Does Ukraine’s surprise offensive mean the end is in sight?

Ukrainian forces have made huge gains as pressure mounts on Vladimir Putin at home

A Ukrainian soldier prepares to fire a GRAD rocket launcher
Ukraine says it has retaken a third of the occupied Kharkiv region
(Image credit: Wolfgang Schwan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Ukraine’s surprise counter-offensive that has seen it retake huge swathes of land occupied by Russian forces has sparked hope it could mark a crucial turning point in a war that was grinding to a stalemate.

Having prepared for and promised a retaliatory attack in the south of the country, Ukrainian forces are now making what The Guardian described as “unexpected, rapid advances” in the northeast, around the country’s second largest city, Kharkiv.

Ukraine claims its forces have liberated 3,000 square kilometres since this latest operation began last week, retaking more than a third of the occupied Kharkiv region, which if confirmed would represent a “remarkable advance”, said the BBC.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Turning point or false dawn?

The advance by Ukrainian troops “is Kyiv’s biggest victory since it pushed Russian troops back from the capital in March”, reported the Financial Times, and “many Ukrainians hope the rout could mark a turning point in the nearly seven-month conflict”.

But while the US-based think tank the Institute for the Study of War declared the Kharkiv advance a major operational success for Ukraine’s armed forces, its experts have warned the current counter-offensive would not end the conflict.

CNN reported that “Ukrainian forces are planning for a long and brutal campaign to retake Russian-controlled territory”, while in the south of the country US officials acknowledge the Ukrainian goal of recapturing the strategic and symbolically important city of Kherson by the end of 2022 is “ambitious but remains possible if Ukraine continues to make progress in its current operations”.

Speaking to Sky News, the former head of the British Army, Lord Dannatt, also suggested a note of caution.

“Although the Ukrainians have made significant advances, there’s a lot of their country still in Russian occupation. So there’s a long way to go,” he said.

“The last month has seen the end of one phase of the war and the beginning of another,” said Byline Times. While the strategic impact of the counter-offensive remains as yet unclear, “what it has inarguably done is give Ukraine a massive morale boost – to its own troops and to its western partners – while severely denting Russian confidence”, said the FT.

Putin under pressure

With Russia forced into a humiliating withdrawal from areas it has held since the beginning of the war, Vladimir Putin has come under increasing pressure at home.

Al Jazeera reported that “the Russian army’s leadership appeared to be caught off-guard by Ukraine’s fightback against its invasion in the northeast” and there were reports that the increasingly embattled President Putin had cancelled a meeting with defence chiefs on Sunday and fired the head of the Western Military District, Lieutenant General Roman Berdnikov, just 16 days after appointing him.

The Telegraph’s Russia correspondent Nataliya Vasilyeva said that politicians in St Petersburg have signed a petition calling on the president to resign, “marking a rare and daring protest against the war”.

It is not just his political opponents who have spoken out against the course of the war. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a staunch ally of Putin, has criticised the Russian army’s performance after recent losses. In an 11-minute-long message posted on the Telegram messaging app he conceded the campaign was not going to plan and that if the army’s strategy did not change he would speak to the “leadership of the country”.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.