Editor’s note: Jeffrey Owens is a Jeffersonville native, a 1995 graduate of Miami Trace High School and 2000 graduate of Ohio University. As a lifelong history buff, Owens published “Victory In Europe; A People’s History of the Second World War”, a more than 700-page analysis of World War II in Europe in 2015. Since 2015, Owens has hosted more than a dozen educational symposiums on a variety of military history topics at the Grove City Library.
The Ukrainian counteroffensive — decisive, deadly, unpredictable and effective — has been a persistent problem for occupying Russian forces in Ukraine. Throughout the final weeks of May and into early June, those troubles have only intensified. The Russian war in Ukraine is focused on conquering the Donbas, and in the final weeks of May was further narrowed to the seizure of Luhasnsk Oblast. To compensate for appalling losses in which nearly half of the original Russian invading force has been destroyed, all available combat power throughout occupied Ukraine has been concentrated in the center for the taking of Luhansk. This, however, has come at the expense of Russia’s flanks which have been left weak and undermanned.
Kherson Oblast lies north of occupied Crimea with Mykolaiv to its west, the Black Sea to the south, with Zaporizhzhia and the Sea of Azov to its east and southeast. Bordering Crimea, Kherson Oblast was among the first victims of Putin’s war as multiple Russian army groups were stationed in Crimea from where they launched a multi-directional offensive. Kherson city was the first Ukrainian city to fall and the Oblast was almost fully under Russian control by March 2. From there, however, any further Russian expansion was dashed by the fiery defense of the city of Mykolaiv on the River Buh to the west of Kherson, forcing the Russians to dig in behind defensive lines.
Kharkiv Oblast lies directly on the Russian border. The principal city of Kharkiv is a mere 45 miles from the Russian city of Belgorad, which has served as the primary hub for supplying the invasion of Ukraine. The terrain of Kharkiv is incredibly well documented in Red Army history as four major battles were fought through it during the World War II between massive Soviet and German armies. Despite these clear advantages of logistics and historiography, Russian forces never succeeded in taking Kharkiv, although they did manage to level a considerable portion of it.
The fierce defense of Kyiv by Ukrainian armies yielded the incredible accomplishment of forcing Russia to completely abandon the front altogether within the first month of the war. This success not only saved untold thousands of lives but also freed up Ukrainian forces for counteroffensives, who otherwise would have been tied down along the defensive line stretching nearly 200 miles east connecting Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy and Kharkiv. Additionally, Russia’s Kharkiv front became static. It’s primary role flipped from one of conquest to one of maintaining their northern flank, while simultaneously assuming the responsibility of guarding and supplying the Isyum offensive to its south.
In putting up sufficient resistance in the center of the line to draw nearly all available Russian combat power into the Donbas pocket, Ukraine now has Russia in a classic trap of Indirect Combat Approach. Developed by Liddle Hart after World War I in an effort to circumvent the appallingly high casualties of the direct frontal assaults on the Western Front; the Indirect Approach requires disrupting an enemy’s equilibrium while attacking its weak points. Among the rules of this strategy are: 1.) adjust your ends to your means; 2.) exploit the opportunities of least resistance; 3.) seek the axes of operations that offers the most alternatives; 4.) keep all plans flexible.
By the Ukrainian General Staff being patient, organizing and executing the masterful and flexible defense of Kyiv, they compelled the Russians to consolidate their assault on the Donbas. This drastically shrank the front and freed up forces. Suffering horrendous losses, Russia had little choice but to consolidate whatever combat power it could into Luhansk, and the Ukrainians are now in a position to exploit the developing weaknesses on the Russian flanks. As Ukrainian counterattacks intensify, the Russians will be forced by circumstance to split their combat power in two directions to hold the flanks while simultaneously weakening their own assault on the center of the line at Severodonetsk.
A previous analysis focused primarily on the battle for Severodonetsk, and within days of that post approximately 70% of the city was under Russian occupation. Believing false media reports in Russia that Ukrainian forces were fleeing Severodonetsk with devastating casualties, the Chechen occupiers declared victory, began celebrating and released the statement that they had “completed the total cleansing of Severodonetsk.” Accordingly, they were caught completely unprepared for a Ukrainian counteroffensive which has kept the city in a constant state of heavy urban combat. Although lines of occupation are blurred and contested areas of the city are constantly changing hands, the primary base of operations for Ukrainian forces is located in the Azot Industrial sector.
The Chechen army known as “Kadyrovites” under the command of Ramzan Kadyrov has a barbaric reputation in Ukraine. Although ruthless and practicing few established rules of war, they are more obsessed with posting fanatical videos of themselves online versus actual fighting. This has earned them the well-deserved Ukrainian nickname of “Tik-Tok soldiers.” One observer reported coming upon a wounded Chechan soldier, who instead of seeking help or treatment, was lying on the ground in his anguish taking a selfie.
With Severodonetsk hotly contested the Russians continue to shell its primary Ground Line of Communication (GLOC) running back to Bakhmut in Donetsk Oblast. However, the mere fact that the Russians have been unable to take the city with all available resources in the Donbas at their disposal reveals deeply degraded combat power and morale of the Russian military. The continued Ukrainian counteroffensives will only result in the deployment of additional undermanned Russian units to plug the gaps, further reducing morale.
In occupied Kherson, the southwestern end of the Russian Kherson front is anchored on the western shore of the Dnieper River, and bends in a northeastern arc across the Inhulets River into Zaporizhzhia Oblast. Beginning on May 31, Ukrainian forces launched a counteroffensive into northern Kherson Oblast. They liberated 20 settlements along the western bank of the Inhulets River near Davydiv Brid, established a bridgehead, and drove Russian forces six miles inside the east bank of the Inhulets to the village of Starosillya.
Although the offensive was slowed by a Russian counter stroke near Vysokopillya, the Ukrainian target remains the T2205 Highway serving as the Russian’s primary GLOC running out of Kherson City. From the region of the Davydiv Brid bridgehead, Ukrainian forces are shelling the T2205 with multiple weapons systems. Ukrainian forces are attempting to build up a sufficient threat to the T2205 to at minimum disrupt Russia’s ability to counter further Ukrainian attacks, or at best to compel the Russians to abandon their foothold on the Dnieper altogether and withdrawal east. In an attempt to dislodge Ukrainian forces along the Inhulets, Russian units attacked in the region of Bila Krynytsia on June 5, but were beaten back.
West of Kherson lies the Mykolaiv Oblast. Only a portion of its eastern territory is under Russian control. In support of the Kherson counteroffensive, Ukrainian forces launched an attack on Russian troops on June 2 to press the Russians from the west simultaneously as the Kherson offensive pushed south. From intelligence sources, the Russians believed the Mykolaiv attack was aimed at liberating Snihurivka, approximately 30 miles east of Mykolaiv city. This prompted the Russians to launch a missile strike on a railway bridge north of Mykolaiv City in an attempt to interdict supplies for the offensive. The effect of the missile strike on Ukrainian supply shipments remains to be assessed, but more than likely those results are minimal.
East of Kherson is Zaporizhzhia Oblast where Russian missile strikes occur daily against Ukrainian held civilian and military infrastructure. Although Zaporizhzhia City remains free, a considerable amount of the Oblast’s rural areas along with its massive nuclear power plant remains under Russian control. As a result of the destruction of so much Russian armor in Ukraine, older model tanks are being taken out of storage and reactivated for service.
In the opening days of June, Ukrainian Intelligence reported the arrival of a battalion of 1960s era T-62 tanks 25 miles south of Zaporizhzhia City. East of the power plant, Russian forces continue digging in and are engineering a second defensive line to hold their positions against both Ukrainian counter attacks as well as against partisan activity; both of which threaten Russian security forces and the establishment of a Russian backed sham government.
Ukrainian counteroffensives drove Russian forces out of Kharkiv City in late May and at one point advanced to the Ukrainian-Russian border. Progress was slowed, however, when some Ukrainian units were diverted south in support of the battle for Severodonetsk.
Meanwhile, the retaking of Starystsya and Rubizhne remain a priority for Ukrainian forces, but the holding of the bridgehead at Staryi Saltiv over the Siverskyi Donets River is the most essential task on the Kharkiv front. Once sufficient troops are available, the bridgehead can used for an advance into and liberation of occupied northern Kharkiv Oblast.
Russian losses remain astonishing. On the Isyum Front alone, which has been stalled out due to both heavy Ukrainian resistance and the redeployment of some of its combat power to Severodonetsk, the 35th Combined Arms Army has been destroyed. Both the 64th and 38th Rifle Brigades have been reduced to 100 soldiers; down from originally more than 1,000 troops each. The Isyum command failed to provide training and equipment for forest combat and communication equipment was so scarce that officers had to rely on foot messengers as opposed to radios.
On June 5, Ukrainian forces killed Major General Roman Kutuzov, commander of the 1st Army Corps of the Donetsk People’s Republic, placing the total number of Russian generals killed well into the double digits. In early June, likely due to poor performance and lack of success, General Alexander Dvornikov was sacked as theatre commander in Ukraine, and replaced by General Gennady Zhidko, former commander of the Eastern Military District. Little if any change should be expected as the inflexible, top-down command structure will continue on, replete with scorched earth tactics and high casualty frontal assaults.
On June 5, the Russians conducted their first cruise missile attack on Kyiv in nearly a month. Five X-22 missiles fired from a TU-95 jet operating over the Caspian Sea struck the Darnytsia Rail Car repair station, which Russia claimed was transporting T-72 tanks provided to Ukraine by Eastern NATO countries. The aftermath of the attack, however, revealed that the missiles hit the repair facility and not any loading or unloading docks where tanks would be housed. One of three possibilities or a mix of the three could reveal the truth. Either Russia had poor intelligence on the location of the tanks; they had good intelligence but simply missed; or they fabricated the story about the T-72 tanks to disguise another Russian attack on Ukrainian infrastructure. Any mix could have some truth, but none can justify the citizens of Kyiv having to wake up to cruise missiles bisecting the morning sky or the sights and sounds of explosions within their city.
Ukraine continues to loose 80-100 soldiers per day in the Donbas, mostly from massed Russian artillery fire. In classic style, President Zelensky dared the odds and visited soldiers in Luhansk Oblast stationed in Lysychansk over the weekend of June 4-5. From there he traveled to Zaporizhzhia where he not only met with mayors and other civilian leaders, but also with many evacuees from Mariupol.
“I am proud of everyone I met,” Zelensky said of his visit to Luhansk, while in Zaporizhzhia he lamented that, “each family had its own story, most without men. Someone’s husband went to war, someone in captivity, and someone, unfortunately, died.” The strength, leadership and compassion Zelensky exudes stands in complete contrast to that of Putin, and could possibly be the number one factor that has energized and united NATO, the EU and most of the world behind Ukraine.
Ukraine continues to face enormous challenges, but it is tackling them head on. Although thus far the Ukrainians have displayed outstanding generalship, Ukrainian forces are also experiencing difficulties in maintaining sufficient manpower across a large front. While the attacks on the Kharkiv and Kherson flanks have been successful, the Ukrainian army has as of yet been unable to commit enough troops to either flank for a decisive breakthrough.
Holding Severodonetsk is essential to their strategy, but in the face of an overwhelming concentration of Russian troops and artillery, regardless of how poorly they are led and supplied, creates new challenges every day to overcome. Momentum, however, is overwhelmingly on the Ukrainian side. With each successive push to either flank, Russian resources are further strained, morale diminished, and frustrations heightened. This leads to additional reckless gambles that cost lives, equipment, and further erodes even domestic support within Russia for the continuation of Putin’s war.