The Russians would have thought the Ukrainians would launch their counteroffensive, but now they are gaining enormous ground in the east. It was planned that way, say Ukrainian special forces. The much-heralded offensive in the south was a diversionary maneuver from the real one in the east.

Ukraine made further gains in the eastern Kharkiv region, recapturing the strategically important city of Kupyansk on Saturday, as well as the city of Izyum. Within days, Ukraine regained more than 1,000 square kilometers of territory – a third of the entire occupied Kharkiv region. Voices on social networks speak of the strongest counter-offensive since the Second World War.

Ukraine initially announced its offensive at the end of August for the Cherson region in the south – only days later was there talk of similar efforts in the east of the country. Ukrainian special forces have now admitted that the widely presented counter-offensive in the south was a disinformation campaign to distract from the actual offensive in the east. This should have been prepared for months, it is said.

Taras Berezovets, a former national security adviser and current press officer for the Bohun Brigade of Ukraine’s special forces, told the British Guardian: “Russia thought the offensive was going to be in the south and moved its equipment there. Then the offensive took place not in the south but where they least expected it, causing them to panic and flee.”

In the past few days, the Ukrainians have also taken more and more villages in the Cherson region. While these weren’t all that different from isolated area gains in July and early August, Ukraine presented it as a major riposte. A spokeswoman for the Ukrainian Southern Command even banned journalists from coming to the front.

In view of the announced offensive, the Russian general staff sent 1,300 Chechen soldiers to the region. According to Berezovets, some equipment and personnel were also transferred from Kharkiv to Cherson. As Berezovets explains: “In the meantime, our men in Kharkiv were equipped with the best Western, especially American, weapons.”

The Ukrainian armed forces then achieved the major gains in territory in Kharkiv. The Russians were surprised by the Ukrainians in the east, analyzed the British Ministry of Defense. “Ukrainian troops are advancing in eastern Ukraine and are liberating other towns and villages,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleh Nikolenko said in Kyiv on Saturday. On Friday evening, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyi announced the recapture of 30 towns and villages in the Kharkiv region.

On Saturday, the Ukrainian armed forces then succeeded in recapturing the eastern Ukrainian city of Kupjansk, which is important for the supply of Russian troops and had already been occupied at the beginning of the Russian war of aggression. Footage published online on Saturday also apparently showed Ukrainian soldiers in the city of Izyum, which was also previously in Russian hands.

According to Ukrainian sources, Ukrainian troops also advanced on Saturday towards the eastern city of Lysychansk, which Russian soldiers had taken in July after bitter fighting. But the Ukrainians continued to advance in the south as well. In some regions they are said to have advanced dozens of kilometers into Russian-held areas, a military spokeswoman confirmed on Saturday. “As Ukrainian operations continue in Kherson, the Russian defense front is under pressure on both the northern and southern flanks,” the UK Defense Ministry said.

Moscow reacted to the losses in the east with a “reorganization” of its troops. Under pressure from Ukrainian counter-offensives, Russia has announced the withdrawal of troops from eastern Ukraine. Soldiers should be withdrawn from the Kharkiv region, for example from the strategically important city of Izyum, Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said in Moscow on Saturday.

The Russian troops are also to withdraw from the city of Balaklija, which the Ukrainians had reported as liberated last week. The official justification for the withdrawal was that the regrouping should strengthen the units in the neighboring Donetsk region. Just a day earlier, Moscow had announced that it would be strengthening its troops in the Kharkiv region.

The new Ukrainian push could severely limit Russia’s ability to provide supplies and logistical support to its positions on Ukraine’s eastern front. Russia may be forced to completely withdraw from the Kharkiv region.