A Blog by Jonathan Low


May 18, 2024

Ukraine's Defense, Putin Comments Suggest Russian Kharkiv Attack Peaked

Putin yesterday publicly dismissed suggestions that Kharkiv assault was an attempt to take the city. 

In doing so, he was trying to put a best face on the fact that his troops have already been halted by Ukrainian defenders and are incapable of advancing further despite their superiority in troop strength. JL 

Daniel Michaels and Nancy Youssef report in the Wall Street Journal:

American military leaders believe Russia lacks sufficient troops to break through on the new front in northeastern Ukraine. They see Moscow’s forces taking some ground, the push appears aimed more at protecting Russian territory and tying down Ukrainian forces redeployed from elsewhere than staging a large assault on Kharkiv. Ukrainian commandos staged raids into villages across the border (that) were an embarrassment to Russian President Putin before the election in March. (But yesterday) Putin rejected suggestions that Russia is planning to take Kharkiv.

American military leaders believe Russia lacks sufficient troops to break through on the new front in northeastern Ukraine, but is stretching Ukrainian forces there and creating a buffer zone for its own border.

Russian troops over recent days have advanced from inside their country into Ukrainian territory near Kharkiv, raising fears that Ukraine’s second-biggest city is at risk.

Air Force Gen. CQ Brown Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Army Gen. Christopher Cavoli, Supreme Allied Commander in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, said in separate comments that while they see Moscow’s forces taking some ground, the push appears aimed more at protecting Russian territory and tying down Ukrainian forces redeployed from elsewhere than staging a large assault on Kharkiv.

Ukrainian drones this year have hit targets inside Russia, particularly the city of Belgorod, which is only about 25 miles from the Ukrainian border. Ukrainian commandos have staged raids into villages across the border. The attacks were an embarrassment to Russian President Vladimir Putin before a carefully stage-managed election in March that secured him another six-year term.

The current Russian military movements in the Kharkiv region are “a buffer for Belgorod because Ukraine went in mid-March, before the election,” Brown said Thursday about Russia’s advance near the border.  

In a rare alignment of commentary from the U.S. and Russia, Putin said essentially the same. He rejected suggestions that Russia is planning to take Kharkiv and said Kyiv had prompted Russia’s advance.

The push is “Ukraine’s fault, because they continue to shell civilian districts in the border area, including Belgorod,” he said during a visit to China on Friday. “I’ve said publicly that if this continues, we’ll be forced to create a security zone, a sanitary zone. And that’s what we’re doing.” To be sure, Ukrainian forces are outnumbered and outgunned. The fresh offensive came at an acutely vulnerable time, as Kyiv’s military waits for newly dispatched U.S. weaponry to reach the battlefield in sufficient quantities to have an impact. Ukraine is struggling to replenish its depleted ranks with fresh manpower.

Ukrainian forces were already extended before Russia’s new offensive, and Russia has in recent weeks inched forward in the east, including toward the city of Chasiv Yar, located on heights, and in villages west of Avdiivka, which Russia seized in February. By stretching Ukraine’s military, Russia could create opportunities for a breakthrough elsewhere.

Ultimately, the Russians will advance as far as they can until Ukraine stops them. Russian officials have often pointed to Kharkiv, once a capital of Soviet Ukraine, as a city they want to control.

The operation near Kharkiv has forced Ukraine “to adjust. So it just puts pressure on them,” Brown said while traveling to Brussels for a regular meeting of NATO military leaders. “I know they’re nervous about it, and I would be, too.”

Cavoli said later that Russia isn’t in a position to advance on a large scale, and Ukrainian defenders should be able to thwart further Russian progress.

“I am confident they will hold the line,” he said of Ukraine at a press conference after the NATO meeting.

“The Russians don’t have the numbers necessary to do a strategic breakthrough,” he said. “More to the point, they don’t have the skill and the capability to do it—to operate at the scale necessary to exploit any breakthrough to strategic advantage.”

Cavoli said Russia has “the ability to make local advances, and they have done some of that.” He added that “they have also made some local losses.”

Ukraine’s military said Friday that it was fending off fresh Russian assaults in the Kharkiv region, concentrated in the border city of Vovchansk, where Russia controls northern parts, and villages between the border and Kharkiv.

Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrskiy, Ukraine’s top general, said Russia had opened the new front with the aim of forcing Kyiv to send additional brigades from its reserve to the Kharkiv area. He said in a statement that the Russian military launched its offensive sooner than it had originally planned after it saw that Ukraine was sending reinforcements to the area, and Russia hadn’t managed to make a breakthrough.

“But there will be tough fights ahead, and the enemy is preparing for it,” Syrskiy said.

Ukraine is also preparing, now with more Western military aid following the approval last month of $61 billion in U.S. military support after months of delay in Congress due to political fights among Republicans.

Brown said the arriving weapons, some of which are already on the front lines, give Ukraine “a lot more flexibility because they were conserving some of their weapons, waiting for the supplemental.”

Dutch Admiral Rob Bauer, NATO’s most senior military officer, said he was “convinced that we will see in the near future some serious improvements in the ammunition that Ukraine will receive.” Speaking alongside Cavoli, he said, “There was a delay, for a lot of reasons that we know. But I think we see now…that there’s practical help on its way to Ukraine.”

While Ukraine is struggling to regroup in the north near Kharkiv, it is complicating Russian operations in the south along the Black Sea. Reports indicated that Ukrainian forces have twice over recent days struck a Russian air base on the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014. Open-source intelligence analysts said the strikes were likely conducted using long-range ATACMS rockets supplied by the U.S.

Overnight and early Friday, Ukraine struck other Russian military posts and fuel facilities, in the Crimean city of Sevastopol and in the seaports of Tuapse and Novorossiysk. 

“Today’s special operation proved that the Russians are not capable of protecting their main naval bases in Sevastopol and Novorossiysk,” Ukrainian officials said.


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