Culmination: “The culminating point in military strategy is the point at which a military force is no longer able to perform its operations. On the offensive, the culminating point marks the time when the attacking force can no longer continue its advance, because of supply problems, the opposing force, or the need for rest.”
Historians will someday mark the day Russia officially culminated in its “special military operation,” and when they do, I suspect it’ll be this first week in September. While Russia is still spasming failed offensive operations around eastern Donbas, it’s been weeks since they’ve notched any progress, and two months since their last significant victory—the conquest of Lysychansk on July 3.
It is no coincidence that HIMARS entered combat that same week.
Now, after two months of relentless assault on Russia’s supply lines, supply depots, command and control centers, bridges, and air defenses, Russia is dead in the water. And having rushed the bulk of its forces into the Kherson trap, Ukraine is making gains along every front in the war. Let’s systematically review what things probably look like, remembering that Ukraine rarely announces the liberation of a town unless it is fully secure, and the front lines have moved significantly away. So this is culled from a combination of Ukrainian announcements, oftentimes reading between the lines, geolocated footage from OSINT sources (open source intelligence), and even Russian reports. Let’s go!
From Ukrainian General Staff:
On other directions, the enemy attacked military and civilian infrastructure using tanks, combat vehicles, barrel and jet artillery, namely: […]on the Kharkiv direction – Kozacha Lopan, Kharkiv, Slatyne, Sosnivka, Udy, Petrivka, Velyki Prohody, Stary Saltiv, Andriivka; [my emphasis]
Let’s look at the map of Kharkiv:
Kozacha Lopan is commonly considered Russian territory. So either Russia attacked itself, or Ukraine is contesting the city. To be clear, this doesn’t mean that Ukraine has captured it. But Russia wouldn’t be shelling the town or its surroundings unless Ukrainian forces were out of their defensive trenches and pushing forward on the front.
That’s not all, that General Staff reports mentions Udy, which is also Russian held—that red dot to Kozacha Lopan’s upper left.
Here’s the latest map:
Ukrainian General Staff has regularly reported Russian shelling of Dovhen’ke. (Here’s my original story on the defense of Dovhen’ke.) While I don’t believe it’s in Ukrainian hands, I also don’t think it’s under Russian control. It’s a moon-scaped pile of rubble at this point. We even have recent geolocated video of Ukrainian shelling north of the town here. (That video also shows the randomness of war—an artillery round lands smack in the middle of four Russian infantrymen—three go down, the other runs away. The smart one was the guy hanging back from the crowd.) Previous Ukrainian shelling was south of the town.
Dolyna has been the Dovhen’ke of the summer, hosting daily attacks, all of them unsuccessful. Honestly, not sure why Russia bothers. The original plan was to head down that highway to the twin fortress cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, but that dream is long dead. It took Russia two months to capture Dovhen’ke (pre-war population 800) on June 11, and Russia has been stuck ever since. Dolyna is too small to even have an online population estimate. And yet Russia was supposed to capture Slovyansk (pop. 111K) and Kramatorsk (pop. 157,000)?
Anyway, it looks like time to erase the pink “contested” in that plot of territory just north of Dolyna. This is about 2 kilometers north of Dolyna, and looks pretty darn secure under Ukrainian control. (More evidence here.)
Also, while this video hasn’t been geolocated, the unit taking the video is known to be operating in the Izyum direction. Once again, it shows Ukrainian forces on the offensive, taking Russian defensive positions:
This one is quite fascinating. This is on the other side of the Siversky Donetsk river—the side Russia spent months taking. Maps will mark it as contested, but I suspect something else is happening: it’s just a “fuck you” incursion by Ukraine into an area completely emptied of Russian forces.
Here is video of a small raiding party crossing the river toward Ozerne. Note the lack of pontoon bridge or any sizable force. It would be near-impossible to support an actual liberation of these towns. So what likely happened is this special forces unit crossed over for reconnaissance, or to raid, or on some other mission, and they found the place completely empty. They wandered over to next-door Brusivka, also empty. They even supposed wandered up to Yampil and found it empty.
All of these are “liberated,” sure, but not really. Russia thought them secure from attack and have left them undefended. Leaking this video is thus interesting. If Ukraine had the ability to truly liberate that territory, it would’ve kept that video quiet and launched a more significant operation. That they didn’t, assuming it’s not just bad OpSec, I’m guessing they’re daring Russia to send forces to the area. Given Russia’s manpower shortages everywhere, they either further thin out the existing front lines to station troops in this area, or they leave it unguarded and Ukraine can eventually move in.
The Russian push from Popasna toward Bakhmut has been painfully slow and grinding, but it has given Russia its only territorial gains of late.
Keep in mind, Russia took Popasna on May 9. Bakhmut is only 32 kilometers away. So this progress is sloooooow. But the front was moving, unlike the rest of the country. Yet a few days ago we got a hint that things had changed. A popular Russian military reporter with around half a million followers on Telegram reported that the poorly trained territorial defense forces that had held the lines at Soledar had been rotated out.
The Armed Forces of Ukraine recently made a rotation of personnel. Motivated fighters entered the position. If earlier we talked about retention groups consisting of poorly trained reservists. Now they have been replaced by a new set, equipped with NATO weapons.
The new shift switched to the tactics of aggressive defense. Small groups are not afraid to come close to our positions and try to take individual points in a hurry. We walked around familiar places. If earlier they went there during the day, now they move exclusively at night
You can sense the panic. “Equipped with NATO weapons” clearly communicates that they know how poorly Russian equipment compares. These new soldiers are trained! Unlike the Russian cannon fodder that was failing to dislodge poorly trained Ukrainian defenders. The reporter also noted that Ukraine also beefed up its artillery and counter-battery capabilities at this location. But most intriguing was this idea that these new forces were engaged in “aggressive defense.”
Well, this is what that looks like:
Not only does this footage show Ukrainians attacking fixed Russian defensive positions (reportedly sneaking up behind them, hence the chaotic, non-existent Russian reponse), but it was geolocated east of last-known Russian positions. Russians might want to call that “aggressive defense,” that looks more like a localized offensive to me. The same seems to be happening on the southeastern edge of the front.
Now, just like up north, I suspect these aren’t planned strategic offensives, rather Ukraine finding defensive lines starved of troops and/or ammunition, with weak Russian artillery support. These are opportunistic tactical advances.
Incidentally, after Lysychansk fell, I said the Ukrainian defensive line from Sivers’k, to Bakhmut, to Toretsk would never fall. My logic was simple—Ukrainian artillery would make advancement very difficult. Knock on wood, I’m still not wrong on that…
Also, things that make you go hmmmm….
ZAPORIZHZHIA AND SOUTHERN DONETSK, DONBAS
This is my favorite front, strategically. I posited back in late July that this might be the focus of Ukraine’s first big counteroffensive. I was (seemingly) wrong about that, but that doesn’t mean that Ukraine isn’t creating trouble here.
Of particular importance are Polohy, on the right-edge of this map (I accidentally cut off the name and am too tired to fix), and Tokmak. In fact, Tokmak might be one of the most strategically vital towns in all of southern Ukraine. Look at southern Ukraine’s rail lines:
Polohy might supply Russia’s front in southeastern Ukraine, but Tokmak supplies EVERYTHING to its west. With Ukraine working over bridges crossing from Crimea, taking Tokmak would complete the logistical encirclement of that entire mass of territory, including the bulk of Kherson oblast, south of Kherson city, and the strategic city of Melitopol (also home to Ukraine’s strongest and most active resistance movement).
As of now, Ukraine is pushing toward both Polohy and Tokmak, and both are regular targets of HIMARS o’clock.
Both of those yellow patches on the map are Ukrainian counteroffensive actions. I’m really hoping that column of Ukrainian reinforcement mentioned above are actually headed in this direction.
OMG, Kherson. FINALLY!
For starters, Ukraine made a rare liberation announcement, declaring “Vysokopillia is Ukraine.”
This wasn’t just the northern edge of Russian positions in Kherson oblast, it was at the border of the oblast. Remember when we wondered why Russia was pushing north toward Krivyi Rih? They weren’t. They were pushing to the administrative borders, so they could then annex the entire oblast via sham referendum. As such, this was a heavily fortified position, with reportedly several thousand Russian soldiers. And not just any soldiers, but their “elite” VDV airborne troops.
With the collapse of that defensive line, there’s just a bunch of open space for kilometers.
Ukraine is about to claim a huge chunk of territory back. As much of a morale boost as that might be, this is the far more important development:
That is the ol’ bridgehead near Davydiv Brid, suddenly gaining traction. This map is actually conservative, doesn’t include Ukraine’s liberation of Blahodativka, the left/western tip of that emerging salient. (Ukraine War Map above has it, if you want to go spy its exact location.)
The story of Blahodativka is f’n hilarious—Russia built a pontoon bridge to try and flank the Ukrainian bridgehead. Ukraine said “MINE!” and now they have two bridges widening the salient and supplying the breakthrough. This is it:
Let’s take another look at Defmon’s map:
All those Russian defenders north of that salient are now imperiled. They already have to fall back to a second line of defense given the fall of Vysokopillia. Now they have to decide whether they really try and hold that line, and risk encirclement, or fall back all the way to Kherson city.
Pro-Russian sources are full of cope. There is no bridgehead! Okay there is but Russia killed everyone! Actually scratch that, this is Russia’s brilliant Battle-of-the-Bulge plan to encircle Ukrainian troops to eliminate them! And yet, throughout all that, some real information sometimes seep through, even if accidentally:
Rybar, the biggest and best known Russian military war blogger, says he’s lost contact with all of his military sources in the towns inside that expanding Ukrainian bridgehead/salient, and he decides that everything is wonderful and “proceed[s] from the best and believe that the [Russian] counterattack was successful.” Losing contact with all his sources likely means they’re all dead, yet pro-Russia Twitter and Telegram gleefully distributes his map erasing all Ukrainian gains.
Here is the Wagner Telegram channel Grey Zone, on Russian VDV’s last stand in the bridgehead.
In reality, there are from 5,000 to 6,000 enemy soldiers along the front line of the Mykolaiv-Kryvyi Rih direction (without villages). They advanced through Ingulets with a total number of up to two armoured personnel carriers [likely means units]. The special forces soldiers, who knowingly revealed the enemy’s plans for preparing for offensive operations, started requesting artillery support, but the artillery in the form of the “two hundred drunk” [200th] simply remained silent for several hours. Aviation, you say?! You can forget about aviation in this direction, even non-spontaneous tricks with pitching and firing can be seen here a little more often than observing a full moon. As a result, as written by a colleague from the “Special Purpose Channel”, after trying to contain the offensive, the soldiers of the VDV Forces and Special Forces had nothing left but to retreat to the prepared defence lines in order to maintain the combat effectiveness of the units. But again, as my colleague said earlier, not all of them came out. And these fallen warriors deserve eternal glory!
They blame alcohol for the lack of artillery support (obviously a common problem), but that artillery might no longer exist. This is what happens when all the bridges supplying this front are cut, and Russia must depend on barges and an inefficient air bridge.
Grey Zone also admits, albeit couched in propaganda to soften the blow, that Russia lost at least 125 soldiers and 10 armored vehicles. (Ukraine supposedly lost five times as much, so it’s all good!) Even assuming undercounting, that is significant losses from your best unit.
Also, lots of POWs.
There are more POW videos, but there’s no reason to exult. I like them captured better than dead, and that’s that.
The weather over Kherson oblast features thick, heavy clouds. So we can’t use NASA FIRMS data to get a better sense of the front line. The weather forecast is partly cloudy river the next several days before rain arrives next weekend. So hopefully that gives us a better idea of the real state of affairs.
To loop back around to my opening theme—Russia advanced nowhere, and is barely attacking anywhere anymore. Yet it has likely lost more land the last few days than it had gained the last two months. Supply and command and control issues won’t help matters. Looks like culmination, doesn’t it?
Enjoy the rest of your holiday weekend! This will set a nice tone:
Phew. That was … a lot!
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