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Ukrainian armed forces walking through Izium, Ukraine.

The shift of power in the war theater in Ukraine is yet to be seen, Northeastern expert says

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy leaves after attending a national flag-raising ceremony in the freed Izium, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022. Zelenskyy visited the recently liberated city on Wednesday, greeting soldiers and thanking them for their efforts in retaking the area, as the Ukrainian flag was raised in front of the burned-out city hall building. AP Photo/Leo Correa

The successful counterattack by Ukrainian forces in the northeast of the country might have revealed weaknesses of the Russian military and delivered a blow to the Kremlin’s propaganda machine, but it does not mean yet that Ukraine has a significant advantage over Russia to completely win the war, Northeastern experts say.

“There is no denial now that the [Russian] invasion of Ukraine failed,” says Pablo Calderon Martinez, assistant professor in politics and international relations at Northeastern University – London.

The so-called “special operation” as Russia prefers to call its invasion into Ukraine was supposed to be quick, almost “surgical,” he says, but it turned into a war of attrition, where both sides are trying to wear the other down.

The achievements of the counteroffensive, however, surprised both the Russian Defense Ministry and the Kremlin, who had to scramble for an official explanation that would align with the months of narrative broadcast to the public. 

Ukrainian military officials announced the beginning of the counteroffensive operation on Aug. 29, according to the Institute for the Study of War, focusing first on Kherson Province in southern Ukraine. Both the Russian Defense Ministry and Russian military bloggers claimed right away that the counteroffensive was limited, overblown and likely to fail.

On Sept. 7, Ukrainian forces shifted the counterattack to Kharkiv Province in the northeast, taking advantage of Russia’s deployment of forces from Kharkiv and eastern Ukraine to Ukraine’s south. By Sept. 9, Ukrainian forces had captured an estimated 2,500 square kilometers, or about 965 square miles, in Kharkiv Province.

The sudden advances of Ukrainian forces in the northeast ruined Russia’s plan of “liberating” Donbas and capturing the whole Donetsk Province. The counteroffensive also disrupted plans for the annexation referendum in Kherson Province, which was indefinitely postponed due to “security” concerns.

Russian TV news programs on government controlled channels were still talking about the Russian army holding the lines and Ukrainians suffering big losses, despite some videos on social media showing otherwise, says Larissa Doroshenko, postdoctoral teaching associate of communication studies who published research on Russian disinformation in 2014 during its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine last year.

The Russian TV called those videos fake publicity needed to justify the supply of Western weapons.

Russian internet bloggers were proclaiming the Ukrainian counterattack ineffective, claiming that Ukrainian forces were losing.

“Up until Sept. 11, they were pretty much in denial of the losses or the gravity of the situation,” Doroshenko says.

The Kremlin still didn’t admit the counterattack, changing the narrative to regrouping the troops and sending them from Kharkiv to Donbas.

On TV, one of the Russia Today journalists said that Russian people needed to unite in this grave moment and silently pray, Doroshenko says.

To justify the losses, she says, the messaging changed from fighting with Ukraininans to being at war with NATO and the West, who have stalled Russian military’s progress by supplying Ukraine with weapons and sharing reconnaissance. The news claimed that Ukrainian military units were in reality led by foreign commanders.

The Kremlin acknowledged its defeat in Kharkiv Province only on Sept. 13, the first time since the start of the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. The evident failures of the Russian forces were blamed on some mystery advisers to Putin, Doroshenko says, instead of the president himself.

Doroshenko also came across suggestions to start negotiations with Ukraine, she says.

Based on the footage that came out from the liberated areas that showed the old age and poor quality of Russian weapons, Doroshenko says, Russia is not fighting a war of the 21st century. It still uses unguided weapons and limited technology, heavily relying on manpower.

Calderon Martinez agrees that some anecdotal reports of the Russian commanders abandoning their troops show relative weakness of the Russian military.

“[But] you are still talking about the Russian Army, “ he says. “They still have plenty of resources.”

Russians are reportedly supplied with Iranian weapons and are trying to reinforce their relationship with China through a meeting with Xi Jinping that took place on Thursday, Sept.15 in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, he says. 

“You win territory, you lose territory, the frontline shifts. I’m sure there will be a counter offensive at some stage from the Russian military. I just don’t see where one side or the other are going to gain a significant advantage,” Calderon Martinez says.

The shift of power might come suddenly and unexpectedly, he says. Domestic developments might influence the West’s further support of Ukraine.

Calderon Martinez points out that midterm elections in the U.S., bad wind energy production this summer in the EU, expected rough winter, France’s technical issues with its nuclear power production and advancement of far right parties like in Sweden can all affect the amount of support Ukraine will continue to receive in the future.

He also doesn’t believe that the counteroffensive has caused a massive change in public opinion in Russia. 

According to Russian independent polling organization Levada, the number of respondents who strongly support Russian military actions in Ukraine declined from 53% in March to 46% in August. With 76% of respondents generally supporting “the special operation,” overall support for Russian forces in Ukraine has not changed significantly over the summer.

Due to lack of accurate information from Russia, it is hard to judge the scale of dissent among Putin’s supporters, Calderon Martinez says, given that the Kremlin has been allowing some managed dissent to maintain the facade of openness.

The only major power card that Russia holds is using tactical nuclear weapons. 

“I think if he [Putin] was going to use them, he would have used them already,” Calderon Martinez says. “But there is still that possibility that he feels that the war is being lost and he turns this into a nuclear war. And then all bets are off.”

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