April 1, 2024 - 8:00am

In recent days, the Ukrainian border city of Kharkiv has been rocked by Russian bombardment. While its residents have grown used to this over two years of war, the deployment of an innovative weapon has made Kharkiv an even more dangerous place to be. The head of the regional police noted that Russia may have used a new type of glide bomb in the assault, which he described as a “flying bomb” constituting “something between a guided aerial bomb… and a missile”.

This is unlikely to be the last time that Kharkiv finds itself under attack. Last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned that Russia is massing its forces to launch a spring offensive in late May or June. Kharkiv appears to be the prime target for such an assault. Last month, independent Russian news outlet Verstka quoted Kremlin officials as saying that Moscow plans to implement a “creeping mobilisation” aimed at securing 300,000 soldiers before encircling and besieging Kharkiv. Last week, the Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces Oleksandr Syrskyi admitted that they are preparing to fortify Kharkiv’s defences and warned that any attempt to seize Ukraine’s second city would prove “fatal” to Moscow.

Syrskyi’s confidence in Ukraine’s fortifications may well be misplaced, since the construction of the defences necessary to hold off a Russian advance has been worryingly slow. Funding for expanding and strengthening such defences was not made available until January, and work only started on 1 March. While Ukraine aims to build three lines of fortifications across 2,000 km by the end of spring, concerns persist about flimsy materials, the sluggish pace of construction and shortages of the men and mines needed to protect them. Kyiv should take these issues seriously — Russia’s impregnable defensive lines allowed it to withstand Ukraine’s counter-offensive last year.

The deficiencies of its own defences are not the only problem plaguing Ukrainian military commanders. While Kyiv suffers the frontline impact of arms shortages and delays in the supply of US weaponry, Russia has been benefiting from the deployment of highly effective glide bombs — conventional bombs fitted with wings and a guidance system.

Although Russia began using them last year, production has recently been ramped up. They proved decisive in Moscow’s February victory in the Donetsk town of Avdiivka, where Ukrainian troops reported 60-80 a day being dropped and even used to hit fleeing soldiers. Obliterating multistory buildings in a single hit, glide bombs are difficult to shoot down and capable of devastating not just Ukraine’s landscape but also its morale; with experienced soldiers complaining of the vomiting, concussion and shell shock wrought by such high-impact weaponry.

These bombs are likely to prove a key component of Russia’s coming assault — Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba noted last week that they currently form “Russia’s main advantage on the battlefield” and that Russia had dropped 700 such bombs on Ukraine between 18th and 24th March.

In the autumn of 2022, Ukrainian forces captured the attention of the world when they liberated Kharkiv from Russian occupation. Now, as Russia prepares its coming assault, Kharkiv looks set to be the scene of another decisive battle.