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The successful Ukrainian counteroffensive in the northeast has brought Kyiv’s troops to the border, now with the artillery capacity to strike inside Russian territory. What are risks of launching a “counter-invasion”? What are risks of not doing so?
The Ukrainian Armed Forces' startling counter-offensive has entered its fifth day, with overnight news outdated by lunchtime as the advance continues at a pace unprecedented since the start of the war. Since the beginning of September, the Ukrainian army has liberated more than 3,000 square miles of territory in the northeastern Kharkiv region.
Meanwhile in Moscow, President Vladimir Putin appears to be in denial as his troops collapse and retreat, and his generals panic. Putin spent the weekend presiding over the grand opening of a new Ferris wheel in Moscow, and his spokesman released a statement saying all is going according to plan.
In light of events on the ground in Ukraine and the state of mind inside the Kremlin, a lingering question returns to the fore: Should Kyiv launch attacks inside of Russia? Is it time, in other words, to launch a sort of counter-invasion to undermine Putin’s very grip on power?
Among the most significant accomplishments of the past 48 hours is that Ukrainian troops have so quickly reached the border with Russia, just 20 miles from the city of Belgorod.
The Kherson option
That leaves Ukraine’s leadership with several options for what to do next. The first and most obvious choice would be to direct a further offensive inside Ukraine, moving to the south to liberate Kherson, a city of 290,000 that Russia had captured in the early weeks of the war.
But now that Kyiv has regained the territory, and has improved firepower capacity, the question of if and how to cross the border is also on the table. Ukraine has at its disposal U.S. supplied HIMARS long-range missiles, which can now reach a range of strategic military facilities, warehouses, and railroads on Russian territory, which have been used to supply Moscow’s military in the Luhansk region.
A key deterrent to such attacks would be that Ukraine promised the U.S. not to launch the missiles on Russian territory. Of course, Russia has not made any promises to anyone and shells Ukrainian cities from its bases daily. The Ukrainian border means nothing to Russia, but how will world leaders react if the Ukrainian army crosses it? If Ukrainian missiles fly into military bases in Belgorod and other cities?
Michael Nucky, an independent Russian journalist, believes that the border between the two countries is no longer something "sacred.”
Soldier in front of damages from military strikes on Stakhanov, Lugansk People's Republic
Panic in Belgorod
From inside Belgorod, the Russian city of 370,000, reports have arrived of panic among local residents, and evacuations in a number of educational institutions, train stations, and business centers.
Russian Verstkaquotes a Belgorod resident. "Ordinary people want to know at least the approximate actions expected if there is an attack on our city. At the sound of the alarm, should I run to the basement?"
Ultimately war can only be won on the battlefield.
Another local recalled that Moscow boasted early in the war that if “even one shot was fired on Russian territory, measures will be taken. And ordinary ordinary people on the Internet wrote that nothing would happen to us! [...] Wake up, people, this is the Third World War. It's time to mobilize all the border areas.”
Experts from the Conflict Intelligence Team (an independent project that originated in Russia, but is now based around Europe) predict that the next target of the Ukrainian army will be the liberation of Kherson, rather than targeting inside Russia. But there’s a caveat.
"If we are not talking about HIMARS, but about a direct invasion of Russian territory, then Ukraine does not need that now, they have enough territories to liberate," Ruslan Leviev, one of the CIT experts said. “However, if Ukraine gets the right to hit Russia with super-precision weapons, this will also happen. Because ultimately war can only be won on the battlefield."
Back to the Kremlin
To be clear, in its long and complicated history, Ukraine has never sought foreign lands, typically busy instead defending itself against foreign invaders. But the dynamic is different now, and Ukrainians increasingly are convinced that to live in peace and tranquility, its neighbor to the north must be taken down to size and neutralized, stripped of its superpower ambitions.
Thus defeat of Russia means not only liberating all the currently occupied territories, but also depriving Russia of any possibility of waging war against Ukraine in the future. And that means taking aim at Putin, who has made clear both by bogus peace agreements and his rhetoric what he think about Ukraine’s right to exist.
The phrase some Ukrainians have adopted when talking about the country’s ultimate war aim is “chase them all the way back to the Kremlin.” That of course wouldn't mean a literal invasion through the streets of Moscow. Instead, the goal is to put Russia into such a spiraling crisis of confidence that the ambitions of its leaders are extinguished, permanently. That could very well start by Ukrainian troops and missiles crossing into Russian territory. It may just be a matter of time.
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