On the Ground

Ukraine’s soldiers battle to stop Putin’s forces advancing around Kharkiv: ‘The next few days are critical’

Askold Krushelnycky speaks to one colonel who says the situation could develop 'dangerously' for Kyiv's troops as Moscow looks to press on from the border towards Ukraine's second city

Monday 13 May 2024 17:59
Gunners from 43rd Separate Mechanized Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine fire at Russian positions in Kharkiv
Gunners from 43rd Separate Mechanized Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine fire at Russian positions in Kharkiv (AFP via Getty Images)

Russia is intensifying its attacks around the Kharkiv region – with Kyiv admitting that Vladimir Putin’s forces are achieving some “tactical success” as soldiers warn that the next few days will be “critical” to stop Russian troops advancing.

Moscow’s forces have captured a number of villages and sent thousands of people fleeing their homes. They are trying to broaden the area of its most recent attack, which seemed to take Ukrainian forces by surprise and caused some to retreat from their lightly fortified positions.

The Independent spoke to a colonel from the Ukrainian general staff, who did not want to be named. He said: “The situation is serious and dynamic. It has the potential to develop dangerously very swiftly and the next few days will be critical.”

He said Ukraine “is sending one of our most experienced brigades to reinforce our troops. The Russians are taking very big casualties and I think this brigade, which I know well, will be able to stop the Russian attack from spreading and then push them back or destroy them.”

Although Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and both the army’s top commander and military intelligence chief had for weeks warned that Russia was preparing to launch an offensive this month or in June, the attack in the northern Kharkiv region still caught the Ukrainians off balance.

The colonel said: “The Russians entered in areas where our defences were weak and not ready. They are places near the border with Russia which are in reach of their artillery and where it’s very difficult and dangerous to build defences.”

Kharkiv’s governor, Oleh Syniehubov, told local TV: “The enemy is trying to deliberately stretch it [the front line], attacking in small groups, but in new directions, so to speak.” He added that "the situation is difficult”.

A police officer helps a local resident during an evacuation to Kharkiv from Vovchansk – one of the towns liberated from Russian occupation in 2022 (Reuters)

Portions of the areas now being fought over were freed from Russian occupation in a successful Ukrainian surprise offensive in the autumn of 2022. Some Ukrainian commanders in the area have complained to journalists they will now lose more of their men fighting to retrieve the same territory and condemned Ukrainian military and civil authorities for not having built sufficient fortifications when they had the chance.

Kyiv announced on Monday the replacement of the commander overseeing the northeastern Kharkiv front line.

The colonel The Independent spoke to said some five battalions of Russian troops – up to 3,000 men – were involved in the incursion which started on the night of 9 May into 10 May. They were backed by tanks and other armoured vehicles, with glide bombs launched from Russian territory. Moscow was also using fighter jets and helicopters.

Ukrainian and Western sources say Russian forces have spread out in an area of some five by 10 kilometres and captured at least six villages: Strilecha, Krasne, Borisivka, Zelene, Ohirtseve, and Hatyshche.

Vovchansk, one of the towns liberated from Russian occupation in 2022, has again turned into a focus of fierce fighting between its Ukrainian defenders and Russian troops who, the general staff admitted, have penetrated into some eastern areas of the town. The Ukrainians say a group of Russian soldiers are now trapped in a factory in the town with all routes for reinforcement or retreat cut off.

Despite warnings from President Volodymyr Zelensky, Russian forces’ attack in the northern Kharkiv region still caught the Ukrainians off balance (Reuters)

The colonel said the present Russian attack will likely be limited in scope as Moscow does not yet have the necessary resources to make an attempt at capturing the regional capital, the city of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest.

He said Moscow’s aim for the moment was to solidify a “grey zone” no-man’s land that already effectively exists on much of the border between Russia and Ukraine’s Sumy and Kharkiv regions.

The colonel said: “One of the most important tasks is to prevent the Russians coming within artillery range to shell Kharkiv city. That’s about 30 kilometres. It’s already being hit daily by drones and glide bombs, and if the Russians were close enough to use their artillery, that would be a catastrophe and we can’t let that happen.”

Moscow has made it clear it either wants to take Kharkiv – after its first attempt in the early stages of its 2022 full-blown invasion failed disastrously – or to bludgeon it so that most of its remaining million population flee, leaving the city as an uninhabitable wasteland.

The current attack on the region has emptied many of the villages which have faced continuous shelling since last week. Thousands of refugees are streaming into Kharkiv and putting more strain on already stretched welfare, medical and accommodation services.

The colonel said Kyiv believes that Russia wants to create a buffer zone of 15 kilometres on the Ukrainian side of the border that strengthens their defences, but that Moscow would also insist on retaining a grey zone in any future talks about cessation of the conflict.

The Ukrainian military acknowledge that by opening a new front in Kharkiv, Russia wants to draw away Ukrainian forces from other areas under attack, particularly further south in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, and to the west towards the Zaporizhzhia region.

Residents are moved out of Vovchansk to escape fierce fighting between Ukrainian and Russian troops (Reuters)

Moscow already holds most of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, collectively known as Donbas, and the Kremlin has repeatedly set deadlines for its forces to capture the entirety of both regions. Ukrainian intelligence has said for several months that Moscow’s plan for 2024 involves taking full control in the first half of this year.

Ukraine’s forces have been facing dwindling supplies of key weapons and ammunition due to months-long delays in fresh military aid from the US. While billions of dollars in support was signed off in recent weeks, it is arriving on the front line in a trickle so far – and Russia is trying to take advantage. Moscow’s troops have whittled away at Ukrainian defences and manpower, using waves of troops backed up by armoured vehicles and air assaults.

The relentless attacks have cost Moscow thousands of casualties and hundreds of destroyed armoured vehicles but eventually gave them their only significant victory this year – the capture of the key town of Avdiivka on the outskirts of Donetsk city.

Since then the Russians have tried similar tactics to try and capture the town of Chasiv Yar in Donetsk. It sits atop hills which give artillery positions there a reach over most of the remaining territory and largest cities – Kramatorsk, Slovyansk, Druzhkovka and Konstantinovka – still in Kyiv’s hands.

While initiating the attacks in Kharkiv region, the Russians have not let up pressure on Chasiv Yar and other areas in Donetsk. Kyiv and its Western allies assess that the Russians will take advantage of Ukraine's continuing dearth of ammunition to try to move forward in as many places as possible before supplies return to sufficient levels for Ukraine to stabilise the front.

It comes as Putin has replaced his defence minister – and long-term ally – Sergei Shoigu with Andrei Belousov, in a surprise move. While the colonel believes this will not have a significant effect in the short-term, there is concern over what it says about Russia’s aims.

“Belousov doesn’t have much real military experience but he is a businessman,” he said. “Belousov could manage Russia’s war industries more effectively and reorganise the economy, military and manufacturing for a long, protracted conflict.”

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