Ukraine Breaks Through; Russia in a Scramble

Russians are pulling out some of their elite units from other areas to stop their northern grouping from collapsing

Shankar Narayan
7 min readJun 9, 2024
In shock (Licensed Image)

Desperate defense can be effective, and sometimes even advantageous. However, desperate offense is rarely successful and often leads to failure.

The effectiveness of these strategies largely depends on the nature of the enemy. If your opponent is timid, there might be some merit in considering aggressive tactics.

Ukraine is anything but timid. Russia can only win when the Ukrainians are not fully equipped or when they are forced to fight with their hands tied. The Russians made a huge mistake in May 2024 by extending the frontline.

It was a high-risk strategy that is now starting to backfire. After Ukraine’s fierce response to Russian counter attack in the northeast, the Russian armed forces are facing a laundry list of bad options.

  1. They have no choice but to accept that their northeast strategy has failed big time, yield the theater-wide initiative, withdraw from the northeast, and focus on the older frontline.

Or…..

2. Pull out troops from other parts of the frontline, reinforce the northeast, hope and pray that they are able to hold the line, and pray even more that Ukraine does not counter-attack at locations where the Russians are pulling out the troops from.

Ouch!

Predictably, the Russians have chosen the second option. They are starting to pull their troops from other sections of the frontline. The Institute for the Study of War reported Russian troop movements in its assessment today.

  • The Russian military command is reportedly transferring an unspecified number of forces to the Ukrainian-Russian border area near Kharkiv Oblast, but it is unclear if the Russian military command plans to immediately commit these redeployed forces to combat or use them to reinforce the Northern Grouping of Forces to bring it closer to its reported planned end strength.
  • Ukrainian Khortytsia Group of Forces Spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Nazar Voloshyn stated on June 8 that Akhmat forces are serving as blocking units — specialized disciplinary units that fire upon friendly forces if they engage in an unauthorized retreat — in the international border area, and it is possible that the Russian military command transferred Akhmat forces to the area solely for this purpose and not to conduct offensive operations
  • Russian military command is increasing the Russian force grouping near the border area by transferring elements of unspecified regiments and brigades from other sectors of the front, including from occupied Kherson Oblast.
  • Voloshyn stated that the Russian military command intends to commit unspecified airborne (VDV) elements and additional elements of the 11th and 44th Army Corps (both of the Leningrad Military District [LMD]) to offensive operations in unspecified areas of the border area.

The situation appears dire, evident in the Russian armed forces’ decision to relocate troops from the far western end of the map, Kherson Oblast, all the way to the far eastern end. Notably, they are also moving their VDV elements.

Screenshot from DeepstateMap. Sketch added by me.

Russia does not uniformly provide robust training and equipment across all its brigades, resulting in a highly unequal system. While some brigades are well-trained and equipped, some are barely trained. These barely trained elements will stay at the front, while disciplinary detachments stay at the rear. If the barely trained units withdraw, these disciplinary units will block them. The will fire at their own comrades.

In contrast, the VDV elements are generally trained and fully equipped.

What’s happening in the northeast?

Screenshot from DeepstateMap. Sketch added by me.

Well, Ukraine has made significant advances in two sections. One at the extreme right of Russia’s northeastern advance, and the other at the extreme left. Last night, Ukraine liberated Hybloke village from the occupiers while also pushing deeper into Vovchansk.

Ukraine liberated the highly critical Hybloke village in the northeast

Ukraine is applying pressure on Russian forces from both ends. Additionally, their attacks on Russian troops stationed in the rear, within the Russian territory of Belgorod Oblast, are intensifying, making the situation increasingly challenging for Russia’s northern grouping forces.

The Russian hold on Vovchansk appears considerably weaker as Ukraine continues its advance through the village. This can be observed from the latest map provided below.

Russian and Ukrainian positions around Vovchansk. Credit: Projectowl
Russian forces are holding only a small part of Vovchansk as of June 9th. Credit: Projectowl

Russia’s northeastern attack was a badly planned and horribly executed operation

ISW: Russian forces reportedly had roughly 35,000 personnel in the international border area as a part of the Northern Grouping of Forces when they started offensive operations on May 10, whereas Ukrainian sources have indicated that the Russian military initially sought to concentrate at least 50,000 to 70,000 personnel in the international border area as of early May.

It is unclear whether Russian forces have altered the planned end strength of the Northern Grouping of Forces since launching the offensive operation into northern Kharkiv Oblast on May 10. A Russian milblogger claimed on June 6 that the Russian military command has only committed about 15,000 personnel to the offensive operation in northern Kharkiv Oblast.

Expanding the frontline by hundreds of kilometers was a move bordering on madness. The Russian army perhaps assumed that the Jake Sullivan-led National Security Team of the United States would never permit Ukraine to target their forces stationed in the Russian territory of Belgorod Oblast. They believed their staging area was a sanctuary that Ukraine would never breach.

Consider the scenario: position all artillery units behind the Russian border, bombarding Ukrainian troops without fear of retaliation. Send infantry to the front lines and keep advancing. It could have been a successful strategy.

Fortunately, Ukraine, alongside certain Western and bipartisan leaders in Washington, D.C., exerted immense pressure on the Biden administration to change course. The case was furthered by the efforts of the US State Department led by Mr. Anthony Blinken.

The United States relaxed its rules, throwing a wrench into the core of the Russian strategy, which heavily relied on American restriction to hit the Russian troops stationed inside Russian territory. Now, Russia finds itself in a predicament, desperately attempting to extricate itself from the situation.

Ukraine should stay maxed out in the the northeast

After enduring more than six months of depleted weapon supplies, finally weapons are flowing from western warehouses. Mobilization efforts have commenced after one and a half years of delay, with troops starting to fill the ranks. Although it will take time for Ukraine’s combat power to fully increase, progress is underway.

I’ve written so many times in the recent past that Ukraine should refrain from counter-attacks to preserve and accumulate its combat power. However, in their haste to prevent this accumulation, Russia inadvertently opened a front — a front they’re reluctant to withdraw from. This presents Ukraine with a golden opportunity to counter-attack.

If Ukraine starts playing defense in the northeast it would afford Russian armed forces the breathing space to regroup and respond — a tactic they’ve employed frequently in the past. Ukraine must deny them this luxury by maintaining offensive pressure in the northeast.

Forcing Russia to deploy more troops to the northeastern front would reduce Ukrainian casualties while increasing Russian losses.

Take, for instance, Kherson Oblast — a region where both sides have been engaged in combat for over a year. The terrain is an extremely difficult one for Ukraine due to the swamps and marshes lining the Dnipro river. Certain Russian forces from this sector has been relocated to the northeast. Unless Ukraine presses forward in this direction, casualties will be minimized.

Russian forces abandoning established defensive positions in Kherson Oblast and other sectors for an offensive in the northeast means they’ll incur higher losses while Ukrainians suffer fewer casualties: Russians are moving out of well defended lines, to a sector with no established defensive lines.

If Russia persists with their northeastern offensive, their troop losses will escalate.

Ukraine cannot afford to miss this opportunity.

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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.