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Ukraine’s lightning offensive catches Russia off guard

A surprise two-pronged offensive by Ukrainian forces is reshaping the battlefield and forcing the Russians to scramble for reinforcements.

Driving the news headlines: Ukraine launched its long-awaited push on Kherson in southern Ukraine the other day, before following up with a rapid advance near Kharkiv in the northeast that appears to have caught Vladimir Putin’s troops by surprise.

  • A Ukrainian general said Friday that Ukraine’s forces had advanced about 50km (31 miles) in three days of fighting in your community. Images spread of Ukrainian troops entering town after town, greeted by joyous residents who spent half a year under occupation.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed the “very good news” but added, “now could be not enough time to mention the settlements to that your Ukrainian flag returns.”
  • The surprise Ukrainian offensive appears to be targeted at cutting off the Russian forces defending Izyum, an integral logistics hub for Russian operations in the north, and finally taking the town itself, says Michael Kofman, a high expert on Russia’s military at CNA.

Flashback: Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, held out despite brutal bombardment from Russia, but smaller cities in the border region, including Izyum, quickly fell to Russia.

How it just happened: The swift advance was possible because Russian positions in your community were “lightly manned or simply not manned at all, and the Russian military was caught by surprise,” Kofman says.

  • That’s partly because Russia redeployed thousands of troops from the east south prior to the expected Ukrainian offensive there. Thus, the long-foreshadowed offensive in Kherson and the more opportunistic one in Kharkiv are linked.
  • “The Ukrainian leadership clearly feels confident they have the forces and the available reserves to sustain two offensive operations, geographically quite distant from one another,” Kofman says.
  • What things to watch: Russia is currently rushing in reinforcements, which will make it problematic for Ukraine to carry the territory it’s taken and push to Izyum.

Where it stands: The Kherson offensive appears to be proceeding more gradually than in the opening days. U.S. Under Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl on Wednesday called the Ukrainian progress there “slow but meaningful.”

  • Kofman anticipates Ukraine will proceed in stages on the coming weeks and months, with the best goal of isolating Russian forces in Kherson city the only real regional capital to fall to Russia because the invasion.
  • Both sides are trying to train and deploy reserves after suffering heavy losses over four months of grinding warfare in the Donbas.

Another side: Russia’s massive Donbas offensive has slowed almost to a halt, though Russian forces have recently captured several towns in Donetsk.

  • Still, U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken said Thursday during his stop by at Kyiv that Putin seemed intent on continuing his war effort instead of seeking peace talks.
  • At the very least 10 people in central Kharkiv were killed by Russian rocket attacks on Friday, a high aide to Zelensky said, claiming these were revenge for Ukraine’s battlefield successes.
  • Dismissing Russia’s battlefield and economic setbacks, Putin declared Wednesday: We’ve not lost anything, and can not lose anything.” However, the tone on state TV has turned glum as Ukraine takes territory, Julia Davis reports for the Daily Beast.

What’s next: The White House has warned that Russian authorities in occupied Kherson who’ve already introduced the ruble, begun issuing Russian passports and instituted a Kremlin-friendly curriculum could soon announce a sham referendum to be able to claim the territory within Russia.

  • Ukraine’s offensive could complicate those plans. Analysts also believe Zelensky really wants to show his Western backers a lot of whom are facing energy crises because of Russian cutbacks that their arms and support are translating into battlefield success.

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