When Russian tanks began rolling across the border into Ukraine, American officials warned that the capital could fall within days. Now, more than six months later, it is Kyiv’s forces that are pushing back into the east of the country, while Moscow’s troops flee.

On Saturday morning, the Ukrainians announced they had taken back Izium, in the Kharkiv region. Home to almost 50,000 people before the war, hundreds of civilians are reported to have died during intense shelling before the Russians captured the city in March. Pictures now emerging from the front lines show those who stayed behind and endured months of occupation are rushing out of their homes to greet the Ukrainian defenders as they arrived.

But Izium isn’t the only city to be liberated. Over the past few hours, a handful of towns and cities in the region have changed hands including Balakleya and Kupyansk, with reports indicating Russian soldiers have been forced to pull back from Lyman and Svyatohirs’k as well, on the edge of the Donbas.

Backed up by Western-supplied artillery, the most significant counteroffensive of the war so far is evidently well underway in northeastern Ukraine, and the situation on the ground is changing faster than anyone can keep up with.

“I’m trying not to lap up every rumor circulating around,” writes Tobias Schneider, a research fellow at Germany’s Global Public Policy Institute, “but the main challenge in establishing a clear picture of the situation in Kharkiv appears to be that Russian lines are collapsing faster than Ukraine can even advance and clear liberated areas.”

In what looks to be an extraordinary rout, Russian troops are said to have pulled out of Svatovo – 60 kilometres away from anywhere Ukrainian forces are understood to have taken. Soldiers abandoning their positions even before the enemy arrived would be a worrying sign for those in the Kremlin.

A number of unconfirmed reports indicate Moscow’s commanders have made a series of catastrophic miscalculations. According to analysts, the entire 36th Motorised Rifle Brigade was redeployed to the south of Izium in response to Ukrainian advances, but no units were sent to plug the gap they left in the front lines, allowing Kyiv’s troops to push through the woodland they had been guarding and towards the city.

If true, it would be just the latest in a series of instalments that show Russian command and control is simply not up to coordinating huge numbers of troops across a massive front line.

“Russia’s problem is they do not know how to prosecute complex combined arms, joint operations, integrating their Armour, Infantry, Artillery, Aviation and Airpower with the necessary logistic and other combat support,” Colonel Philip Ingram, a former NATO military planner tells Reaction. “They fight piecemeal and that means when faced with an opposition who do understand how to execute complex operations, they get driven back.“

Worse still for the Kremlin, thousands of its soldiers have been taken out of the fight and sent to the Far East – close to the border with China – to take part in the annual Vostok exercises along with counterparts from Beijing, Belarus and Mongolia.

While Russian President Vladimir Putin watched the toned-down wargames through binoculars, Ukrainian commanders had their sights set on a surprise attack.

For weeks, Kyiv had loudly proclaimed it would launch an offensive towards Kherson in the south, and it appears Moscow moved armour and equipment there to shore up the surrounding region. Then, without warning, the push came in the northeast around Kharkiv, and it appears efforts at misdirection have worked. Now, it is pushing into the Luhansk region, and a battle for the Donbas is beginning.

Another contributing factor in the apparent collapse of Russia’s position is that of morale, or lack of. In many places, the Russian line has been held by local Ukrainians, pressed into service by the Moscow-controlled authorities that make up the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.

However, videos shared online appear to show the Russian proxies are having an increasingly hard time getting their fighters to follow orders, with one clip capturing poorly-dressed troops confronting their commanders over corruption and high levels of losses. Meanwhile, pro-war Russian bloggers say their own forces are badly equipped and have not had sufficient training before being deployed.

Logistics has also been a major challenge, and getting food and ammunition to the front lines has become a persistent problem for Moscow. That challenge has been made even harder since Ukraine received large shipments of long-range artillery like the American-made HIMARS systems.

Russian ammo depots, fuel dumps and other key infrastructure has gone up in smoke in the days prior to the launch of the counteroffensive. The thrust through Kharkiv has seemingly seen Russian forces abandoning their heavy equipment, ammunition warehouses and even vehicles as they flee, reducing their stocks still further.

At an event marking the founding of the city of Moscow on Saturday, Putin appeared to acknowledge the counteroffensive. Claiming Russian specialists are working to prepare the Donbas for a “difficult” winter ahead, he declared those who have died “had given their lives for Russia.”

And yet, the idea that his country is fighting an existential war against NATO doesn’t seem to have caught on among the public. The most recent draft, which concluded in July, should have seen more than 130,000 conscripts joining the army – in reality, as little as a fifth of that number turned up for service, with young men and their families going to exceptional lengths to keep them from the fighting. Instead, prisoners have been released on the condition they sign up, out of work men from the regions have been promised salaries of up to £4,000 a month, and Wagner Group mercenaries have been brought in.

If the tide continues to turn against them, Putin’s officials now have a difficult task — selling defeat back home. A spate of military catastrophes is unlikely to encourage more soldiers to take up arms, potentially worsening the manpower crisis. Even those officials who thought the Kremlin had underestimated the scale of the sanctions that would come as a result of the invasion seemed happy to toe the line when things were going well militarily.

A string of defeats could have everyone from the inner circle down questioning whether Putin really knows what he is doing. For the time being, ordinary Russians are unlikely to take to the streets, knowing it would achieve little and potentially cost everything, but they will vote with their feet and refuse to take part in the aggression.

Ukraine, meanwhile, still has a long road ahead. Swathes of the country are occupied by Russian forces, and it is unclear whether the short-term gains can be sustained as part of a longer-term victory. Few in the country would accept anything less than Moscow’s total defeat, including the return of the Donbas and Crimea, which their enemies have been fortifying since 2014. And yet, for the first time, Kyiv has shown it is capable of more than just a valiant defence – it can take the fight to the Russians.

As Colonel Ingram points out: “The Ukrainians have seemingly pulled a masterstroke with their counteroffensive. Whilst it is early days, what they have achieved so far gives me real confidence that they have seized the initiative and are now dictating to the Russians how this is going to go.”