Intelligence points to potential turning point in Ukraine war

REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
U.S. and European Union flags at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.

A Ukrainian counteroffensive that has sent Russian forces into a hasty retreat could mark a turning point in the war and raise pressure on Moscow to call up additional forces if it hopes to prevent further Ukrainian advances, U.S. and Western officials said Monday.

Whether the gains are permanent depends on Russia’s next moves, especially whether President Vladimir Putin implements a military draft or orders reinforcements from elsewhere to offset heavy losses in Ukraine, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share recent intelligence analyses.

In mere days, Ukrainian military forces have retaken nearly all of the Kharkiv region that Russian forces occupied since the opening of the war. The rapidity of the pullback appears to have stunned Russian military troops and commanders, officials said.

“The Russians are in trouble,” one U.S. official said bluntly. “The question will be how the Russians will react, but their weaknesses have been exposed and they don’t have great manpower reserves or equipment reserves.”

Ukrainian forces appeared to be moving ahead carefully and consolidating their gains, another official said, noting that Russian forces seem to have recognized that they lacked the weapons and manpower to hold newly liberated towns and villages in the northeast of the country. Some Russian forces abandoned tanks, armored vehicles and ammunition as they fled.

The officials were skeptical that Putin, who has resisted calling up additional forces, would resort to extreme tactics such as the use of chemical or tactical nuclear weapons. For all their shortcomings, the Russians still have the capability to regroup and hit back hard, some officials cautioned.

But the recent gains have fueled a new sense of optimism that Ukrainian forces could recapture more territory in the coming weeks and potentially force the Russians out of the land that they have held since the war began in February. Ukrainian military and intelligence officials have long been confident of their eventual victory, often in the face of skepticism from U.S. and Western allies.

“Certainly it’s a military setback. I don’t know if I could call it a major strategic loss at this point,” the U.S. official said, echoing others who said that it was too soon to say if the momentum had fully shifted in Kyiv’s favor and that heavy fighting was likely to continue.

Russia holds large amounts of territory in the east and in southern Ukraine, including the strategically important cities of Mariupol and Kherson. Ukrainian breakthroughs there would be more significant than those of recent days, officials said. But fighting in those regions has taken a heavy toll on Ukrainian forces, who say they lack the artillery needed to dislodge better equipped and entrenched Russian forces.