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POLITICS

Much ado about Kharkiv: Why the propaganda-fueled Russian offensive failed

The Russian advance in Ukraine’s northern Kharkiv region, depicted by Kremlin propaganda and echoed by certain Western media as a pivotal moment in the conflict, has ground to a halt. Analysts concur that seizing the city of Kharkiv in the near term is unfeasible, with pro-war Russian “Z-blogggers” even cautioning that the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) possess the capacity to push Russian troops back to the border. Mounting a full-scale attack on Kharkiv would demand significantly larger forces, which Russia seems unlikely to assemble in the foreseeable future.

Content
  • 2022: The First Attempt

  • Preparing for a new offensive on Kharkiv

  • Were they really trying?

  • The offensive

  • A million-person question

RU

2022: The First Attempt

The areas around Kharkiv emerged as one of the key theaters of fighting in the early days of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. On February 24, 2022, units of the Russian Armed Forces swiftly advanced dozens of kilometers, approaching the highway that rings the city of Kharkiv itself. There they encountered staunch resistance from the city's defenders, marking some of the earliest recorded losses of Russian tanks. Subsequent Russian efforts to encircle Kharkiv or breach its defenses were met with failure.

Some of the responsibility for this setback can be ascribed to the lack of organization within the Russian forces themselves. For instance, even as the Russian “West” grouping persistently bombarded the city with rocket-propelled cluster munitions from Smerch multiple launch rocket systems, and even as the Russian Air Force indiscriminately dropped bombs on residential areas, the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) successfully neutralized a sizable convoy of Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia) troops that had been designated for occupation duties in what the Russian invasion plan anticipated would be freshly captured territories near Kharkiv.

Cluster munitions deploy upon approaching the target, scattering small submunitions that, in turn, explode, covering a large area. Due to their indiscriminate nature and the subsequent danger that unexploded submunitions pose to civilians, they are prohibited by most countries around the world, Exceptions include Russia, Ukraine, and the United States.

The «Russian Volunteer Corps» (RVC) is a military unit presenting itself as a «military-political organization» of Russian volunteers fighting on the side of Ukraine. Its main declared goals include «restoring the territorial integrity of Ukraine within the borders of 1991» and «overthrowing the current regime in the Russian Federation.» The RVC gained widespread notoriety following sabotage raids in the Bryansk and Belgorod regions in the spring of 2023.

The Freedom of Russia Legion (FRL) is a military unit formed by Russian servicemen who have switched sides to support Ukraine. It is widely believed that the FRL primarily serves media and propaganda purposes rather than serving strictly military functions, and it has connections with former Russian State Duma deputy Ilya Ponomarev.

UMPK stands for Universal Planning and Correction Module. This device, introduced in 2023, is mounted on Russian unguided aviation bombs, allowing them to fly long distances (up to 70 kilometers according to some reports) to a designated target. The device consists of wings that unfold after the bomb is released. Despite its limited accuracy, the system enables Russian aviation to deploy munitions beyond the range of Ukrainian air defenses.

HUR stands for the Main Intelligence Directorate (Holovne Upravlinnia Rozvidki) of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. It is headed by Major General Kyrylo Budanov.

«Dragon's Teeth» are concrete pyramidal-shaped stakes that serve as anti-tank engineering obstacles. Throughout the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war, they have been widely utilized in constructing defensive lines in border regions of the Russian Federation and on occupied territories of Ukraine by the Russian Armed Forces.

Starlink is a satellite communication system developed by Elon Musk's SpaceX company. It is widely utilized by the AFU and civilian services in the front-line areas.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. “UAV” is used as an umbrella term for various categories of unmanned aerial systems, ranging from small copter-type devices to large reconnaissance and strike drones like the Bayraktar TB2 and loitering munitions like the «Harop.»

The UMPB D-30SN is a Russian universal inter-service gliding munition that carries a 250-kilogram warhead derived from a 250-kilogram aerial bomb. It can be launched by both aircraft and rocket artillery systems in various configurations. Essentially, it serves as an analog to the American SDB / GLSDB.

Russian convoy destroyed in Kharkiv on February 28, 2022.
Russian convoy destroyed in Kharkiv on February 28, 2022.
Sergey Bobok / AFP / Getty Images

Still, in the area east of Kharkiv city, Russian forces made significant gains in 2022 by seizing control of Vovchansk before advancing south toward Izium, ultimately capturing the key transport hub after intense battles. From there, Russian forces posed a serious threat from the north to Sloviansk and the rest of the eastern Donetsk region. In response, Ukraine swiftly launched its first sizable counteroffensive north of Kharkiv, aiming to push Russian forces back to the border.

At that time, the complete expulsion of the enemy from the region proved elusive. Due to Russian counterattacks, the front once again neared Kharkiv — threatening to bring the city back within range of artillery fire, at the very least. The situation only shifted decisively in Kyiv’s favor following a large-scale Ukrainian counteroffensive in autumn 2022. Subsequently, Russian forces withdrew from much of the region — even those areas not directly threatened by the Ukrainian operation — abandoning Vovchansk and other settlements close to the border.

Russia’s withdrawal from the Kharkiv region likely made strategic sense, as Ukrainian forces refrained from pursuing the exhausted Russian troops across the border. However, continuous shelling of the city of Belgorod and other border areas, along with constant raids by AFU units presenting themselves as Russian armed opposition (RVC and FRL), debunked Russian authorities' claims that the “special military operation” (SMO) was proceeding as planned.

Cluster munitions deploy upon approaching the target, scattering small submunitions that, in turn, explode, covering a large area. Due to their indiscriminate nature and the subsequent danger that unexploded submunitions pose to civilians, they are prohibited by most countries around the world, Exceptions include Russia, Ukraine, and the United States.

The «Russian Volunteer Corps» (RVC) is a military unit presenting itself as a «military-political organization» of Russian volunteers fighting on the side of Ukraine. Its main declared goals include «restoring the territorial integrity of Ukraine within the borders of 1991» and «overthrowing the current regime in the Russian Federation.» The RVC gained widespread notoriety following sabotage raids in the Bryansk and Belgorod regions in the spring of 2023.

The Freedom of Russia Legion (FRL) is a military unit formed by Russian servicemen who have switched sides to support Ukraine. It is widely believed that the FRL primarily serves media and propaganda purposes rather than serving strictly military functions, and it has connections with former Russian State Duma deputy Ilya Ponomarev.

UMPK stands for Universal Planning and Correction Module. This device, introduced in 2023, is mounted on Russian unguided aviation bombs, allowing them to fly long distances (up to 70 kilometers according to some reports) to a designated target. The device consists of wings that unfold after the bomb is released. Despite its limited accuracy, the system enables Russian aviation to deploy munitions beyond the range of Ukrainian air defenses.

HUR stands for the Main Intelligence Directorate (Holovne Upravlinnia Rozvidki) of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. It is headed by Major General Kyrylo Budanov.

«Dragon's Teeth» are concrete pyramidal-shaped stakes that serve as anti-tank engineering obstacles. Throughout the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war, they have been widely utilized in constructing defensive lines in border regions of the Russian Federation and on occupied territories of Ukraine by the Russian Armed Forces.

Starlink is a satellite communication system developed by Elon Musk's SpaceX company. It is widely utilized by the AFU and civilian services in the front-line areas.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. “UAV” is used as an umbrella term for various categories of unmanned aerial systems, ranging from small copter-type devices to large reconnaissance and strike drones like the Bayraktar TB2 and loitering munitions like the «Harop.»

The UMPB D-30SN is a Russian universal inter-service gliding munition that carries a 250-kilogram warhead derived from a 250-kilogram aerial bomb. It can be launched by both aircraft and rocket artillery systems in various configurations. Essentially, it serves as an analog to the American SDB / GLSDB.

Continuous shelling of Belgorod and other border areas debunked Russian authorities' claims that the SMO was proceeding as planned

The Russian military's advance toward Kupiansk, initiated in 2023, did not alter the situation. Concurrently, both sides were fortifying defensive positions along their respective borders. The equilibrium was disrupted only by the actions of the Russian leadership in 2024.

Preparing for a new offensive on Kharkiv

Between February and May 2024, the Russian military systematically strengthened its border defense forces. According to Ukrainian military analyst Kostiantyn Mashovets, within months the total force grew to exceed 40,000 troops (with 30,000 deployed on the Kharkiv front) and 1,500 units of equipment. This border force was subsequently designated as “North,” in alignment with other formations — “West,” “South,” “Center,” “East,” and “Dnieper” — operating in Ukraine. Leading the “North” grouping was Colonel General Alexander Lapin, whose record included unsuccessful operations in the Chernihiv region, significant losses during attempts to cross the Siverskyi Donets river, and the surrender of Lyman during the Ukrainian counteroffensive in autumn 2022.

Cluster munitions deploy upon approaching the target, scattering small submunitions that, in turn, explode, covering a large area. Due to their indiscriminate nature and the subsequent danger that unexploded submunitions pose to civilians, they are prohibited by most countries around the world, Exceptions include Russia, Ukraine, and the United States.

The «Russian Volunteer Corps» (RVC) is a military unit presenting itself as a «military-political organization» of Russian volunteers fighting on the side of Ukraine. Its main declared goals include «restoring the territorial integrity of Ukraine within the borders of 1991» and «overthrowing the current regime in the Russian Federation.» The RVC gained widespread notoriety following sabotage raids in the Bryansk and Belgorod regions in the spring of 2023.

The Freedom of Russia Legion (FRL) is a military unit formed by Russian servicemen who have switched sides to support Ukraine. It is widely believed that the FRL primarily serves media and propaganda purposes rather than serving strictly military functions, and it has connections with former Russian State Duma deputy Ilya Ponomarev.

UMPK stands for Universal Planning and Correction Module. This device, introduced in 2023, is mounted on Russian unguided aviation bombs, allowing them to fly long distances (up to 70 kilometers according to some reports) to a designated target. The device consists of wings that unfold after the bomb is released. Despite its limited accuracy, the system enables Russian aviation to deploy munitions beyond the range of Ukrainian air defenses.

HUR stands for the Main Intelligence Directorate (Holovne Upravlinnia Rozvidki) of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. It is headed by Major General Kyrylo Budanov.

«Dragon's Teeth» are concrete pyramidal-shaped stakes that serve as anti-tank engineering obstacles. Throughout the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war, they have been widely utilized in constructing defensive lines in border regions of the Russian Federation and on occupied territories of Ukraine by the Russian Armed Forces.

Starlink is a satellite communication system developed by Elon Musk's SpaceX company. It is widely utilized by the AFU and civilian services in the front-line areas.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. “UAV” is used as an umbrella term for various categories of unmanned aerial systems, ranging from small copter-type devices to large reconnaissance and strike drones like the Bayraktar TB2 and loitering munitions like the «Harop.»

The UMPB D-30SN is a Russian universal inter-service gliding munition that carries a 250-kilogram warhead derived from a 250-kilogram aerial bomb. It can be launched by both aircraft and rocket artillery systems in various configurations. Essentially, it serves as an analog to the American SDB / GLSDB.

T-80BVM tank from the “North” grouping.
T-80BVM tank from the “North” grouping.
Russian pro-war Telegram channel “Informant”

Simultaneously, Russia intensified attacks on Kharkiv city and its surrounding region. As part of a renewed campaign targeting Ukrainian energy infrastructure, thermal power generation facilities were destroyed. The city faced increased strikes from drones, missiles, and bombs modified with UMPK. According to the independent media outlet Verstka, Kharkiv suffered more attacks in early 2024 than throughout all of 2023. Local residents are regularly killed in the attacks, and multiple Ukrainian Uragan MLRS vehicles have been destroyed. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin publicly proposed the idea of ​​creating a “sanitary zone” on the Ukrainian border territory aimed at preventing Russian regions from being shelled.

Cluster munitions deploy upon approaching the target, scattering small submunitions that, in turn, explode, covering a large area. Due to their indiscriminate nature and the subsequent danger that unexploded submunitions pose to civilians, they are prohibited by most countries around the world, Exceptions include Russia, Ukraine, and the United States.

The «Russian Volunteer Corps» (RVC) is a military unit presenting itself as a «military-political organization» of Russian volunteers fighting on the side of Ukraine. Its main declared goals include «restoring the territorial integrity of Ukraine within the borders of 1991» and «overthrowing the current regime in the Russian Federation.» The RVC gained widespread notoriety following sabotage raids in the Bryansk and Belgorod regions in the spring of 2023.

The Freedom of Russia Legion (FRL) is a military unit formed by Russian servicemen who have switched sides to support Ukraine. It is widely believed that the FRL primarily serves media and propaganda purposes rather than serving strictly military functions, and it has connections with former Russian State Duma deputy Ilya Ponomarev.

UMPK stands for Universal Planning and Correction Module. This device, introduced in 2023, is mounted on Russian unguided aviation bombs, allowing them to fly long distances (up to 70 kilometers according to some reports) to a designated target. The device consists of wings that unfold after the bomb is released. Despite its limited accuracy, the system enables Russian aviation to deploy munitions beyond the range of Ukrainian air defenses.

HUR stands for the Main Intelligence Directorate (Holovne Upravlinnia Rozvidki) of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. It is headed by Major General Kyrylo Budanov.

«Dragon's Teeth» are concrete pyramidal-shaped stakes that serve as anti-tank engineering obstacles. Throughout the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war, they have been widely utilized in constructing defensive lines in border regions of the Russian Federation and on occupied territories of Ukraine by the Russian Armed Forces.

Starlink is a satellite communication system developed by Elon Musk's SpaceX company. It is widely utilized by the AFU and civilian services in the front-line areas.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. “UAV” is used as an umbrella term for various categories of unmanned aerial systems, ranging from small copter-type devices to large reconnaissance and strike drones like the Bayraktar TB2 and loitering munitions like the «Harop.»

The UMPB D-30SN is a Russian universal inter-service gliding munition that carries a 250-kilogram warhead derived from a 250-kilogram aerial bomb. It can be launched by both aircraft and rocket artillery systems in various configurations. Essentially, it serves as an analog to the American SDB / GLSDB.

In the first months of 2024, Kharkiv suffered more attacks than throughout all of 2023.

These events fueled speculation about a Russian bid to seize Kharkiv city itself, a move experts believed would demand that Moscow either spend several months recruiting contract soldiers or announce a fresh wave of mobilization. Ukrainian intelligence validated such rumors, with HUR representative Vadim Skibitsky discussing Russian offensive intentions in an interview with The Economist a week prior to the operation’s commencement. Concurrently, certain propaganda mouthpieces and even Western media outlets were gearing up for what they portrayed as the potentially decisive battle of the war.

Were they really trying?

Commenting on the start of the Russian offensive, experts generally agreed that the Russian action was undertaken in pursuit of much less ambitious goals than the first rush to Kharkiv in February 2022. Rather than sacking Ukraine’s second largest city, the operation appears to have been intended simply to create the notorious “sanitary zone” while simultaneously pulling AFU reserves from other directions, particularly from the Donetsk region.

Implicitly, these intentions found validation in Vladimir Putin's own words, as he himself asserted that capturing Kharkiv was not on the agenda “at the moment”. However, The Economist, after reviewing the operation’s plans, concluded that Putin's statement reflects the current operational realities rather than Russian ambitions.

According to reports, Russian forces intended to advance dozens of kilometers along two primary axes within a matter of days. One axis aimed to advance through the village of Lyptsi to the settlement of Borshchova, bringing Kharkiv city within range of field artillery. The other axis sought to extend from Vovchansk to Pechenihy, partially encircling Kharkiv and posing a threat to the rear of the AFU positions in Kupiansk to the east.

An indirect sign of this intention for swift operational pace is apparent in a video recording of an interrogation of a Russian POW, during which he claims that his brigade had been assigned the objective of seizing Vovchansk within a span of two days.

Cluster munitions deploy upon approaching the target, scattering small submunitions that, in turn, explode, covering a large area. Due to their indiscriminate nature and the subsequent danger that unexploded submunitions pose to civilians, they are prohibited by most countries around the world, Exceptions include Russia, Ukraine, and the United States.

The «Russian Volunteer Corps» (RVC) is a military unit presenting itself as a «military-political organization» of Russian volunteers fighting on the side of Ukraine. Its main declared goals include «restoring the territorial integrity of Ukraine within the borders of 1991» and «overthrowing the current regime in the Russian Federation.» The RVC gained widespread notoriety following sabotage raids in the Bryansk and Belgorod regions in the spring of 2023.

The Freedom of Russia Legion (FRL) is a military unit formed by Russian servicemen who have switched sides to support Ukraine. It is widely believed that the FRL primarily serves media and propaganda purposes rather than serving strictly military functions, and it has connections with former Russian State Duma deputy Ilya Ponomarev.

UMPK stands for Universal Planning and Correction Module. This device, introduced in 2023, is mounted on Russian unguided aviation bombs, allowing them to fly long distances (up to 70 kilometers according to some reports) to a designated target. The device consists of wings that unfold after the bomb is released. Despite its limited accuracy, the system enables Russian aviation to deploy munitions beyond the range of Ukrainian air defenses.

HUR stands for the Main Intelligence Directorate (Holovne Upravlinnia Rozvidki) of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. It is headed by Major General Kyrylo Budanov.

«Dragon's Teeth» are concrete pyramidal-shaped stakes that serve as anti-tank engineering obstacles. Throughout the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war, they have been widely utilized in constructing defensive lines in border regions of the Russian Federation and on occupied territories of Ukraine by the Russian Armed Forces.

Starlink is a satellite communication system developed by Elon Musk's SpaceX company. It is widely utilized by the AFU and civilian services in the front-line areas.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. “UAV” is used as an umbrella term for various categories of unmanned aerial systems, ranging from small copter-type devices to large reconnaissance and strike drones like the Bayraktar TB2 and loitering munitions like the «Harop.»

The UMPB D-30SN is a Russian universal inter-service gliding munition that carries a 250-kilogram warhead derived from a 250-kilogram aerial bomb. It can be launched by both aircraft and rocket artillery systems in various configurations. Essentially, it serves as an analog to the American SDB / GLSDB.

A view of Vovchansk, May 17, 2024.
A view of Vovchansk, May 17, 2024.
Libkos

Ukrainian analyst Mashovets is equally convinced that Russian intentions were ambitious, but that they fell short due to insufficient forces and resources. He suggests that the primary objective of the operation was to seize “the entirety of the territory of the Kharkiv region east of the cascade of Siverskyi Donets reservoirs.” Additionally, it is conceivable that Russian plans extended beyond this scope. Skibitsky, followed by GUR head Kyrylo Budanov, referenced the possibility for a comparable Russian operation to begin in the Sumy region, just west of Kharkiv and also on Ukraine’s border with Russia. As of the current moment, however, such an offensive has not commenced.

The offensive

Reports suggest that Russian forces had been making preparations for their Kharkiv push as early as May 7 — clearing passages in border minefields and assembling troops in the “no man’s land” directly along the border. The large-scale offensive officially began on May 10 and initially proved highly successful, particularly when compared to Russian efforts on other sections of the front.

In the initial days, the Russian forces seized control of several border villages, advanced to Vovchansk, entered the city, and initiated urban fighting. Several factors played a role in the Russian Armed Forces' early successes.

Firstly, the Ukrainian defensive fortifications north of Kharkiv were not properly built. While the absence of fortifications in the “gray zone” directly adjoining the border can be explained by the danger of construction close to Russian positions, the “dragon's teeth” piled up next to roads in the rear give an idea of the level of defensive structures built by the local wartime administration.

The preparedness and resilience of Ukrainian forces in the sector were also found to be lacking. As per the Ukrainian State Bureau of Investigation (GBR), the command of the 125th Territorial Defense Brigade neglected to coordinate its defense efforts. Certain units even deserted their positions, necessitating intervention from second-echelon forces to halt the Russian advance. The situation was exacerbated by the abrupt and widespread malfunction of Starlink satellite communication terminals, potentially as a result of Russian electronic warfare tactics.

Cluster munitions deploy upon approaching the target, scattering small submunitions that, in turn, explode, covering a large area. Due to their indiscriminate nature and the subsequent danger that unexploded submunitions pose to civilians, they are prohibited by most countries around the world, Exceptions include Russia, Ukraine, and the United States.

The «Russian Volunteer Corps» (RVC) is a military unit presenting itself as a «military-political organization» of Russian volunteers fighting on the side of Ukraine. Its main declared goals include «restoring the territorial integrity of Ukraine within the borders of 1991» and «overthrowing the current regime in the Russian Federation.» The RVC gained widespread notoriety following sabotage raids in the Bryansk and Belgorod regions in the spring of 2023.

The Freedom of Russia Legion (FRL) is a military unit formed by Russian servicemen who have switched sides to support Ukraine. It is widely believed that the FRL primarily serves media and propaganda purposes rather than serving strictly military functions, and it has connections with former Russian State Duma deputy Ilya Ponomarev.

UMPK stands for Universal Planning and Correction Module. This device, introduced in 2023, is mounted on Russian unguided aviation bombs, allowing them to fly long distances (up to 70 kilometers according to some reports) to a designated target. The device consists of wings that unfold after the bomb is released. Despite its limited accuracy, the system enables Russian aviation to deploy munitions beyond the range of Ukrainian air defenses.

HUR stands for the Main Intelligence Directorate (Holovne Upravlinnia Rozvidki) of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. It is headed by Major General Kyrylo Budanov.

«Dragon's Teeth» are concrete pyramidal-shaped stakes that serve as anti-tank engineering obstacles. Throughout the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war, they have been widely utilized in constructing defensive lines in border regions of the Russian Federation and on occupied territories of Ukraine by the Russian Armed Forces.

Starlink is a satellite communication system developed by Elon Musk's SpaceX company. It is widely utilized by the AFU and civilian services in the front-line areas.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. “UAV” is used as an umbrella term for various categories of unmanned aerial systems, ranging from small copter-type devices to large reconnaissance and strike drones like the Bayraktar TB2 and loitering munitions like the «Harop.»

The UMPB D-30SN is a Russian universal inter-service gliding munition that carries a 250-kilogram warhead derived from a 250-kilogram aerial bomb. It can be launched by both aircraft and rocket artillery systems in various configurations. Essentially, it serves as an analog to the American SDB / GLSDB.

Ukrainian artillerymen fire in the Kharkiv region, May 16, 2024.
Ukrainian artillerymen fire in the Kharkiv region, May 16, 2024.
Valentyn Ogirenko / Reuters

Another significant factor enabling Russian success in the Kharkiv sector were the externally imposed political constraints that prevented the AFU from attacking Russian territory with weapons supplied by Kyiv’s Western partners.

Although the (recently lifted) limitation was purportedly aimed at preventing an escalation of the conflict, it has nevertheless provided the Russian side with a tactical edge: the rear areas of its “North” grouping, as well as artillery positions and UAV operators, are situated on the Russian side of the border. This effectively curtailed Ukrainian capabilities in counter-battery warfare. Consequently, Russian weaponry, particularly “Lancet” loitering munitions, could target Ukrainian artillery positions around Kharkiv with impunity.

Cluster munitions deploy upon approaching the target, scattering small submunitions that, in turn, explode, covering a large area. Due to their indiscriminate nature and the subsequent danger that unexploded submunitions pose to civilians, they are prohibited by most countries around the world, Exceptions include Russia, Ukraine, and the United States.

The «Russian Volunteer Corps» (RVC) is a military unit presenting itself as a «military-political organization» of Russian volunteers fighting on the side of Ukraine. Its main declared goals include «restoring the territorial integrity of Ukraine within the borders of 1991» and «overthrowing the current regime in the Russian Federation.» The RVC gained widespread notoriety following sabotage raids in the Bryansk and Belgorod regions in the spring of 2023.

The Freedom of Russia Legion (FRL) is a military unit formed by Russian servicemen who have switched sides to support Ukraine. It is widely believed that the FRL primarily serves media and propaganda purposes rather than serving strictly military functions, and it has connections with former Russian State Duma deputy Ilya Ponomarev.

UMPK stands for Universal Planning and Correction Module. This device, introduced in 2023, is mounted on Russian unguided aviation bombs, allowing them to fly long distances (up to 70 kilometers according to some reports) to a designated target. The device consists of wings that unfold after the bomb is released. Despite its limited accuracy, the system enables Russian aviation to deploy munitions beyond the range of Ukrainian air defenses.

HUR stands for the Main Intelligence Directorate (Holovne Upravlinnia Rozvidki) of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. It is headed by Major General Kyrylo Budanov.

«Dragon's Teeth» are concrete pyramidal-shaped stakes that serve as anti-tank engineering obstacles. Throughout the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war, they have been widely utilized in constructing defensive lines in border regions of the Russian Federation and on occupied territories of Ukraine by the Russian Armed Forces.

Starlink is a satellite communication system developed by Elon Musk's SpaceX company. It is widely utilized by the AFU and civilian services in the front-line areas.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. “UAV” is used as an umbrella term for various categories of unmanned aerial systems, ranging from small copter-type devices to large reconnaissance and strike drones like the Bayraktar TB2 and loitering munitions like the «Harop.»

The UMPB D-30SN is a Russian universal inter-service gliding munition that carries a 250-kilogram warhead derived from a 250-kilogram aerial bomb. It can be launched by both aircraft and rocket artillery systems in various configurations. Essentially, it serves as an analog to the American SDB / GLSDB.

Due to the Western ban on attacking Russian territory, “Lancets” could target Ukrainian artillery with impunity

The Ukrainian military-political leadership took the operation in the Kharkiv region extremely seriously. Volodymyr Zelensky postponed international visits, and the commander of the “Kharkiv” operational-tactical troop grouping was replaced by Deputy Chief of the General Staff Mykhailo Drapaty.

According to Ukrainian military correspondent Yuriy Butusov, Drapaty managed to effectively use the reserves allocated to him, stopping the Russian offensive at a maximum distance of 10 kilometers from the border. Apparently, the stabilization of the front was also aided by a shortage of equipment within Russia’s “North” grouping itself — a development evidenced by the ratio of losses and the chaotic actions of Russian infantry groups.

Facing stubborn resistance, the Russian command, seemingly as in the case with Avdiivka this past winter, decided to rely on its firepower advantage. Guided aerial bombs are actively used in the area of operations, targeting both AFU field positions and the urban areas of Vovchansk.

Additionally, Russian troops in Vovchansk are accused of looting, unlawful detention, and killing both civilians and humanitarian volunteers. The population of the town and other border settlements is being evacuated to the city of Kharkiv, but even there, Russian munitions continue to cause casualties, including among the civilian population.

Cluster munitions deploy upon approaching the target, scattering small submunitions that, in turn, explode, covering a large area. Due to their indiscriminate nature and the subsequent danger that unexploded submunitions pose to civilians, they are prohibited by most countries around the world, Exceptions include Russia, Ukraine, and the United States.

The «Russian Volunteer Corps» (RVC) is a military unit presenting itself as a «military-political organization» of Russian volunteers fighting on the side of Ukraine. Its main declared goals include «restoring the territorial integrity of Ukraine within the borders of 1991» and «overthrowing the current regime in the Russian Federation.» The RVC gained widespread notoriety following sabotage raids in the Bryansk and Belgorod regions in the spring of 2023.

The Freedom of Russia Legion (FRL) is a military unit formed by Russian servicemen who have switched sides to support Ukraine. It is widely believed that the FRL primarily serves media and propaganda purposes rather than serving strictly military functions, and it has connections with former Russian State Duma deputy Ilya Ponomarev.

UMPK stands for Universal Planning and Correction Module. This device, introduced in 2023, is mounted on Russian unguided aviation bombs, allowing them to fly long distances (up to 70 kilometers according to some reports) to a designated target. The device consists of wings that unfold after the bomb is released. Despite its limited accuracy, the system enables Russian aviation to deploy munitions beyond the range of Ukrainian air defenses.

HUR stands for the Main Intelligence Directorate (Holovne Upravlinnia Rozvidki) of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. It is headed by Major General Kyrylo Budanov.

«Dragon's Teeth» are concrete pyramidal-shaped stakes that serve as anti-tank engineering obstacles. Throughout the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war, they have been widely utilized in constructing defensive lines in border regions of the Russian Federation and on occupied territories of Ukraine by the Russian Armed Forces.

Starlink is a satellite communication system developed by Elon Musk's SpaceX company. It is widely utilized by the AFU and civilian services in the front-line areas.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. “UAV” is used as an umbrella term for various categories of unmanned aerial systems, ranging from small copter-type devices to large reconnaissance and strike drones like the Bayraktar TB2 and loitering munitions like the «Harop.»

The UMPB D-30SN is a Russian universal inter-service gliding munition that carries a 250-kilogram warhead derived from a 250-kilogram aerial bomb. It can be launched by both aircraft and rocket artillery systems in various configurations. Essentially, it serves as an analog to the American SDB / GLSDB.

The aftermath of the Russian strike on Kharkiv, May 25, 2024
The aftermath of the Russian strike on Kharkiv, May 25, 2024
Valentyn Ogirenko / Reuters

In the latter part of May alone, Kharkiv experienced strikes targeting a recreation center that killed at least six civilians, a printing house that resulted in the destruction of 50,000 books and the death of seven employees, and a construction hypermarket that killed at least 18 shoppers and staff members. These incidents represent just a few of the notable attacks in and around Kharkiv, as local authorities report civilian casualties from such strikes nearly every day. Advanced aerial munitions like the UMPB D-30SN, launched from aircraft operating from airfields inside Russian territory that nevertheless fall within range of Western-made missiles, are being employed. In response, some residents of Kyiv staged protests outside the American embassy, urging the removal of the aforementioned ban in order to begin striking legitimate military targets located on Russian soil.

While the situation in the Kharkiv sector appears to have stabilized in recent weeks, the Russian command shows no signs of halting its attempts to advance further. However, according to Mashovets, such efforts would necessitate diverting reserves from other fronts, thereby shifting the focus of the summer campaign to the Kharkiv region.

Conversely, Russian “war correspondent” Semen Pegov suggests that the AFU have established sufficient superiority in the area to orchestrate a counteroffensive and seize the initiative, pushing the enemy back toward the border. In other words, the Kharkiv saga is unlikely to conclude with Russian forces entering the city anytime soon — especially given historical precedents, which suggest that operations of such magnitude demand comprehensive support and undeniable superiority over the adversary.

Cluster munitions deploy upon approaching the target, scattering small submunitions that, in turn, explode, covering a large area. Due to their indiscriminate nature and the subsequent danger that unexploded submunitions pose to civilians, they are prohibited by most countries around the world, Exceptions include Russia, Ukraine, and the United States.

The «Russian Volunteer Corps» (RVC) is a military unit presenting itself as a «military-political organization» of Russian volunteers fighting on the side of Ukraine. Its main declared goals include «restoring the territorial integrity of Ukraine within the borders of 1991» and «overthrowing the current regime in the Russian Federation.» The RVC gained widespread notoriety following sabotage raids in the Bryansk and Belgorod regions in the spring of 2023.

The Freedom of Russia Legion (FRL) is a military unit formed by Russian servicemen who have switched sides to support Ukraine. It is widely believed that the FRL primarily serves media and propaganda purposes rather than serving strictly military functions, and it has connections with former Russian State Duma deputy Ilya Ponomarev.

UMPK stands for Universal Planning and Correction Module. This device, introduced in 2023, is mounted on Russian unguided aviation bombs, allowing them to fly long distances (up to 70 kilometers according to some reports) to a designated target. The device consists of wings that unfold after the bomb is released. Despite its limited accuracy, the system enables Russian aviation to deploy munitions beyond the range of Ukrainian air defenses.

HUR stands for the Main Intelligence Directorate (Holovne Upravlinnia Rozvidki) of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. It is headed by Major General Kyrylo Budanov.

«Dragon's Teeth» are concrete pyramidal-shaped stakes that serve as anti-tank engineering obstacles. Throughout the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war, they have been widely utilized in constructing defensive lines in border regions of the Russian Federation and on occupied territories of Ukraine by the Russian Armed Forces.

Starlink is a satellite communication system developed by Elon Musk's SpaceX company. It is widely utilized by the AFU and civilian services in the front-line areas.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. “UAV” is used as an umbrella term for various categories of unmanned aerial systems, ranging from small copter-type devices to large reconnaissance and strike drones like the Bayraktar TB2 and loitering munitions like the «Harop.»

The UMPB D-30SN is a Russian universal inter-service gliding munition that carries a 250-kilogram warhead derived from a 250-kilogram aerial bomb. It can be launched by both aircraft and rocket artillery systems in various configurations. Essentially, it serves as an analog to the American SDB / GLSDB.

The Kharkiv saga is unlikely to end with Russian troops entering the city anytime soon

A million-person question

It should already be apparent that the present size of the Russian force and the density of its armored vehicles are insufficient for the capture of Kharkiv city. To better gauge the total amount of resources required for such an operation, it is instructive to examine the historical experiences of militaries storming large cities, starting from World War II.

Kharkiv changed hands four times during World War II. In Oct. 1941, the Germans succeeded in seizing the former capital of the Ukrainian SSR, which then had a population of just under one million, using only two divisions (comprising 10,000 to 30,000 personnel). However, the forces of the Soviet Southwestern Front opposing the Germans had been depleted by their defeat in the months-long Battle of Kyiv, in which the Red Army lost approximately 500,000 soldiers taken prisoner and 600,000 killed. The German capture of Kharkiv was accomplished in part thanks to robust flanking maneuvers aimed atBelgorod from one side and towards Lozova and Izyum on the other.

Cluster munitions deploy upon approaching the target, scattering small submunitions that, in turn, explode, covering a large area. Due to their indiscriminate nature and the subsequent danger that unexploded submunitions pose to civilians, they are prohibited by most countries around the world, Exceptions include Russia, Ukraine, and the United States.

The «Russian Volunteer Corps» (RVC) is a military unit presenting itself as a «military-political organization» of Russian volunteers fighting on the side of Ukraine. Its main declared goals include «restoring the territorial integrity of Ukraine within the borders of 1991» and «overthrowing the current regime in the Russian Federation.» The RVC gained widespread notoriety following sabotage raids in the Bryansk and Belgorod regions in the spring of 2023.

The Freedom of Russia Legion (FRL) is a military unit formed by Russian servicemen who have switched sides to support Ukraine. It is widely believed that the FRL primarily serves media and propaganda purposes rather than serving strictly military functions, and it has connections with former Russian State Duma deputy Ilya Ponomarev.

UMPK stands for Universal Planning and Correction Module. This device, introduced in 2023, is mounted on Russian unguided aviation bombs, allowing them to fly long distances (up to 70 kilometers according to some reports) to a designated target. The device consists of wings that unfold after the bomb is released. Despite its limited accuracy, the system enables Russian aviation to deploy munitions beyond the range of Ukrainian air defenses.

HUR stands for the Main Intelligence Directorate (Holovne Upravlinnia Rozvidki) of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. It is headed by Major General Kyrylo Budanov.

«Dragon's Teeth» are concrete pyramidal-shaped stakes that serve as anti-tank engineering obstacles. Throughout the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war, they have been widely utilized in constructing defensive lines in border regions of the Russian Federation and on occupied territories of Ukraine by the Russian Armed Forces.

Starlink is a satellite communication system developed by Elon Musk's SpaceX company. It is widely utilized by the AFU and civilian services in the front-line areas.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. “UAV” is used as an umbrella term for various categories of unmanned aerial systems, ranging from small copter-type devices to large reconnaissance and strike drones like the Bayraktar TB2 and loitering munitions like the «Harop.»

The UMPB D-30SN is a Russian universal inter-service gliding munition that carries a 250-kilogram warhead derived from a 250-kilogram aerial bomb. It can be launched by both aircraft and rocket artillery systems in various configurations. Essentially, it serves as an analog to the American SDB / GLSDB.

German soldiers in the vicinity of Kharkov, 1942
German soldiers in the vicinity of Kharkov, 1942
Picture alliance / Akg-images

It was the lack of attention to the flanks that ensured the disastrous outcome of the initial Soviet attempt to reclaim Kharkiv in the spring of 1942. German tank formations successfully cut through the Barvenkovo bulge, the launching point for the assault on the city, resulting in significant casualties among the Soviet forces. The second Soviet offensive on Kharkov, conducted in Feb. 1943 on the heels of the German defeat at Stalingrad, fared only marginally better. While the city was indeed liberated, the victory was short-lived, as overextended Soviet armored formations suffered defeat south of the city, leading to its reoccupation by German forces within a matter of weeks.

Nevertheless, Kharkiv came back under Red Army control for good in Aug. 1943 as part of Operation Rumyantsev, which followed the German defeat at the Battle of Kursk. For this operation, over a million Soviet troops were involved, along with 2,418 tanks and 13,633 artillery pieces and rocket launchers, ensuring an overwhelming numerical superiority over the defending forces.

Another major city with a 20th century history similar to that of Kharkiv is Seoul, which changed hands four times between Jun. 1950 and and Mar. 1951. Each time, the attacking side (at different times it was the Korean People's Army, UN forces, and Chinese “volunteers”) possessed some form of overwhelming superiority — either in materiel, or in the combat experience of its forces.

Cluster munitions deploy upon approaching the target, scattering small submunitions that, in turn, explode, covering a large area. Due to their indiscriminate nature and the subsequent danger that unexploded submunitions pose to civilians, they are prohibited by most countries around the world, Exceptions include Russia, Ukraine, and the United States.

The «Russian Volunteer Corps» (RVC) is a military unit presenting itself as a «military-political organization» of Russian volunteers fighting on the side of Ukraine. Its main declared goals include «restoring the territorial integrity of Ukraine within the borders of 1991» and «overthrowing the current regime in the Russian Federation.» The RVC gained widespread notoriety following sabotage raids in the Bryansk and Belgorod regions in the spring of 2023.

The Freedom of Russia Legion (FRL) is a military unit formed by Russian servicemen who have switched sides to support Ukraine. It is widely believed that the FRL primarily serves media and propaganda purposes rather than serving strictly military functions, and it has connections with former Russian State Duma deputy Ilya Ponomarev.

UMPK stands for Universal Planning and Correction Module. This device, introduced in 2023, is mounted on Russian unguided aviation bombs, allowing them to fly long distances (up to 70 kilometers according to some reports) to a designated target. The device consists of wings that unfold after the bomb is released. Despite its limited accuracy, the system enables Russian aviation to deploy munitions beyond the range of Ukrainian air defenses.

HUR stands for the Main Intelligence Directorate (Holovne Upravlinnia Rozvidki) of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. It is headed by Major General Kyrylo Budanov.

«Dragon's Teeth» are concrete pyramidal-shaped stakes that serve as anti-tank engineering obstacles. Throughout the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war, they have been widely utilized in constructing defensive lines in border regions of the Russian Federation and on occupied territories of Ukraine by the Russian Armed Forces.

Starlink is a satellite communication system developed by Elon Musk's SpaceX company. It is widely utilized by the AFU and civilian services in the front-line areas.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. “UAV” is used as an umbrella term for various categories of unmanned aerial systems, ranging from small copter-type devices to large reconnaissance and strike drones like the Bayraktar TB2 and loitering munitions like the «Harop.»

The UMPB D-30SN is a Russian universal inter-service gliding munition that carries a 250-kilogram warhead derived from a 250-kilogram aerial bomb. It can be launched by both aircraft and rocket artillery systems in various configurations. Essentially, it serves as an analog to the American SDB / GLSDB.

Each time, the attacking side possessed some form of overwhelming superiority — either in materiel, or in the combat experience of its forces

There are also 21st century instances of successful assaults on major cities, with the seizure of Baghdad during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 being completed in less than a week. Of course, American forces enjoyed overwhelming technological and firepower advantages, giving them the kind of complete air supremacy that allowed for “decapitation” strikes aimed at disrupting the command structure of the Iraqi army while eroding its combat morale.

Of course, Russia’s relative advantages over Ukraine are less pronounced, making the 2016-2017 liberation of Mosul a better comparison. Even with the assistance of NATO airpower, Iraqi and Kurdish forces required many months and expended much greater human resources in order to take back the city from highly motivated ISIS militants.

Cluster munitions deploy upon approaching the target, scattering small submunitions that, in turn, explode, covering a large area. Due to their indiscriminate nature and the subsequent danger that unexploded submunitions pose to civilians, they are prohibited by most countries around the world, Exceptions include Russia, Ukraine, and the United States.

The «Russian Volunteer Corps» (RVC) is a military unit presenting itself as a «military-political organization» of Russian volunteers fighting on the side of Ukraine. Its main declared goals include «restoring the territorial integrity of Ukraine within the borders of 1991» and «overthrowing the current regime in the Russian Federation.» The RVC gained widespread notoriety following sabotage raids in the Bryansk and Belgorod regions in the spring of 2023.

The Freedom of Russia Legion (FRL) is a military unit formed by Russian servicemen who have switched sides to support Ukraine. It is widely believed that the FRL primarily serves media and propaganda purposes rather than serving strictly military functions, and it has connections with former Russian State Duma deputy Ilya Ponomarev.

UMPK stands for Universal Planning and Correction Module. This device, introduced in 2023, is mounted on Russian unguided aviation bombs, allowing them to fly long distances (up to 70 kilometers according to some reports) to a designated target. The device consists of wings that unfold after the bomb is released. Despite its limited accuracy, the system enables Russian aviation to deploy munitions beyond the range of Ukrainian air defenses.

HUR stands for the Main Intelligence Directorate (Holovne Upravlinnia Rozvidki) of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. It is headed by Major General Kyrylo Budanov.

«Dragon's Teeth» are concrete pyramidal-shaped stakes that serve as anti-tank engineering obstacles. Throughout the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war, they have been widely utilized in constructing defensive lines in border regions of the Russian Federation and on occupied territories of Ukraine by the Russian Armed Forces.

Starlink is a satellite communication system developed by Elon Musk's SpaceX company. It is widely utilized by the AFU and civilian services in the front-line areas.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. “UAV” is used as an umbrella term for various categories of unmanned aerial systems, ranging from small copter-type devices to large reconnaissance and strike drones like the Bayraktar TB2 and loitering munitions like the «Harop.»

The UMPB D-30SN is a Russian universal inter-service gliding munition that carries a 250-kilogram warhead derived from a 250-kilogram aerial bomb. It can be launched by both aircraft and rocket artillery systems in various configurations. Essentially, it serves as an analog to the American SDB / GLSDB.

American soldiers watch the demolition of Saddam Hussein's monument in Baghdad, April 9, 2003
American soldiers watch the demolition of Saddam Hussein's monument in Baghdad, April 9, 2003
Wathiq Khuzaie /​ Getty Images

Based on recent months of conflict in Ukraine, it is clear that the Russian Armed Forces lack significant superiority in any of the areas that have historically enabled successful operations to seize major cities. Moreover, the Russian military is unable to execute the necessary large-scale maneuvers for such endeavors. While Russia holds an advantage in artillery and manpower, this advantage is poised to diminish thanks to the passage of a new U.S. aid package, along with Kyiv’s efforts to mobilize more troops of its own.

The lengthy and intense battles for relatively small cities like Avdiivka, Bakhmut, and Chasiv Yar underscore a crucial point: even if the Russian command manages to amass a force capable of capturing Kharkiv, the operation would likely be protracted and come at great cost — not only to Ukrainian soldiers and civilians, but to Russian troops themselves.

Cluster munitions deploy upon approaching the target, scattering small submunitions that, in turn, explode, covering a large area. Due to their indiscriminate nature and the subsequent danger that unexploded submunitions pose to civilians, they are prohibited by most countries around the world, Exceptions include Russia, Ukraine, and the United States.

The «Russian Volunteer Corps» (RVC) is a military unit presenting itself as a «military-political organization» of Russian volunteers fighting on the side of Ukraine. Its main declared goals include «restoring the territorial integrity of Ukraine within the borders of 1991» and «overthrowing the current regime in the Russian Federation.» The RVC gained widespread notoriety following sabotage raids in the Bryansk and Belgorod regions in the spring of 2023.

The Freedom of Russia Legion (FRL) is a military unit formed by Russian servicemen who have switched sides to support Ukraine. It is widely believed that the FRL primarily serves media and propaganda purposes rather than serving strictly military functions, and it has connections with former Russian State Duma deputy Ilya Ponomarev.

UMPK stands for Universal Planning and Correction Module. This device, introduced in 2023, is mounted on Russian unguided aviation bombs, allowing them to fly long distances (up to 70 kilometers according to some reports) to a designated target. The device consists of wings that unfold after the bomb is released. Despite its limited accuracy, the system enables Russian aviation to deploy munitions beyond the range of Ukrainian air defenses.

HUR stands for the Main Intelligence Directorate (Holovne Upravlinnia Rozvidki) of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. It is headed by Major General Kyrylo Budanov.

«Dragon's Teeth» are concrete pyramidal-shaped stakes that serve as anti-tank engineering obstacles. Throughout the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war, they have been widely utilized in constructing defensive lines in border regions of the Russian Federation and on occupied territories of Ukraine by the Russian Armed Forces.

Starlink is a satellite communication system developed by Elon Musk's SpaceX company. It is widely utilized by the AFU and civilian services in the front-line areas.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. “UAV” is used as an umbrella term for various categories of unmanned aerial systems, ranging from small copter-type devices to large reconnaissance and strike drones like the Bayraktar TB2 and loitering munitions like the «Harop.»

The UMPB D-30SN is a Russian universal inter-service gliding munition that carries a 250-kilogram warhead derived from a 250-kilogram aerial bomb. It can be launched by both aircraft and rocket artillery systems in various configurations. Essentially, it serves as an analog to the American SDB / GLSDB.

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