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What is the purpose of the Russian offensive in Kharkiv?



Since the early morning hours of 10 May 2024, the Russian Armed Forces have been launching a series of incursions over the Russian border into Kharkiv Oblast that are separate in their entirety from the occupation of the Donbas further to the southeast which has involved taking a small southeasterly portion of Kharkiv Oblast near the city of Kupiansk and fighting over that city. The Kupiansk front, controversial because a majority of the residents of Kupiansk were thought to be in favour of the Russian occupation (there aren’t many such residents left anymore after the Russians comprehensively shelled the city), was part of the broader Donbas offensive that stretches down through Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts and the Kupiansk offensive was launched from Luhansk Oblast occupied territory. That territory has in fact been occupied by Russian-backed forces of various kinds for the past ten years. The new offensive, by contrast, into Kharkiv Oblast territory has been initiated directly from Russian soil, just as was the attempt to seize the city of Kharkiv early in the second Russian invasion of Ukraine, that began in late February 2022.


The ground assault upon Kharkiv Oblast from the Belgorod region of Russia has been preceded by several weeks of relentless missile attacks upon the city of Kharkiv that have been launched from Russian territory. The purpose of the missile attacks appears to have been to make Kharkiv and unliveable and dangerous place for civilians to stay, and thereby to incentivise civilians to leave the city and make their way west out of Kharkiv, rather than for any specific military purpose. Notwithstanding the deprivations ensuing, including the loss of power and water in significant parts of the city over significant periods, the people of Kharkiv are for the most part remaining in their city which has developed a reputation amongst other things for weekend daytime techno parties that take place amidst the missiles and the explosions in the centre of the city. The people of Kharkiv are clearly remaining defiant.


The devotion of resources to a renewed offensive upon Kharkiv has an unclear motive. So far the ground incursions have been only a few kilometres into Ukrainian territory, including around the border town of Vovchansk and there is fighting ongoing in a series of villages on the border with Russia. The Russian Armed Forces are devoting resources to a very limited series of incursions but it does not appear that they have the ground resources to attempt a full-scale invasion of Kharkiv Oblast with a view to taking Kharkiv city, as happened early in the second Russian invasion of Ukraine when tens of thousands of Russian troops and long columns of armour were deployed to reach Kharkiv’s suburbs some 30 kilometres or so from the current ground action.


What it rather appears is going on may be to distract Ukrainian Armed Forces resources from the Donbas region; there has also been a Russian threat to engage in a new invasion of the city of Kherson at the other end of the 1,000 kilometre long front line. How Russian troops would cross the river in Kherson, having blown up the only bridge of significance across the Dnipro when they evacuated Kherson in November 2022, is unclear; it may just be a feint, to draw Ukrainian resources away from Donbas where the real Russian desire to acquire further territory is being emphasised with the advance westwards from Bakhmut of Kostyantynivka via Chasiv Yar. The same may be true of the Kharkiv incursion recently taking place. However Ukrainian Armed Forces troops have long anticipated a potential ground incursion directly from Russian territory towards Kharkiv, and therefore they are well dug in in the region on the border with Belgorod and it is not clear that there is any distraction of the Ukrainian Armed Forces elsewhere in repelling this incursion. In short, the current Russian incursion in Kharkiv seems rather modest, given the large size of the Russian Armed Forces and the resources available to them.


The Russians do not have the resources again to occupy Kharkiv or even to try to do so but they may have their eye on an end game in their current movements. By keeping Kharkiv in play, even if just minimally, they anticipate the negotiation of an armistice that would inevitably follow the introduction of NATO troops into Ukraine in any numbers - something now both French and Lithuanian leaders have alluded to. At that point the armistice negotiated, like all armistices, would be a ceasefire along a specific line of control with a progressively enlarged demilitarised zone between the two parties that might then last for decades. Even if at least half of the DMZ were under effective Ukrainian / NATO control it would be important for Russia that the DMZ be as wide as possible and it may be that Russia wants Kharkiv city to be within the DMZ once formed. There may become a string of such “militarily neutral” cities along an eventual armistice line between the sides, including Sloviansk, Kramatorsk, Kharkiv and Kherson, and current Russian military tactics may be anticipating that eventual ceasefire (that would never result in a peace agreement because Ukraine can never accept the annexation of her territory, so we are looking at a North Korea situation indefinitely far into the future).


An armistice of this kind is surely the only way this war of attrition can end up, and it may well be another year of hard and fruitless fighting in which the sides advance one against the other a few kilometres here and there along the front line, as with the current situation around Vovchansk and the associated Ukrainian border villages, before the war comes to a conclusion perhaps in 2025. This is the most likely end game scenario we are now looking at, but the war cannot end with NATO or other western troops on the ground to enforce it because without that the parties will simply not stop fighting. It promises to a forthcoming year grim with a toll of high loss of life on both sides. There will be no dramatic breakthroughs in Kharkiv Oblast.

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