Over the weekend, there was a major turn in the war in Ukraine. Ukraine fully regained its territory in the Kharkiv region of the country, with Russian troops retreating from dozens of towns and villages.
The victory comes following an offensive to regain control over Ukrainian territory in the north and south of the country.
Chris Dougherty, a military analyst and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, joined The World's host Marco Werman to explain this swift and surprising turn of events and the impact it could have on the war's trajectory.
"I think in all honesty, the Ukrainians are probably surprised it happened as quickly as it did," he said, adding that Ukraine's advances have been so fast and the collapse of Russian forces, so catastrophic, that Ukraine is likely to make even further territorial gains.
"That's how quickly events are unfolding, both on the Ukrainian side in terms of how fast they're moving, but also on the Russian side of how fast they're withdrawing in what can only really be described as a rout along this entire front."
Marco Werman: So you say a "rout." Some are saying Russian troops simply retreated. What do you think is accurate?
Chris Dougherty: Rout. Retreat. The line between the two can be somewhat hard to discern, I think, based on how fast they retreated and how much equipment they seemed to have left behind and how many forces have been captured. It looks to me more like a rout than an orderly retreat.
So, what details do you have about what actually happened on the ground? Like, do you have a general sense of how this unfolded and how long it took for Ukraine?
Based on the open-source reporting, what we saw initially was a Ukrainian buildup in and around Kherson, which — I know we're now talking about Kharkiv, which is on the other side of Ukraine — but it's important to think about this because that buildup and the messaging of that buildup caused Russia to move a lot of its most well-trained and well-equipped forces down to the Kherson region. And because Russia is operating on what we call "external lines" — and what that means functionally is if you're operating on internal lines, it's very easy to move from the center of a circle to any point on that circle — but if you're on the outside, that means you've got to go all the way around the circle to get to where you want to go. And so, that circle of the front from roughly Kherson up to Kharkiv is very, very long and it's even longer for the Russians. So, if they want to move forces, it takes a lot of effort and a lot of time. So, by drawing those forces down into the Kherson region with this offensive that the Ukrainians have launched there, they caused the Russians to weaken the front in Kharkiv.
Essentially, then, did Ukrainian forces dupe Moscow into thinking they were going to try and recapture the south of Ukraine?
I'm of the opinion that these were probably two planned assaults. The question I really have in my mind was just how much was the Kharkiv offensive really meant to be a full offensive that achieved this level of breakthrough or how much of it was meant to, as the Germans used to say in World War I, "punch a hole" and see what develops.
How is Russia framing these losses? What does it look like from their side?
So, what we can see in Russian media and on Russian social media is, you know, I think almost a level of dumbfoundedness. So, just as we're a little bit surprised at the speed and the effectiveness of this Ukrainian offensive, I think they've been shocked by just how badly pushed back that they've been. I think that there was a period of time, especially during the opening debacle of the Russian invasion, where there was a sense of denial. And you still see some of that right there. You know, there was just a fete and all this sort of fantastical thinking. I think now, however, the depth and breadth of Russian failures are actually starting to creep into public narratives inside Russia in ways that perhaps they didn't before.
For months, supporters of Ukraine have been eager to see a turning point in their favor. But what's a reality check? I mean, what difference does this weekend make to the overall direction of the war?
I think it makes a huge difference. I think that the alteration in the political dynamic in favor of Ukraine caused by this offensive really can't be understated. We were facing a long winter without adequate energy supplies, whether it's in [Europe] or in Ukraine, which imports its energy from Europe. And there was a lot of skepticism about the Ukrainians' ability to actually go onto the offensive and change this from a bloody stalemate into a successful operation. And if that wasn't going to happen, I think we'd probably see a gradual diminution of political support in the West. And what this has done is completely change that dynamic, because now you can see a real path to victory, not just a stalemate that bloodies Russia at the cost of Ukrainian lives and Western weapons, but a real potential to retake territory up to — and beyond — the lines that were set in 2014.
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This interview was lightly edited and condensed for clarity.