A Blog by Jonathan Low


May 13, 2024

Kharkiv One Of Many Russian Attacks To See If Any Work As Ukraine Stabilizes Front

This weeks crisis - according to breathless western media coverage - follows previous crises at Chasiv Yar, Ocheteryne, et al - follows a similar pattern: limited incursions by Russian infantry supported by a few armored vehicles, most of which end up in flames thanks to Ukraine's FPV drones. 

There have been few surprises in the last year of this war because the available options are apparent with electronic and drone surveillance providing confirmation. The Russians are attempting cautious probing attacks in various places, but have achieved few successes and no breakthroughs as Ukraine maintains superior internal lines of reinforcement. In addition to which, the Kharkiv assault was not only predicted, but expected. JL 

Phillips O'Brien reports in his substack:

The Russian operation in Kharkiv was just one of a number of pushes happening up and down the front line, as the Russians try to gain as much as possible before US aid (and others) appears in force. These attacks seem lots of pressing in lots of places, to see if anything works. (But) Ukraine can move forces between Kharkiv and the Donbas far more easily and quickly than the Russians because they retain shorter internal lines. (So) because of longer external lines, the Russians will be weakening themselves in Bakhmut/Avdiivka more than they are diverting Ukrainian forces. There was never a breakthrough and the odds are against the situation deteriorating too much more.

Two weeks ago I entitled weekend update 78: Two Races: Russians trying to advance before ammunition gets to Ukraine. It was an attempt to outline what we would see in the coming weeks after the approval of additional US aid for Ukraine. As I tried to get across in that update, with US flowing once again, the battlefield dynamics would change on the front line—once that aid arrived. Russia had been making gains, slow and at high cost, because of Ukraine’s shortage of ammunition (and it must be said soldiers). These gains were hardly massive, the media was making them sound like major victories when they were actually ponderous, slow and extremely modest in scope. Now even those gains would be difficult—once US aid started arriving in significant quantities.

The race for the Russians, therefore, would be to try and gain as much as possible before US aid arrived. It does seem that we are seeing them try this, with intensification of efforts in a number of places up and down the line this week. That being said, the story of these efforts is the story of the war over the last 18 months. Small advances led by infantry, vehicles getting destroyed, and high casualties.


The Kharkiv Push

I do love the media. On Friday mid-day I started getting requests if I could comment on the newest Russian “breakthrough” that was happening in Kharkiv. At that point all we had was a few pictures of destroyed Russian vehicles, and reports that Russian infantry had seized a few small villages right over the border.

It highlighted one of the great problems with how the war has been portrayed in general. This was never a breakthrough or anything close to it. Reports were patchy, and instead of getting dramatic, its always better to take a deep breath.

What do we know?

Well, The Ukrainians had been discussing a Russian attack against Kharkiv for weeks. Indeed they have been strengthening the fortifications in this area and were planning, according to that story, to have them done by “early May”. So the idea of a Russian attack in this area was no surprise and was being prepared for.

The attack itself seems to have followed pattern. There were some Russian vehicles in the lead groups, but many were disabled or destroyed. Showing once again just how useful tanks are in leading armored breakthroughs these days, one “turtle” tank (so nicknamed as they seem to be equipped with mobile barns to protect them from UAVs) was disabled before even reaching Ukraine—and once immobile was finished off by a UAV that was able to fly under the barn. There were also other Russian APCs that were hit not long after crossing the border.

Wrecked Russian vehicles outside Pylna.
Russian vehicles hit long after entering Ukraine.

What has ensued is the microcosm of advances so far. With vehicles having difficulty surviving, infantry quickly become the key force, advancing on foot, and the Russians moved into into a number of villages just over the border. Here is the situation as of this morning as portrayed in the Deep State map.

The Ukrainians do claim to have the situation under control, and after the initial advance, it does seem to be a case of a village by village fight. Whether this is a major effort for an advance, a probe, a diversion, still needs to be discovered, and its important not to jump to any conclusions. What it does reveal, once again, is what happens when one side attacks.


Attacks Up and Down the Line: These Advances Remain Small.

The Russian operation in Kharkiv was actually just one of a number of pushes that are happening up and down the main line operations, as the Russians try to gain as much as possible before US aid (and aid from others including the ammunition procured by the Czech President which should start arriving in June) appears in force.

These attacks seem very much an effort of lots of pressing in lots of places, to see if anything works. Last week some people, who love to talk about Russian strength, got upset because I said the lines around Ocheretyne seemed to be stabilizing. No, we were told, this was a crisis that would soon deteriorate. Maybe it will, but in the last week the changes have been more small pushes here are there. Here was the situation last sunday.

And here is the most up to date map.

Russian advances have mostly been in the south of the line—and have again been very modest. What there has not been has been the armored breakthrough and exploitation that people had been talking about around Ocheretyne when the Russians first made their push there two weeks ago.

The same same basic situation exists around Chasiv Yar. Here was the position last Sunday (always good to include Bakhmut in the map so you can see overall how little ground has been covered—remember the Russians took Bakhmut a year ago.

And here is the position today

If you recall, the Ukrainians thought the Russian plan was to try and capture Chasiv Yar by May 9 (Russian Victory Day in WWII). They seem to be a long way from that, having made no more headway to get into the city.

Reinforcing Success versus Internal Lines

What might the Russians be doing? While it does seem to be a case of pressing lots of places around the line to see if they can identify or create a weak spot. There are some echoes of Soviet Doctrine in all of this. The Russians are trying to keep the initiative by keeping up the pressure, and it they can make an actual breakthrough (as opposed to the faux ones people have been getting all worked up about) they can then follow Soviet Cold War plans which would have called for a massive reinforcing of success.

There was a great deal of discussion of the Kharkiv operation within that paradigm. It was supposedly seen as an attempt by the Russians to draw Ukrainian forces away from other parts of the line, and through this diversion allow for a great success elsewhere. That on paper looks like a pretty sensible read, and would fit in with Soviet mindset.

However, if that is the case, it also highlights some of the real problems with the way the Russians have managed the war over the last few months, when they regained the initiative with the Ukrainians having so little ammunition. One of them, is that the idea that the Ukrainians have retained strong internal lines of communication throughout. One of the ideas of reinforcing success for the Russians would be to take advantage of a success before the enemy can efficiently react. However the way this war has evolved, movement by the attacker (and Russian inefficiency) means that is very difficult.

Ukraine can actually move forces between Kharkiv and the Donbas far more easily and quickly than the Russians—because they retain the shorter internal lines. They have an excellent rail and road network which means forces have much less distance to cross. I’ve made a pretty basic map which will hopefully show the difference between the internal lines on which Ukraine can operate and the much longer ones Russia is facing.

So, if the Russians are trying to disperse the Ukrainians and create an opening, they are doing it by making Russian concentration more difficult than Ukrainian. They have to hope that the Ukrainians are willing to send considerably more forces to Kharkiv than the Russians are committing, otherwise because of longer external lines, the Russians will be weakening themselves in the main area (Bakhmut/Avdiivka) more than they are diverting Ukrainian forces.

It might be that doctrine has not caught up to one of the great air power failures for the Russians. I wrote about one failure of airpower earlier in the week—the failure by the Russians and the analytical community to take into account SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defense) in their visions of the full scale invasion. Another failure has been the Russian inability, to significantly impede Ukrainian road/rail communications to the front. Indeed they seemed to have failed in general when it comes to the movement of goods and supplies throughout Ukraine—including impeding the aid coming from Ukraine’s friends.

As long as the Ukrainians retain the internal lines and the ability to move, it will be hard for the Russians to actually affect a plan of dispersal that works (unless the Ukrainians overreact as Ive said). So while the Russians might be following doctrine, they have not been able to put into operation the pre-conditions to gain as much from it.

US Aid Is Arriving, making some Difference, But is also too Slow

What is happening with US aid. Its a real mixed story from what we can tell. There are stories of some amounts of aid arriving on the battlefield and making a difference. A number of Ukrainian sources said, for instance, that US aid, including Bradley AFVs were one of the reasons that the Russian drive at Ocheretyne slowed considerably. There were even reports of Ukrainians counterattacking in this area and regaining territory.

There were also reports that Ukrainian forces at the front were getting more ammunition to fire on a daily basis. I asked around, and while no one wanted to confirm this directly, there was a general feeling that the situation was better (not great mind you).

So a little of the aid does seem to be arriving, but its still very slow and that means that the Russians still have an opportunity to run their race. Clearly Ukraine remains under pressure. The rushed move by the Biden Administration to support the delivery of a number of HIMARS systems and their ammo, might indicate that Ukraine is still short of the systems and ammunition it needs.

It could also explain the Russian desperation to keep pressing. There is obviously a small change being felt with the arrival of some US support, but the Ukrainians are still not in great shape, and so the Russians are putting everything they can in the fight, and opening up new lines of pressure as they search around for some advantage.

It will mean the coming weeks could be very intense. However, as long as Ukraine retains good movement on its internal lines, and US (and other) aid does start to appear in higher numbers, the odds are against the situation deteriorating too much more. If the next few weeks can be surmounted by Ukraine, than they should be able to move from stabilizing to solidifying.


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