Russia’s Kharkiv Offensive Stretches Ukrainian Forces

Kyiv replaced the commander of Ukrainian forces defending Kharkiv, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy confirmed on Monday as Russian troops pressed forward in an offensive launched on May 10. Although Russia has little chance of taking Kharkiv city, Moscow has already achieved some success in its likely goal: compelling Ukraine to divert forces badly needed elsewhere.

The Russian Offensive

Ukrainian officials had been warning for months that Moscow might launch an offensive near Kharkiv. Russian forces previously controlled much of Kharkiv Oblast but were routed during a September 2022 Ukrainian counteroffensive.

In mid-April, Russia established its “Sever” (“North”) Group of Troops, responsible for the area along Russia’s border with northeastern Ukraine. The grouping’s commander is Colonel-General Aleksandr Lapin, who simultaneously leads Russia’s recently recreated Leningrad Military District. That district includes the newly formed 44th Army Corps, elements of which reportedly began deploying to the border regions in recent weeks.

Prior to launching its offensive, Russia bombarded Ukrainian frontline and rear areas using rocket and tube artillery and glide bombs. Vovchans’k, a small city located just a few miles from the border, was hit particularly hard, forcing its evacuation. Russia’s Air Force has since continued to support Russian ground troops with frequent glide-bomb strikes. The Russians have also actively used Lancet loitering munitions and rocket strikes, facilitated by persistent drone reconnaissance, to destroy Ukrainian artillery and air defense systems.

Russian ground troops reportedly commenced their attack early in the morning of May 10. According to Ukrainian war correspondent Yuriy Butusov, the initial force comprised a total of up to four to five battalions. The attacking forces consisted mainly of light infantry along with a modest number of armored fighting vehicles. Russian infantry advanced in small groups, typically around a platoon in size, at times crossing the border uncontested. Russia has probably since introduced additional forces.

The Russians are advancing in two directions. The first is toward the town of Lyptsi, which lies around 15 kilometers north of Kharkiv. The second is toward Vovchans’k, around 45 kilometers northeast of the city. The latter appears to be the main effort.

Sources: Ukrainian General Staff, Ukrainian analytical project DeepState, Ukrainian war correspondent Yuriy Butusov, author’s open-source analysis

In the Lyptsi direction, Russia quickly took the villages of Strilecha, Pyl’na, Borysivka, and possibly Krasne. The first three settlements were already in the “gray zone,” preventing Ukraine from constructing fortifications there. Ukrainian FPV strikes knocked out at least a handful of Russian infantry fighting vehicles near the border, although others reportedly made it through.

By the afternoon of May 11, Russian infantry were attempting to push southwest of Morokhovets’ and Oliinykove. That day, a Ukrainian soldier indicated Ukrainian troops had retreated to the village of Hlyboke. Russia had apparently taken at least part of Hlyboke by the afternoon of May 13. A few kilometers to the east, Russia reportedly captured Luk’yantsi the same day. The Ukrainian military later said its troops were forced to withdraw from the village amid heavy aerial bombardment. Hlyboke and Luk’yantsi stood between Russia and Lyptsi and were better fortified than the villages closer to the border.

In the Vovchans’k direction, Russia had taken most or all of the border villages of Pletenivka, Hatyshche, and Ohirtseve by May 11-12. Russian forces have since attempted to push into Vovchans’k and nearby villages. According to the Ukrainian General Staff, Russia had devoted up to five battalions to take Vovchans’k as of May 12. The Russian Air Force has continued to pound the city with glide bombs, reportedly conducting 20 strikes on May 11 and 30 on May 12.

By May 13, Russian troops had apparently taken a meat-packing plant on the northern edge of Vovchans’k. They have since attacked deeper into the city, moving in small groups. As of May 14, fighting was ongoing in the northern part of Vovchans’k. The Russians have apparently also reached the city’s eastern outskirts, though it is unclear whether they have secured a foothold there. To the southwest, Russian troops have entered the villages of Buhruvatka and Starytsya. While the Russian Defense Ministry on May 14 claimed to have captured Buhruvatka, whether Russia firmly controls those two settlements remains unclear.

Russian troops in the Vovchans’k direction have benefited from forested terrain, which obstructs aerial reconnaissance and first-person view (FPV) drone strikes. Ukrainian sources also say Russian electronic warfare has impeded drone operations. In the Lyptsi direction, the Trav’yans’ke Reservoir provides a natural barrier protecting Russia’s right flank. The Siverskyi Donets River performs a similar function in the Vovchans’k direction. That river and the smaller Vovcha River, along with the destruction of bridges across them, also impede the flow of Ukrainian forces and supplies from the rear and between different parts of the front.

In an effort to isolate Vovchans’k, the Russian Air Force, using Kh-38ML laser-guided missiles, struck a pair of bridges (over the Vovcha River) east of Vovchans’k as well as the Staryi Saltiv Dam bridge (over the Siverskyi Donets River) to the south. On May 13, footage emerged showing a strike on a fourth bridge (over the Vovcha), this time inside Vovchans’k. Satellite imagery indicates a fifth bridge (over the Siverskyi Donets), northwest of Vovchans’k, was destroyed in early May. Two other bridges across the Siverskyi Donets, near Buhruvatka and Verkhnya Pysarivka, were disabled earlier in the war and evidently have not been repaired.

Russian Objectives

Kharkiv is Ukraine’s second-largest city, with a prewar population of over 1.4 million. Although Russia’s “Sever” grouping likely still has significant reserves available, it lacks anywhere near enough forces to take Kharkiv. Nor can Russia quickly assemble a large enough force without pulling units from other, higher-priority sectors or leaving its lines elsewhere vulnerable. In addition, Ukraine has multiple fortified defensive lines protecting Kharkiv. The closest one stretches from Lyptsi to Bilyi Kolodyaz, consisting of a series of strong points along with some anti-tank obstacles.

If Russia manages to achieve larger-than-expected gains near Kharkiv, Moscow could reprioritize and transfer more forces to the area. Besides an attack on the city itself, Russia could try to sever the ground lines of communication supporting Ukrainian forces near Kup’yans’k, southeast of Kharkiv.

For now, though, Moscow’s objectives seem to be limited. When the offensive began, Ukrainian military officials said Russia aims to push 10 kilometers deep. This modest advance would create a buffer zone to protect Belgorod, a Russian city that lies less than 30 kilometers from the border and regularly comes under fire. It would also put Russia within tube artillery range of Kharkiv’s outskirts. This, in turn, could set up a future assault on Kharkiv or at least allow Russia to force a partial evacuation of the city.

Moscow’s chief goal likely is to compel Kyiv to divert units defending the Donbas region, particularly the Avdiivka and Chasiv Yar areas, where Russia is concentrating its main effort. With Ukraine already acutely short on manpower, pulling forces from those areas will further weaken the Ukrainian defense.

Ukraine indeed seems to have redeployed a number of units to the Kharkiv area. These include at least parts of the 92nd Assault Brigade, 42nd Mechanized Brigade, and 57th Motorized Infantry Brigade, plus units subordinate to Ukraine’s military intelligence directorate, including the Kraken regiment. Ukraine apparently also sent a battalion from the 82nd Air Assault Brigade and at least part of the National Guard’s 13th “Khartiya” Brigade.

The 92nd, 42nd, and Kraken had been defending in the Chasiv Yar area, while the 92nd Brigade’s “Achilles” drone battalion has been operating both there and in the Avdiivka area. The 57th Brigade had been fighting in the Kup’yans’k direction, while the 82nd Brigade was defending near Robotyne in Zaporizhzhia Oblast. The Khartiya Brigade had been fighting near Lyman in Donetsk Oblast, but at least part of the brigade appears to have redeployed to the Avdiivka area by early May.

Some of the units sent to Kharkiv may have been rotated out for rest and reconstitution when they were redeployed. Still, committing them to the Kharkiv area leaves Ukraine short on reserves needed to reinforce and rotate units elsewhere. By tying up and attritting Ukraine’s limited reserves, Russia can set conditions for further advances this summer.

The precariousness of the situation is not lost on Ukrainian officials. “All of our forces are either here or in Chasiv Yar,” Ukraine’s military intelligence chief told The New York Times, apparently referring to the various units subordinate to his directorate. “I’ve used everything we have. Unfortunately, we don’t have anyone else in the reserves.”

John Hardie is the deputy director of FDD’s Russia Program and a contributor to FDD's Long War Journal.


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