How Russia lost the battle of Kharkiv, and what are the lessons to be drawn?

Written by – Elijah J. Magnier:

The Russian General Military Staff overlooked the fact that the art of war is based on deception, that the war they are fighting was not only against the Ukrainian army but also the US and the alliance of the twenty-nine NATO countries. Therefore, western strikes below the belt were to be expected because the US objectives have been clearly stated, “to defeat Russia and keep it engaged in Ukraine as long as possible”, to drain its resources and humiliate its army. The US intelligence agency, the Pentagon, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky did not hesitate to assert that Washington was behind the recovery of thousands of square kilometres from the Russian army in Kharkiv, north of Ukraine and close to the Russian border. Although Russia was still in control of a fifth of Ukraine, the defeat of the Russian army in the northern battle of Kharkiv was meant to be heard loud and clear. It is to be expected that Russia will now be even more determined to further destroy the Ukrainian infrastructure and army, affecting Kyiv’s economy and that of its European neighbours, committing themselves to be fully involved and hosting millions of Ukrainian refugees.

What are the reasons behind the Russian defeat in the battle of Kharkiv, which echoed worldwide?

Russian forces and their Ukrainian allies withdrew from Izum, Kubyansk and Balakleya regions, representing a vital transportation hub and supply route for the Russian troops. Before the battle’s start, there was news that a Ukrainian military gathering had begun to assemble in the area to carry out a counterattack in the territory controlled by Moscow’s forces. The Russian military leadership did not seriously evaluate the size of the attack to prevent Ukraine from a tactical victory. Consequently, Moscow did not send adequate defence forces to repel the attack or use its air force or armed drones to destroy all the Ukrainian spearheads of the attack so as to disperse the attacking forces before occupying the region. Undoubtedly Ukraine suffered thousands of casualties that the Ukrainian army could ill afford. However, this sacrifice was judged by Kyiv necessary for propaganda and moral purposes.

This attack strongly indicates a significant Russian intelligence failure. The General Staff in Moscow may have considered they were facing weak and highly damaged Ukrainian forces, discounting the influence of dozens of Western intelligence services gathered at the Ramstein base in Germany in a single operations room. Western intelligence and military services enjoy unlimited support and obedience from the Ukrainian army, an overview through satellites, human intelligence, and equipment on the battlefield. The western military headquarters worked to look for Russian loopholes and directed the Ukrainian army to record a minor tactical Russian defeat, but significant since the start of the war in February 2022. 

In addition, Russia is confronting Ukrainian forces that are ready to fight without questioning whether their military leadership is Ukrainian or Western. The Ukrainian army is using western military doctrine. It possesses high spirits and is aligned with a robust cause to advance in the field, notwithstanding the high casualties of the last 200 days of the battle.

Add to these elements the fact that the Russian defence line was fragile on Kharkiv’s front, as it was mainly composed of a few hundred local militias and the Russian military police (National Guard). These failed to build a good defensive line that could withstand attack until additional reinforcements could repel it due to the assessment of the military general staff that ordered the withdrawal when they already believed a Ukrainian breach was unlikely. The success of the Western intelligence forces led the Ukrainian troops to control significant territories with new forces trained and equipped in a limited time by NATO.

The Russian retreat moved to the eastern side of the Oskol River and the Siverski Donets river. These are “natural obstacles” and a line of defence that a relatively small force could hold. This indicates that the Russian withdrawal was sudden and “lacking an opportunity” (not previously planned and organised): the static Russian forces were caught by surprise. It was noticeable that Russia left behind military equipment and ammunition, indicating that their troops engaged in small fights to engage and delay their enemy but refrained from holding their position and fighting. Indeed, Moscow’s decision to sacrifice large territories and order a fast withdrawal did indeed reduce the casualties of the Russian army. The Ukrainian attack was far from a walkover as brigades were met with heavy artillery and air force fire, causing severe damage to the attacking troops though not sufficient to stop the attack.

What went fundamentally wrong?

Moscow is still considering the war as a “Special Operation” because it involves a limited military operation to “destroy the militarist mechanism.” This is one of the Russian objectives announced by Moscow at the beginning of the war. Nevertheless, defeating the military mechanism of Ukraine necessitates destroying the physical and psychological Ukrainian army leading to a total defeat. This is unlikely to happen because that would mean the US has failed and was defeated, along with all its western allies. Indeed, the US (and the rest of NATO behind it) will continue arming Kyiv because it is the war of the West against Russia, and Ukraine is the medium. In this war, there can be only one winner and one loser. Both Russia and the US are determined to win this war. It may be time to call a spade a spade and declare the ongoing military activities in Ukraine as a war rather than a “special operation” and behave as such if President Vladimir Putin really wants to achieve his objectives. President Putin is not fighting only the Ukrainian army. The west may be thinking of …

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Proofread by: Maurice Brasher