Lots of noise and nothing. Why the bloated propaganda offensive on Kharkov failed

The Russian offensive in the north of the Kharkiv region, represented by Kremlin propaganda and some Western media almost as a turning point in the entire war, stalled without reaching any of the stated goals. Experts agree that the capture of Kharkov in the near future is not a question, and even Russian “voenkotors” warn that the AFU is quite able to throw the Russian army back to the border. For a full-fledged offensive on Kharkov, we need very different scales of power, and in the foreseeable future, Russia will not have them.

2022: First attempt
Kharkiv and the region became the scene of the very first battles of the full-scale Russian-Ukrainian war. Having crossed the border on the night of February 24, 2022, the columns of the RF Armed Forces covered tens of kilometers in a matter of hours, ending up on the Kharkiv ring road, but met there with the rebuff of the city’s defenders – these events include some of the first recorded losses of tanks. Subsequently, Russian attempts to encircle Kharkiv and even break into the city were unsuccessful.

This was partly due to the disorganization of the Russian military – for example, while the forces of the Zapad group were still shelling the city, including with rockets for the Smerch MLRS with a cluster warhead, and aviation was dropping unguided aerial bombs on residential areas, on the approaches to Kharkiv, the Armed Forces of Ukraine destroyed a large column of the Russian Guard, which was assigned the role of occupation forces in the already captured territories.

In the east of the Kharkiv region, Russian forces were much more successful in 2022: having occupied Vovchansk, they advanced south in the direction of Izyum and took the city after stubborn fighting, creating a threat from the north to Slavyansk and the Donetsk region as a whole. The Ukrainian reaction to these events was not long in coming – the advance north from Kharkov to the state border was the first large-scale counteroffensive of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

The advance north from Kharkov to the state border was the first large-scale counteroffensive of the Armed Forces of Ukraine
Then it was not possible to completely oust the enemy from the region: as a result of Russian counterattacks, the front again approached Kharkiv, threatening to return the city to the zone of destruction of barrel artillery. The situation changed only after a large-scale Ukrainian counteroffensive in the fall of 2022. Then Russian troops left most of the region even outside the zone of the Ukrainian operation – in particular, Vovchansk and other border settlements.

The withdrawal from the Kharkiv region probably made strategic sense: the Ukrainians did not pursue the troops, exhausted by months of fighting, on the other side of the border. However, the constant shelling of Belgorod and other settlements in the region and periodic raids by units of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, positioning themselves as the Russian armed opposition (RDK and LSR), refuted the claims of the Russian authorities that “the NWO is going according to plan.”

The constant shelling of Belgorod refuted the claims of the Russian authorities that “the NWO is going according to plan”
The offensive of the RF Armed Forces in the direction of Kupyansk, which unfolded in 2023, could not reverse the situation. In the meantime, both sides were building defensive lines, each on its own side of the border. The balance was disrupted by the actions of the Russian leadership in 2024.

Preparations for a new offensive on Kharkov
From February to May 2024, the command of the Russian army systematically increased the border cover grouping. According to Ukrainian military observer Konstantin Mashovets, a few months later, the total composition of the group exceeded 40 thousand military personnel (of which 30 thousand were in the Kharkiv direction) and 1,5 thousand pieces of equipment. The border grouping of troops was named “North”, thereby symbolically equaling the groupings “West”, “South”, “Center”, “East” and “Dnepr” operating on the territory of Ukraine. The notorious Colonel-General Alexander Lapin, who had an unsuccessful operation in the Chernihiv region, the loss of dozens of pieces of equipment while trying to cross the Seversky Donets River and the surrender of Lyman during the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the fall of 2022, became the commander of the Sever Main Military Forces.

In parallel, Russia intensified strikes on Kharkiv itself and the region. As part of a new campaign against the Ukrainian energy sector, thermal generation facilities were destroyed in the region. The city itself was increasingly attacked by drones, missiles and aerial bombs from UMPK. As calculated by the publication “Vyorstka”, in the first months of 2024, Kharkiv was shelled more often than in the whole of 2023. Local residents regularly die from the strikes, the Uragan MLRS were destroyed. At the same time, Vladimir Putin publicly announced the idea of creating a “sanitary zone” in the border territory of Ukraine, which was supposed to prevent the shelling of Russian regions.

In the first months of 2024, Kharkiv was shelled more often than in the whole of 2023
All this gave rise to rumors of an impending Russian attempt to seize Kharkiv, which, experts agreed, required either a months-long recruitment of contract soldiers or a new wave of mobilization. These rumors were also confirmed by Ukrainian intelligence: Vadym Skibitskyi, a representative of the Main Intelligence Directorate, spoke about the plans for a Russian offensive in an interview with The Economist published a week before it began. At the same time, some propaganda resources and even Western media were preparing for an almost decisive battle of the war.

I didn’t really want to
Commenting on the start of the Russian offensive, experts generally agreed that it pursued much less ambitious goals than the first attack on Kharkiv in February 2022. They talked about the creation of the notorious “sanitary zone” and the withdrawal of the reserves of the Armed Forces of Ukraine from other directions, in particular from the Donetsk region.

Indirectly, such intentions were confirmed by Vladimir Putin himself, saying that the capture of Kharkov “today” is out of the question. However, The Economist, having familiarized itself with documents on the plans for the operation, believes that Putin’s statement reflects not Russian intentions, but rather the current operational situation.

According to reports, the RF Armed Forces planned to advance tens of kilometers in two main directions within a matter of days. On the one hand, through the village of Liptsy to the village of Borshchevaya, in order to advance to Kharkov within the range of field artillery. On the other hand, through Volchansk to Pechenegi in order to take Kharkov in a semicircle and create a threat to the rear of the Kupyansk group of troops of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, which occupied positions to the east.

Indirectly, the video of the interrogation of a Russian prisoner of war, in which he claims that his brigade was tasked with taking Vovchansk in two days, speaks in favor of such a pace of operation.

Ukrainian military analyst Konstantin Mashovets is also sure that Russian plans were very large-scale, but the necessary forces and means were not allocated for them. In his opinion, the ultimate goal of the operation is to capture “the entire territory of the Kharkiv region east of the cascade of reservoirs of the Seversky Donets.” Perhaps the Russian plans were not limited to this: Skibitsky, and after him the head of the Main Intelligence Directorate Kyrylo Budanov, mentioned a similar operation in the Sumy region. At the time of writing, however, it has not begun.

How the offensive is developing
The generally accepted date for the start of the Russian offensive is May 10, although, according to some reports, the RF Armed Forces have been preparing for it since May 7: they made passages in border minefields, and troops gathered in the “gray zone” directly near the border. A large-scale offensive began on May 10 – and at first very successfully, at least by the standards of other sectors of the front.

In the first days, the Russians occupied several border villages at once, reached Vovchansk, entered the city limits and engaged in street fighting. Several factors contributed to the success of the RF Armed Forces at once.

First of all, the fortifications north of Kharkov were not built properly. If the absence of the FIS in the “gray zone” directly adjacent to the border can still be explained by the danger of construction in the vicinity of Russian positions, then further on, the “dragon’s teeth”, simply piled up by the road in the rear, give an idea of the level of fortifications built by the forces of the local RMA.

The preparation and resilience of the Ukrainian troops in the direction also left much to be desired. According to the Ukrainian State Bureau of Investigation, the command of the 125th Territorial Defense Brigade failed to organize defense, and individual detachments left their positions altogether, so the forces of the second echelon had to stop the Russians. The situation was aggravated by the sudden massive shutdown of Starlink satellite communication terminals – possibly as a result of the impact of Russian electronic warfare equipment.

Another important factor that contributed to the success of the Russian forces in the direction is the political restrictions prohibiting the Armed Forces of Ukraine from using Western weapons on the territory of Russia.

The purpose of the ban is to prevent the escalation of the conflict, but it also gave the Russians a tactical advantage: the rear of the Russian group “North”, the positions of artillery and UAV operators are located on the Russian side of the border, which actually limits the ability of Ukrainians in counter-battery combat with drones, which are most often not long-range. As a result, Russian weapons, in particular Lancet loitering ammunition, hunt Ukrainian artillery with almost impunity.

Due to the West’s ban on attacking Russian territory, the Lancets hunt Ukrainian artillery with impunity
The Ukrainian military and political leadership took the operation in the Kharkiv region extremely seriously: Volodymyr Zelensky postponed international visits, and the commander of the Kharkiv operational-tactical group of troops was changed – he was Deputy Chief of the General Staff Mikhail Drapaty, who came to this position as part of the renewal of the leadership of the Armed Forces of Ukraine after replacing Zaluzhny with Syrsky as commander-in-chief.

According to Ukrainian war correspondent Yuriy Butusov, Drapaty managed to effectively use the reserves allocated to him, stopping the Russian offensive at a maximum distance of 10 km from the border. This is evidenced by the ratio of its losses, as well as the chaotic actions of Russian infantry groups.

Faced with stubborn resistance, the Russian command, apparently, as in the case of Avdiivka, decided to rely on its own advantage in means of fire destruction. Guided bombs are actively used in the direction, both at the field positions of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and at the urban development of Volchansk.

In addition, the Russian military in Vovchansk is accused of looting, illegal detention and killing of civilians and volunteers. The population of the city and other border settlements is being evacuated to Kharkiv, but even there Russian ammunition continues to find victims, including among the civilian population.

Only in the second half of May, strikes were carried out on a recreation center, a printing house, where 50 thousand books burned, and a construction hypermarket, where the count of dead and wounded is in the dozens. These are only the most high-profile attacks on Kharkiv – local authorities report injured civilians as a result of “arrivals” almost every day. At the same time, modern aircraft ammunition such as the UMPB D-30SN are used, which are launched from aircraft taking off from airfields within range of Western-made missiles. In this regard, the people of Kyiv even picketed the American embassy with a call to lift the already mentioned ban on the use of ammunition on Russian territory.

In any case, it is obvious that, although the situation in the Kharkiv direction has relatively stabilized, the Russian command will not stop trying to advance further. However, according to Konstantin Mashovets, for this it will be necessary to attract reserves from other directions, shifting the focus of the summer campaign to the Kharkiv region.

But the “military commander” Semyon Pegov, on the contrary, believes that the Armed Forces of Ukraine managed to create sufficient superiority in the direction to organize a counterattack and seize the initiative, throwing the enemy back to the border. One way or another, the Kharkiv story is unlikely to end in the near future with the entry of Russian troops into the city, especially since, as historical experience shows, operations of this scale most often require comprehensive support and an unconditional advantage over the enemy.

The Kharkiv story is unlikely to end with the entry of Russian troops into the city in the near future
How to take a city with a population of over a million
Obviously, the size of the Russian group and the saturation of its armored vehicles are really not enough to capture Kharkiv. In order to assess what forces and means of the RF Armed Forces would have to be involved in such an operation, it is worth looking at the experience of storming large cities, starting from World War II.

Kharkiv itself changed hands four times during World War II. For the first time, the Germans managed to take the first capital of the Ukrainian SSR, whose population was already approaching a million, with the forces of only two divisions (from 10 thousand to 30 thousand people). However, the forces of the Southwestern Front opposing the Germans were exhausted after the defeat near Kiev, where the Red Army lost 500 thousand prisoners alone. Nevertheless, the capture of Kharkov was ensured by powerful flank strikes on Belgorod on the one hand and Lozovaya and Izyum on the other.

The first attempt by Soviet troops to liberate Kharkov in the spring of 1942 turned out to be a disaster precisely because of the lack of attention to the flanks. The German tank wedges managed to cut off the Barvenkovsky salient, from where the attack on the city was coming. This led to huge losses in killed, wounded and captured. The second Soviet offensive on Kharkov, which was carried out against the backdrop of the German defeat at Stalingrad, ended a little better – the city itself was liberated, but not for long. Overstretched Soviet armored units were defeated south of Kharkov, and soon the city itself was again occupied.

Kharkov finally came under the control of the Red Army only during Operation Rumyantsev after the defeat of the Germans at the Kursk Bulge – more than a million people, 2418 tanks and 13,633 guns and MLRS were collected for it, which provided multiple superiority over the defending forces.

Another major city, the fate of which in the middle of the twentieth century resembled Kharkiv, is Seoul, which also changed hands four times during the Korean War. At the same time, each time the attacking side (at different times it was the Korean People’s Army, UN forces and Chinese “volunteers”) had an overwhelming superiority in tanks, artillery, aviation, manpower or combat experience.

Each time, the attacking side had an overwhelming superiority in tanks, artillery, aviation, manpower, or combat experience
The scale of the forces involved was also higher than during the current fighting in the Kharkiv region: for the second capture of Seoul, the Chinese and Korean sides needed to assemble a group of 170 thousand fighters. Unexpected operational techniques also contributed to success, for example, the famous landing in Incheon under the command of General MacArthur, which made it possible to destroy the North Korean defenses.

In the 21st century, there are also examples of successful assaults on major cities: the capture of Baghdad during the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 took less than a week. However, such success was achieved thanks to the overwhelming technological and fire superiority of the United States, the rapid advance of American troops and well-established logistics, complete air supremacy, as well as “decapitating” strikes that destroyed the command and control of the Iraqi army and led to the collapse of its morale.

By comparison, liberating Mosul from Islamic State militants, where far less trained Iraqi and Kurdish forces faced off against much more motivated militants, took many months and required far more manpower.

Judging by the last months of the fighting of the Russian-Ukrainian war, the RF Armed Forces do not have sufficient superiority over the Armed Forces of Ukraine in any areas that have historically made it possible to successfully carry out operations to capture large cities, and cannot conduct the large-scale maneuvers necessary for this. Russia’s advantage in artillery and manpower is a problem, but these factors should also be mitigated by the resumption of military supplies from the United States and the new Ukrainian law on mobilization.

The experience of long and bloody battles for such relatively small cities as Avdiivka, Bakhmut and Chasiv Yar suggests that even if the Russian command manages to assemble a group sufficient to capture Kharkiv, such an operation will last a very long time and be accompanied by huge losses, including among the civilian population.

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