Ukraine’s counteroffensive may have broken Russia’s siege of the strategic city of Kharkiv, in northeast Ukraine.
If true – and if Ukrainian troops can maintain their momentum – then this could outflank and threaten the main Russian offensive in the south. While premature to claim that this is a turning point in the war, it would force the Russian high command to divert forces northwards, and to juggle fighting on multiple fronts.
“The Ukrainian counteroffensive north of Kharkiv City has forced Russian troops onto the defensive and has successfully alleviated artillery pressure on Kharkiv City,” according to the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based thinktank that closely monitors the war.
“The Ukrainian counteroffensive north of Kharkiv City has forced Russian troops onto the defensive and necessitated reinforcement and replenishment efforts intended to prevent further Ukrainian advances towards the Russian border,” ISW said. Analysts pointed to an announcement by local Kharkiv officials that “artillery pressure against the northeastern suburbs of Kharkiv City has been alleviated, indicating Ukrainian forces have successfully driven Russian forces largely out of artillery range of Kharkiv City.”
The Ukrainian Army has been counterattacking around Kharkiv for about two weeks. On May 9, Pentagon officials said that Russian troops had been pushed back almost 45 kilometers (28 miles) to the east of the city.
Much of the information reaching Western audiences is based on Ukrainian government announcements as well as social media posts. Nonetheless, Ukraine’s success is a remarkable change from the early days of the war. When Russia launched a massive invasion on February 24, Kharkiv – Ukraine’s second-largest city – was expected to quickly fall, along with the capital city of Kyiv. But unexpectedly fierce Ukrainian resistance, along with poor Russian tactics and abysmal logistics, bogged down the Russian offensive.
Russia shifted its main offensive from the north to the south, aiming to seize all of the Donbas region, as well key ports on the Black Sea, such as Kherson and Mariupol. But Russian troops remained within artillery range of Kharkiv, frequently shelling the city and hitting civilian targets.
Did Russia give up its plans to give up Kharkiv? On May 4, a senior Pentagon official suggested that the city was still a Russian objective.
“We still think that the Russians want Kharkiv,” the official said. “I mean, they haven’t exactly left it alone either. If you just look at a map, you can see it’s a big industrial city and it’s right at the northwestern sort of lip of what we consider the Donbas area.”
Perhaps more important, Kharkiv is just 26 miles from the Russian border. Invading Russia – which has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal – would be a risky gambit for Ukraine, and one that would not be approved by the U.S. and NATO. But Ukrainian boots on Russian soil would be the ultimate embarrassment for the Kremlin, which isn’t ignoring the possibility.
“Russian forces moved to the defensive in order to prevent further advances north to the Russian border by the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive around Kharkiv City,” ISW reported on May 11. Russian troops are reportedly massing near the Russian city of Belgorod, near the Ukrainian border.
Interestingly, pro-Russian news site Readkova reported that Ukrainian forces had reached within 10 kilometers (6 miles) of the Russian border. ISW also noted that the Ukrainian General Staff bulletins didn’t mention Russia’s 1st Guards Tank Army, which is among Russia’s best-equipped formations and which has played a major role in the war. “If confirmed, this may indicate that elements of the 1st Guards Tank Army withdrew to Belgorod to reconstitute and refit following losses sustained around Kharkiv City,” ISW said.
What went wrong with Russia’s plan to capture Kharkiv? Perhaps Napoleon said it best 200 years ago: “The art of war consists in being always able, even with an inferior army, to have stronger forces than the enemy at the point of attack or the point which is attacked.” Great commanders like Napoleon were masters of massing their armies at a selected point in the enemy lines, thinning their forces in other sectors in order to concentrate at the decisive spot.
Russia may have concentrated its forces in the south at the expense of the north. Moscow may not have had a choice. Its 200,000-strong invasion force sounds impressive, until you realize that it was actually too small to be tasked with occupying Ukraine, which is the size of France and could muster half a million active and reserve soldiers.
Had Russia’s southern offensive quickly succeeded, this would have freed up Russian reserves, and perhaps weakened the counteroffensive against Kharkiv as Ukraine scrambled to redeploy. But Russia’s southern trust bogged down, and now Russia has to decide between advancing south or shifting troops north to contain the Ukrainian counterthrust.