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The Ukrainian Counter-Offensive in Kharkiv: Implications for Russia and Ukraine

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

The past few days have witnessed dramatic changes in the war in Ukraine. In a lightning counter-offensive, Ukrainian forces have captured territory north from Kharkiv to within 50 km (30 miles) of the border with Russia, forcing Russia to withdraw from key areas in the region. The retreat is one of Russia’s biggest setbacks since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine on February 24. To understand the implications of these developments for both Russia and Ukraine, we asked some of Wikistrat’s top experts about their significance.


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How will Moscow react to the collapse of the Eastern front?

Dr. Stephen Blank:

As of this writing on September 10, 2022, it might be overreaching to describe the Russian military situation in Ukraine as a collapse. That might well occur, but for now, what is clear is that Moscow has suffered and will likely suffer more major defeats. Ukraine has evidently recovered 2,500 sq. km (about 850 sq. miles) of territory and now threatens to outflank Russian positions in both Donets and Luhansk provinces. By capturing both Izium and Kupiansk, along with a host of other towns and key locations, Kyiv has forced the Russian army to pull back to Donetsk.


Moreover, if Ukraine can force a Russian withdrawal from Kherson province and the city of Kherson, it will be able to control the Dnipro river upstream and thereby threaten Crimea, which does not have its water supply and Crimea’s land connections to Russia like the Kerch Bridge. Beyond that, if Crimea cannot be held, the Black Sea Fleet’s blockade of Ukraine – and indeed the fleet’s logistical infrastructure, if not the fleet itself – all become vulnerable to attack.


These developments, acknowledged inside Russia, will undoubtedly add to the multiple signs of mounting discontent within the army and society at large. The call by six St. Petersburg officials to try Putin for high treason clearly reveals an erosion of fear and demoralization that generally presages what Lenin called a revolutionary crisis. And the worsening economic conditions inside Russia with the onset of winter can only add to the overall decline of confidence.


The many reported incidents of plunging morale in the military, even of mutinies among units, reflect the savage mélange of brutality and incompetence that has come to characterize Russian conduct here. Reports attribute Ukraine’s breakthrough not only to Kyiv’s acquisition and successful utilization of imported Western weapons and technologies but also to several manifestations of failures to perform elementary military missions. But in the larger context of the war, we find numerous examples of massive strategic failure beyond these recent instances of dereliction.


These relate not only to intelligence and policy failures with regard to Ukraine’s will and capacity to fight but also to the condition of the Russian armed forces, basic issues like logistics, failure to gauge accurately Western reaction, and the utility of the energy and food weapons. Putin also clearly overestimated the likely success of his nuclear threats, though more of them – including potential actual use – might be forthcoming in a possible Russian version of what has been described, in an Israeli context, as a Samson option.


At the same time, Putin also bears responsibility. First, for the massive corruption that pervades the entire governing system, the military establishment, and society at large. Second, by all accounts, his reported micro-management of military operations has led to repeated sackings of generals while not overcoming their failures, and to enormous operational-strategic mismanagement, as became rapidly clear early in the campaign. Indicative of these failures is the recruitment of the Vagner Private Military Company, middle-aged men, and even prisoners to make up the huge losses resulting from comprehensive mismanagement, malfunctioning weapons, and outmoded – even cookbook – tactics.


Similarly, the deals to buy Iranian drones, and North Korean artillery and shells show that before the Ukrainian offensive, we saw something akin to the infamous “shell shortage” of the Tsarist Army in World War I and a crisis within the defense industrial sector and logistics.

Assuming this analysis to be true, the question becomes how will Moscow react if indeed the Eastern front collapses? Since a genuine collapse of that front presages a general retreat if not collapse of the Southern front around Kherson, if the Eastern front collapses, the overall offensive likely collapses with it. That denouement will reverberate across Russia with profound consequences, including a very possible revolutionary crisis if not an actual revolution or change of government.


So, we should expect Putin to pull out all the stops to prevent this. More troops, even if insufficiently trained, will be sent to the front along with weapons and equipment that Moscow can find from its Soviet stocks and partners like Iran and North Korea. We will also see greater efforts to conduct what has been called a “stealth mobilization” of Russian public opinion, manpower, and the overall economy.


This means further consolidation of a plan for carrying out a wartime mobilization of the economy beyond what we have already seen. This likely means some form of regression to something resembling the planned Soviet economy. We will also see, in this context, a comparably increased state effort to repress and suppress any manifestation of opposition or dissemination of accurate information about the course of the war. Concurrently, Russia will press harder for overt Chinese military support or even possibly [ask it to put] more pressure on Taiwan to divert Western attention, but it will likely fail to persuade China to act so rashly. Undoubtedly, energy blackmail will be intensified against Europe along with Russian interference in Western political systems.


Finally, we will also see more and more overt nuclear threats and overall informational-cyber threats to the West even in the face of Western admonishments that following through on them will likely trigger severe Western reaction on behalf of Ukraine (this issue will be treated in more depth in the next essay).


Thus overall, in the foreseeable short-term future, should this become a genuine collapse or a threat thereof, we should expect further movement toward totalitarian-like repression to prevent a full realization of the disaster facing Russia and its military to prevent a collapse and an accompanying upsurge of opposition. This elite – not just Putin – will not shy away from domestic violence to hold power, though, if necessary, it may sacrifice Putin to try to hold on to power (not unlike the military in 1917 with Nicholas II).


It is my belief (and I suspect Putin’s if not that of his entourage) that collapse and defeat mean a revolutionary crisis leading to an attempted overthrow of the regime. Thus, genuine collapse, if it occurs, and the ensuing defeat of the Russian army could, since this elite will fight for its privileges, as in 1917, lead to a turning of the foreign war into a revolution and perhaps a civil war or large-scale civil strife.


Could Putin threaten to use nuclear weapons? What extreme measures could Moscow take?

Dr. Stephen Blank:

If indeed we are seeing a collapse of the Eastern front of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the Southern front could well become untenable too, leading to a general collapse of the entire Russian offensive against Ukraine, including the naval blockade. The collapse of the land forces puts Crimea and thus the infrastructure and logistics of the Black Sea Fleet at a grave and indefensible risk, hence this conclusion. But as of this writing on September 10, the proclamation remains premature.


Since Ukraine has recovered about 2,500 sq. km to date, we must consider the possibility of extreme Russian reactions in the event of this defeat. In the accompanying essay, we raised the likelihood of a draconian mobilization/repression campaign by Putin at home to prevent full awareness of the scale of the defeat and [ensure he can] retain power. This campaign would probably have a parallel foreign dimension too. That entails eliciting more support from China in the form of greater pressure on Taiwan, maybe even military action, to divert Western attention from Russia. We would also see even stronger efforts to utilize the tactic of energy blackmail to force fissures within Europe and break the anti-Russian alliance that has developed since the invasion of Ukraine.


Of course, the most dangerous threat is the nuclear one, and Putin as well as his subordinates have made many such threats – including apocalyptic threats – of nuclear use before and after the invasion, dating back to the seizure of Crimea in 2014. Having already published a paper on Putin’s use of the nuclear weapon in this war (“Russian Nuclear Strategy In the Ukraine War: An Interim Report,” https:/nipp.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/IS-525.pdf, June 15, 2022), this author can postulate the following points regarding this possibility.


First, the US, and presumably other Western governments, based on the evidence of previous wargames and research, have deemed Russian nuclear threats under conditions of defeat (at least in those games if not beyond) to be credible and are clearly acting accordingly so as not to provoke the materialization of these threats in actual circumstances.


Second, if indeed the front collapses and this defeat turns into a major collapse of Russia’s armed forces with likely domestic repercussions of heightened opposition and unrest, it would be easy for Putin et al. to conclude that the stability of the state is at stake. Since that is a stated doctrinal trigger for nuclear first-strike use, we must realize that in terms of published Russian doctrine, the justifications for such first-strike use will have come into being. Very likely, there will be some members of the elite who believe this could intimidate the West, if not Kyiv, and retrieve their domestic situation along with accompanying measures of domestic mobilization and repression.


Third, an examination of aerial and especially naval deployments on the eve of this war indicates Russia’s deployment of those forces to the North Atlantic and the Black Sea/Mediterranean in advance of the actual start of operations to deter any NATO reaction and block the sea lanes of communication between the US and Europe. By doing so, Moscow also communicated, as an act of information warfare, its willingness to escalate should NATO retaliate with direct military action in support of Ukraine. And by doing so, Moscow also exercised its penchant for trying to control enemy decision-making by these informational means and achieve what specialists call reflexive control of enemy decision-making.


Based on this evidence and our understanding of the Putin regime, not only are more nuclear threats likely, but they are also inevitable and could become even more extreme than they already have been, especially in the context of the equally likely and inevitable use of energy blackmail under what are already foreseeable conditions of large-scale inflation and energy and electricity shortages in the winter.


Therefore, we should expect Moscow’s impending combined and simultaneous exploitation of these threats. Moreover, we should also expect pressure from at least some members of the elite to employ nuclear strikes in the belief that only thusly can Putin save their and his own power and Russia’s so-called great power and sovereignty. This prospect calls not for retreat or equivocation from the West but rather an open production line for including the tanks, guns, weapons like HIMARS, missiles, and planes it needs to strike into Russian territory and convert this victory into a truly strategic one that brings about the recovery of all Ukraine’s territories and the defeat of the Russian military. Equally importantly, this must happen sooner rather than later to deprive Putin and his followers of being able to exploit the combination of energy blackmail and nuclear threats.


What are the implications of the collapse of the eastern front for the stability of Putin’s regime, and is there any weakening of the regime?

Prof. Mark Galeotti:

Although we will have to see just how far they can push before they run out of steam, Ukraine's dramatic victories along the Kharkiv line risk, from the Russian point of view, leading to a collapse of morale and a continued inability of their forces to respond to this offensive. That said, unless things go dramatically badly for the Russians, it is not likely that they will lose all their current positions in the Northern Donbas. Their chances of retaking appreciable territory lost in the past few days seem minimal, though.


As a result, it is harder and harder to sustain the fiction that the “special military operation” is going to plan. We do not know how far Putin believes his own rhetoric – or just how candid the briefings he has been getting are – but even if he does, the stark truth of the battlefield is beyond any spin. His apparent belief that Ukrainian forces can be ground down in an attritional struggle will be hard to sustain. Likewise, it must undermine his hope that the West's will to support Kyiv, already taxed by this winter's economic hardship, would decline steeply as the Ukrainians fail to make gains on the ground. He may not quite be able to bring himself to believe that he is losing this war, but he will have to accept that he is not winning it.


The big imponderable is how far he feels under existential political pressure as a result. He has, after all, demonstrated that he is a ruthless but pragmatic policymaker, such as by his decision to abandon his early drive for Kyiv. The best case is that he will be more inclined to try to make some kind of deal, although a jubilant Kyiv is at present advancing maximalist demands that would make this close to impossible. The worst case is that he feels he desperately needs to do something radical to change the situation, which could even mean the serious threat of a nuclear strike. Either option will heighten discontent within the elite. Concessions to Kyiv will alienate the nationalists, who are already concerned about the incompetence demonstrated by the regime, while a nuclear escalation would seriously alarm many who would believe it would force the West into a more active role with a commitment to regime change in Moscow.


At present, though, Putin’s position seems secure enough that neither extreme option appears at all likely. His credibility within the elite is certainly weakened, and he will probably lean all the more heavily on the intelligence and security forces as a result. There may be some scapegoating and a further crackdown on “defeatism.” However, this has demonstrated that simply digging in and assuming time is on his side is a mistaken strategy. Rather, Putin will be considering options that he has up to now tried to avoid, such as a full mobilization and covert attacks on the West. In the process, his legitimacy and status within the elite continue to be eroded – but so long as he manages to maintain the unity and loyalty of the security forces, his position seems secure.


Dr. Dmitry Gorenburg:

As the Ukrainian counteroffensive continues to develop rapidly, the extent of the collapse of Russian forces on the Eastern front remains uncertain. While it is clear that Russian forces have withdrawn from most of the Kharkiv region, rumors are circulating among Russian military bloggers that a second attack is coming in the Donetsk region. The effect on the course of the war and on the impact of the defeat for Putin’s regime will depend to some extent on Russian forces’ ability to hold their new defensive positions. If they are able to do so, they may be able to regroup and continue the war. If Ukraine makes major territorial gains in Donetsk, the Russian military’s ability to continue the operation will come into question. It will be much harder to spin the situation for domestic audiences as anything other than a complete military defeat. These two scenarios thus have two substantially different potential implications for the stability of the regime.


Should the Russian military succeed at stabilizing their lines, the impact on regime stability is unlikely to be significant. Propaganda about repositioning forces will satisfy those parts of the population who are not paying close attention to the war, while nationalist elements who have already been highly critical of government performance will not gain any additional influence. In the event of a larger military retreat, the situation will be somewhat more complicated for the regime, although certainly far from hopeless. It will be very difficult to spin the situation as anything other than a major regime defeat, which will inevitably raise questions about whether the human toll and financial sacrifices of the past several months were wasted. And that will in turn raise questions about who is to blame for the debacle. Having already lost the liberal part of the population long ago, and being disliked by nationalists since the start of the war because of its poor performance, the regime may lose whatever goodwill it still has left with the general population.


Of course, for an authoritarian regime, loss of popularity does not automatically translate to loss of power, not even in the medium to long term. However, it will increase the costs of maintaining power, both in terms of financial outlays and in terms of having to increase repression further. At the same time, the regime will remain in power unless there is a serious split within the elite. This is in some ways unlikely because the elite recognizes that whoever comes after Putin will either have to take a number of unpopular and potentially humiliating steps to repair relations with the Western world. The alternative, a new leader who continues Russia’s current course in terms of foreign policy and domestic repression, would not really be a new regime at all, just a new leader continuing the present regime.



What are the implications of the collapse of the eastern front for Russia’s gas policy and its gas supply strategy to Europe? Will Russia take any unilateral moves following the military collapse?

Prof. Vladislav L. Inozemtsev

It doesn’t seem so. First, the Kremlin (as usual) pretends that nothing extraordinary had happened on the front in Russia, all the news from there is now “filtered” much more intensively than before. To my mind, as of today, the local defeat looks painful, but no one in Moscow considers it either final or irreparable. Therefore, I would say that Mr. Putin’s close circle will do its best to pretend nothing important has happened – and because of this, the Kremlin will not change any of its economic/foreign policy attitudes.


Second, the gas issues possess crucial importance for Kremlin’s policies vis-à-vis the West – and these days there is a widespread feeling (it doesn’t matter how rational it is) in Moscow that Europe is failing in its attempts to survive the winter without Russian supplies. Gazprom may introduce minor changes (e.g. it resumed gas shipments to Latvia several days ago), but the major shifts will not occur without changes in EU sanctions policies since the Kremlin realizes it’s its only means to influence the Europeans. Also, I would say that there are no chances for change till the Western powers clarify their “price cap” policy because it’s considered very important by the Russians and will need some reaction. So, my conclusion is that the current developments on the front in Eastern Ukraine will have no direct implications on Russia’s gas policies.


Given the latest achievements, is Ukraine willing to enter negotiations with Moscow on a return to the pre-war status quo (the 2014 status)? Or will Ukraine attempt to leverage its battlefield success for a military operation in Crimea?

Dr. Taras Kuzio:

The success of Ukraine’s military operation has emboldened demands to take a tough line in negotiations. Until March-April, Ukraine would have consented to negotiate an agreement returning to the status quo prior to the February 24 invasion, with 40% of the Donbas and Crimea remaining occupied. This is no longer the case, and Ukraine will only agree to a return to the pre-2014 territorial status quo with the regaining of control of the Donbas and Crimea. A priority will be to capture Nova Kakhovka in Kherson oblast, which would, as in 2014-2022, deny fresh water supplies to Crimea.


There are six reasons why Ukraine has adopted a tougher stance.

Firstly, Ukrainian leaders and the public have zero trust in anything Russia offers or signs. The roots of this are Russia’s infringement of the Budapest Memorandum and the manner in which Russia attempted to pressure Ukraine to accept its understanding of the Minsk Accords, leading to the loss of independence and a weak state within Russia’s sphere of influence.


Secondly, the invasion has forever changed the Ukrainian national identity. In 2014, Ukrainians held negative views of Russian leaders but not the Russian people; since the invasion, they hold negative views of both Russian leaders and the Russian people. Millions of refugees and IDPs, evidence of war crimes, deportations of millions, deaths of 100,000 civilians in Mariupol, and destruction of civilian property and infrastructure have had a deep impact on members of the security forces and civilians alike. De-Russification of everything Russian is in full swing throughout Ukraine.


Thirdly, Ukrainian public opinion has long held a hardline position on negotiations and how a victory should be understood. Ukrainian public opinion has never accepted Russia’s occupation of Crimea. This is a people’s war. Ukrainian security forces receive widespread national support through horizontal networks of volunteers and civil society, robust societal resilience, and self-organization. Societal support is witnessed in civilians welcoming Ukrainian forces in Kharkiv.


Fourthly, Ukrainian security forces have high morale from military victories in the Kyiv and Kherson offensives and – after Russian atrocities in Bucha, Mariupol, and elsewhere – are eager and determined to take the fight to the occupiers.


Fifthly, the Ukrainian military is successful because of NATO-standard training since 2014 and the supply of Western military equipment against Russian troops with out-of-date training, using poor quality military equipment, and being unable to fully comprehend the Kremlin’s ideological goals. Ukraine’s military success is for the same reasons as that of Azerbaijan’s (NATO training, Western military equipment) against Armenia (Soviet/Russian training and equipment) in the 2020 war.


Sixthly, Ukrainian leaders and the public believe Ukraine’s independence will not be secure as long as Vladimir Putin is the Russian president. Therefore, the goal of Russian military defeats is to push Russia to a tipping point of internal instability in the leadership. This has begun, although Russia will not reach a tipping point until Kherson is liberated, leading to a disintegration of the southern occupation of Ukraine.

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