Russian forces lost territory on all fronts during the 28th week of war, as a counteroffensive spread from the southern Kherson region to the eastern and northern fronts of the country, demonstrating Ukraine’s ongoing ability to seize the initiative.
North Ukrainian forces launched a new counterattack in the northern Kharkiv region on September 6.
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Despite radio silence from the country’s political and military leadership in Kyiv, Ukrainian and Russian military bloggers reported heavy fighting in Verbivka and Balakliia, 70km (44 miles) southeast of Kharkiv city, which Ukraine recaptured in early May.
Ukrainian forces appeared to have reclaimed Verbivka, where they posted geolocated footage showing dead Russian soldiers.
Rybar was one of several Russian military bloggers reporting continuing fighting around Balakliia on the evening of September 6, but early on September 7, reported that the town had been completely surrounded.
“[Balakliia] is in the operational encirclement and in the range of fire of Ukrainian artillery. All entrances are cut off by [enemy] fire,” he wrote.
Russian reporters also said that Moscow’s forces had blown up bridges across the Balakleyka and Krainya Balakleyka rivers to prevent Ukrainians from advancing further.
Unconfirmed reports said the attack triggered a collapse of the Russian front, which was weakened last month to redeploy forces to the south.
The offensive appears to have resulted in a bloodbath for the Russian military.
Ukraine reported 460 enemy fatalities, an extraordinary toll for one day.
The offensive came a day after Ukrainian forces destroyed a Russian ammunition depot in Balakliia, in a repeat of the tactics of corrosion used in the south.
East Ukrainian troops maintained pressure in the Donetsk region, recapturing Ozerne on September 4, thus gaining a foothold on the occupied northern shore of the Siversky Donets River.
Ukrainian News24 and MilitaryLand posted footage showing the servicemen crossing the Siversky Donets River home after completing the mission, and geolocated photographs confirmed their success.
Ukrainian troops maintained the eastern offensive on September 6. Denis Pushilin, head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said Russian forces were defending Kodema in Donetsk.
Ukraine celebrates, Russia ramps up attacks
During the second week of their southern counteroffensive, Ukrainian forces appeared to recapture Vysokopillia in the Kherson region on September 4.
There was no official fanfare but servicemen posted videos of captured Russian armour on social media, as they greeted locals.
Eventually, Zelenskyy’s office posted a photograph of Ukrainian soldiers raising their flag over the town. Battles had raged there since Ukraine launched its counteroffensive on August 29.
— MilitaryLand.net (@Militarylandnet) September 4, 2022
The Ukrainian leader indirectly confirmed gains in the east and south on September 5, hailing battlefield successes and referring to two freed settlements in Kherson and one in Donetsk.
Geolocated footage confirmed Ukrainian forces had also recaptured Olhyne and Novovosnesenke.
Zelenskyy predicted that Crimea, to the south of Kherson, seized by Russia in 2014, would also be won back.
“I believe that the Ukrainian flag and free life will return to Crimea again,” he said in a nightly video address, repeating Ukraine’s goal of returning to pre-2014 borders. “Everyone can see that the occupiers have already started fleeing Crimea. This is the right choice for all of them.”
Despite the loss of equipment and ammunition during weeks of precision attacks that preceded the counteroffensive, Russia’s forces are retaliating.
Russian defence ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Igor Konashenkov said Russian forces thwarted an overnight attempt on September 2-3 to land 250 Ukrainian special forces troops on 42 boats in Enerhodar, neighbouring the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, from across the river.
He said they planned to take over the plant. Posted footage showed corpses floating in the shallows of the river.
Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu said his forces shot down 190 Ukrainian UAVs and intercepted 226 HIMARS rockets overall. If true, that suggests Russia still has the capacity to blunt two of Ukraine’s most effective weapons in its continuing counteroffensive.
A Ukrainian special forces officer told Al Jazeera that taking Kherson city itself would take “several months at least,” and would require more Western military aid.
US General Mark Hertling called the Ukrainian strategy of attacking western Kherson region a “brilliant move” because Russian forces there have their backs to the Dnieper River and it was possible to choke off their lines of communication.
“Poor [Russian] leadership pushed many [battalion tactical groups] over the [Dnieper River] because Putin wanted Kherson City, [Mykolaiv], and eventually Odesa. But on the M14, there are only 2 Bridges across the [Dnieper]. Destroy those bridges…and logistics & a trapped force becomes a RU problem,” he wrote.
Ukrainian attacks continued to hamper Russian resupply routes to the west bank of the Dnieper River, where the counteroffensive is unfolding. They struck the Antonivsky bridge using rocket artillery, and continued to press the offensive. Geolocated footage on September 5 showed Ukrainian troops fighting near Kostromka and Bezimenne in the Kherson region.
Hertling said there was “a potential for a lot of Russian prisoners,” an important asset to Ukraine, which is trying to secure exchanges for some 2,000 servicemen it ordered to surrender at the Azovstal plant in Mariupol.
Drinking the Kool-Aid?
In typical fashion, Russia officially dismissed the Ukrainian counteroffensive as a failure, saying it had inflicted heavy casualties.
But new research suggests that such Kremlin narratives may be losing potency.
Maxim Alyukov, a postdoctoral fellow at King’s Russia Institute, led a quantitative study of Russian television and social media coverage of the war to find that the number of television stories on Ukraine has decreased by half compared with February and March.
Russian TV managers are reintroducing shows that had been cancelled to make time for war propaganda.
Alyukov told Al Jazeera, “It’s back to normal – back to a pre-war style of reporting, with a balance of propaganda and entertainment … because if you lose [viewers], you lose control of them.”
Alyukov also found that mention of a key Russian justification for the war – “de-Nazifying” Ukraine – has decreased by a factor of six on TV.
“They almost abandoned this idea,” he said.
“[The Kremlin] used four very specific ideas to justify the invasion: de-Nazification, demilitarisation, protecting the Donbas population and NATO expansion,” Alyukov said.
“They all fit into the general idea of fighting the West and restoring Russia’s greatness … but the idea of de-Nazification is something people struggle to comprehend.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s grip on social media is slipping even more. Despite being outlawed as a term for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the word “war” is used on social media almost four times more often than on TV, including by government supporters, Alyukov found.
It may not help Putin that propagandists have committed obvious blunders.
Ukraine’s defence ministry said Russia claimed to have destroyed Leopard 2 tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, equipment Ukraine has not yet received.
But the Russian leadership has insisted on its tactics. Speaking to young diplomats on September 1, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said it was the West that unleashed the war on Russia “shamelessly, openly, rudely and aggressively”.
As for Putin, he committed 50,000 troops, 60 warships and 140 aircraft to the Vostok 2022 war games with China, possibly to belie reports that he is running short of weapons and men.
A US intelligence report revealed he is buying millions of artillery shells from North Korea, suggesting that sanctions may be already causing supply chain problems.
According to Ukraine’s defence ministry, Russia has lost more than 50,000 men, 2,097 tanks, 4,520 armoured personnel vehicles, 1,194 artillery systems and 445 planes and helicopters.