The Tide Has Already Turned in Ukraine’s Favor

Military analyst Jack Watling unpacks Kyiv’s lightning offensive against Russian forces.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
A boy wrapped in the Ukrainian national flag stands on top of a Russian military vehicle displayed in central Kyiv, Ukraine, on Aug. 21.
A boy wrapped in the Ukrainian national flag stands on top of a Russian military vehicle displayed in central Kyiv, Ukraine, on Aug. 21.
A boy wrapped in the Ukrainian national flag stands on top of a Russian military vehicle displayed in central Kyiv, Ukraine, on Aug. 21. Alexey Furman/Getty Images

Over the past week, Ukrainian forces stunned the world—and the Russian military—as they regained control over swaths of territory in the country’s south and east in a lightning offensive that forced Moscow’s forces into retreat. 

On Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the country’s armed forces had liberated some 2,400 square miles in the Kharkiv region to the east and around Kherson, on the southern coast. 

Senior officials in Moscow have remained tight-lipped about the hasty retreat of Russian forces, as the Kremlin has come under fire from nationalist figures and influential patriotic bloggers, urging Russian President Vladimir Putin to further escalate the conflict. 

Over the past week, Ukrainian forces stunned the world—and the Russian military—as they regained control over swaths of territory in the country’s south and east in a lightning offensive that forced Moscow’s forces into retreat. 

On Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the country’s armed forces had liberated some 2,400 square miles in the Kharkiv region to the east and around Kherson, on the southern coast. 

Senior officials in Moscow have remained tight-lipped about the hasty retreat of Russian forces, as the Kremlin has come under fire from nationalist figures and influential patriotic bloggers, urging Russian President Vladimir Putin to further escalate the conflict. 

To understand how Ukraine was able to mount its counteroffensive—and how Russia may respond—Foreign Policy spoke with Jack Watling, a senior research fellow for land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank. 

The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity. 

Foreign Policy: Set the scene for us: What has changed on the battlefield that has enabled Ukraine to launch this incredibly effective two-front offensive that we’ve seen over the past few days?

Jack Watling: The Russian military has suffered throughout the war from abysmally low morale among its infantry. The result being that without the mass use of artillery, they are unable to conduct offensive operations. Once the Ukrainians managed to bring long-range rockets and artillery into theater and worked out the targeting, they were able to strike the ammunition and fire control headquarters for a lot of the Russian artillery, with the results that the Russians lost the ability to bring sustained mass fire to bear. Once they lost their artillery, their offensive capacity was nullified, and they became highly dependent on whether their units would hold their ground under attack. What this did was it shifted the initiative to the Ukrainians.

The Ukrainians publicly messaged the offensive against Kherson in the south. This caused the Russians to redeploy the VDV, their paratroopers, onto that axis. Because the Russians recognized that this was an axis where it was politically very important, they held Kherson as the only real city that they obtained intact. And they also knew that it was on the west side of the Dnipro River and therefore very vulnerable. The Ukrainians recognize they can isolate that objective by knocking out the bridges, and therefore—rather than conduct a breakthrough operation, which would be very costly—they have pushed the Russians back up against the river and can now kill them in place with artillery. Either leading to them withdrawing, or breaking, or running out of ammunition. So this was a deliberate offensive operation, but very limited in its scale. 

[Around Izyum in eastern Ukraine,] the Ukrainians avoided any public comment to suggest that this axis was a priority. They then launched that offensive with the intent of severing the ground lines of communication to Izyum and then by achieving two effects, firstly surrounding or cutting off Russian forces, which would create a time pressure for the Russians to recover those troops. That part of the plan didn’t work, because the Russians withdrew during the offensive. 

Because the Russian forces there did not have the artillery support, because they were not expecting the attack, and because their more motivated troops had been positioned on a different axis, they broke. The way I’d frame this is that they have low morale, are highly susceptible to shock. Shock leads soldiers to start behaving as individuals rather than groups, and when that happens, forces collapse, or formations collapse.

FP: There’s been a lot of coverage of the last few days of nationalist figures in Russia and influential war bloggers on Telegram speaking out and criticizing the failure of Russian forces. Do you think that if Russian President Vladimir Putin feels backed into a corner, we may see increasingly erratic behavior? Is the risk that they could resort to using a tactical nuclear weapon? 

JW: The risk of tactical nuclear use has been there the whole time. I think it has been made very clear to the Russian government, the severity of the consequences of them doing that, and I don’t think that using a tactical nuclear weapon would actually get them out of the problem they’re in. It wouldn’t change the calculus for Ukrainians. The Ukrainians already see this as an existential conflict. The density of forces means that the Ukrainians actually don’t present a very good military target for tactical nuclear use. So I’m not going to say it won’t happen. It’s always been a risk, but in terms of the risk of wider escalation, it’s very serious for the Russians. And I don’t think it actually wins them any of their objectives in Ukraine.

FP: Is there any prospect for the Russians to recover morale after a defeat like this?

JW: Morale is very, very difficult to recover when you get to this point, unless you are able to achieve some sort of success that gives soldiers the belief that they are likely to survive, or at least that if they stick it out, then they’re likely to succeed. At the moment, neither of those things are true.

FP: What kind of options are available to the Russian General Staff now; what kind of decisions will they be looking at?

JW: I honestly don’t think that the General Staff is the place where the decision matters at this point, because what the General Staff had been ordered to do is no longer viable militarily. And so there has to be a political decision by Putin as to what they’re actually trying to achieve. And then once that determination is made, the General Staff can make some decisions about how they prioritize their resources. If the decision is that they are to hold those positions as best as possible and go on the defensive to protract the conflict, then that’s one thing, with the Russian theory of victory being that they collapse Ukraine economically, by convincing the West to longer underwrite its economy, that’s one line of effort. I think the timeline on that is getting increasingly pessimistic for the Russians.

FP: Is it too soon to call this moment a turning of the tide?

JW: No, no, the turning of the tide was already in July. The Russians’ capacity to conduct offensive operations was crippled by the extensive range of long-range strikes by the Ukrainians against their logistics and command and control.

FP: Right, and that was when they started to get long-range weapons from the United States. How important has the increasingly powerful weaponry that Ukraine has gotten from its Western partners been in this changing of the tide?

JW: Critical in two ways. Firstly, as I say, some of the specific weapons systems undermined the Russian system of fighting. In the first days of the war, Western support was more symbolic than significant. It was mainly Ukrainian artillery stocks that got them through the first month. Now, Western support is critical, because Ukraine is so dependent on us for all the ammunition and spare parts. So we are their strategic depth at this point. 

FP: What are the risks for Ukraine here, are they at risk of getting overextended?

JW: I think that’s something they can manage. They are at risk of it, but they’re very cognizant of this, and in some ways if the Russians commit reserves to recover the territory they’ve lost, they can’t then use those reserves against Donbas [in eastern Ukraine]. So in some way, even if the Russians achieve some tactical success against the units that are pursuing the western group of forces, that would still operationally favor the Ukrainians.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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