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Analysis

Is Ukraine getting the upper hand in the arms race with Russia?

Weapons from Ukrainian allies have helped their successful counterattack in the northeast of the country, but what does it mean for the future of the war?

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Three numbers – 99, 0, and 7,500 – tell the story of the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the northeast of the country.

99 is the number of Russian infantry fighting vehicles that have been confirmed as captured by the Ukrainians since the counteroffensive began around 10 days ago.

0 is the number of these vehicles - used to carry troops into battle - which the Russians have captured from the Ukrainians in this same period, according to open source evidence.

7,500 is the number of square kilometres of territory reclaimed from the Russians in the week after the Ukrainians launched their attack around Kharkiv.

Together, the figures hint at a shift in the balance of the war as Ukrainian troops advance with the help of allied supplied weapons, including those from the UK.

But a fourth number, 7.2, provides caution.

This is the percentage of Ukrainian territory which has been wrested back from the Russians since late August. It means there are still huge areas of land they still need to take back.

A second counteroffensive, launched around the city of Kherson in the south, has only seen incremental gains. Ukrainian forces will need to make ground here if the war is to truly turn in their favour.

Defence analysts have told Sky News they think success will follow here eventually too, but perhaps more slowly, as another numbers game - the amount of men and material available - slowly swings in Ukraine's favour.

A lightning advance

The maps below show the speed with which Ukrainian forces advanced in Kharkiv Oblast, in the northeast, where they had success.

After securing the small city of Balakliyaon 8 September, they headed eastwards to the banks of the Oskil river and entered the city of Kupiansk, a supply base for the Russians, on 10 September. On the same day, Ukrainian forces also entered Izyum, a town which Russia spent weeks capturing back in March.

Image:Mr Zelenskyy stands with soldiers after attending a national flag-raising ceremony in the freed Izyum. Pic: AP

The key to their success was speed, subterfuge, and overwhelming force.

"Ukraine's counteroffensive is based on surprise with speed, and attacking with an assessed numerical superiority of 8 to 1," said Sunil Nair, senior analyst of land warfare platforms at Janes, a defence intelligence company.

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By choreographing an offensive in southern Ukraine that began in late August, the Ukrainians were reportedly able to draw Russian troops away from the northeast and launch their surprise attack.

The result was a Russian retreat across the Oskil river that has seen an area almost the size of Cyprus return to Ukrainian control.

The arms race

Western supplied equipment appears to have played a role in this offensive. US supplied long-range artillery, HARMS missiles which take out air defence systems, and British and Australian infantry vehicles have all reportedly been put to use.

The video below, geo-located by Sky News, shows a UK-supplied Spartan armoured personnel carrier being filmed entering Izyum in recent days.

A dataset compiled by open-source analysts Oryx, who track imagery of destroyed, captured, or abandoned equipment appearing online, can shed more light on how the arms race is playing out.

At first glance, despite the Ukrainian successes, this data suggests Ukrainian forces have lost a larger proportion of their available tanks and armoured personnel carriers than the Russians.

The sheer size of the Russian arsenal means they have lost a smaller percentage of their pre-war inventory than the Ukrainians.

Despite losing almost four times as many tanks as the Ukrainians, the fact Russia had six times as many at the start of the war suggests they can better sustain these losses.

But if we include all the vehicles captured by each side in these statistics the picture begins to change.

By repurposing captured equipment, Ukrainian tank and infantry fighting vehicle losses would appear more sustainable than the Russians.

And if the stated supply of equipment to Ukraine from allies is added, the picture looks far more positive for the Ukrainians again – their arsenal is growing as Russia’s falls.

The charts above paint a positive picture for Ukraine, but there are some caveats. The data relies upon the best available open source evidence, meaning it's possible some Ukrainian losses have been less publicised than Russian ones online.

They also assume that all equipment has been delivered to Ukraine, while Russia hasn't manufactured and replenished its own stocks. It almost certainly will have done to some extent, but as Professor Michael Clarke, former director-general of the Royal United Services Institute, points out, Russia has had production issues.

He said: "They've had problems; they are finding it difficult to gear up, even though they've changed the law to allow the government to demand civilian companies aid the war effort."

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Given these knowledge gaps, the specific numbers are perhaps not important, but it's the direction of travel that counts. Ukraine appears to be getting new equipment, by supply or capture, at a faster rate than it is losing it. The same may not be true for Russia.

Stalled in the south?

Despite this, Russian forces still have more tanks and armoured personnel carriers available to them than the Ukrainians do. It's a consequence of the huge military advantage they had at the start of the war.

This might help explain the slow progress of Ukraine's other recent counteroffensive, in the south around Kherson.

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After more than a fortnight of attacking, they have only gained pockets of territory, such as around the village of Arkhanhelske, after Russian forces moved from the east to bolster the defensive lines.

There have been claims from Ukrainian special forces that the Kherson attack was purely "a feint", but reports of mounting casualties suggest otherwise. It may have drawn the Russians' eye as intended, but not without a cost.

Yet Prof Clarke is still positive about the chance of Ukrainian progress even here. Not only do the Russians have to manage supply issues, after supply routes were hit by US-provided High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) rockets, but troop numbers are slowly edging in Ukraine's favour.

Prof Clarke said: "The pendulum will start to swing back to the Ukrainians in material terms as well as manpower terms.

"They're training an army of 700,000 - the Russians only have a peacetime army of 280,000. Unless the Russians mobilise nationally, they are going to be short of troops."


Additional reporting: Jack Taylor

The Data and Forensics team is a multi-skilled unit dedicated to providing transparent journalism from Sky News. We gather, analyse and visualise data to tell data-driven stories. We combine traditional reporting skills with advanced analysis of satellite images, social media and other open source information. Through multimedia storytelling we aim to better explain the world while also showing how our journalism is done.

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