War in Ukraine: Russia’s offensive in Ukraine has been a crucial week

image source, REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

image caption, The remaining population of Vovchansk was evacuated as Russia shelled the border town

  • author, Paul Kirby
  • stock, BBC News

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

They have since captured several villages far from the border and are trying to advance as Ukraine’s gun-toting forces try to shore up a weakened front line.

A buffer zone or deep thrust?

By entering Vovsansk, only 5 km (3 mi) into Ukraine, and seizing large swaths of Ukrainian territory in the Kharkiv region, Russian forces could try to create a buffer zone to prevent Ukraine’s own cross-border attacks.

Given the relatively poor state of Ukraine’s security, they may also have more ambitious plans.

Russia may plan a further cross-border push towards the northern city of Sumy in the northwest. Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, Kyrillo Budanov, believes a “small group of forces” is waiting there, ready to act.

image source, Russian Volunteer Corps/Reuters

image caption, Russian forces reported entering the Vovsansk region

The new head of Russia’s Security Council, Sergei Shoigu, has said only that the military is advancing in all directions.

That includes pushing deeper into Ukraine to force Guy to divert forces from a tough front line in eastern Donbass or seize growing territory.

Like Russia’s military analyst Anatoly Madvichuk, the U.S.-based war think tank Research Institute believes the main objective is to create a buffer zone.

Is Kharkiv in danger?

With a pre-war population of 1.4 million, Kharkiv was second only to Kiev and Dnipro in its economic importance to Ukraine. It is too close to the border to have adequate air defenses and is subject to repeated Russian bombardment from ballistic and redesigned anti-aircraft missiles and cruise missiles.

If Russia manages to capture it, Matviychuk says it could prove a “turning point” in the war and severely affect Ukraine’s industrial capacity.

This seems highly unlikely. Ukrainian and Western commentators believe Russia lacks the resources to do so. If 80,000 Russian troops were needed to capture the devastated eastern city of Avdiivka last February, a much larger city like Kharkiv would require numbers that Russia does not have.

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

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

That way, he says, they will not only create a buffer zone at a depth of 10-15 km, but also give Russia the option to attack Khargi later.

Ukrainian military blogger Yuriy Butusov says there have been many mistakes in defending the border, and now that Russian forces have seen how thin the defenses are spread, they may try to set up both a buffer zone and a bridgehead to launch deep into Ukrainian territory. : “Surely, this is their motto.”

image source, Roman Filipe/AFP

image caption, Ukraine’s military has sent more troops into Kharkiv to block Russian advances

Russia’s focus is on the East

Jack Watling of the Royal United Services Institute believes the main objective of the summer offensive is “an extension of the Russian push into the Donbass”, with the aim of cutting supply lines and then giving a route north and south.

Three months after the capture of Avdivka, the Russian military has set its sights on other targets, including the strategically important hilltop town of Chasiv Yar in the northwestern Donetsk region.

Rob Lee of the Institute for Foreign Policy Research said Ukrainian troops in Chasiv Yar are thought to have moved to Kharkiv, leaving Ukraine with fewer units there.

Losing Chasiv Yar would make Ukrainian cities in the Donbass more vulnerable to a Russian attack.

By forcing Ukraine to commit troops, air defenses and artillery to the defense of its second city, pressure would be put on the front near the Dnipro River and then threaten the large southeastern city of Zaporizhia.

Russian forces have already claimed capture of a southern village that Ukraine recaptured last summer. Although Ukraine still controls the village of Robotyn, it is clear that Russia’s offensive in the north is putting significant pressure on other areas of Ukraine’s population.

Does Russia have enough resources to acquire land?

In Kiev, they believe Russia’s forces in Ukraine now number more than half a million. This has left Ukraine’s military undermanned and outgunned, and Vladimir Putin now allocates 8.7% of Russia’s gross economic product (GDP) to defense and security.

Yet Russia still has a huge numerical advantage. A senior Ukrainian general said the ratio was as high as 10 to one. A similar benefit has been reported in terms of shells.

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

But that change will take time. As was the arrival of US weapons supplies voted by the US Congress in April.

Gen. Christopher Cavoli, NATO’s top Allied commander in Europe, said he believed Ukraine’s military could hold the line: “The Russians don’t have the numbers to make a strategic breakthrough… In fact, they don’t have the skills and ability to do it.”

Oleksandr Chirsky, who was appointed as Ukraine’s commander-in-chief in February, is considered the architect of Ukraine’s standoff 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 commanders will have learned from their mistakes.

“The city of Kharkiv and the entire Kharkiv region are now the focus of our efforts to make the lives of Kharkiv residents safer,” Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said this week.

What Putin wants

While Russia’s leader continues to make gains on the ground, there are signs that the Kremlin may be ready to return to peace talks abandoned two years ago.

“We are ready for dialogue on Ukraine, but such talks must take into account the interests of all countries involved in the conflict, including our country,” Vladimir Putin told China’s state news agency Xinhua.

His comments come a month ahead of a planned peace summit in Switzerland.

Russia has not been invited to Lucerne on June 15-16, but the Swiss say more than 50 countries are going, including Ukraine, and they are trying to engage Russia’s ally China.

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