Russia’s Kharkiv offensive draws Ukrainian troops away from east

Russian forces pushed further into the Kharkiv region in north-eastern Ukraine over the weekend, in a move that analysts said was more likely to be aimed at drawing Ukrainian units away from the eastern frontline than a bid to take the country’s second-largest city.

Russian troops attacked in two directions, seizing several villages in the Liptsi district, 30km north of Kharkiv city, and reaching the outskirts of the town of Vovchansk, 40km further east, according to Deepstate, an open-source intelligence group, which cited geolocated imagery from the area.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Sunday evening that Ukraine’s army was engaged in “brutal battles on a large part of our border strip”.

Deepstate warned that without the deployment of more Ukrainian reserves the situation would become “extremely dire” in the region.

Ukraine’s top military commander, Oleksandr Syrskyi, said on Sunday that the situation in Kharkiv had “significantly worsened” and that his forces had fought off nine attacks around eight of the contested settlements in the region. He did not confirm the loss of any territory, saying that his forces were “doing everything to maintain the defensive borders and positions”.

Ukrainian officials and analysts have long anticipated an attack from Russia’s Belgorod region over the border into Kharkiv having observed a large build-up of Russian troops in the area. They believe it is part of an uptick in operations intended to exploit Moscow’s advantage in weaponry and manpower before the arrival of US military aid and Ukraine’s expanded mobilisation efforts later this summer.

Evacuees from the village of Lyptsi wait in a minivan at an evacuation point in Kharkiv
Evacuees from the village of Liptsi. Russian troops seized several villages in the district, 30km north of Kharkiv city © Roman Pilipey/AFP/Getty Images

A Ukrainian defence forces official told the Financial Times last week that the anticipated offensive by Russia in Ukraine’s north-east was primarily designed to draw Ukrainian forces away from the eastern Donbas region.

In his video address on Sunday evening, Zelenskyy said the “idea of ​​the strikes in the Kharkiv region is to stretch our forces and undermine the moral and motivational basis of the ability of Ukrainians to defend themselves”.

The amount of Russian forces deployed to the Kharkiv offensive — two army corps or roughly 35,000 — was not enough to attempt the capture of Kharkiv city, officials and analysts said. And, so far, the attacks have been small-scale.

“The Russian forces in the area did not form a cohesive mechanised force for a deep strike with concentrated strength to have an overwhelming superiority in personnel and equipment,” said Frontelligence Insight, an analytical group run by a former Ukrainian officer.

“Instead, they employed multiple small-scale attacks at various border points using platoon-sized and even squad-sized units, allowing some of them to infiltrate the border without encountering significant resistance.”

Russia’s new Kharkiv offensive had probably already achieved “partial success” in drawing Ukrainian troops away from defensive positions elsewhere on the frontline, Frontelligence added, although it declined to name the units that had been redeployed. Ukrainian troops are struggling to hold to defensive positions in Donetsk, part of the Donbas, which remains the focal point of Russia’s war efforts.

Moscow may also be seeking to create a buffer zone to better protect the Russian city of Belgorod, located 70km away from Kharkiv. The local governor on Sunday claimed a Ukrainian rocket hit a residential apartment block in the centre of the city, killing at least nine people, according to state news agency Ria.

Belgorod has increasingly been hit with artillery in recent months but the images from Sunday’s strike, of a gaping hole in a 10-storey block and people being rescued from under the rubble, are of a new order of magnitude and will come as a shock to Russians. Russian jets have also accidentally dropped bombs on the city on several occasions.

Another possible objective for Moscow’s new offensive is to move its forces within artillery range of the city of Kharkiv. Before Russian forces were pushed back from the area in the autumn of 2022, they were able to constantly shell Kharkiv, terrorising the population and flattening many of the buildings in the city’s north-eastern districts.

To do so, Russian forces would need to break through Ukraine’s main defensive lines and advance much further into Ukrainian territory, but it was unclear whether they would be able to build momentum, analysts said.

The villages captured since Friday lie in what Ukrainian officials call a “grey zone” between the Russian border and Ukraine’s main defensive line.

A view shows damaged vehicles at the site of a recent military strike in a location given as Belgorod, Russia
The Russian city of Belgorod, located 70km away from Kharkiv, has increasingly been hit with artillery in recent months © Governor of Russia’s Belgorod Region Vyacheslav Gladkov via Telegram/Reuters

Serhiy Kuzan, chair of the Ukrainian Security and Cooperation Center, a think-tank, said neither side wanted to hold positions in the area because of the disadvantageous lowland terrain.

Kuzan said that while Russia had entered the previously empty grey zone area on Friday, Ukraine’s forces were holding a pre-prepared line along natural barriers.

“This entry is what caused the panic that they have advanced a few kilometres but there is no reason to panic. They would like to break the front and repeat what we did in 2022 [Ukraine’s lightning counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region] but they failed and now they are stuck,” said Kuzan.

He said the Russian troops did not have the forces to advance much further but they had enough reserves to continue fighting in the area for at least a month with the aim of getting as close to Kharkiv city as possible “to create pressure there” by shelling the city.

Pro-Kremlin military bloggers concurred that Moscow’s main gains were in the grey zone, saying Russians should not expect a quick breakthrough and that much would depend on the arrival of US aid.

Writing in the pro-Kremlin tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda on Saturday, Russian war reporter Alexander Kots said many of the key routes Russia would want to take have been carpeted with landmines and said Ukrainian drone use against Russian forces was “not to be discounted”.

“The enemy has not built serious defensive lines [in the grey zone]; they are waiting for us ahead,” Kots wrote. “And in 2024, Kyiv has more ability to resist the advancing forces.”

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