A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jun 3, 2024

The Reasons Russia's Kharkiv Offensive Is A Tactical Morass, Strategic Failure

The evidence of Russia's strategic failure in the Kharkiv offensive is overwhelming. The Russian offensive there has not only stalled, there are reports of Russian troops retreating and attempting to dig defensive trenches. Russian losses of men and equipment are so large that rather than drawing Ukrainian troops from other sectors, it is the Russians who have had to do so. Indeed, there have been no advances of note around Chasiv Yar, Ocheteryne or other ostensible Russian objectives.  

Most glaring of all, the Russian assault - combined with pure terror missile attacks on civilian targets in Kharkiv (the infamous hit on a home improvement center on a weekend) have caused the US and Europe to now permit use of their weapons against military targets inside Russia, which they had previously prohibited and which gave Russian forces a distinct advantage that is now gone. JL

Phillips O'Brien reports in his substack:

The Russian Kharkiv offensive has all the hallmarks of a strategic failure and a tactical morass. The Russians exposed their troops and equipment, and the results have been that the Russian advance in Kharkiv has stalled, and Russian losses have grown to the highest in the war. Russia's Kharkiv offensive has opened up Russia to attack by US systems in a way that would have been inconceivable before. The offensive was flagrant, and the Russians compounded that through terror attacks on Kharkiv, so the US okayed Ukrainian attacks into Russia with US weapons which will make the Kharkiv offensive an even greater burden on Russia.

I thought I might return to how we analyze the Kharkiv Offensive, which Russia launched more than 3 weeks ago (started May 10). Its been fascinating to see how the reporting changed—first great drama and doom about Russian “success”. Then a period of confusion when the Russian success seemed to stumble. Now there is only the occasional story about it.

Ukrainian Artillery Forces Fighting in Kharkiv, 19 May: Source: https://kyivindependent.com/we-took-out-so-many-of-them-ukraine-stabilizes-kharkiv-front-after-brutal-russian-offensive/

Actually, on reflection the Russian Kharkiv offensive has all the hallmarks of a strategic failure and a tactical morass—but no one has the courage to report on it so far. Perhaps they were so invested in the dramatic narrative of Russia dominating with which the offensive started.

So I thought I would give it a go. Also, there will be some discussion of the US decision to allow Ukraine to fire into Russia (in a very limited way).


The Kharkiv Offensive is a Russian Strategic Failure for Now

Reporting on war is hard. War in confusing, hard to interpret, and can develop slowly. And because of that, I have a great deal of sympathy for those who take on the difficult task. On the other hand, because reporting on war is so difficult, it behooves those who do it to try and show some perspective when they write their reports, especially when a new military operation is starting and no one really knows what’s going on or how it will develop.

This was not the case when the Russians launched their Kharkiv Offensive. From the moment the invasion started, the reporting gravitated to the sensationalist and the judgemental. In this case, the judgements were all one-sided. This was a sign of Russian military intelligence and success, and heralded real problems for Ukraine—even the possibility of collapse. Its worth going back to see some of the stories.

Some were outright doomladen, as this one in the UK media.

In it one analyst claimed that Ukraine morale was indeed “collapsing” and said new US aid would not make any real difference until August (its starting to help now, by the way). If the Ukrainians were in dire shape (another word widely used at the time), the Russians were showing an extraordinary amount of strategic foresight according to the reporting and analysis. The offensive had up to 3 benefits for Russia it was claimed.

First, to open up a new front that spreads Ukraine’s defences along the front more thinly,…Second, to create a buffer zone to limit Ukrainian cross-border attacks and to allow the Russians to threaten Kharkiv city with artillery….And third, to put more pressure on Ukrainian positions around the strategically important town of Kupiansk.”

Remember those three points—as none of them have been met and actually, the opposite has happened—and Russian territory is now less safe because of the Kharkiv Offensive.

The Financial Times was almost as gloomy, and spoke of Russia in just a few days achieving at least partial success in drawing Ukrainian troops away from the Donbas. It was not a question of whether it was a successful operation—but one of to what degree it was.

The US press was if anything more alarmist. I wrote a few weeks ago about how the New York Times seemed to lose perspective in its reporting on the offensive. The Times spoke of Russian troops having “surged” across the border. Moreover they created a map (which interestingly seems to get much less prominence these days) which had the Russians pressing forwards all around Ukraine.

According to the analysts the Times used, the Russians again were being clever—and trying to draw Ukrainian forces away to take Chasiv Yar—a supposedly vital strategic city.

It certainly seemed very bleak for Ukraine if you were reading the press and what the analytical community were saying. Russia had launched an operation with real strategic understanding, the Ukrainians had been rocked back, their morale was in question, and the war was definitely trending in Russia’s direction. Here is the run of New York Times stories on Ukraine between May 12-14. Ukraine was on the ropes.

And then all of a sudden, Russian advances ground to a halt—seeming to stop almost entirely in the Kharkiv area. Here is the Deep State Map on 22 May.

And here it is from Saturday morning.

Notice any significant difference? I dont.

So foundationally the Kharkiv offensive has basically become static for Russia—with hardly any gains after the first few days.

However, that tells only part of the picture. Russian losses in Kharkiv (and around the line) have become extreme in this period. By pressing the offensive in Kharkiv and around the lines, the Russians have exposed their troops and equipment, and the results have been a noticeable increase in loss claims. Ukrainian casualty estimates for the Russians (which now look pretty reliable if you view them as killed and wounded) also look more accurate than many had assumed. Here is the British MOD intelligence update for yesterday. Russian casualties for May have been extreme (and overall casualties for the Russians are half a million).

Btw, this is what I mean about the Ukrainian intelligence estimates now being in synch with Western. This was the Ukrainian estimate on 31 May when the British estimate of half a million was released. Its at just over half a million as well.

So the Russian advance in Kharkiv has stalled, and Russian losses have grown to the highest in the war. Its worth noting that the Ukrainian reporting of the offensive is beginning to reflect this reality—even if its not being discussed outside. Here is a quote from a just released Kyiv Independent article. Its measured and sensible.

Beginning on May 10, Moscow’s long-anticipated opening of this new front in the north was met with fear and concern in Ukraine, especially in the city of Kharkiv itself, which came under threat of once again being in range of Russian artillery.

Kyiv responded swiftly though, with a handful of battle-hardened Ukrainian brigades and top drone units sent to reinforce the region, on top of those, like the 42nd, which had been moved to  Kharkiv Oblast a few weeks earlier in anticipation of such an attack.

After making rapid initial gains, the offensive soon began to run out of steam.

But wait—all the clever clogs analysts said that this might have been a feint to draw Ukrainian forces away from the Donbas and allow for the capture of Chasiv Yar. Btw, I dont buy the simple feint idea—because the Russians are suffering major losses in Kharkiv. You dont do that for a feint.

Well, lets look at the Chasiv Yar front this morning.

And here it is on the day the Russian Kharkiv Offensive started.

The Russians have pushed forward that entire time about 1-2 kilometers. And its hard to argue that the town is any closer to falling than it was then. Note—people were saying a few months ago that Putin wanted to take Chasiv Yar by 9 May for his latest coronation. That seems to have been dropped.

Of course another supposedly strategic benefit of the campaign for Russia was that it would limit Ukrainian attacks into Russia. If that was an intended benefit, this was probably the most disastrous own-goal, strategic mis-calculation so far since the failure of the original invasion.

What Russia has done with the Kharkiv offensive has opened up Russia to attack by US systems in a way that would have been inconceivable before. Indeed the offensive was so flagrantly planned to take advantage of US fears, and the Russians compounded that through their terror attacks on Kharkiv, that they caused a boomerang reaction. The Biden Administration did its volte-face this week and okayed Ukrainian attacks into Russia with US weapons.

This will make the Kharkiv offensive an even greater burden.

Also, its worth noting that the US has also given the Ukrainians the ability to disrupt any upcoming Sumy offensive—this time before the Russians cross the border. Another Russian offensive in this area has been discussed regularly—now such an operation will be much harder for the Russians. One of the main reasons for the Russian early, modest successes at Kharkiv was because the Ukrainians could not do such disruption with US systems. Now they can—another Russian own-goal.

So where to we stand? Well the Kharkiv offensive has done the following:

  1. Basically ground to a halt after a few days of small advances

  2. Led to extreme Russian casualties in soldiers and heavy equipment losses

  3. Not led to the taking of Chasiv Yar or really any territory of value in the Donbas

  4. If anything, drawn Russian forces that could have assisted in those operations away into a meatgrinder.

  5. Destroyed one of the most beneficial US government red lines that was helping Russia by keeping Ukraine from firing into Russia.

  6. Far from making Belgorod secure, the Kharkiv Offensive has placed it in far greater danger.

  7. Made any similar Russian offensive around Sumy much more difficult, as Ukraine can now fire at these forces on the Russian side of the border.

When you add it all together what do you have—a tactical nullity for Russia that is causing a strategic clamity. The Kharkiv Offensive by a normal military/strategic standard has been a major failure for Russia to this point.

However, here is where the reporting really fails. Instead of trying to correct past wrongs—the reporting on Kharkiv just tends to die down. Its become a bit of an embarrassment—so probably best to go on and report about other things.

Unless of course, the Russians have another success—then the reporting will be back. However, as of now the signs of the Russians have a major success at Kharkiv seem limited. Ukrainian morale has not collapsed. US aid is starting to reach the Ukrainians. Moreover, European support for Ukraine is if anything hardening—with French troops reportedly on their way for an open deployment in the country (something that probably received an extra fillip because of the Russian Kharkiv Offensive).


The Biden Administration's Decision and French Troops Heading to Ukraine?

The Kharkiv Offensive has seemed to have a significant affect on Ukraine’s allies—and that is the other big story for the week. The biggest one was the Biden Administration deciding to sanction Ukraine firing in a limited way into Russia. I went into the decision in some detail in this update, and Mykola and I also discuss it in the soon to be released podcast.

Indeed this decision seems to hold out the possibility of even greater change. Already its been clarified to mean that the Ukrainians can disrupt any Russian Sumy offensive, and Secretary of State Blinken has hinted more changes can be on the way.

Here is what he said:

When asked if the door was open for the US to allow Ukraine to strike further into Russia, Blinken said the US would continue to “adapt and adjust” moving forward.

“We want to make sure that we’re proceeding deliberately, as well as effectively,” he said.

While the US is crossing one large red line for Ukraine, France seems on the verge of crossing another. Though there have been reports of NATO troops secretly in Ukraine helping with basic training—there have never been publicly acknowledged forces. Now, the French are getting closer and closer to openly sending troops to Ukraine. Diplomats are saying that a French announcement on the subject is getting closer—and that would be a very different kettle of fish. Its a far more tangible commitment—and it will almost certainly open the door to more European states following suit.

So in the last week Ukraine’s partners are (slowly but steadily) making more tangible commitments to helping Ukraine win this war. Its certainly a better state that the doom and gloom of 3 weeks ago.


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