June 16, 2024

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War in Ukraine: The critical weeks ahead for the Russian offensive in Ukraine

War in Ukraine: The critical weeks ahead for the Russian offensive in Ukraine

Image source, Reuters/Valentin Ogirenko

Comment on the photo, The remaining residents of Vovchansk were evacuated when Russia bombed the border city

  • author, Paul Kirby
  • Role, BBC News

Ukraine knew Russia was planning a summer offensive, but didn’t know where it would start. This became clear on May 10, when Russian forces moved into the border area north of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.

Since then, they have taken control of a number of villages not far from the border, and are trying to push forward as outgunned Ukrainian forces try to shore up the weakened front line.

Buffer zone or deeper push?

By entering Vovchansk, just 5 kilometers (3 miles) inside Ukraine, and seizing large areas of Ukrainian territory in the Kharkiv region, Russian forces may be trying to create a buffer zone to repel Ukrainian cross-border attacks.

Having seen the relatively weak state of Ukraine’s defenses, they may also have more ambitious plans.

It is possible that Russia is planning an additional cross-border attack towards the northern city of Sumy, to the northwest. The head of Ukrainian military intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, believes a “small group of troops” is waiting there, ready to act.

Image source, Russian Volunteer Corps – Reuters

Comment on the photo, Russian forces said they entered parts of Vovchansk

Sergei Shoigu, the new head of the Russian Security Council, said only that the army was advancing in all directions.

This could include pushing deeper into Ukraine, either forcing Kiev to shift its forces from the fiercest front line in eastern Donbas or seizing increasing swaths of territory.

The US-based Institute for the Study of War believes that the main goal is to create a buffer zone, believes Russian military analyst Anatoly Matveychuk.

Is Kharkiv in danger?

Kharkiv had a pre-war population of 1.4 million, trailing only Kiev and Dnipro in its economic importance to Ukraine. It is too close to the border to have adequate air defence, and has repeatedly been subjected to deadly Russian bombing using ballistic missiles, reconfigured anti-aircraft missiles, and glide bombs.

If Russia manages to seize it, Matviychuk says it would mark a “turning point” in the war and hit Ukraine’s industrial potential hard.

This seems highly unlikely. Ukrainian and Western commentators are convinced that Russia does not have the resources to do this. If it took 80,000 Russian soldiers to seize the devastated eastern city of Avdiivka last February, a much larger city like Kharkiv would need numbers that Russia does not have.

During a visit to Kharkiv, President Volodymyr Zelensky said the situation in the region was “generally under control,” although the area remained very difficult.

“The strategic goal of Russian forces is to encircle Kharkiv as a regional center,” says Oleksandr Musienko, head of the Center for Military and Political Studies in Kiev.

This way, they would not only create a buffer zone 10 to 15 kilometers deep, but they would also give Russia the option to attack Kharkiv later.

Ukrainian military blogger Yuri Butusov says too many mistakes have been made in defending the border, and now that Russian forces see how weak the defenses are, they can try to create a buffer zone and a bridgehead to push deeper into Ukrainian territory: “Of course that is their goal.” “

Image source, Roman Bilipi/AFP

Comment on the photo, The Ukrainian army sent more troops to Kharkiv to repel the Russian advance

Russia’s focus on the East

Jack Watling of the Royal United Services Institute believes the main aim of the summer offensive was to “extend the Russian advance in Donbass”, aiming to cut supply lines and thus give their forces a route to the north and south.

Three months after seizing Avdiivka, the Russian army has set its sights on other targets in the Donetsk region to the northwest, including the strategically important hilltop town of Chasev Yar.

Ukrainian forces stationed at Chasiv Yar are believed to have been moved to Kharkiv, leaving Ukraine with fewer units available there, says Rob Lee of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Losing Chasev Yar would make Ukrainian cities in Donbass more vulnerable to Russian attack.

By forcing Ukraine to send troops, air defenses and artillery to defend its second city, pressure would also be placed on the front line further south, near the Dnipro River, thus threatening the large city of Zaporizhia to the south-east.

Russian forces have already announced their control of a southern village that Ukraine regained last summer. Even if Ukraine still controls the village of Robotyn, it is clear that the Russian offensive in the north is putting great pressure on outnumbered Ukrainian forces elsewhere.

Does Russia have enough resources to make gains on the ground?

In Kiev, they believe Russian forces in Ukraine now number more than half a million. This has made the Ukrainian military establishment smaller and more numerous, with Vladimir Putin now allocating an estimated 8.7% of Russia’s total economic output to defense and security.

However, Russia still has a significant numerical advantage. A senior Ukrainian general said the ratio was 10 to one. A similar feature has been reported in terms of projectiles.

Ukraine recently signed a law lowering the mobilization age by two years to 25, and this could increase the size of its army by 100,000 soldiers.

But this change will take time. As well as the arrival of US arms supplies, which the US Congress approved in April.

NATO’s Supreme Commander in Europe, General Christopher Cavoli, said he was confident the Ukrainian military could hold out: “The Russians do not have the numbers to achieve a strategic breakthrough… and, more importantly, they do not have the skill and capacity to do so.”

The man who was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces in February, Oleksandr Sirsky, is considered the architect of the Ukrainian combat in September 2022, when the army expelled Russian units from more than 500 positions in the Donbass and Kharkiv regions. One of the villages they liberated was Vovchansk.

The difference now is that Russia’s leaders will learn from their mistakes.

“The city of Kharkiv and the entire Kharkiv region has now become the point of our efforts to make the lives of Kharkiv residents safer,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said this week.

What Putin wants

As the Russian leader seeks gains on the ground, there are signs that the Kremlin may be ready to return to peace talks that were abandoned two years ago.

“We are open to dialogue on Ukraine, but such negotiations must take into account the interests of all countries involved in the conflict, including ours,” Vladimir Putin told Xinhua.

The timing of his statements comes a month before the peace summit scheduled to be held in Switzerland.

Russia was not invited to visit Lucerne on June 15-16, but the Swiss say that more than 50 countries, including Ukraine, will participate, and they are trying to involve China, Russia’s ally.