Buffer or ruse?: Russia's new offensive in northeast Ukraine 'not an open road to Kharkiv'

Author: Editors Desk, Sébastian SEIBT Source: France 24
May 15, 2024 at 09:16
A Ukrainian police officer helps a resident of Vovchansk to leave the village as Russian forces advance into the Kharkiv region, May 13, 2024. © Stringer, Reuters
A Ukrainian police officer helps a resident of Vovchansk to leave the village as Russian forces advance into the Kharkiv region, May 13, 2024. © Stringer, Reuters

Over the past three days, Russia has seized control of several localities north of Kharkiv in a fierce new offensive that could bring Moscow to the gates of Ukraine’s second-largest city. FRANCE 24 spoke to several military analysts who believe that it is still too early to speak of a turning point in Russia’s war on Ukraine.


Russian troops are pressing ahead with a new offensive in northeastern Ukraine in one of the most significant ground attacks since Moscow’s full-scale invasion began in February 2022.

After Russia’s surprise cross-border incursions last Friday, troops are now advancing towards Kharkiv, a city that in 2022 became a key symbol of fierce Ukrainian resistance against Russian aggression.

Russian forces "continued to make tactically significant advances north and northeast of Kharkiv City on May 13”, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a US military think-tank known for its daily updates on the conflict in Ukraine, said on Monday evening.

“In the past three days, Russian troops … have poured across Ukraine's northeastern border and seized at least nine villages and settlements,” the New York Times reported, in a bleak account of what is being presented as a Russian breakthrough in Ukraine.Kyiv on Wednesday said it had pulled back troops near several villages in Kharkiv, adding that the military was sending more troops to the region to hold back Russian advances. Some 8,000 Ukrainians have so far been evacuated from the Kharkiv region.

President Volodymyr Zelensky has cancelled all upcoming international trips over the fresh offensive, including a planned trip to Spain on Friday.

Far from the Donbas

“Every hour this situation moves towards critical,” General Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Kyiv’s GUR military intelligence agency, said in a video call from a bunker in Kharkiv on Monday.

“It is the most significant push [from the Russians] in months,” observed Sim Tack, a military analyst specialising in strategic geopolitical dynamics.

The battle in the northeast represents a new large-scale offensive far from the epicentre of the front, which lies in the Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions of southern Ukraine.

Furthermore, the speed with which Russian troops are advancing from one settlement to another north of Kharkiv contrasts sharply with the more static front line in the Donbas, which is made up of trenches and fortifications.


A map illustrating Russia's advance in the Kharkiv region.
A map illustrating Russia's advance in the Kharkiv region. © FRANCE 24 graphics studio


Most analysts were not expecting a Russian incursion into the Kharkiv region. A month ago, they were betting on Russia making a breakthrough west of Bakhmut to "open the way to Kramatorsk".

Russia’s sudden advance also appears to have taken Kyiv by surprise, potentially opening up a new front that could boost Moscow’s spring offensive.

At first glance, Russia's military successes appear to "raise two questions”, said David Lewis, a Russia specialist at the University of Exeter. Russia’s sudden advance sparks concerns about the effectiveness of fortifications in the Kharkiv region and about the Ukrainian army’s capacity to organise the defence of the front line.

Kyiv on Monday responded to the assault north of Kharkiv by sacking the Ukrainian commander in charge of the Kharkiv region, General Yuriy Halushkin, and replacing him with General Mykhaylo Drapatiy.

Appointing a new commander “could be seen as a way to revitalise the defence", said Will Kingston-Cox, an expert on the conflict in Ukraine for the Europinion centre for geopolitical analysis.

Buffer zone or ruse?

But many analysts say the scale of the Russian advance in Kharkiv is still limited.

"This first push across the border is not very surprising, and they have mainly pushed into a no-man’s land. Ukrainian troops aren’t there – they are further south," Tack said.

After the first Russian offensive in the spring of 2022, the Ukrainians largely evacuated the border zone.

The village of Vovchansk, for example, went from a pre-war population of around 17,000 people to just a few hundred remaining residents, the New York Times reported on Tuesday.

Ukraine has not, however, given Russian forces an open road to Kharkiv. The fighting around Vovchansk shows that Russia’s advance will become increasingly difficult.

“In the short term, [Moscow’s] plan isn’t to take Kharkiv,” said Kingston-Cox, adding that it was very unlikely Russia “could take Ukraine’s second-largest city with so few soldiers”.

Indeed, the Russian army has mobilised just 50,000 men and armoured vehicles in the neighbouring region of Belgorod to support the opening of the northern front.

This is fewer troops than those sent by Moscow to attack Bakhmut, a city of far less importance than Kharkiv, and where Russia has already struggled to dominate.

It raises the question of why Russia sent so many soldiers into a no-man’s land when Russian forces could have reinforced the main war effort in the Donetsk region.

Russia’s main objective is probably “to form some sort of buffer zone in the Kharkiv region”, said Lewis, with the move “aimed at preventing Ukrainian cross-border attacks in the Belgorod region”.

Belgorod has indeed become a favourite target of pro-Ukrainian special units such as the Freedom of Russia Legion.Russians fighting alongside Ukrainians have stepped up their incursions into Russia, carrying out multiple attacks earlier this year.

“The Kremlin was under pressure to do something about the cross-border attacks on Belgorod,” Lewis said.

Kingston-Cox also believes that Russia’s advance in Kharkiv “could very well be a ruse” to try and draw Ukrainian troops away from the south, adding that “it would be very difficult for Ukraine to defend itself on both fronts”.

Long-term objective

Since the war began in February 2022, Ukraine’s army has grown increasingly short of troops and equipment. In a bid to replenish their depleted ranks, the Ukrainian parliament passed a bill last Wednesday that will allow some convicts to enlist in the army in exchange for a chance at parole.

Kingston-Cox said Kyiv’s decision “can be seen as some sort of desperation to get people on the front line".

Meanwhile, Russia is counting on their “advantage in manpower and ammunition”, Lewis said.

Until the next tranche of Western aid arrives and Ukraine’s mobilisation law takes effect, Russia has a window of opportunity of a few months to try and make the most of the situation, he added.

But Kyiv cannot allow Russian troops to make themselves comfortable in the Kharkiv region, Lewis said. If Ukraine lets this happen and "Russia sees a weakness, they will try to push towards Kharkiv”.

The city remains a prime target for Moscow. “It’s symbolic and also strategic,” said Kingston-Cox, explaining that seizing Kharkiv would enable Russia to establish a supply line that could be used for a new offensive to the west, and then on to Kyiv.

This story has been translated from the original in French.

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