Kharkiv counter offensive: Ukraine makes huge advances through Russian forces in war - where is Kupiansk?

The Ukrainian army has used high-tech Western weapons and clever tactics to inflict a significant losses, which some commentators are calling the “biggest Russian military defeat since 1943”.

Ukraine has punched through Russian front lines in the embattled Donbas region taking thousands of square miles of territory, Western defence officials have said.

The Ukrainian army has launched a lightning counter offensive south of Kharkiv, in north-eastern Ukraine, which is threatening to cut of Russian supply lines.

Videos circulating on social media show Ukrainian flags being hoisted in cities and bedraggled Russian troops fleeing.

Ministry of Defence (MoD), in an online briefing on Saturday morning, said it believed the Ukrainians had advanced as much as 30 miles.

On Saturday afternoon, the Financial Times reported Ukraine had actually taken 45 miles, and Russia’s defence ministry said it was pulling back forces.

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After launching an offensive near Kherson in the south in late August, Ukrainian forces are now advancing in Russian controlled parts of the Donbas in the north east of the country. Credit: NationalWorld

Where is the Ukrainian counter offensive targeting?

In late August, Ukraine launched an offensive in the south of the country near Kherson, as can be seen in the map above.

That left Russian forces spread thinly throughout the Donbas, in the north-east, and now the Ukrainians have struck there.

The Donbas is one of the regions in eastern Ukraine which Vladimir Putin has said is part of sovereign Russia.

It is thought that up to 10,000 Russian troops were moved south to Kherson, helping Ukrainian advances in the Donbas.

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The advance appears to be around Izyum, long a focus on the Russian front line and the site of heavy artillery and other fighting.

The MoD described Russian forces around Izyum as “increasingly isolated”.

It added that the nearby town of Kupiansk also appeared to be pressured by Ukrainian forces, and that its loss would greatly affect Russian supply lines in the area.

An image circulated on social media on Saturday appeared to show Ukrainian soldiers in front of a main government building in Kupiansk, some 73 kilometres (45 miles) north of Izyum.

The image showed soldiers displaying the flag of the 92nd Separate Mechanised Battalion of Ukraine in front of a building that resembled Kupiansk’s city council building, which sits just along the Oskil River.

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Ukraine’s military has not yet acknowledged entering the city, though it comes amid several days of apparent gains by the Ukrainians south of Kharkiv.

Ukrainian forces said September 10, 2022 they had entered the town of Kupiansk in eastern Ukraine, dislodging Russian troops from a key logistics hub in a lightning counter-offensive that has seen swathes of territory recaptured. (Photo by JUAN BARRETO/AFP via Getty Images)

Why are the Ukrainian’s targeting Kupiansk and Izyum?

These are two key strategic cities in the Russian lines through the Donbas.

Kupiansk sits near what was previously the frontline between Russian and Ukrainian forces in the region, and recapturing it would be considered a significant victory for Ukraine.

The city has been described as Russia’s “key logistical node” in the Donbas, according to the Institute for the Study of War thinktank.

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It added that if Ukraine took it it would “severely degrade” Russian ground lines of communication.

Kupiansk is also the cross section of several major rail lines in north-eastern Ukraine, meaning its loss could seriously hinder Russian supply lines.

Why have the Ukrainians made significant advances against the Russian army?

The MoD has said: “Russian forces were likely taken by surprise.

“The sector was only lightly held and Ukrainian units have captured or surrounded several towns.”

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While other analysts suggested Russia may have taken soldiers from the east to reinforce around Kherson, offering the Ukrainians the opportunity to strike a weakened front line.

The Russian army’s centralised command system reportedly struggles with multiple deployments at the same time.

Ukrainian artillerymen prepare to fire a BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launcher near Izyum. Photo by ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images

A former Ukraine defence minister, Andriy Zagorodnyuk, said: “Russian generals are afraid to make mistakes . . . which leads to the centralisation of decision-making, because everybody’s trying to push decisions as much upwards as possible to avoid responsibility.

“That kills their ability to deal with multidirectional approaches.”

The Institute for the Study of War said in a report that it appeared that “disorganised Russian forces (were) caught in the rapid Ukrainian advance”.

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The same report said that Ukrainian forces “may collapse Russian positions around Izyum if they sever Russian ground lines of communication” north and south of the town.

The Ukrainian army is also benefitting from the military aid supplied by the UK, USA and other Western allies.

What has Ukraine said about the advance?

The Ukrainian military was circumspect about the reported gains, claiming in its regular update on Saturday to have taken “more than 1,000 square kilometres” (386 square miles) from pro-Kremlin forces since the launch of its long-awaited counter-offensive this week.

It said that “in some areas, units of the Defence Forces have penetrated the enemy’s defences to a depth of 50 kilometres”, matching the British assessment, but did not disclose any geographical details.

Officials in Kyiv have for weeks been tight-lipped about their plans for a counter-offensive to retake territory overrun by Russia early in the war, calling on local residents to refrain from sharing information on social media for fear of compromising the ongoing operation.

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What has Russia said about the counter offensive?

Today, Russia’s defence ministry said it is pulling back forces from two areas in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region where a Ukrainian counter-offensive has made significant advances in the past week.

Defence spokesman Igor Konashenkov said the troops would be regrouped from the Balakliya and Izyum areas to the Donetsk region. Izyum was a major base for Russian forces in the Kharkiv region.

Mr Konashenkov said the move is being made “in order to achieve the stated goals of the special military operation to liberate Donbas,” one of the eastern Ukraine regions that Russia has declared sovereign.

The claim of a pullback to concentrate on Donetsk is similar to the justification Russia gave for pulling back its forces from the Kyiv region earlier this year.