Russia launches its offensive with all eyes on Ukraine’s southern push

With the world’s attention on Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the south, Russia has quietly launched a new offensive in the eastern Luhansk region, which analysts say is aimed at undermining the Ukrainian operation.

While the operation is much smaller in size and scope than Moscow’s winter offensive, Russia is making some progress and appears to be narrowing in on the city of Kupyansk, where Ukraine ordered an evacuation this week.

The Russian advance could pressure Ukraine amid a major offensive of its own and divide its attention. Any success could also paint a politically beneficial contrast with Ukraine’s slow-moving counteroffensive in the southeastern Zaporizhzhia region.

Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, doubted Russia can advance. But if it does, he said it would be a significant blow to Ukraine at a perilous moment.

“This is something worth keeping an eye on. If the Russians make some progress here, then this is a really big deal,” Cancian said. “It would be devastating to Ukraine’s narrative about the counteroffensive if the Russians were able to capture Luhansk — which I don’t think they can.

“But if they’re able to do that at a time when the Ukrainian counteroffensive was hung up in the defensive zone, that would be a very powerful failure and I think very discouraging to Western supporters,” he added. 

Moscow’s winter offensive culminated at the end of March and Russian forces have since concentrated on defense against Ukraine’s counteroffensive. But Russia has never completely stopped its offensive operations, continuing a steady array of limited attacks across the 600-mile front in eastern Ukraine.

The Luhansk advance has picked up speed since mid-July, with fighting reportedly taking place mostly in rural and open fields, similar to the southern Zaporizhzhia region but in less populated areas.

Russia made rapid gains this week toward Kupyansk, a city in the Kharkiv region that lies just beyond Luhansk that, if taken, would consolidate Russian control of the area. The city was taken by Moscow in the early days of the war before Ukrainian forces recaptured it in a lightning advance last fall.

Earlier this week, Russia reportedly moved within artillery range northeast of the city. Evacuations were ordered in dozens of settlements near Kupyansk as Russian forces approached within miles of the city. The fight is far from over because Russian forces face more defenses and would have to cross the Oksil River to fully capture Kupyansk.

Russian military bloggers and state-run news sites have covered the news relentlessly in the past week, trying to paint a grim picture for Ukraine, which Russia’s Defense Ministry reports has lost dozens of troops in the past few days.

Popular Russian military blogger Alexander Kots on Telegram said Ukraine was dispersing its troops in a hurried attempt to defend against the advance. “I look at the progress map in this direction and feel cautious optimism,” wrote Kots. “Now the Armed Forces of Ukraine are in a position that is not very advantageous for them.”

Ukrainian officials have confirmed attacks are intensifying near Kupyansk and that they are moving to defend against them. Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar described “intense” attacks but said defenses were holding.

Russia is also moving in from Kreminna in Luhansk toward the city of Lyman in the Donetsk region. Lyman, south of Kupyansk, is another major target in Moscow’s efforts to stabilize its power in the east. 

Igor Zhdanov, an international correspondent for state-run news agency RT, said Russian “fighters managed to penetrate the enemy defenses” in a battle inside a forest and natural preserve near Lyman.

“A really serious defensive line has fallen, which for many months fettered our actions on this sector of the front,” he wrote on Telegram.

Despite the reports, Western military analysts are skeptical Russia has the capabilities to make any significant progress after exhausting manpower, munitions and resources in a costly war of attrition to take the city of Bakhmut over the spring. 

Aram Shabanian, an open-source information gathering manager for the think tank New Lines Institute, said Russia has made gains but was “not capturing major cities or overrunning Ukrainian positions.”

“They’re trying to force the Ukrainians to draw their forces to a different battlefield, while simultaneously probing to see where there are weaknesses,” he said, but “they’re not making great advances at the moment.”

Shabanian also stressed Russia has spent most of its resources and is unlikely to be able to muster any significant offensive operation until next year, an assessment shared by most war analysts.

“They’ve reached their high-water mark, and from here on out, it’s going to be a grinding fight,” he said. “But the Ukrainian side of the war is going to get more advanced technology and weapons, while the Russians dig further and further into the reserves, [and] it’s going to be harder and harder for the Russians to meaningfully take land at this point.”

Russia controls most of Luhansk already, so seizing the rest of the region would be a political victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin. It would also put his troops in a better position to occupy the rest of the Donbas, made up of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

Luhansk, however, is not as strategically vital as the southern Zaporizhzhia region, which connects the Russian mainland to the Crimean Peninsula and is situated on major bodies of water such as the Sea of Azov.

Branislav Slantchev, a professor studying the war at the University of California, San Diego, said a Russian success in Luhansk wouldn’t dramatically change the war. He said the Kupyansk push was “obviously designed to break up the Ukrainian offensive.”

“The goal is kind of an attempt to threaten the Ukrainians enough with a breakthrough to make the Ukrainians … draw forces away from the south,” he said. “But all the action strategically is in the south. This is what the Russians care about. They care about protecting Crimea. They care about protecting the land routes, they care about the access to the Black Sea.”

But Putin is also hoping to buy time, hoping that Western support for Ukraine cracks. And taking Luhansk would undoubtedly send a powerful message that his army is triumphing while Ukraine visibly struggles in the south.

Maksym Skrypchenko, the president of the Transatlantic Dialogue Center, a nonprofit advising Ukraine’s government, expressed fears of the political cost of a Russian victory in Luhansk — though he’s confident in Ukraine’s defenses.

“Moscow is trying to make our Western alliance rethink their approach towards giving Ukraine more and more weapons,” he said. “But still, I don’t think that we will see any solid Russian advance soon because they ran out of human resources.”

Tags Russia-Ukraine war Ukraine counteroffensive