Putin Launched Kharkiv Offensive With ‘Risky’ Manpower Shortages: ISW

Russian forces launched a “risky” push on Ukraine’s northeastern Kharkiv region late last week without factoring in the arrival of fresh military aid from the U.S., according to a new assessment, as local officials hurry to evacuate thousands of people from the region.

On Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia had “tried to expand operations” against his forces, and Kyiv was reinforcing its positions in the Kharkiv region, which borders Russia.

Kharkiv regional officials reported intensified shelling and attacks, including on the border city of Vovchansk, to the northeast of the city of Kharkiv. It is Ukraine’s second-largest city, and has been pummeled by Russian strikes in recent weeks.

Russian forces are currently attacking in the region with limited resources, the U.S. think tank, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said on Saturday, adding this is a “risky decision” if the Kremlin and its commanders believe Kyiv could threaten this force before it could beef up its presence in the Ukrainian northeast.

“The limited Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast suggest that the resumption of U.S. security assistance has not changed [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s calculus or that he launched the Kharkiv effort without reassessing the operation’s fundamental assumptions about Ukrainian capabilities in light of the resumption of aid,” the think tank said on Saturday.

Russia has, so far, “only committed a limited amount of combat power to offensive operations in the area,” the ISW said.

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said on Friday that Russia had dropped guided aerial bombs around Vovchansk, and had attempted to break through defensive lines with armored vehicles at around 5 a.m. local time. Reserve forces have been sent towards Kharkiv, Kyiv added.

Fighting in Kharkiv Region
Burned ground in a forest in Vovchansk district in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine, on May 11, 2024. On Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia had “tried to expand operations” against Ukrainian forces in…

ROMAN PILIPEY/AFP via Getty Images

Russia has also spent months focusing efforts on the eastern Donetsk region, slowly making gains west of the captured Ukrainian cities of Bakhmut and Avdiivka.

“This week, the situation in [the] Kharkiv region has significantly increased,” Ukraine’s army chief, Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi said on Sunday. “The situation is difficult, but the Defense Forces of Ukraine are doing everything to maintain the defensive borders and positions.”

Newsweek has reached out to the Russian Defense Ministry for comment via email.

U.S. lawmakers gave the green light to significant new military aid for Ukraine after months of indecision late last month. Kyiv is heavily reliant on Western aid deliveries and Russia has targeted Ukraine’s domestic defense infrastructure.

The aid would start heading for the battlefield as soon as possible, Washington said at the time.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said on Saturday that its forces had taken control of five settlements in the Kharkiv region, including the villages of Borysivka, Ohirtseve, Pletenivka that sit on the border with Russia, after “offensive actions.”

Oleh Syniehubov, the head of the Kharkiv regional administration, said on Sunday that more than 4,000 people had been evacuated from the region so far. Ukraine has been carrying out counteroffensive operations along the border, Zelensky said on Saturday.

Russian forces will likely pull reserves to “intensify ongoing offensive operations in the area in the coming days,” the ISW said.

“However, the Russian forces lack the necessary manpower required to attempt a large-scale offensive operation to envelop, encircle, or seize Kharkiv city, according to all available reports,” reported the think tank. Moscow likely hopes to draw Ukrainian resources away from other points of the front line, as well as moving closer to the city of Kharkiv, the ISW added.

Russia will likely stare down “more intense resistance” to pushes further into Ukraine and toward larger border settlements, like Vovchansk, the ISW said.