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The real aim of Russia’s Kharkiv campaign

Ukrainian firefighters attend to the aftermath of a Russian missile attack on Kharkiv this weekend. Credit: Getty

May 13, 2024 - 7:00am

Russia’s long-anticipated Kharkiv offensive, launched this weekend, may not have Ukraine’s second city as its immediate objective. Actually seizing the sprawling metropolis, dangerously close to Russia’s border, is both a major war aim for Moscow and a harder task than any Russian victory in the conflict so far. A mostly Russian-speaking city that is at the same time the birthplace of Ukraine’s most radical nationalist forces, Kharkiv could have been captured in the first hours of the 2022 invasion. Then, Russian tanks paused, for no obvious reason, on the city’s surrounding ring road, allowing Ukraine’s defenders time to seize the initiative and eventually push them back to the border.

That autumn, overstretched Russian troops were forced to relinquish their gains as a well-organised Ukrainian counteroffensive punched through their lines, recapturing almost all of the province and establishing Kharkiv as the launchpad for heavily publicised incursions into Russian territory, fronted by exiled Russian renegades. In doing so, they made the entire region on both sides of the border a contested grey zone.

Over the weekend, though, this dynamic changed. It is now Ukraine’s army, overstretched and undergunned, that is on the back foot as Kharkiv has once again become a major front in this industrial war of attrition. Intensified bombardment of the city in recent weeks, along with chatter of a looming Russian push, had made Moscow’s awakening of the long-dormant Kharkiv front a seeming inevitability.

Yet the Russian forces committed to the battle so far are too small in number to seize the city itself, vastly larger and more populous than any urban centre Russia has so far captured. Having captured five or six border villages along a wide front in the first hours of the new offensive — the tally given by Russian and Ukrainian accounts varies — Russian troops are enduring heavy punishment as their opponents rotate reserves from other fronts to stem the new incursion.

The Ukrainian Centre for Defence Strategies think tank, a generally more accurate source of analysis than most Western equivalents, observes that the Russian force failed to breach the defensive line “during the first 12 hours of combat operations and lost its ‘window of opportunity’” as it “employed a relatively limited number of troops and assets for the attack on the Kharkiv direction”. According to its analysis, Russia’s goals for this operation are — for now — modest, intending “to establish a 10-kilometer buffer zone along the northern border of Kharkiv Oblast, likely aimed at displacing Ukrainian forces beyond the effective range of small arms fire on Russian logistics targets in the Russian Belgorod Oblast and to bring their artillery within range of Kharkiv”.

But just re-establishing Kharkiv as an active front places great strain on an already overstretched Ukrainian army. According to Ukrainian sources, Russia’s initial gains were made as defending Ukrainian formations unilaterally retreated, forcing hardened troops rushed from elsewhere on the eastern front to shore up the line. Even if, as it seems, Moscow’s re-awakened Kharkiv front is merely a series of limited probing operations, laying the groundwork for a future offensive at scale, the modest Russian deployment — and the far larger reserves still uncommitted to operations — is preoccupying Ukrainian troops sorely needed elsewhere to defend the vulnerable northeastern border.

Kharkiv itself may be safe for now, but defending the new northeastern front has probably doomed the Ukrainian defence of Chasiv Yar, a strategically important hub for Kyiv’s hold of the sorely-pressed Donbas.

Already, Ukrainian commanders are briefing that the longstanding stronghold, now being enveloped by advancing Russian forces, is of no great importance: a highly likely indicator of a looming withdrawal. Dramatic though it may initially seem, Russia’s Kharkiv operation is, at least currently, barely about Kharkiv itself. Rather, its primary goal is to overstretch and then break the Ukrainian army in the Donbas. As Ukraine’s commander of ground forces notes: “Russia is testing the stability of our lines before choosing the most suitable direction.” The full Russian hammer blow, long predicted for this summer, is still yet to come.


Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.

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Martin M
Martin M
16 days ago

It is about time the West gave Ukraine some seriously long range weapons then.

D Walsh
D Walsh
16 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

Good man Martin keep going, what ever you do, NEVER learn from past mistakes

Martin M
Martin M
16 days ago
Reply to  D Walsh

I am all in favour of learning from past mistakes. I am keen for us to remember that appeasing a warmongering tyrant only leads to one thing.

D Walsh
D Walsh
16 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

It’s always 1939. And the neocons latest enemy is always Hitler

Giving the Ukrainians long range missiles won’t make a difference, the Russians will shoot most of them down, they will be about as successful as the Byractor drone, the Leopard tanks or the storm shadow missiles

The longer the war goes on, the worse it will be for the Ukraine

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
16 days ago
Reply to  D Walsh

No-one except you mentioned 1939 or that man. Plenty of other warmongering tyrants to learn from.

Martin M
Martin M
16 days ago
Reply to  Dennis Roberts

There are great similarities between the situation in 1939 and that in the present though.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
16 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

Indeed…repression of an ethnic minority and their language, refusal of self determination of peoples…
However it is the West which didn’t abide by a treaty, the Minsk Agreements, not Russia.
The UK has even entered into a supporting agreement with Ukraine; despite one with Poland not having worked out at all well tge last time…
The UK’s rulers really need to learn it isn’t a world power any more; US poodle yes…world power no…

Micael Gustavsson
Micael Gustavsson
16 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

Russia never implemented the Minsk accords. The two Donbass republics were to be integrated back to Ukraine, but with great autonomy. But the Russians didn’t withdraw their illegal forces.

D Walsh
D Walsh
16 days ago
Reply to  Dennis Roberts

Ah come on Dennis, he used the word appeasement, we all know who he is talking about

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
16 days ago
Reply to  D Walsh

OK, but Martin is right, the similarities are there –

The gradual chipping away, taking a little bit and seeing what the response is.

The justifications based on ethnonationality.

The grand plan of reclaiming what the nation previously held.

Militaristic outlook.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
16 days ago
Reply to  Dennis Roberts

The mention of appeasement is enough…

Martin M
Martin M
16 days ago
Reply to  D Walsh

It is important that any long range missiles that Ukraine gets are used to target Russian oil infrastructure. Sure, some might be shot down, but some will get through. After all, some Ukrainian drones have managed to target oil facilities. Let’s see how Russia’s economy goes when it can’t pump oil anymore.

j watson
j watson
16 days ago
Reply to  D Walsh

They won’t make a difference? Cobblers. The Storm Shadow we’ve given them has bottled up the Black sea fleet and sunk/damaged a number of Russian warships already.

D Walsh
D Walsh
16 days ago
Reply to  j watson

And the only problem with that is, this is a land war

Added to that the Russians have got better at stopping the Storm Shaddows, just like the HIMARs that they now jam the GPS

If the Germans supply new missiles the Ukrainians will most lightly try to hit the Kerch bridge again. They seem obsessed with it for some reason. It’s even more pointless than hitting boats in Crimea

j watson
j watson
15 days ago
Reply to  D Walsh

Once the Black sea fleet starts patrolling the western part of that sea again you can contend you had a point. But that’s not happening is it. Wonder why?
And the failure to throttle Ukraine’s sea lanes and Odessa a major failure meaning Ukraine retaking Crimea remains permanently a risk bottling up alot of Russian resource. Your strategic view is too narrow.

Rob N
Rob N
16 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

So what do you suggest we do about Biden and the US Deep State?

Martin M
Martin M
16 days ago
Reply to  Rob N

Biden (like Trump) won’t live forever. The “US Deep State”? Maybe get Batman (or James Bond or some other fictitious character) to deal with it. After all, it is an entirely fictitious thing.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
16 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

If only that were true…

Martin M
Martin M
16 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

Does the “US Deep State” have its headquarters in a dormant volcano?

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
16 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

No, Washington DC

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
16 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

No. They’re in Langley, Virginia. Hiding in plain sight.

Martin M
Martin M
15 days ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

That doesn’t seem very “Deep”.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
15 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

The Pacific Ocean is deep. But you can see it on any map of the world.

j watson
j watson
16 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

We have now and UK also just sanctioned use of medium range Storm Shadow missiles into Russian territory 2 weeks ago. Range declared is c350miles, but that assumes spec fully disclosed. These have already taken out many targets and individuals but only in disputed territory, so proven the Russians struggle to shoot down.

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
16 days ago

“..for no apparent reason..”
Well there was the peace deal that Boris Johnson flew to Kyiv to scupper wasn’t there?

Martin M
Martin M
16 days ago

The “peace deal” that Putin would have unilaterally torn up the minute he had rearmed, you mean?

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
16 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

Having got what he wanted, he would have no reason whatsoever to do so.
Putin has never intended to “take” or much less hold Ukraine, which Russia cannot do, merely neutralise it.
Ukraine could have been like Austria, peaceful and prosperous, but the US Neocons wouldn’t allow it.

Martin M
Martin M
16 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

If Putin had his way, Ukraine would have been like Austria after the Anschluss.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
16 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

There would be no need to do so. Austria has not become part of Germany.

Micael Gustavsson
Micael Gustavsson
16 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

Maybe more like Chechoslovakia after 1968

Martin M
Martin M
15 days ago

However you style it, Ukraine will have fallen to barbarians.

Konstantinos Stavropoulos
Konstantinos Stavropoulos
16 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

The peace deal for wich a Ukraine delegate who participated in it, declared publicly when interview by Freddy Sayers a couple of months ago, that the Ukrainian team returned from Konstantinople and opened champagne out of joy for a very good deal.

The peace deal that most likely Mr. Boris executed to the delight of the war mongers. That deal. Not the previous one that the Ukrainians didn’t honor in order to promote US’s f… it all agenda. And so the so goes..!

L Brady
L Brady
16 days ago

Anyone referring to the “Boris Johnson peace deal” is embarrassingly repeating Putin propaganda. Let me inform anyone STILL believing this nonsense. The peace deal refers to thd 28th Feb, when Russia recited a long list of the Kremlin’s demands. It included the replacement of Zelensky’s administration with a puppet regime, Ukrainian troops handing over all their tanks and artillery, the arrest and trial of “Nazis”—a Russian euphemism for any Ukrainian opposed to Moscow’s rule—and the restoration of Russian as Ukraine’s official language. Medinsky even demanded that city streets named after Ukrainian national heroes be returned to their old Soviet names.

j watson
j watson
16 days ago

Desperate from Putin. Tactically it does pin a few more Ukrainian forces but has little strategic value and certainly the Russia’s cannot breakthrough. They don’t have the forces or the leadership – remember their NCO tier was devastated and their troops have minimal training before being thrown in as cannon-fodder. They can creep forward and defend trenches but they can’t employ all arms coordinated mobile initiatives. Ukraine will slaughter them as the western munitions deploy.
A key observation is Putin has not called another mass mobilisation. He may yet but he’s wary of the impact on public opinion. His forces rely ever more on non Russians. With Kadyrov on his way out turmoil may follow in Chechen and he doesn’t have the forces to quell that. His Black Sea fleet has been ravaged and cannot fully deploy and slowly but surely his economy is being devastated. If Ukraine starts to sink returning tankers the Russian economy would implode much more quickly.
Putin is stuck. He knows he’s now sitting on a tinder box he may ignite himself with a wrong-step.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
16 days ago
Reply to  j watson

I’m no military tactician, but the most reliable sources so far seem to fully contradict your assessment in almost every way.
I am, however, an economist. And your statement on economics is as wrong as could be. Actually, this war has been a godsend for the Russian economy. It has kept export prices for energy high, and the reindustrialisation associated with military production has re-energised the Russian economy. Even the sanctions regime has had its silver linings – Russia has diversified its trade patterns, and the lack of cheap EU imports has given a chance to Russian intermediate industry to supply domestic markets, in a whole range of markets from aluminium to electical supply; all of which would have been impossible before.
Russia has even been able to hold prices for another of its key exports – grain – low, in order to starve Ukraine’s economy (also a major grain exporter). Now, as grain prices begin to stabilise, Russian agriculture will receive a huge boon, freeing up subsidies for other sectors.
The proof is the relative performance of the economies. Russia’s grew by about 2.5% last year, the EU’s by an anemic 0.4%. The US fared better, but only if you believe the inflation numbers, which honestly make Mission Impossible movies look realistic by comparison.

Aidan Twomey
Aidan Twomey
16 days ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

Oh really, and as an economist, would you care to tell us what the interest rates are in Russia? And inflation? And does it really matter if the economy grows at 2.5% if the GDP growth comes from manufacturing missiles to lob over the border? And is “diversifying” trade patterns from the EU to import the same goods via Turkmenistan really such a silver lining? And is developing a local aluminium industry really a more efficient allocation of capital and talent than importing it as they used to do?

How can you be so sure that the original post is wrong when you appear to have thought about so few of the basic things economists actually think about?

j watson
j watson
16 days ago
Reply to  Aidan Twomey

Beat me to it AT.
I would add Russia is being kept afloat by Oil receipts but that is only because the West, mainly US, have allowed this. I suspect it may change quickly after US elections. Ukraine could easily sink a number of tankers and it’s been more informative that they haven’t as yet. It’s a political calculus but the card is there the moment they decide to play it.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
16 days ago
Reply to  Aidan Twomey

Interest rates are high everywhere, as is inflation. And no, the diversification is not just third party imports via the ‘stans. Russia and China have increased their bilateral trade by many multiplies over the past two years.
As for efficiency in domestic production, almost by definition you are right (otherwise the market would already have delivered these outcomes under the old, liberal trade regime). But what that fails to account for is distributional effects – ‘efficient’ global supply chains leave local industrial workers impoverished and in despair. Just ask any Trump voter from Ohio.
Right now, industrial wages in Russia are rising faster than inflation. Meaning workers in these industries are getting better off. Of course, you can’t eat tanks and artillery shells, but the point is this production can be retooled to supply other markets when the war is over. In five years time, Russia will be making the stuff Germany used to.
As an aside, Russia’s biggest economic challenge has been and remains corruption. Whether Putin will really be able to clean things up is still an open question, but at least now he has the political mandate to enact sweeping reforms.

Aidan Twomey
Aidan Twomey
16 days ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

“High” is one way of putting it, but the base rate is 15% in Russia, that alone is a sign that the economy is being devastated. And the rest of your points are complete wham. There is zero chance that in five years a high-wage, low-tech economy like Russia will be producing high quality goods for export in competition with China or the US.
As an aside, the average annual wage in Ohio is $60k, it is very far from being impoverished. Any despair there has nothing to do with global supply chains. You need to think more like an economist, and less like a partisan.

William Amos
William Amos
16 days ago
Reply to  Aidan Twomey

The invective with which you own solid posts are adulterated only diminshes them.
I was interested to read your response to Mr Stull The sarcasm and and mockery seems unwarranted.

Aidan Twomey
Aidan Twomey
16 days ago
Reply to  William Amos

Friend, you must lead a very sheltered life if you think that anything I have written is invective. And you must care very much about the Russian economy if you think pointing out the high base rate is mockery.

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
16 days ago
Reply to  William Amos

GS says interest rates are high everywhere. Well they’re not – 16% in Russia, which is high, 5% or so in the West, which is about normal.

AT’s very mild invective seems reasonable given the easily demonstrable non-equivalence between Russian rates and elsewhere, which pretty much destroys the rest of GS’s argument (though worryingly, seemingly not in the eyes of many Unherd readers).

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
16 days ago
Reply to  Aidan Twomey

We’ll have to agree to disagree, I’m afraid. Let’s come back to the discussion in a few years time. If I’m right, Russia will have won the war and will be benefiting from a post-war economic boom, fuelled by low energy costs for its domestic industries (heavily in the defence sector), and competitive exports to growth markets in China, India and the global south.
If you’re right, I guess Russia will have collapsed economically, probably also have lost the war in Ukraine? Likely a military coup to oust Putin and his cadre from power?
Regarding your aside though, be careful about confounding average wages and average industrial wages. The former has a much higher standard deviation, reflective of income inequality that is generally pervasive in the US, and differences across sectors. The former is also generally higher. So, for example, the 2023 average annual wage in the US is about $64k, but the average industrial wage (i.e. for the BLS’s ‘major occupational groups’ 51-000 “Production Occupations”) is only $47k. And the S90/S10 for Code 51 jobs is about 2.3, as against an S90/S10 for managers of about 5.
This 47k is an increase from 41k in 2020, which sounds good, except that in CPI adjusted terms 41k has a 2023 purchasing power of about 48k – in other words, the Ohioan we are talking about is worse off than he was three years previous – and again, that’s if you believe the CPI is accurately measuring inflation, which basically no one seriously does.
As an aside to this aside, chief executives in 2020 earned on average 197k, which in 2023 money is about 231k. Want to guess what their 2023 average income was? A cool 259k.

Aidan Twomey
Aidan Twomey
16 days ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

I would gladly take a bet that there will be no post-war economic boom for Russia, whether they are successful in their war aims or not. The demographics will still be terrible, the misallocation of capital will be disastrous, and their lack of skills in AI mean that there will be nothing they can produce that China or the global south want to buy at a price that is competitive.
And in Ohio, you miss the point completely. Whether wages are going up or down is irrelevant, as the problem is men dropping out of the workforce altogether. It doesn’t matter what sector you are not in if your wage is zero, and that is not an economic problem, it’s a spiritual problem.

Michael Veloski
Michael Veloski
16 days ago
Reply to  Aidan Twomey

Why all the troll talk?

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
16 days ago

“Unilateral retreat”
Unlike those engagements were both sides withdraw from contact? Military PR obfuscation really is the best.

Matt Woodsmith
Matt Woodsmith
16 days ago
Reply to  Christian Moon

I think it means that the units retreated of their own accord, ie without receiving orders from above to retreat, which is definitely worthy of mentioning.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
16 days ago
Reply to  Matt Woodsmith

Ah, is that what it means? I was never sure…

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
16 days ago

“…Russian troops are enduring heavy punishment as their opponents rotate reserves from other fronts to stem the new incursion.”
Really? What are your sources for this statement? The same as the reports on Russia running out of artillery shells last year?
I mean, seriously, UnHerd. No one can possibly know this at this stage into events, and the reports from Ukraine on Russian casualties are as slanted as the reverse. By casually throwing in propaganda like this, you undermine your own arguments.

Walter Lantz
Walter Lantz
16 days ago

I don’t think any issue provokes more angry debate on Unherd than the Russia Ukraine conflict. IMO the lack of reliable unbiased intelligence of what is really happening on the ground is a big factor. The fact that Russia appears to have defied the experts and fights on is clearly ramping up frustration levels.
This article does seem to confirm what we’ve known for a while: Ukraine is running out of soldiers in a war of attrition where the math is not in their favour. It should also be mentioned that those that warned of the attrition problem in the past were often dismissed as appeasers or apologists.
Another problem – nicely pointed out by our fellow Unherder Graham Stull – is that the economic sanctions have not worked. Specifically the oil price cap. For an excellent explanation head over to the YT channel What’s Going On With Shipping and watch Russian Oil Price Cap Failing! | Russia is Losing in the Black Sea but Winning on the High Seas? It’s clear that sinking Russian tankers or destroying Russian oil production would just blow the lid of a giant can of Not Good.
Who knows when or how this will end? Or if it will end? We do know a couple of things though. Ukraine will never be the same. Putin is many things but stupid isn’t one of them.
Thomas Sowell says “There are no solutions, only trade-offs”. The West, as it currently exists, does not have the military or economic strength or will to force solutions like Rules Based Order or Net Zero on the RotW. In my view, unless that changes we’re bound to see an increase in high-stakes economic and geo-political trade-offs and the inevitable list of winners and losers.

Martin M
Martin M
15 days ago
Reply to  Walter Lantz

Even if you are right, the West could be doing more to damage Russia. If it were up to me, Ukraine would get sufficient long range missiles to set ALL Russia’s oil infrastructure on fire. Hopefully there would be a few left to put some holes in the buildings of the Kremlin too.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
16 days ago

Sauron’s hammer …Grond is coming