Ukraine needs to secure the vast territory it has recaptured from possible Russian counterattack, the country’s defence minister cautioned, saying that “of course we have to be worried” even as he hailed Kyiv’s lightning offensive for having gone far “better than expected”.
The attack in recent days has routed Russian forces, led to the recapture of some 3,000 square kilometres of Ukrainian territory, and prompted an unusual admission by Russia’s defence ministry that its forces had to retreat.
The Ukrainian blitzkrieg, which Oleksii Reznikov described in an interview with the Financial Times as a “snowball rolling down a hill”, is the biggest setback so far of the full-scale invasion that Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered on Feb 24 and could prove to be a turning point that leads to the capture of thousands of Russian troops and equipment.
Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s strongman leader, criticised Russia’s military for the retreat and said if their strategy didn’t change, he would speak to the “leadership of the country”. “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,” Kadyrov said.
On Sunday, Ukrainian forces continued to press home the advantage, and General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, commander of the armed forces, said they were just 50km from the Russian border. Photographs he posted on Telegram showed military positions that Russian troops had abandoned in such a hurry that meals were left set out on wooden tables.
“The Armed Forces of Ukraine continue to liberate territories occupied by Russia,” Zaluzhnyi wrote. “Since the beginning of September, more than 3,000 square kilometres have been returned.”
Russian sympathisers also fled from Russian-occupied territories in the Luhansk region, south of Kharkiv, said Serhiy Hayday, the Ukrainian head of the Luhansk region’s military administration.
“Massive de-occupation is on the horizon,” Hayday said on Ukrainian television on Sunday, as Russians “continue to pack their bags”. “Maybe this [victory] will not be in a day or two, but it will happen soon . . . We can say that their morale is shattered.”
Reznikov said that Ukrainian troops were tired after the six-day attack but that morale was riding high because “Ukrainians wanted to go on this counteroffensive, we needed this counteroffensive and it’s a sign that Russia can be defeated”.
But he also cautioned that Russian reinforcements could launch a counter attack on stretched Ukrainian supply lines. There is the additional danger that Ukrainian forces could be encircled by fresh Russian troops if they advance too far.
“A counteroffensive liberates territory and after that you have to control it and be ready to defend it,” Reznikov told the Financial Times. “Of course, we have to be worried, this war has worried us for years.”
Air raid warning sirens rang out over Kyiv on Sunday morning, there were reports of heavy shelling of the city of Kharkiv overnight and Mykolayiv, which is near a separate Ukrainian offensive around the strategic southern city of Kherson, also suffered heavy shelling, local authorities reported.
Still, the latest Ukrainian offensive marks a success along the northernmost of the three active front lines. Analysts said it had given a valuable boost to Ukrainian morale, dented Russian confidence and showed Ukraine’s western allies that they had backed a winning prospect.
Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s foreign minister, said the Ukrainian advance was a moment of hope. “This is what we need,” she said speaking on a visit to Kyiv.
Ukrainian morale was further emboldened after Russia’s defence ministry made a rare statement on Saturday saying that its forces had pulled back from the strategic city of Izyum, claiming it had decided to “regroup” and transfer them south-east to the Donetsk region
The announcement came soon after Ukrainian troops encircled Kupyansk, north of Izyum, a road and rail hub that supplies Russia’s defences across north-eastern Ukraine. This left thousands of Russian troops cut off from supplies across a stretch of battleground where some of the most intense battles of the war have been fought.
The liberation of Izyum “would be the most significant Ukrainian military achievement since winning the battle of Kyiv in March,” analysts at the Institute for the Study of War said, adding that they expected Ukrainian forces to “capture the city of Izyum itself in the next 48 hours if they have not already done so”.
Still, officials and military analysts cautioned that the offensive’s success did not mean that Ukrainian troops were about to roll back Russian forces to the border and beyond.
Reznikov said the nearly simultaneous counter-offensive around Kherson was making slower progress as it was an agricultural region “with irrigation channels” that the Russians could use as defensive trenches.
Casualties there have been reportedly heavy, and Ukraine’s general staff said that 1,200 Chechen soldiers had been deployed to reinforce Russian positions.
Reznikov said the Chechens were being used to stop front line troops from deserting their positions, in a similar way that the Soviet Union deployed Smersh battalions during the second world war.
Even so, analysts are increasingly wondering if Ukraine’s recent success might change Putin’s calculus about probability of victory.
“The news from the ministry of defence about retreating will spread quickly,” said Dara Massicot, a Russia military expert at the Rand Corporation, a US think-tank. “Moscow should not underestimate how quickly bad news, panic, and rumours can cascade along the front — especially given the force exhaustion that comes from months of fighting, a lack of reserves and rest”