Is Russia on the verge of collapse in Ukraine?

Gains made by Ukrainian troops have stirred euphoria in the country, but Kyiv is tamping it down for good reason

Ukrainian soldiers at their posts in the Donetsk region on Saturday. AP Photo
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In the Ukrainian capital this past weekend, the good news was coming in too quickly to keep up.

Kyiv’s counter-offensive had by Friday retaken several villages in the Kharkiv oblast in just two days. Then suddenly it had retaken 1,500 square kilometres, including the supply hub Kupyansk and the railway hub Izyum. And by Sunday, it was 3,000 square kilometres, with reports of Russian troops fleeing so quickly they left behind tanks, ammunition and heavy equipment.

A bolt of joy struck cold, rainy Kyiv, and all of Ukraine.

“You are gnawing away every metre, every frontier, every city and village of ours,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told troops on Day 200 of the conflict. “The enemy is panicking.”

It did seem that way. Chechen troops were seen along Russia’s southern frontlines, which to some suggested a collapse of morale. Pro-Kremlin commentators started blaming the mess in Ukraine on whoever had convinced Moscow's leadership that taking Kyiv would be easy.

Overjoyed at the burst of positive news after months of darkness, the streets of Kyiv and all of pro-Ukraine Twitter were abuzz with positivity, indulging in visions of all-out victory.

I hate to rain on Ukrainians’ parade, but hold your horses. The events of the past week in Kharkiv mark the largest territorial gains for either side since April and the most meaningful Ukrainian battlefield wins – and the biggest setback for Moscow – since Russian forces gave up their assault on Kyiv nearly six months ago.

Ukrainian officials are already warning of an aggressive Russian military response

But Russia remains a military power that still occupies more than one fifth of Ukraine. This includes Crimea and much of the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts – areas Moscow has controlled since 2014. Major cities such as Kherson, Mariupol and Melitopol are also under Russian control, part of the so-called Russian land bridge to Crimea.

By Sunday evening, the Kremlin had made its continued presence felt by striking the power grid across much of eastern Ukraine. The blackouts affected some 9 million people in the Kharkiv, Donetsk, Dnipro, Sumy and Poltava oblasts, and many were also without water.

There’s surely more to come. If Moscow’s approach in Syria is any guide, Ukraine should expect the Russians to take out more key bits of infrastructure, such as water utilities, hospitals, schools and bridges, in an effort to strand and demoralise the population. Times are likely to get tougher, for Ukrainians, before they turn bright again.

Ukrainian officials are already warning of an aggressive Russian military response, such as a major offensive. If it wanted to, the Kremlin could launch a massive assault on the key port of Odesa tomorrow. Or seek to retake the lands it just lost.

But even so, Russia’s Kharkiv collapse could mark a turning point. For one thing, we may finally be starting to see the full impact, on the battlefield, of US intelligence plus the latest advanced weaponry from Ukraine’s American and European backers.

There are also signs that Ukraine is just more strategically adept. Kyiv outfoxed Moscow in Kharkiv with two key moves. First, nearly two weeks ago, Ukrainian officials began talking about a major counter-offensive in the Kherson oblast. Russia appears to have responded by re-deploying forces in that direction.

Around the same time, Kyiv announced a temporary ban on reporting from the frontlines, saying that due to potential saboteurs only Ukrainian officials would be able to relay what was happening. Under cover of this media blackout, Ukrainian forces readied for a huge assault on Russian positions south of Kharkiv city, which quickly turned into a rout.

Suddenly, informed western analysts are echoing Ukrainian officials. Like Mr Zelenskyy, Eliot Cohen, a military history professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, also saw signs of panic. “A broader process of Russian collapse may be under way,” he said on Twitter.

Some pro-Moscow analysts have begun turning on the government. Several complained about its billion-rouble 875th birthday party for Moscow on Saturday, just as Russian soldiers were overrun in Ukraine.

On Telegram, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a loyalist of Russian President Vladimir Putin, said the military had made mistakes and that if no strategic changes were made he would be forced to question the country’s leaders.

Ukraine, meanwhile, is doing its best to tamp down the euphoria. As of mid-day on Monday, Russian troops had fully pulled out of the Kharkiv oblast and Ukrainian forces had begun to encircle occupied Kherson, further south, reportedly spurring a Russian battalion to surrender. In one newly liberated town, Ukrainian troops tore away a large billboard that read: “We are Russia. One people." Underneath were verses from the father of Ukrainian nationalism, Taras Shevchenko.

“Keep fighting – you are sure to win,” urges his 19th-century poem, The Caucasus. “For fame and freedom march with you, and right is on your side.”

Published: September 13, 2022, 4:00 AM