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A possible model for the 2024 invasion of Kharkiv

Kharkiv is (or once was) the second largest city in Ukraine, her most northeasterly metropolis once in excess of 1.5 million people and within 30 kilometres of the Russian border. In the initial Russian offensive in Ukraine in early 2022 the occupation of Kharkiv was a target but then the Russian Armed Forces unexpectedly withdrew, realising they had overstretched themselves and pulling back from positions around Kyiv and Kharkiv alike. Now Russia has strengthened her military in terms of both manpower and logistics, and in particular in respect of her capacity to replenish expended weapons and manpower, a renewed assault upon Kharkiv in the course of the summer 2024 offensive seems likely.

By all accounts the Russians have been amassing a force of around 200,000 troops on the border near Belgorod, the Russian city close to Kharkiv. The winter fighting season in Ukraine was relatively restrained by Russian standards, but it did involve a substantial quantity of shelling and missile attacks against Kharkiv which now looks like a wreck compared to its appearance in summer / autumn 2023. A comprehensive series of drone attacks conducted nightly over the last weeks seem to have been aimed at rendering the city uninhabitable, not least by depriving the population of power. Already the greater majority of the population of Kharkiv has left, and many of the streets feel ghost-like and empty. This is likely to continue, and presumably the purpose of the Russian winter 2023 / 24 campaign against Kharkiv was to continue to drive out an ever increasingly large proportion of the civilian population. The fact that some 200,000 troops have amassed in close proximity to the city would indicate a new offensive anticipated against the city; and Kharkiv remains largely undefended. Ukrainian troops have been focusing upon the “Blue Road” (the front line marked by the Dnipro River from Kherson up to Zaporizhzhia), the trenches and battlefields in the vicinity of Zaporizhzhia, and the Donbas front line including the settlements in the vicinity of Bakhmut and on the outskirts of Donetsk.

The closest Russian-held positions inside occupied Ukraine are on the opposite side of the Oskil River from Kupiansk. This is an unlikely bridgehead for a Russian assault upon Kharkiv, because Kupiansk is heavily fortified on the Ukrainian side and the Oskil River is broad and would be difficult to pontoon given the large shallow valley in which it lies. It would be suicide for the Russians to attempt to cross the Oskil River at Kupiansk, particularly given that the surrounding settlements remain under Ukrainian control. Nor is the push forward on the Russian part going to come from the directions of Sloviansk or Izyum. These cities are held strongly by the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and Russian progress in pushing west and northwest from Bakhmut has been painfully slow. Rather it is going to come directly from the Russian border itself, and also in all likelihood sidewise around via Sumy province to the northwest of Kharkiv, where the Russian Armed Forces have a presence in Grayvoron and Krasnaya Yaruga. Indeed Krasnaya Yaruga is the location of a notorious “legitimate” filtration border where at the time of writing Russians (or Ukrainians from Russian-occupied territory) can pass one-way into the West if they want to leave Russia, entering Ukraine at Krasnopillya. The Krasnopillya crossing, a sort of one-way Checkpoint Charlie in the Second Cold War, may find itself peremptorily closed as the Russian Armed Forces decide to encircle Kharkiv via entering Sumy province and then coming down from the northwest.

In this slow encirclement movement, it seems unlikely that the Russians will seek to encircle Kharkiv in its entirety. They will try to surround it on three sides, and leave buses and trains free to leave the city as they want, following a policy of bleeding out all but loyal citizens who support the Russian invasion and driving everyone else away. The Russians are not particularly interested in ethnically cleaning the populations of the territories they occupy, if local people will do it themselves; therefore you give them the opportunity to do so. The exception to this was when in the end of 2022 the Russian security forces ethnically cleansed Donetsk of Ukrainian speakers, sending them to Russia’s Far East in hundreds of thousands - an outrageous war crime. Rather than do this, the Russian invasion of Kharkiv is likely to be a gradual stranglehold to force people out and then to occupy an eventually empty (or emptied out) city.

Kharkiv lies mostly undefended to resist this sort of assault and it is not clear what planning the Ukrainian Armed Forces are undertaking but they are already overstretched along other areas of the front line. The loss of Kharkiv may be regarded as an inevitability although the one obvious way of preventing its loss would be for a NATO task force to enter Kharkiv - now. 200,000 soldiers is a substantial number but a coalition of willing NATO states could match that troop number with relatively rapid deployment, if the political will existed to do so; this would undoubtedly deter Russia from a stranglehold assault on Kharkiv and change the dynamics of the conflict in that part of Ukraine.

This obviously requires quick action and an understanding of how strategically imperative Kharkiv is to maintaining the political and economic integrity of Ukraine. It is not just that Kharkiv, once a capital of Ukraine and once its economic and industrial centre, is an essential component of contemporary Ukraine. It is also that if a slow stranglehold approach on Kharkiv takes place, then Kharkiv itself can be used as a bridgehead for the Russian forces to complete an encirclement of the Donbas and likewise to make further territorial progress throughout Ukraine, possibly pushing as far forward as the entirety of the Dnipro river and potentially seizing half the country. That would be a catastrophic outcome to the 2024 fighting season, while politicians in the West argue over budgets and manpower. Urgent action is required by those who understand what is at stake.


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