The Ukrainian army launched on September 6, 2022 two counter-offensives in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions, which are occupied by the Russians. Since then, kyiv has not stopped claiming the continuation of the territory, which provoked 8,000 km2 to be conquered again.
How to explain such a change in the situation, more than six months after the start of the invasion of Ukraine? Former army colonel and military strategy expert Michel Goya gives us his analysis of the situation.
Is it possible to imagine such a rapid change in the conflict?
The Ukrainian army has recovered more than the Russians have in the last three months. It was an incredible victory. Maybe even Ukrainians don’t think it’s that important.
This development is very surprising. we [les militaires] don’t understand how Russians allow themselves to be deceived like that.
Moscow did not seem to anticipate the scale of the Ukrainian counter-offensive. How is this possible?
It is a mystery. This type of attack did not go unnoticed: 20,000 people gathered in hundreds of armored vehicles a few kilometers from the front. Especially at a time when the battlefield is usually very transparent, while the Russians have satellites, drones, planes, commandos, spies…
This attack would not have succeeded. This is what surprised everyone, showing that the Russian army was weaker than it was thought at the time. Obviously we overestimated the Russian army.
There are very deep flaws. When you suffer a disaster, there is incompetence somewhere. I think there is a lack of appreciation of the situation.
Why did the Ukrainian army choose to seize these regions first?
The Ukrainians attacked the sector they knew was the weakest. The Russians did not see this offensive in preparation, which in itself is a mystery. From there, the Ukrainians broke through and won the first dislocation battle. They entered inside the Russian posture, unable to fight coherently throughout the region.
The fight is not over yet. We will have to see if this is truly cyclical or if the Russians have structural problems, which I believe. The coming weeks will be decisive: if the Ukrainians will be able to reorganize their forces and attack again in a similar operation. This means that the initiative has completely passed to the other side.
Currently there are two counter-offensives, east of Kharkiv and Kherson. Is the Ukrainian army deploying the same strategies there?
Not exactly. The battle of Kharkiv was quite classic, with a concentration of forces facing a weak device.
From the Kherson side, it looks like a siege. The 20,000 men on the bridge across the Dnieper were increasingly isolated by artillery strikes, air strikes, cutting bridges and logistics. It was a fortified place, more strongly held than northern Kharkiv, but they were almost besieged. The Ukrainians are moving slowly and they hope for the collapse of the area, a retreat of the Russian forces behind the river.
So these are different battles but they are two operations of roughly the same size. In addition, simply being able to organize two major offensives simultaneously, is, in itself, a performance that we did not think was possible right away.
How do you explain that these counter-offensives are happening now and not two weeks ago or in two weeks?
First, it takes time to organize an operation like this. At least three weeks. There, it comes from an opportunity, which is to say the discovery of the weakness of the Russian device. You should grab it now. Next, the Ukrainians want to take the initiative in the battle and try to achieve decisive results, or even win the military battle as soon as possible, possibly before winter.
Is the fear of winter a stalemate in the fight?
We often fight in the winter, but it is more complicated to launch offensives in the middle of a severe winter, as we can do in the region. So the interest in trying to have the highest result before.
And then there is also the desire to finish it as soon as possible. This is a terrible test for the country of Ukraine. So kyiv will try to take advantage of this superiority.
What is the success of this type of operation? Is it in hardware capacity? On troop morale? A bit of both?
War is a human activity. On both sides, we have the same equipment, at 80%. The material plays but above all it is a human problem. The success was mainly due to the technical quality and morale of the fighters, on both sides.
The Ukrainian army is growing in strength. All the efforts made in the last six months, in terms of training and mobilization, have paid off.
Since the beginning of the war, the Russian army is likely to return. There are good combat units, elite, marines, paratroopers. They suffered many losses and were completely exhausted since July. On the other hand, we see more and more battalions arriving with young, poorly trained recruits. There is a decrease in human capital.
While on the contrary the Ukrainian army, although it experienced difficulties in the months of May and June, rose to power. All the efforts made in the last six months, in terms of training, mobilization, in addition to Western material aid, have paid off. So we have a more powerful army than before and more powerful than the Russian army.
There are actually two Ukrainian armies: the active army and the territorial, national guard or militia units formed at the start of the war with reservists and even mobilizing civilians. The Territorial Brigades are now able to attack north of Kharkiv. This means that these units are tactically superior to what they were at the start of the war. That’s what makes the difference.
Did Ukraine also receive more aid than expected?
Ukraine benefits from a lot of aid, of course, material, artillery, anti-aircraft missiles… But above all, the second advantage is that the Americans in particular provide a lot of information. The Americans and the British may also have helped design this offensive. This very important help made a difference. But it is useless if the army is not good or does not want to fight.
Developments in Ukraine raise hope, but shouldn’t we remain cautious? How far can the counter-offensive go?
It raises a lot of hopes and it is a spiral of victories: victory leads to victory. To want to fight and take mortal risks, you must have a sense that it is worthwhile. Having the feeling that it might be possible to win, to liberate the Ukrainian territory, it is easier to take these risks.
Unless there is a very strong reaction from Russia, a very deep reorganization of their army and undoubtedly a much larger political one in the country, it is hard to see how they will get out of this.
There may be a sequence of a collapse of the Russian army, if it does not manage to stop the current Ukrainian advance, if it suffers from other failures. It can create a reverse spiral, a chess spiral.
It is unlikely, but if the Ukrainians are able to change this type of attack, for example in the region of Zaporizhya, in the south, which means that they definitely took the initiative of the operations and that Unless there is a very strong reaction. from Russia, a very deep reorganization of their army and undoubtedly a greater political one in the country, it is difficult to see how they will get out of this.
And you believe in a greater movement?
That’s the big unknown because the declaration of war and general mobilization is a bit of a Pandora’s box. First, materially, it can be very complicated because nothing is planned and it takes months. And politically, it’s not very popular. Vladimir Putin is careful to protect the population from the consequences of this war as much as possible. It was the first time that a European country invaded a neighbor without declaring war and without general mobilization. This clearly shows that there is a lack of trust. If we cross this course, it will open Pandora’s box.
You mentioned the possibility of continuing the counter-offensive around Zaporizhia. Is this, in your opinion, the most logical sequence of operations?
In any case, that’s what I would do if I were the Chief of Staff of the Ukrainian army! When the Russians consolidate themselves in the north, I will take five or six maneuver brigades (about 20,000 men) and I will attack again in a weak zone, such as that between the south of Zaporijjia and in Donetsk province. An attack could have disastrous consequences for the Russians. If the Ukrainians managed to break through this sector, they could seize the city of Melitopol, which is the road junction of the entire southern region, recover the nuclear plant of Enerhodar (Zaporijjia), despite the possible advance towards Mariupol which threatens the other. side in front of Kherson. It should be a bit of thoughts and this part that we really have to look at.
And the Ukrainian army has the means to maintain the positions that are improving and launch other counter-offensives?
This is really the whole question. The Ukrainians now outnumber the Russians, so they have the ability to hold the front and organize attacks. Something the Russians have a hard time doing at the moment. So it is possible. But the Ukrainians have to act quickly: when it stops in one place, they have to attack in another place.
Can we speak of a “lightning war” (a term used primarily to describe Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939)?
I’m not a big fan of this term, which instead corresponds to a time where one can get absolutely decisive results to win the war as quickly as possible. We haven’t yet.
I would rather compare it to the operations of 1918. This war is like a small First World War accelerated, which in 1914 were big battles, including the Battle of the Marne. Then the front froze, with a period of trenches for many years. And then, in 1918, the situation was unblocked again in a whole series of attacks, offensives. By opening breaches, opening pockets, the German front collapsed. In the military, it looks more like that now.
Can we expect the same result, with the collapse of Russia?