The thrust of lightning by the Ukrainian troops, during which in a matter of days almost all of the Kharkiv region occupied since the first days of the war last winter, was recaptured, made Moscow reeling. Despite the setback, the Kremlin and its proxies insisted on continuing the war until President Vladimir Putin’s goals were achieved, blaming NATO and the United States for Ukraine’s refusal to surrender.
Ukraine’s military said on Monday that in the past 24 hours it had advanced into an additional 20 towns and villages that were under Russian control – allegations that could not be independently verified. On Sunday, Ukraine’s commander-in-chief, General Valery Zaluzhny, said his forces had retaken more than 3,000 square kilometers — 1,100 square miles — in less than a week.
The US government viewed the developments with cautious optimism. At the Pentagon, defense officials declined to speculate how far they thought Ukrainian forces could push, but noted that the collapse of the Russian military in eastern Ukraine was a symptom of its long struggles to organize, command, equip, and support its forces. One of the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Defense Department, said it was only a “matter of time” before these problems, along with Ukraine’s buildup of advanced Western weaponry, would prove to be relevant in that region.
However, American and Western officials estimated that the war would remain a difficult battle for the Ukrainians, one that could extend for a long time to come. Officials believe negotiations to end the war are still a long way off.
Russia still occupies swathes of eastern and southern Ukraine, including cities such as Mariupol and Kherson, Putin’s coveted “land bridge” to Crimea – which Russia illegally annexed in 2014 – and most of Luhansk and Donetsk regions where Russia has recognized two A self-proclaimed country. separatist republics.
In their swift withdrawal, presented by the Russian Ministry of Defense as a “reassembly,” the Russians abandoned the tanks, armored vehicles, and ammunition that Ukraine planned to reconfigure and use on the battlefield. Military analysts said the equipment losses could be a major blow to Russia — and that Ukraine will use its recent success to push for more security assistance.
In recent weeks, Ukrainian officials have been concerned about eroding support from Western partners ahead of US elections that could shift control to Republicans in Congress and what is expected to be a difficult and costly winter in Europe due to soaring energy prices linked to the war. But some Western allies have called for stronger weapons to Ukraine.
“All advanced Western weapons stocks, including long-range missiles, combat aircraft and tanks, should be available to Ukraine,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrilius Landsbergis tweeted on Sunday. Western countries have so far refrained from providing some of these.
“Let me be frank,” Landsbergis Wrote. “It is now beyond doubt that Ukraine could have expelled Russia months ago if it had been supplied with the necessary equipment from day one.”
In Moscow, the withdrawal exposed divisions among Kremlin loyalists.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has said he may have to talk to Putin himself because he does not trust the Russian president’s advisers to provide him with bad news. Pro-Russian military bloggers have sharply criticized the government for not mobilizing more soldiers to fight – a move Putin sought to avoid because conscription could risk diverting public support against the war.
On Monday, officials reiterated that the goals of “special military operation” – the Kremlin’s term for war – would be achieved regardless of setbacks, although the specific goals were never entirely clear. Initially, Putin was bent on taking over Kyiv and overthrowing the government, but that failed.
“The objectives of the special military operation will be achieved,” said Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Security Council, on Monday in Kemerovo at a meeting of the Siberian Federal District.
Russia appeared to respond to Ukraine’s counterattack with retaliatory missile strikes on civilian infrastructure on Sunday night, plunging many areas, including Kharkiv, into darkness with power outages. Pentagon officials acknowledged a marked increase in Russian strikes over the weekend.
Margarita Simonyan, a Kremlin preacher and editor-in-chief of government-funded television channel RT, formerly Russia Today, chanted the attacks, adding on social media that “electricity is a privilege.”
But the mood around Ukraine remained cheerful and defiant.
On social media, people retweeted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s statement in which he addressed the Russians directly, saying that “cold, hunger, darkness and thirst are not as frightening and deadly for us as ‘your friendship and your brothers’.”
The euphoria seemed only to solidify Ukraine’s position that it would not cede an inch of territory to Russia, bent on reclaiming territory, including Crimea, which it had occupied since 2014. Zelensky reiterated over the weekend that Ukraine was not ready to negotiate. with Russia. Russia because it has not yet formulated any acceptable offers.
Volodymyr Fesenko, director of the Penta Center for Applied Political Studies in Kyiv, said the military successes were “a signal to hesitant Western politicians,” who fear the provision of arms could lead to a dangerous escalation of the conflict.
“I believe that strengthening the military positions in Ukraine means strengthening the diplomatic positions of our country,” Fesenko said.
US officials have said it is up to Ukrainian officials if and when they choose to mediate an end to the war with Russia. But some of Ukraine’s western partners worry that Russian setbacks, combined with Zelensky’s refusal to make concessions, could escalate the conflict and even push Putin to use a tactical nuclear weapon.
“The West should be very clear by now that crossing these lines could push NATO even more forcefully into conflict,” said Jim Stavridis, a retired US admiral and former NATO supreme commander.
“While the prospects for a complete expulsion of the Russians from all of Ukraine are long, the task of the West should be to give them what they need to be in the strongest possible negotiating position — something that seems distant months later,” Stavridis said.
Preserving the recently reclaimed land will be a challenge for Ukraine. The Kharkiv region borders Russia, and the city of Kharkiv, which was Ukraine’s second-largest city before the war, is still within range of Russian rockets even if fired from Russian soil.
On Monday, after a stunning string of victories, some Ukrainian soldiers stole at least a few hours to rest, stock up on snacks, and celebrate.
In Chuhiv, a city east of Kharkiv, cars painted camouflaged green came and donated from all over Europe and went from a small grocery store. The fighters came out with pieces of bread, candy and soda bottles, many of them wearing wide smiles and some exchanging hugs.
“We feel great,” one said. “We have momentum.”
Chuhiv, a gateway to the sprawl of liberated villages east of Kharkiv, is on the edge of Ukraine’s mobile phone network, and many soldiers were taking advantage of internet access. A bearded soldier leaned back on a bench talking on his phone, wearing a satisfied, exhausted look.
Misha, a member of the 14th Brigade who said he could not give his last name, swiped his phone outside a store that sold military clothing. He said that even the soldiers were stunned by the progress of the counterattack.
“We’ve made our way to the Russian border, so it’s time to breathe a little, and wait for the next orders,” Misha said.
His unit helped liberate a occupied village from the early days of the invasion. The men still reside there, giving them a chance to see some residents go home for the first time in seven months, though some areas are still littered with mines and unexploded ordnance.
By Monday night, Ukrainian forces had advanced deeper into the Donetsk and Luhansk regions – images of raised Ukrainian flags in Bohorodychne and Sviatohirsk, on the banks of the Donets River, went viral on social media.
Although Ukraine had exaggerated an upcoming counterattack in the south to retake the port city of Kherson, its simultaneous dash around Kharkiv clearly surprised the Russians. Russia strengthened its positions in Kherson, and Ukraine’s gains there were slower. The Ukrainian military imposed restrictions on media access to the region.
Western military experts said they were impressed by Ukraine’s success.
“The great work the Ukrainians have done in controlling information – the security of their operations,” said retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, former commander of the US Army in Europe. He added that it was “really good” that the Ukrainians “were able to move troops and equipment north when the Russians look south.”
“For Russia, that’s the peak point,” Hodges said. “They ran out of strength again in August. They could not continue offensive operations. The Ukrainians saw this and started preparations months ago.”
Hendricks reported from Chuhiv, Ukraine, Lammoth from Washington, Rohala from Brussels, and Stern from Kyiv. Robin Dixon in Riga, Latvia, Missy Ryan, Karen DeYoung, Shane Harris, and Elaine Nakashima in Washington contributed to this report.