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5 key takeaways on how Ukraine’s counteroffensives reshaped the war

Ukrainian forces at a bridge over the Oskil River in the Kharkiv region on Oct. 3. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)
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A months-long examination by The Washington Post of Ukraine’s successful Kharkiv and Kherson counteroffensives involved interviews with more than 35 people, including Ukrainian commanders, officials in Kyiv and combat troops, as well as senior U.S. and European military and political officials. Here are some key findings:

1. Ukrainian Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky suggested the Kharkiv counteroffensive when the General Staff asked for diversionary operations. It was designed to prevent Russia from concentrating all its forces on defending Kherson in the south, but it was also an operation that Syrsky argued had a strong prospect of success in its own right. To plan the offensive, Syrsky met in a large operations room in Ukraine’s east with his top aides and key brigade commanders. On a 520-square-foot 3D-printed terrain map of the part of the Kharkiv region held by Russia, each commander walked the path of his unit’s planned assault, discussing coordination, contingencies and worst-case scenarios. “It was painstaking work,” Syrsky said.

2. U.S. officials were not particularly involved in the planning for the Kharkiv counteroffensive. They were as surprised as the Ukrainians when the Russian lines collapsed. Beyond supplying the Ukrainians with game-changing weaponry, the United States provided critical targeting information that helped the Ukrainians ration their limited supplies of ammunition. Ukraine would regularly give the United States and its allies a “high value” list spelling out the sorts of targets it was looking to hit, and often received precise coordinates.

Inside the Ukrainian counteroffensive that shocked Putin and reshaped the war

3. In response to the Kharkiv rout, Russian President Vladimir Putin appointed Gen. Sergei Surovikin as his first overall commander for the Russian war effort. With a direct line to Surovikin, Putin began to receive a more unvarnished picture of the problems on the battlefield, according to two people familiar with the matter, who said that previously Putin had been given overly rosy assessments by his top defense officials.

4. The Americans were deeply involved in helping Ukraine plan for a counteroffensive in the south. The Ukrainian military was under considerable political pressure to undertake a broad counteroffensive across the entire southern front, which would have included an attempt to push southward into the Zaporizhzhia region and sever the “land bridge” from the Russian border to Crimea. In a July war-gaming exercise that Ukrainian commanders held in Germany with Western counterparts, the American and British couldn’t get the operation to work in their simulations. That helped convince the Ukrainians that a narrower operation focused on Kherson was a better military option.

5. Frustration in Kyiv with a lack of progress prompted the Ukrainian government to replace the commander of the Kherson operation in late September. The decision was kept under wraps at the time so as not to provide Russia with any kind of propaganda victory. The Americans were informed. Maj. Gen. Andriy Kovalchuk was replaced by Brig. Gen. Oleksandr Tarnavsky, a trusted lieutenant of Syrsky’s. “I think there were folks who were probably getting impatient with the movement in the south,” said a senior U.S. military official. “It was a really good start and then it just kind of stopped.”