The much-publicised Ukrainian southern offensive was a disinformation campaign to distract Russia from the real one being prepared in the Kharkiv region, Ukraine’s special forces have said.
Ukrainian forces are continuing to make unexpected, rapid advances in the north-east of the country, retaking more than a third of the occupied Kharkiv region in three days. Much of Ukraine’s territorial gains were confirmed by Russia’s defence ministry on Saturday.
“[It] was a big special disinformation operation,” said Taras Berezovets, a former national security adviser turned press officer for the Bohun brigade of Ukraine’s special forces.
On 29 August, Ukraine’s southern command announced that the long-anticipated offensive in the Kherson region had begun. But soldiers on the Kherson frontline said at the time that they saw no evidence of said offensive or that the active battles taking place were a reaction to an attempted Russian offensive several days earlier.
For the past two weeks, Ukrainian forces in the south took several villages – no small feat given the reported strength of Russian positions and one which nevertheless resulted in injuries.
But the gains were not remarkably different from the steady but limited progress Ukrainian forces had been making in the Kherson region over July and August.
And yet, the capture of these tiny Kherson villages, with populations of a few thousands, suddenly became big international news.
Natalia Humeniuk, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s southern command, had insisted on a “regime of silence” and temporarily banned journalists from visiting the frontlines in Kherson.
But Berezovets said the media stir around the southern offensive was a coordinated disinformation campaign by Ukraine, targeted at Russian forces, that had been building for several months.
It was successful in provoking Russia to move equipment and personnel to the southern front, including partly from Kharkiv region, said Berezovets.
“Meanwhile [our] guys in Kharkiv were given the best of western weapons, mostly American,” he said.
Part of the special operation involved rooting out informants in Ukrainian-controlled parts of Kharkiv to stop them passing information about Ukraine’s preparations to the Russians, said a military source with knowledge of the operation.
“The [informants] were almost completely cleaned up. They mostly comprised normal Ukrainian civilians but there were some Russian agents undercover as Ukrainian civilians,” said the source. “The Russians had no idea what was going on.”
Russia’s defence ministry has confirmed the retreat, describing it as a regroup. It says it has retreated from Izium and the town of to “bolster efforts” on the Donetsk front.
“A three-day operation was carried out on the drawdown and organised transfer of the Izium-Balakliia group of troops to the territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic,” said the Russian defence ministry spokesperson, Igor Konashenkov.
“In order to prevent damage to the Russian troops, a powerful fire defeat was inflicted on the enemy.”
Russian state media and bloggers have confirmed Russian soldiers have been forced to make a large-scale retreat from Kharkiv.
Ukrainian troops have in the past few days pushed Russian forces out of a number of settlements in the region that Moscow occupied since the first days of its invasion.
In a video address late on Friday, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said Ukrainian forces had liberated more than 30 settlements in the Kharkiv region.
A local resident of Izium, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that the Ukrainian troops had entered the city. Before that, “Russian occupying forces were rapidly withdrawing, leaving ammunition and equipment behind”.
Ukraine’s retake of Izium could be its most significant success in pushing back the Russians since the beginning of the invasion.
By capturing the nearby town of Kupiansk, Ukrainian forces have managed to cut off the supply lines for the Russian formations in control of the Izium area,” said Serhiy Kuzan, a military expert at the Ukrainian Security and Cooperation Center.
Kuzan said the Russian formations in charge of the south-east area of Kharkiv, labelled the Izium area by military experts, were professional Russian soldiers, not mercenaries or conscripts from Russian-occupied Donbas.
The offensive has been carried out at lightning speed, with a third of occupied Kharkiv being captured by Ukrainian forces in just a matter of days, he said.
The UK’s Ministry of Defence has said Ukraine’s counter-offensive took Russian forces by surprise, adding that Kyiv’s forces had advanced 50km (31 miles) along a narrow frontline and retaken or surrounded several towns.
With Ukrainian operations also continuing in Kherson, the Russian defensive front is under pressure on both its northern and southern flanks,” it said.
“We are actually surprised by how poorly the Russians have retreated,” said Kuzan. “Retreat is part of the art of war. When we retreated, we made sure they suffered losses as they advanced and we did to so to ensure that they only advanced 1, 2, 3 kilometres.
“They were so confident that they didn’t prepare their defences,” he added. “This has shown that the only advantage they have is in the number of artillery pieces and heavy equipment. So all we need is the same amount.”
After the big territorial gains made this week by Ukraine, Moscow is sending columns of military reinforcements to the Kharkiv region, according to reports in Russian media.