on Balakliya, north of Izyum. This clearly took the Russians completely by surprise. Their defences here were weak and were quickly overrun. While fighting was still going on in the actual town, Ukrainian forces kept pushing further east, by-passing it, and found almost no resistance.

Within a couple of days, they had reached Shevchenkove to the north east of Balakliya and then they occupied the west bank of the crucial city of Kupyansk. At the same time, they advanced very quickly south in the direction of Izyum.

Repercussions in the Kremlin

The Russian Ministry of Defence made a feeble attempt to concoct an explanation for the defeat:

“Over the course of three days an operation was undertaken to curtail and organise the transfer of troops from the Izyum-Balakliya groups to the territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic. During this period a number of distracting and deflecting measures were taken regarding the real movements of the troops.”

Such an explanation will satisfy nobody. By 12 September, Russia had been forced to withdraw its forces also from the strip along the border, north of Kharkiv region and moved the front from the Siverskidonestk river back eastward to the Oskil river.

This was a far-more humiliating defeat than the earlier withdrawal from Kyiv. That was a more-or-less orderly affair. But not so here. This was not an orderly retreat, but rather a rout. The Russians fled, abandoning their positions, leaving behind large quantities of weapons and equipment.

There are reports of Russian soldiers being left behind, changing into civilian clothes in order to flee on foot or by bicycle. There were also columns of civilian cars fleeing from all the cities, towns and settlements towards the Russian border, fearing the reprisals of the advancing Ukrainian army and far-right volunteer battalions.

The nature of the Putin regime

The question must be asked: how were the Ukrainians able to conduct such a surprise offensive and win such a stunning success? An absolutely key factor was the intelligence provided by the Americans, who almost certainly helped to co-ordinate and direct the whole operation.

putin with military Image kremlin.ru Wikimedia CommonsOne of the key weaknesses of Putin's Bonapartist regime is the suppression of criticism / Image: kremlin.ru Wikimedia Commons

But that cannot explain everything. In the old days of the Soviet Union, the quality of Soviet intelligence was second to none. Surely, they should have been able to identify the build-up of Ukrainian troops on that section of the front and react accordingly?

The debacle on the Kharkiv front exposes a fatal weakness of the Russian forces in this war, and that is the poor quality of their intelligence. But this, in turn, is only one symptom of the degeneration at the very heart of Putin’s regime.

The collapse of the Soviet Union has turned Russia from a bureaucratically deformed workers’ state into a bourgeois Bonapartist regime, run by a corrupt clique of oligarchs who have enriched themselves through the massive theft of the property of the people.

This rotten regime is ruled by the Kremlin clique that serves the interests of the oligarchs, while simultaneously lording it over them; bullying and fleecing them in exchange for the services of its police and the FBS, the inheritor of the old KGB, which was the ladder by which Vladimir Putin climbed into the Kremlin.

Putin likes to present himself as the Strong Man, but in reality, he is a giant with feet of clay. One of the weaknesses of a Bonapartist regime is precisely that the Strong Man does not tolerate dissent or criticism of any kind.

The man in the Kremlin lives in a kind of bubble: an artificial world inhabited by corrupt cronies and sycophants in which everyone just wants to tell him good news, irrespective of whether this bears any relation to the truth or not. This has undoubtedly played a most negative role in Russia’s conduct of the war from the beginning.

It partly explains the overconfidence on Putin’s part. This is reflected in the fact that he persists in the nonsense that this is not a war at all, but only a “special military operation” – a very strange formulation that has no known equivalent either in history or in military theory. Hiding behind this pretence, Putin has so far avoided declaring war and carrying out a full mobilisation. But this has limited the number of forces he is able to commit to the conflict.

To draw an historical analogy, used by Zelensky’s presidential advisor Arestovych: when the Red Army liberated Ukraine from the Nazis, Stalin sent a force of two and a half million into battle. By contrast, Russia has so far committed a relatively small number of soldiers to this war, perhaps 170,000.

The reasons for this are political. A declaration of war and a full mobilisation would have a much bigger impact on Russian society and might give rise to opposition. But it has seriously hampered Russia’s war effort.

Thus, when the Russians moved troops to reinforce the Kherson front, sections of the Kharkiv front were left extremely weakened. The enemy was able to seize the opportunity and staged a lightning attack that caught the Russians completely by surprise. The result was a rout, as we have seen.

Consequences

What will be the consequences of this Russian defeat in the Kharkiv region? From the Ukrainian point of view this is a much-needed morale booster. The propaganda element has been key for the Ukrainian-Western side since the beginning. But propaganda has its limits; unless it is followed up by concrete advances on the ground it becomes empty and counterproductive.

As one might have predicted, the men in Kyiv are now puffed up with their own importance. To quote a phrase used by Stalin, they are “dizzy with success.” Dizziness in everyday life can cause unpleasant accidents. One can lose one’s balance and experience a painful fall. But in warfare, the consequences can be infinitely more serious.

There is now talk of Ukraine preparing a similar counter-offensive in Vuhledar, on the Zaporizhzhia front. However, the real situation is shown by the latest appeals from Kyiv, demanding that the West speed up the delivery of arms and vastly increase the quantities.

For what purpose? Not to stage a triumphal march to Moscow, or Crimea, or even Mariupol, but merely to hang on to the territory they have just won.

To win one battle is not to win the war, which consists of many battles. The Ukrainians may win one battle, or ten battles. But such victories can be ephemeral and do not necessarily signify a change in the general balance of forces.

An existential question

These are very dangerous developments for Putin. The war in Ukraine is an existential question for him and his regime. The collapse of Russian defences in Kharkiv was perhaps the most serious set-back for Russia in this war. Military and Russian reactionary nationalist commentators, who have supported the invasion of Ukraine, are now openly voicing their criticism of the leadership of the campaign, some questioning even Putin himself.

Chechen leader Kadirov, who has been an important part of the war on Ukraine, openly expressed his criticism of the Russian forced retreat in Kharkiv: “Mistakes were made. I think they’ll draw conclusions. It might not be nice when you tell someone the truth to their face, but I like telling the truth.”

So far, these cracks are only mild, but unless the situation on the ground in Ukraine is turned around and Putin has some victories to show, then dissent will grow, particularly amongst those who supported the war so far. This could become very dangerous for Putin’s position. Defeats in war often lead to revolution.

For this reason, Putin needs to act decisively and quickly. His first reaction came on the night of 11 September, with a series of coordinated attacks that damaged electricity power plants across Ukraine, provoking a general blackout. That is just the beginning. In the next few days, he needs to make sure that Russia does not suffer any more significant defeats and it manages to achieve some victory or another.

He might have to resort to full mobilisation, though that would be a risky move on his part. A Russian comrade comments: “mobilisation is going on in an unofficial manner. People from regions far from major cities were mobilised. The question is whether now they'll start to mobilise recruits from the main cities like Moscow, Leningrad or Kazan. There's a major political risk in that.”

One way or another, Putin needs to strengthen what is one of the weakest points of the Russian army in this war, as revealed in this recent defeat: manpower. This will be done by either making further use of its firepower superiority or by bringing additional troops. Probably through a mixture of both.

Imperialists face problems

Considered objectively, the recent rout is a setback and has led to serious difficulties in the Russian campaign, but whether this will have any lasting effect on the overall balance of forces is open to doubt. Some military and political leaders in Kyiv and the West are striking a note of caution.

blinken and zelensky 2During his recent visit to Ukraine, US Secretary of State Blinken “brought a message from Joe Biden about the need to start negotiations with Putin.” / Image: Secretary Antony Blinken

Zelensky is clearly a gambler who is not averse to taking risky decisions. His Kherson-Kharkiv offensive was a desperate gamble aimed at keeping international support. And sometimes desperate gambles can succeed. It might seem that Zelensky is now in a stronger position to demand even more military and financial aid from the US and Europe.

But Zelensky has his own domestic problems. Rumours abound in Kyiv that the military high command was not too keen on the Kherson offensive. Western analysts were sceptical and advised limiting its aims and scope. Zelensky nevertheless pushed ahead with it. The reason was not so much military but political.

Temporarily, this victory will have an impact on the morale of Ukrainian soldiers and public opinion, which had until now only seen defeats and retreats since April. It allows Ukraine to keep alive the hope of further advances in the war after the winter period, which is likely to bring warfare to a standstill.

But all is not what it seems. Paradoxically, the recent military success of the Ukrainian side has created difficulties for the imperialists and what you might call the Peace Party. In fact, several Ukrainian newspapers report that during last week’s visit by US Secretary of State Blinken to Kyiv, he “brought a message from Joe Biden about the need to start negotiations with Putin.” (Ukrainska Pravda).

But Putin will be in no mood to negotiate with anybody so soon after a humiliating defeat. The recent attack took the Russians by surprise. But that is unlikely to be repeated. The Russian forces will regroup and they will be reinforced by new and fresh divisions.

Russia still has considerable reserves to draw upon. To look no further, starting on 1 September, the Vostok 22 joint military drills with China and other countries were held in the Far East, and lasted for eight days. Thus, tens of thousands of Russian troops were involved in military exercises in the Far East, which could have been destined for the Ukrainian front.

Putin will do whatever is necessary to be able to present a victory in Ukraine. For that he needs, as a minimum, to keep the territory he holds in Kherson, Zaporizhzhya and Lugansk, and complete the takeover of the Donbass by reaching the administrative borders of Donetsk.

And there is no question of Putin giving up as a result of temporary setbacks, which are inevitable in any war. On the other hand, Ukraine is in an extremely difficult situation from an economic point of view, having been almost cut off from foreign trade (despite the grain export agreement) and completely dependent on Western help for its day-to-day budget.

The imperialists – especially the Europeans – are thus faced with a stark dilemma. Winter is approaching, without any guarantees for the supply of gas and oil. This is fuelling a cost-of-living crisis with potentially explosive social and political effects. The pressure towards reaching some sort of deal or compromise will continue to grow. What we saw in the Czech Republic is highly symptomatic of changes in public opinion which are taking place across Europe.

It is impossible to predict what will happen in the next few months. As Napoleon said: war is the most complex of all equations. It is a constantly moving picture with many unknown variables. Our task as Marxists is to follow the course of events and patiently explain to the advanced layers, to agitate against the war from a revolutionary point of view, addressing our opposition first and foremost against the enemy at home: our own ruling class.