Ukraine counter-offensive continues, as Russian retreat has Moscow's morale on the ropes

·5-min read

Ukrainian troops are exerting intense pressure on retreating Russian forces as a counter-offensive that has produced major territorial gains for Kyiv continues, to the detriment of Moscow's morale and military prestige.

It remains unclear if Kyiv's offensive in the country's northeast might signal a turning point in the nearly seven-month war. Ukrainian officials remain buoyant, releasing footage showing their forces burning Russian flags and inspecting abandoned tanks.

In one video, border guards tore down a poster proclaiming, “We are one people with Russia.”

Momentum has switched back and forth in the conflict, and Ukraine's American allies, for among those being careful not to declare a premature victory since Russian President Vladimir Putin still has troops and resources to tap.

Still, the Kremlin is struggling to respond to the latest round of defeats – the largest since its forces abandoned a botched attempt to capture Kyiv early in the war.

Three factors to Kyiv's success

However, speaking to RFI from Odesa, journalist Johnny O'Reilly underlines that there are three main factors that have been key to the recent success of Ukraine's counter-offensive.

"The first is the sharing of intelligence by the CIA," O'Reilly reports, "which was upgraded in June, thereafter giving the Ukrainian side almost real time analysis of military formations and movements behind enemy lines.

"The second element is the availability of precision artillery – namely the HIMAR system – which is used to target ammunition dumps, operations centres, battle headquarters ... HIMARs were used for the first time in the heat of battle to target congregations of tanks and military warfare," he explains.

But the third element is "the low morale of the Russian troops, the lack of command oversight and the resulting low morale from the targeting of logistics centres by the HIMARs."

'To the gates of Moscow'?

Late Monday, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said his troops have retaken more than 6,000 square kilometres – an area more than twice the size of Luxembourg – in a matter of weeks.

”The movement of our troops continues,” he said.

Speaking on Tuesday, Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar claimed that Ukrainian forces are making good progress, adding that "the aim is to liberate the Kharkiv region and beyond - all the territories occupied by the Russian Federation.”

This robust rhetoric resonates with President Volodomyr Zelensky’s recent declaration that the Russian invasion of Ukraine will not end at Russia’s border but at the gates of Moscow. With the recent gains made by Ukrainian troops, are they committed to bring the fight into Russian territory?

Journalist O'Reilly doesn't think so. "The Ukrainian army is [now] very integrated into NATO structures. They have not been given permission to use the American-supplied HIMAR systems to launch artillery into Russian territory.

"I don't think the Americans or NATO partners will permit or sanction any kind of invasion of Russian territory. The big question is what will happen with Crimea," O'Reilly underlines.

Crimea remains a very pro-Russian enclave since well before its annexation by Moscow in 2014.

"How realistic it is to retake Crimea and retain it over time ... I suspect it's near impossible," O'Reilly explains, "and the international partners of Ukraine will not go along with it."

However, in the southern region of Kherzon, gains have also been made by Ukraine's forces amid reports of chaos as Russian troops pull out – as well as claims that they were surrendering en masse.

Ukrainian officials claim they have captured so many soldiers that they are struggling to house them. O'Reilly says that Ukraine's Southern Command has confirmed that negotiations are underway for some groups to surrender – "how many groups or how many people there has yet to be confirmed," he reports

"The scale of the surrender is not very clear yet. But the key point is that if one particular group is discussing a surrender, which is pretty much confirmed at this point, it means that they have run out of ammunition," says the journalist.

"This is all a result of the HIMARs targeting ammunition dumps in the weeks building up to this counter offensive."

Endgame within reach?

Earlier this Tuesday, the French ambassador to Kyiv, Etienne de Poncins said on France Info that “a victory for Ukraine is possible.” So after more than 200 days of war do Ukrainians feel the endgame might actually be within sight, following the recent push against the Russian occupation?

O'Reilly tells RFI that, "Ukrainians do believe the end game is ripe and it's happening now. Very few people did not believe that victory was possible. And that's partly because people were willing to die for this cause.

"No matter how much sacrifice was required, Ukrainians were willing to continue fighting until they [got] victory ... their morale has always been sky-high because their purpose is clear. They are fighting for their own country. The alternative, the concept of the Russian Mir – the Russian world – was very clear to them when the atrocities were revealed in Bucha and other places.

"For them, it's always been very clear that they will fight to the death and that the Russians do not have the same motivation. Yes, people feel that this could be a turning point," O'Reilly concludes.

Johnny O'Reilly is a former Moscow-based film maker and journalist who currently works in Ukraine.