On September 10, the Russian Defense Ministry said forces were voluntarily leaving districts around the city of Kharkiv to focus on solidifying capture of Ukraine’s Donbas region.
"In order to achieve the stated goals of the Special Military Operation to liberate the Donbas (region in Eastern Ukraine), it has been decided to regroup the Russian troops stationed in the districts of Balakliia and Izium," said Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov.
That is false.
In fact, a rapid Ukrainian offensive pushed Russian troops out of dozens of villages and cities in the northeast Kharkiv region. The Russian army abandoned tanks, trucks and ammunition, and hundreds of soldiers were killed, wounded or captured, according to a raft of news reports.
Moreover, the additional loss of the city of Izium sharply reduced Russia's ability to achieve its stated goal in the Donbas, military analysts said.
The Russian army occupied Izium, a key logistics hub in the east of the Kharkiv region, in early April, after a month’s siege. The railroad connecting Kharkiv with Donbas passes through the city, military analysts told the BBC, making Izium a crucial supply juncture.
On September 6, Ukrainian troops launched a counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region, catching Russian forces by surprise. In the first 48 hours, Ukrainian troops advanced at least 12 miles into Russian-occupied territory and recaptured about 150 square miles.
By September 8, Ukraine reported that more than 20 towns and villages in the Kharkiv region had been liberated. Two days later, the Ukrainian army had pushed up to 40 miles into Russian-occupied territory and liberated more than 1,000 square miles, Ukraine defense officials said.
In five days, Ukraine regained more territory than Russian troops had seized in the previous four months. That is the biggest setback for Russia since March, when its forces around the capital Kyiv were pushed back to Russia and Belarus.
According to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) in Washington, D.C., the rapid counteroffensive is a “major operational defeat” for Russia.
“Russian forces are not conducting a controlled withdrawal and are hurriedly fleeing southeastern Kharkiv Oblast [province] to escape encirclement around Izium,” the ISW reported on September 10.
Russia's retreat from Izium undermines its plans to control Donbas, which includes the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces abutting Russian borders. Russia recognizes the areas as breakaway republics from Ukraine.
“The loss of Izium dooms the initial Russian campaign plan for this phase of the war and ensures that Russian advances toward Bakhmut or around Donetsk City (of Donbas region) cannot be decisive (if they occur at all),” the ISW assessment wrote on September 11.
The losses around Kharkiv infuriated pro-war hardliners in Russia.
Igor Girkin (Strelkov), a former state security officer who once commanded pro-Russian forces in Donbas, acknowledged a stinging setback. “For our part, we can only talk about how to prevent the development of an operational defeat into a strategic one,” Girkin wrote on Telegram.
Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, a staunch ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin whose forces are participating in the war, said that Russia’s Defense Ministry made mistakes.
Unless strategic changes are made, Kadyrov said, he would “have to contact the leadership of the Ministry of Defense and the leadership of the country to explain to them the situation that really exists there on the ground.”
Kremlin officials continued to insist the war is on plan and that there are no plans to mobilize more troops. But Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov had ominous words for critics of the campaign.
"As for other points of view, critical points of view, as long as they remain within the law, this is pluralism, but the line is very, very thin. One must be very careful here," Peskov told journalists on September 13.
Ukraine released photos and videos showing dozens of pieces military equipment fleeing Russian troops left behind.
According to the open-source investigative web site Oryx, Russian military’s visually confirmed losses on September 11 totaled 102 items, including 24 tanks and 26 infantry fighting vehicles.
Ninety-five pieces of equipment were captured, and only seven were destroyed by the Ukrainian army, Oryx said.
In one of the liberated villages, Hrakove, a Reuters journalist witnessed signs of Russian troops fleeing in a hurry. “Boxes of ammunition were scattered along with rubbish at positions the Russians had abandoned in evident haste,” the Reuters journalist reported.
Russian soldiers were left to find their own ways to escape, leaving weapons and even tanks, according to The Washington Post. “Russians fled any way they could on Friday, on stolen bicycles, disguised as locals, abandoned by their units,” the newspaper reported.
In June and July, several Russian officials had visited an occupied part of the Kharkiv region and said the captured territory would always be part of Russia.
On July 27, the Russian-installed head of the occupation administration in the Kharkiv region, Vitaly Ganchev, said: “From those territories, settlements that are under our control, Russia will not leave; I can say for sure that we are here for a long time, even forever.”
Ukraine authorities said their main task now is to hold the recaptured areas while maintaining momentum. Russian forces remain dug in throughout Donbas and southern Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014.
“A counteroffensive liberates territory and after that you have to control it and be ready to defend it. …Of course, we have to be worried, this war has worried us for years,” Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told the Financial Times.