WP: Russian attack on Kharkiv caught Ukraine unprepared

13:43 21.05.2024 •

Photo: t.co

Despite months of complaints from troops over shortages and fatigue, Kyiv has been slow to ramp up mobilization, leaving some areas of the front critically understaffed, writes ‘The Washington Post’.

Russia’s new offensive across Ukraine’s northeastern border had been expected for months — yet it still surprised the Ukrainian soldiers stationed there to defend against it.

Ukraine’s 125th Territorial Defense Brigade — stretched thin along a roughly 27-mile stretch of the Kharkiv region’s border with Russia — used reconnaissance drones to monitor, daily, how Moscow was steadily building up forces for a possible attack. But the morning it happened, May 10, the brigade lost all its video feeds due to Russian electronic jamming.

Its Starlink devices — satellite internet the Ukrainian military relies on for basic communication — failed, the first time it was knocked out completely for them since February 2022.

“We were left at a certain point completely blind,” said a drone unit commander in the brigade. The Post agreed to identify him by his call sign, Artist, in keeping with Ukrainian military protocol.

“This was the biggest problem, we didn’t see how they were moving, we only worked through radio or through phones where they still worked,” Artist, a 53-year-old sergeant, said. The drone feeds, he said, “simply disappeared.”

Within days, the Russians had captured — for the second time — some 50 square miles of territory along the border, capitalizing on a moment of particular vulnerability for Ukraine’s military.

Begrudgingly, Ukrainian troops admit that their enemy has gotten smarter and adapted, especially with technological advancements such as electronic warfare — a sharp contrast with the first year of the invasion, when Russia’s own blunders and overconfidence allowed the Ukrainians to hold key cities and later liberate large swaths of territory in successful counteroffensives.

The new Russian advances, in Kharkiv and in the neighboring Donetsk region, have prompted questions about the viability of Ukraine’s defense — not only if Kyiv can fulfill its promise of expelling all invaders, but also if Russia will soon overpower Ukraine’s forces and seize more territory.

Even as they watched the Russians building up forces, Artist, the drone commander in the 125th Brigade, said the Ukrainians were largely unable to construct the kind of fortified defense lines now being emphasized by the government and by military commanders.

The assault on Vovchansk, a small city that Russian troops have already breached, could give Russia a lane to move toward Kupyansk, a city liberated by Ukrainian forces in September 2022. A second flank of the attack, toward the village of Lyptsi, could put Moscow’s forces in range to shell Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.

The scale and goal of Russia’s new offensive in Kharkiv remain murky, but experts say, at this stage, that capturing Kharkiv city is out of reach, partly because of Russia’s own soldier shortages. Russia has ramped up recruitment of contract soldiers and significantly boosted sign-up bonuses for men willing to fight — up to nearly $10,000 in some regions, roughly 15 times more than the median salary.

“Russia has resourced this as a limited incursion for a ‘buffer zone’, rather than an attempt to occupy the entirety of Kharkiv all at once,” said Dara Massicot, a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “However, this may be phase one of a larger long-term plan.”

The buffer zone is intended to protect Russia’s Belgorod region, which is adjacent to Kharkiv, from repeated Ukrainian strikes. It’s one of the few areas in Russia where residents feel the persistent, direct impact of a war…

Speaking from China during a state visit Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin himself said the operation was only to create buffer zone to protect Belgorod after repeated attacks on the city. “As for Kharkiv, there are no such plans as of today.”


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