In Desperation, Moscow Refocuses on the Old Frontline

North East ain’t helping

Shankar Narayan
7 min readJun 23, 2024

I have rarely found myself in disagreement with the Institute for the Study of War. The Washington, D.C.-based think tank is highly meticulous in its assessments. They are good, perhaps bordering on greatness, in terms of the quality of their output.

However, I have occasionally disagreed with their views. Today is one such day. I do not agree with their view that “Russian offensive operations in Kharkiv Oblast are primarily intended to fix and distract Ukrainian forces in order to allow Russian forces to intensify elsewhere in the theater.”

Of course, this was part of the Russian calculation: to open up a new front in the northeast, stretch the Ukrainian forces, and exploit any weaknesses in the older frontline, especially in the Avdiivka and Chasiv Yar sectors.

But the Kharkiv sector is still very much a part of the Russian objective, as it always has been.

There were many actions taken by the Russian armed forces in the first 24 hours of the war, with two notable ones. They launched a daring air raid on the Hostomel airport, located just 6 miles north of Kyiv, in an attempt to create an air bridge that would allow the Kremlin to air-drop assault brigades that could quickly encircle Kyiv and prepare the ground for the ground forces to continue the assault.

Their second focus was Kharkiv city.

Ukrainian military bases near Kharkiv were among the military targets bombarded by Russian forces in the early hours of 24 February. An estimated 20,000 Russian forces amassed in Belgorod crossed the border on 24 February and began advancing towards Kharkiv.

For almost an entire month, the Russians fought to capture Kyiv. They paid an extraordinarily heavy price and finally gave up on April 1. Now that it has become exceedingly clear to them that they will never capture Kyiv, the strategic value of capturing Kharkiv has increased significantly.

Kharkiv is a city of 1.41 million, the second-largest population in Ukraine, and it’s a short 30-minute ride from the Russian border. It’s too important to ignore. If Ukrainian identity is what Putin is really after, knocking out their second-largest city is par for the course.

And it is a bit of a fortress as well, which the Russians learned the hard way during the early days of the war. One day after the war began, US officials reported that the heaviest fighting in the entire theater of conflict was happening near Kharkiv

CNN report published on February 26th, 2022

Not, Kyiv. Not, Mariupol. Not, Kherson.

But Kharkhiv city.

As you can see from the image below (March 2022), Russians did advance towards Kharkiv city from multiple directions, but their attempt to encircle the city turned out to be a huge failure. The losses were so high that they were forced to withdraw. By mid-May, the ISW declared that the Battle for Kharkiv was over and that Ukraine had won it.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Ukraine was prepared to meet the Russians. They knew that the Russians will come after Kharkiv city.

Around 74 per cent of Kharkiv’s 1.4 million population are Russian speakers. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, claimed before the conflict began that Moscow could try to seize the city under the pretext of “protecting” these people — an act which “will be the beginning of a large-scale war”.

The support Putin had to capture Kharkiv has all but evaporated now. Not many Russian-speaking citizens of Kharkiv would blink an eye if it ever came to fighting the Russian army again, as they did during the early days of the war. So, capturing Kupiansk and Kharkiv city will always remain a key priority for Russia.

Another factor to consider is this: having two large cities to capture during the next invasion phase would once again be a difficult task to achieve. If Kharkiv is won over now, then it would be an all-hands-on-deck assault towards Kyiv.

Over the last two years, I have maintained that three locations are vital to Ukraine. They are Kupiansk, Vuhledar, and Klishchiivka. The Russians have never ceased their efforts to capture Kupiansk. Fighting in that sector has always remained intense, and not without reason. If Russia captures Kupiansk, they will be in a much better position to capture Kharkiv city.

So, I do disagree with ISW’s view that “Russian offensive operations in Kharkiv Oblast are primarily intended to fix and distract Ukrainian forces in order to allow Russian forces to intensify elsewhere in the theater.” It was an added benefit. If there is an option to destroy two targets with a single bullet, then why not?

Russians are slowing down their operations in the northeast and refocusing on the older frontline because they are hemorrhaging a ton of resources in the northeast. The number of troops Russia has been losing in the northeast has increased significantly. With an estimated 30,000 troops allocated for the northeast incursion, a loss of 10,000 troops would be more than enough to slow them down. The pace of their offensive will automatically slow.

Russians have done this many times in the past. When they are close to exhausting their reserves, they will quickly slow the tempo, take a breather, allow things to cool down a bit, wait for a little while, gather their reserve strength again, and then launch a counter-attack.

Since the intensity of the attacks near the Chasiv Yar and Avdiivka sectors has been relatively slow over the last two months compared to the northeast, the reserve units in those areas likely still have decent capacity. As a result, the Russians have decided to try their luck between Chasiv Yar and Avdiivka.

ISW:

Russian forces increased the intensity of assaults in the Toretsk-Horlivka direction (southwest of Chasiv Yar and northeast of Avdiivka) on the night of June 18 and maintained a relatively high rate of attacks in this area between June 19 to June 22, reportedly making several tactical gains in the area.

Russian forces have been generally inactive on this sector of the front throughout the course of 2024, so their activation and intensification are noteworthy. By contrast, the tempo of Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast has drastically decreased in recent days, particularly in comparison with the start of Russian offensive operations north and northeast of Kharkiv City in mid-May 2024.

What can Ukraine do under these circumstances?

Nothing.

They should continue doing what they have been for the last four to eight weeks. They need to stay focused on the northeast. Of course, they do not want to lose too much territory in the Donetsk region, but there are enough troops in the sector who could be moved on short notice to counter the Russian troops trying to advance between Chasiv Yar and Avdiivka.

There is another reason why Ukraine has no need to worry. At least twice in the last two months, I have written that the Russians are running out of weapons. There are two key things they are starting to run out

  • Tanks
  • Armored personnel carriers and Infantry fighting vehicles.

Today, ISW confirmed this development. Some of my readers told me the same as well:

A Ukrainian military observer stated on June 21 that Russian forces are attacking in small infantry groups with drone, artillery, and air support and are using armored vehicles sparingly in the Kharkiv direction.

Putin’s army has only two things going for them: their infantry and their glide bombs carrying air-force. Ukraine must wait for the additional six long-range air-defense systems to arrive before they can push back the Russian air force, but they face no such limitation in countering the Russian infantry, which is running woefully short on armored personnel carriers.

Last year, I used to watch a lot of videos of first-person view drones taking out Russian tanks, armored personnel carriers, and infantry fighting vehicles. These days, drones are attacking columns of Russians walking on foot, targeting turtle tanks that were converted into armored personnel carriers. No, the Russians don’t have so many tanks that they are using them as transport. These were old tanks with motors, covered in metal and repurposed to ferry humans to the frontline.

It is madness, but it falls within expected lines.

A few weeks ago, I wrote that Ukraine will seize the theater-wide initiative sometime this year. Before we reach that stage, I believe there will be a period where Russia will struggle to advance. We are currently in that phase now. Russians may still advance a little over the next couple of weeks, and then they will be done.

We can expect the stalemate to begin in mid-July. But please don’t complain that I did not mention Ukraine achieving small tactical gains; that is part and parcel of the stalemate.

I hope the first few tranches of artillery shells procured through the Czech initiative have already arrived in Ukraine. It will make a lot of difference.

Over and out.

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Shankar Narayan

He didn't care what he had or what he had left, he cared only about what he must do.