Ukraine's counter-offensive: How it unfolded and what happens next

Local resident Oleksandr looks at a damaged Russian tank near his ruined house in the recently retaken area close to Izium, Ukraine. Credit: AP

The Ukrainians have taken in an absolutely huge swathe of territory in the northeast of the country, around the big city that I'm currently in - Kharkiv. And they took it entirely by surprise.

A huge amount of Russian soldiery, armour and hardware pretty much melted away from the battlefield.

And to give you just one pinprick example of this, we were in the city of Izium yesterday, which was taken by the Russians in the spring after two weeks of intense and bitter fighting.

It was retaken by the Ukrainians last week in two days. That's how quickly it happened.

And yesterday when we went there, we watched armoured car after armoured car after Russian tank being removed, towed away by the victorious Ukrainians.

Rescue service worker clean debris on the roof of a residential building that was damaged after a Russian attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine. Credit: AP

What will happen next?

Kherson in the south is interesting because that is the place where the Ukrainians told the world they were going to strike first.

But then didn't. There is plenty of fighting going on that it is impossible to tell you the progress or lack of progress of Ukrainian forces because there is a complete and utter media blackout.

In this part of the battlefield, where the Ukrainians are still mopping up in this region, they yesterday took a village just out of the Kharkiv region on the edges of a Luhansk.

Police arrest protesters in central Moscow after the earlier partial mobilisation announcement by President Vladimir Putin. Credit: AP

Now, that is important because Putin now plans to hold a referendum which would join that part of Ukraine to the Russian motherland. 

So the Ukrainians have taken a little bit out of that part of the Donbas.

But I don't think anybody was seriously thinking that ahead of the winter the Ukrainians would have the capability to push back to the Donbas.

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As Putin doubles down on Russia's nuclear weapons capabilities and the potential for their use, how will Ukrainian efforts be effected?

President Zelenskyy has given an interview to a German newspaper, which sort of indicates that he doesn't think the Russians will use nuclear weapons.

But we were talking to his deputy head of intelligence who gave us exactly the opposite view, that there was a distinct possibility that he would use these so-called tactical nuclear weapons, smaller ones that you use on the battlefield.

What Putin seems to be doing is redrawing the map of Russia to take in large tranches of Ukraine. 

Putin announced partial conscription and accuses West of 'nuclear blackmail' in address to Russians Credit: AP

And daring the Ukrainians to put a toe over that line, daring them to do that and saying that the consequences could be that I would use nuclear weapons. 

The thing that is most alarming about this, as we judge whether this is a bluff or no bluff, is that we might not have many weeks to find out whether he is serious or not.

Because if the Ukrainians continue to make even modest advances in the Donbas or in Kherson then Putin's threatening words will be put to the test.

This is not one Russian army. Don't think of this is as one Russian army. Think of it as disparate bits which don't even talk to each other and bits which are massively varied in their capabilities.

From the Wagner group, these well-paid, well-armed, well-equipped militia, the crack troops of the regular Russian army, and then are the people's militia from Luhansk or Donetsk.

These guys are much more of a sort of ragtag bunch of conscripts who might go to war wearing training shoes and have very little in the way of body armour.

There's another side to this which we haven't considered: in drawing or in attempting to draw this new boundary what Putin is signalling is that 'this is the limit of my territorial ambition. This far, no further.'

Is he thinking that this might be the basis for a ceasefire? It could be.

I don't think it is the basis at all for peace talks with the Ukrainians.

The annexation of their territory is an absolute double deep red line for the Ukrainians. There will be no peace talks if these referenda go through and these areas are annexed.

But this is a bit, I think, where Putin is saying that this might be what I have to settle for.

Ukrainian tails are very much up, very much buoyed by the victories, very much on the front foot.

It's worth remembering that the 300,000 reservists mobilised by President Putin will take a while to get here.

And you can question how well-equipped and how well-trained they will be.

I still don't see anything other than a pretty long and hard winter ahead for Ukraine and for the people, the soldiers fighting and the civilian population on both sides of the dividing line well into next year.

I still defy you to find anyone who can predict an outcome of this war either and how it will play out or when it will come to a conclusion.