Mapping Ukraine’s Military Advances
Russian president Vladimir Putin’s announcement on September 21, 2022, to call up roughly 300,000 military reservists is a sign of desperation. As newly released CSIS battlefield maps indicate, Ukrainian forces have—thus far—conducted an effective counterattack that has reconquered roughly 3,700 square miles, slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut. Over the course of the offensive, Ukrainian forces have conducted impressive combined arms operations, military innovation, intelligence collection, and denial and deception tactics. The Russian army, on the other hand, has performed poorly, and its forces have struggled with low morale, poor execution of combined arms, corruption, and an inability to achieve air superiority. These problems will be difficult to fix even with President Putin’s partial mobilization.
On August 29, the Ukrainian military announced that it had begun offensive operations in southern Ukraine centered on Kherson Oblast, a move Ukrainian officials had previously foreshadowed. Ground engagements began shortly thereafter, with a Ukrainian operational group named “Kakhovka” reportedly breaking through defensive lines manned by the 109th Donetsk People’s Republic regiment and forcing their withdrawal near Kherson. Ukrainian forces fielded High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), provided by the United States, to great effect. Ukraine struck ammunition depots and bridges across the Dnipro River, disrupting Russian logistics and resupply. The Ukrainian military similarly used long-range strikes to threaten Russian naval assets in the region, prompting the Russian navy to relocate Kilo-class submarines from Sevastopol, Crimea to Novorossiysk, Russia.
Overall, ground combat around Kherson has been more grinding than in Ukraine’s north, with less territory changing hands. The result has been deadly attritional warfare, with casualty rates in some platoons approaching 50 percent. However, Ukrainian forces have succeeded in dislodging the Russian military from a number of villages in Kherson Oblast, such as the city of Vysokopillia. In addition, Ukrainian intelligence and special operations units have conducted sabotage operations against critical infrastructure and targeted assassinations against collaborators and government officials installed by Moscow in Russian-controlled parts of Kherson and other areas. These latter examples indicate that Ukraine is conducting both regular and irregular military operations in an effort to retake territory.
On September 6, Ukraine’s military launched a large counteroffensive in the northeastern Kharkiv Oblast. Over three days, Ukrainian forces punched holes through Russian lines, encircling and recapturing the town of Balakliya. The Ukrainian thrust then advanced farther east, blitzing through large swaths of Russian-held territory and triggering a Russian retreat. By September 10, Ukrainian forces had seized the nearby town of Kupiansk, which served as a vital railway hub supplying Russian forces in the region. That same day, Ukrainian forces retook Izyum, a key command center and staging ground for Russia’s northern front. In response, the Russian defense ministry announced the official withdrawal of troops from the collapsing frontline.
In reality, Russian troops had already begun a chaotic retreat, abandoning large stores of ammunition and combat-ready equipment. Ukraine’s army captured two brigades’ worth of military equipment in less than a week. Images and videos from liberated towns in Kharkiv oblast show Ukrainian soldiers posing with abandoned Russian T-80 tanks, armored vehicles, counter-battery radars, and howitzers. Following the liberation of Izyum, Ukrainian forces continued to press north toward the Russia-Ukraine border, and east, engaging in fighting with Russian troops as they attempted to set a new defensive line on the eastern bank of the Oskil River.
Ukrainian forces have been impressive thus far. Some ground units—such as the 80th Air Assault Brigade, 10th Mountain Brigade, 115th Mechanized Brigade, and special operations forces—have been effective in conducting combined arms operations against dug-in Russian forces. Others have exhibited military innovation at the operational and tactical levels. Examples include mounting Neptune missiles onto trucks, placing rocket systems on speedboats, developing plastic aircraft modified to drop grenades, rejiggering targeting sensors and placing High-Speed Anti-Radiation (HARM) missiles on MiG-29 fighter jets, and developing a fleet of decoy HIMARS that tricked Russian forces into firing expensive Kalibr cruise missiles.
In addition, Ukrainian forces continue to innovate their use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and loitering munitions as part of combined arms operations. Ukrainian ground forces have used UAS to collect intelligence for battlefield awareness, provide real-time or near real-time information to artillery and other systems for standoff attack, perform battle damage assessments, conduct electronic warfare, strike targets, engage in information operations, and execute other missions. Ukrainian innovation has likely occurred because of a range of complex factors, including talented Ukrainian military personnel willing to try new concepts of operation and learn from UAS use in previous wars, including the 2021 Nagorno-Karabakh war; money and capabilities provided by external supporters, including UAS exports from Turkey and the United States; and foreign training, including from U.S. forces.
Russian forces have been less impressive. Despite President Putin’s attempt to put a positive spin on the war, Russia is facing mounting losses on the battlefield. Some Russian units have been severely battered by the Ukrainian offensive, including the Russian 11th Army Corps and the 1st Guards Tank Army. It will likely take Russia several years to rebuild these capabilities. In fact, the Russian army appears to have scrapped its use of Battalion Tactical Groups, which are combined arms units typically drawn from all‑volunteer companies and battalions. Instead, the Russian army appears to have reverted to using brigades, battalions, and other formations.
Russian losses have allowed Ukraine, the United States, and other Western countries to seize and analyze Russian military equipment. Some of this equipment—particularly artillery—has been high quality, including 300-millimeter (mm) Smerch multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS), 220 mm TOS-1 MLRS, and 152 mm Akatsiya self-propelled howitzers. The Russian military also possesses significant electronic warfare capabilities. The analysis of Russian battlefield equipment reinforces the conclusion that Moscow’s main problem is not one of capabilities, but of people—low morale, poor execution of combined arms, subpar training, and corruption.
The war is, of course, not over. Far from it. President Putin’s speech suggests that he is in it for the long run. But the current battlefield map should be deeply concerning for Russian political and military leaders. And President Putin will likely come under growing pressure from his domestic population and foreign partners—including China and India—if he cannot reverse these losses soon.
Seth G. Jones is senior vice president, Harold Brown Chair, and director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., as well as author, most recently, of Three Dangerous Men: Russia, China, Iran and the Rise of Irregular Warfare (W.W. Norton). Jared Thompson is a research associate with the CSIS Transnational Threats Project. Riley McCabe is a program coordinator and research assistant with the CSIS Transnational Threats Project.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2022 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.
Note on Methodology: This map is based on CSIS compilation and analysis of multiple sources. A team of CSIS researchers consulted numerous open-source mapping efforts of the war in Ukraine, including the work of Henry Schlottman (@HN_Schlottman) at UA War Data (www.uawardata.com), Jomini of the West (@JominiW), and the Institute for the Study of War (www.understandingwar.org), among other sources. CSIS researchers then worked to corroborate unit types, size, and strength using other available open-source data. Examples included: open-source analysts publishing verifiable information concerning specific units on digital platforms and the internet; publications from research institutions; publications and information from governments; and publications and social media posts from verified international journalists reporting on the conflict. The information in this map—including unit types, sizes, locations, and the line of contact between Ukrainian and Russian forces—represent CSIS’s best estimate. All locations are approximate. The representation of the line of contact between Ukrainian and Russian forces is not meant to denote de facto or de jure Russian control over Ukrainian territory.