After weeks of fighting for scraps of territory on the war’s bloodiest front, Oleh, a 21-year-old Ukrainian company commander, was summoned suddenly last August, along with thousands of other soldiers, to an obscure rendezvous point in the Kharkiv region.
At his last position, relentless Russian artillery fire had stalked his men’s every step. But here, in a patch of villages, farmland and streams in Ukraine’s northeast, the quiet was deeply alarming. “The silence bothered me the most,” Oleh said. “It seemed off. How could this be?”
Even more unsettling were the orders his superiors handed down: to charge as far as 40 miles into enemy territory at high speed in an audacious, top-secret counteroffensive — directly between the Russian-occupied stronghold of Izyum and Russia’s own Belgorod region dotted with military bases. It seemed preposterous. “Some kind of dubious operation,” Oleh said.
But after a summer of heavy Russian casualties and President Vladimir Putin’s refusal to conscript reinforcements, the Kremlin’s troops were badly depleted. A shift of units south — to defend the captured regional capital of Kherson amid talk of a big Ukrainian push there — had left the Kharkiv area exposed.
It was a stunning vulnerability, confirmed by Ukrainian reconnaissance teams and small drones. And Kyiv would exploit it to change the dynamic of the war, and achieve Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s goal of redrawing the battlefield map before winter. [Continue reading…]