Retreat From Izyum: Testimony of an FSB Officer

NEW – February 7, 2023

On the eve of the first anniversary of the beginning of the Special Military Operation of the Russian Federation for the denazification and demilitarisation of Ukraine, the Moscow publishing house “Knizhny Mir” published a completely shocking new book written by Mikhail Golovlyev entitled “SMO. Clausewitz and the void”.

It is devoted to analysis of the SMO in terms of the combat readiness of the Russian army, the professionalism of Russian intelligence, the readiness of the Russian command to conduct competent and successful offensive operations, and the state of our weapons. Also, the main events that took place at the front are analysed in detail and honestly. The author uncompromisingly answers the question: why did everything go wrong as planned?

Earlier in the press, it was pointed out that Mikhail Golovlev is the pseudonym of FSB Colonel Andrey Pinchuk. In 2014-2015, he created the MGB of the DPR and was its first head, and in May-June 2022, he was directly involved in the SMO, heading one of the detachments of the Union of Donbass Volunteers operating in the Kharkov region.

Previously, Pinchuk published three books: 2016 – “Security Contour. Generation of the DPR” (memoirs of the work of the Minister of State Security of the DPR), 2018 – “God. Cadence of Blood” (the novel is dedicated to the events in Crimea in 2014; under the pseudonym: Mikhail Golovlyev), 2021 – “Nobody’s Ashes” (the novel is dedicated to the war in Donbass; under the pseudonym: Mikhail Golovlyev)

“PolitNavigator”, introducing chapter 6 “Izyum” to its readers, opens its publication series with excerpts from Golovlyev’s new book.

[TL;DR: the collective incompetence of liberals occupying posts in each ministry of the Russian Federation – sometimes quite high up the hierarchy – and daily trying to derail Putin’s decree’s and orders (with some embezzlement on the side) caused Russia’s temporary retreat from Kharkov – SZ]

Excerpt from the new book by Mikhail Golovlyev “SMO. Clausewitz and the void”

Chapter 6


Now let’s look at the example of the Kharkov retreat, which has both the most important strategic importance – it eventually deprived Russian troops of the prospect of closing the “Slavyansk cauldron”, and led to significant changes in the perception of the SMO in Russian society and its authorities, and, as a result, initiating the process of partial mobilisation.

In fact, the retreat had two waves. And if the first one was carried out as part of a rollback to the positions of the city of Izyum and its environs in early May 2022 within the framework of the general logic of curtailing the first stage of the SMO, then the second one, September, turned out to be quite unexpected and led to a significant transformation of the Theatre of Operations.

Izyum itself was an important strategic hub connecting Donbass and Kharkov, and in theory allowed Russian forces to complete the encirclement of the largest grouping of the Ukrainian Armed Forces in Donbass. Its abandonment led to the collapse of the entire Kharkov direction, the loss of Kupyansk, Balakleya and a large number of other settlements, strengthened the offensive capabilities of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and created a springboard for a strike in the direction of the Lugansk Republic. In fact, this retreat marked Russia’s transition from an offensive operation to a viscous and unstable defence.

Izyum has become a prime example of mistakes in tactics, failures due to systemic lies in reports, weak motivation and problems using forces for their intended purpose.

It was in Izyum, which came under the control of the Russian army at the end of March, that the Russian group rolled back from near Kharkov.

During the initial battles for the city, falsifications with personnel were revealed here for the first time at the system level. Despite Putin’s strict instructions, during the spring battles for the city, some of the storming army units were staffed 30 to 40% by contract soldiers. The rest – conscripts and “dead souls” [persons who are no longer alive, similar to those who “voted” for Joe Biden – SZ], which allowed games with postings, reports, rations, property and allowances. Invisible in peacetime, the system flared up in wartime. In the future, after the spring retreat and regrouping, these facts also played a negative role.

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And it was here, after the withdrawal from Kharkov, that large command posts were located, including army-level ones – the First Tank, 20th, 29th, 35th, 36th armies, 64th and 38th brigades, and army intelligence control points.

It would seem that with such a staff management concentration, an exemplary demonstration of training, interaction, supply and, of course, the practical implementation of the art of war would be logical.

It happened differently.

So, what was probably the Russian strategic plan in Izyum? As we recall, the completion of the first stage of the SMO implied the rejection of the original plan for the lightning capture of Kiev, the reset of the management vertical and the correction of the national policy of Ukraine.

The plan for the second stage, most likely, was to complete the ring around the Donbass grouping of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, cut it into several cauldrons and gradually excise it.

The Izyum anchor point was good enough for that. The road from Izyum to the key, symbolic and strategically important city of Slavyansk took 48 kilometres.

The operational plan of the Russian advance passed through the settlements of Malaya Kamyshevakha-Brazhkovka-Suligovka with access to the key settlement of Dolgenkoye and the subsequent advance through Krasnopolye to Slavyansk. Units of the Central Military District were moving towards them, meeting with which closed the cauldron.

And here all the accumulated strategic and tactical military problems of Russia fully manifested themselves.

The route that was laid out seemed logical only in the course of planning using maps. If the planners had approached the issue of the offensive more creatively (and even better, they would have recalled the experience of the Great Patriotic War in these places), then, undoubtedly, the assault on Dolgenkoye would have become only a diversionary manoeuvre due to the suicidal nature of a frontal attack on narrowing forests through minefields to well-equipped defensive structures, and a real breakthrough would have been carried out simultaneously in the directions around Velikaya Kamyshevakha, Oskol or Doliny–Krestishche, as in less prepared areas for defence with fewer critical heights, engineering defences, forests, and rough terrain. But map-based planning is known for its “quality”.

As a result, the army was faced with the fact that the proposed offensive passes through forest belts with enemy-held heights. The settlements encountered on the way were equipped into fortified areas. Numerous pioneer camps and recreation centres became strongholds. The summer period and green flowering allowed the Ukrainians to create numerous ambushes, and cover the distances between them with mines.

Attempts to pass armoured vehicles through the forests were unsuccessful – anti-tank mines were placed even on the branches of trees. The use of mine-clearing vehicles proved difficult, and there was a lack of equipment. Snipers and aircraft in the conditions of green forests showed inefficiency. Moreover, a number of Western models of anti-aircraft systems penetrated the combat army aviation protection of Russian aircraft and helicopters, which is why their use was episodic, and the aviation itself tried to work at a long distance by the “kalibr” method, that is, lobbing, which, of course, reduced efficiency.

Based on the Chechen experience, the army leadership of the Russian Army tried to use the offensive lull for “cleansing” forests. Army special forces and volunteer detachments were thrown into the battle.

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It can be assumed that this made it possible to report, but with a different organisation of combat work, a normal strategic breakthrough with the necessary consolidation of forces would not require such wasteful measures for combat-ready personnel, especially from among the units so necessary for solving special tasks. The mopping-up functions would then fall on the National Guard of Russia and the intelligence agencies.

However, as a result, numerous losses did not correspond at all to the profile of special forces soldiers, experienced motivated volunteers and the circumstances of their use.

The village of Dolgenkoye became a symbol of the Izyum stagnation.

The tactics chosen by the Russian army leadership were limited to sluggish assaults on the village and adjacent territories stretched along the roads. At the same time, one of the main army laws was almost always violated – storming an unsupervised defence is akin to a crime.

Arguments often sounded like this: “At a distance of less than a hundred meters, the enemy’s cannon is not dangerous, so it’s necessary to run faster. And the minefield is not infinite, one just needs to get around it. Anti-personnel mines? Crawling on one’s belly, one need’s to carefully sweep them, for example, with a broom.” Such pearls characterised the general level of training and the attitude of the command.

The forces allocated for assaults were insufficient, which is why the personnel was spent idly, and the assaults turned out to be fatal. Casualties among personnel and equipment increased threateningly and at a high rate. At the same time, the losses in the equipment of the 4th Kantemirovskaya Division as part of the First Tank Army stationed in Izyum often exceeded the losses in personnel.

This means that much-needed and scarce equipment for really belligerent units was simply abandoned. In some cases, the “supply” of Russian abandoned trophies to the enemy exceeded the supply of foreign samples from Western sponsors to the Ukrainian army. In the future, significant Ukrainian forces began to fight the Russian army with Russian weapons and armoured vehicles.

Why did this happen? It can be assumed that the false reports and falsifications again had their say.

The army units allocated for assaults on paper was one quantity of personnel, but in fact, there were probably two, three or more times fewer people. At the same time, their motivation was often low. Right on the front line, contract soldiers massively wrote reports of dismissal or simply refused to go into battle, which the commanders were simply afraid to report. It was here, in Izyum, that the total lack of combat readiness of the Western Military District was fully manifested. The relative exception was the forces of the 20th Army based here, but they also showed the full range of typical army abnormalities.

The various special forces assigned to them as an assault reinforcement, on the contrary, were motivated and went forward, but, not having the massive support of combat units, they died. As a result, in the theoretical calculation of “one special forces or volunteer for ten soldiers”, the opposite proportion was often observed. At the same time, the “200” [code name for a dead soldier – SZ] reporting form became fashionable among the army leadership, when the commander, in confirmation of his reports that he really tried to do something, reported dead and wounded soldiers, which was supposed to demonstrate the significance of the efforts.

This is how military special forces were disposed of. Why did this happen? The Donbass experience also showed the truth – such units were used on the front line not according to the profile, simply because they were the most combat-ready. Or, often, rather, just the only combat-ready ones. Then who will conduct the much-needed intelligence? Direct artillery, conduct sabotage activities, destroy checkpoints, air defence points, bridges, “HIMARS“, ” Caesar” and “M777”? The correct answer for this approach is no one.

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Technical equipment also played a role. Again, the lack of communication facilities and, as a result, interaction led to a loss of synchronisation and offensive power.

Often on the front line, it was possible to see the following picture: Ukrainian drones and quadrocopters of different sizes soared in the sky at different heights. At the top – large intelligence stations.

They slowly and smoothly cut through the sky at an altitude inaccessible to small arms. Below are medium-sized quadrocopters with hooks for munitions. They often swarmed up, hunting for ammunition delivery vehicles and command staff vehicles. If five or six of these copters were hovering over the vehicle, then there was almost no chance of getting away. One or two munitions, and the transport was destroyed. The third and most annoying category is small tactical reconnaissance quadrocopters, which hover over the fighters both day and night.

In theory, they could be shot down by so-called “drone bombs” – radio frequency suppressors of UAVs or, in extreme cases, pump-action shotguns with small shot or buckshot. Naturally, the fighters did not have either. The army did not prepare for this.

It should also be taken into account that the work of Ukrainian drones was provided by electronic warfare forces, which alternated their activity with the rise of “birds”. Often, the Ukrainian side used electronic equipment to intercept the control of Russian home-grown drones purchased with the money of sponsors. Attempts to tie these quadrocopters to a fishing line and other small-scale household tricks were unsuccessful. The difference in technical equipment was significant.

At the same time, apparently, the “Izyum standing” was not identified by the command as relatively permanent. As a result, no proper measures were taken to equip a solid defence, with the exception of the most dangerous areas, although military science demanded the opposite.

Clausewitz: “Every offensive must end in defense, but what form it takes depends on the situation.”

The result was the inability to hold the Ukrainian offensive, which led to the collapse of the entire Kharkov front.

Clausewitz: “In order to take advantage of these weaknesses or blunders of the enemy and not retreat one step further than what the force of circumstances compels, and mainly in order to maintain moral strength on the most favourable level possible, it is necessary to retreat slowly with continuous resistance, to fight back boldly whenever the pursuer is carried away by excessive use its advantages. The retreat of great generals and battle-hardened armies is always like the departure of a wounded lion, and this is unquestionably the best theory.

However, very often at the moment when you wanted to get out of a difficult situation, you began to perform empty formalities that caused only a useless loss of time and became dangerous, since at such moments everything depends on the ability to quickly get out. Experienced leaders attached great importance to this rule. But such cases should not be confused with a general retreat after a lost battle. Anyone who imagines that in the latter case they can gain space by several large transitions and easily take a stable position is making a major mistake. The first movements should be as minor as possible; in the main, the principle of disobeying the will of the enemy should be adhered to. This rule cannot be followed without engaging in bloody battles with an oncoming enemy, but the principle is worth the sacrifice. If it is neglected, the movement becomes hasty and soon turns into a furious stream, and the losses of some stragglers exceed those that would have to be suffered in rearguard battles; moreover, the last remnants of courage are lost.”

Aleksandr Che

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