KHARKIV, Ukraine – Soldiers waved to traffic, emerging from trenches dug into the side of a multi-storey apartment building, asking drivers to turn around. Firefighters arrived shortly after, opening hoses to fight the growing blaze, ignited by shells that hit a nearby housing complex.
More than 30 days since Russia invaded Ukraine, it is highly unlikely that Russian forces will be able to capture Kharkiv any time soon, a city of 1.4 million people about 30 miles from the Russian border. But every day grenades, rockets and guided missiles are fired into its vicinity. Parts of the city are currently unidentifiable. Many have fled or lived underground.
This systematic destruction creates little military benefit, but is part of a broader strategy to capture the eastern part of the country, analysts and US military officials say.
Kharkiv’s devastation is a template for Russia’s shifting strategy as it turns its attention to Ukraine’s Donbas region, an enclave in the east roughly the size of New Hampshire. It includes two breakaway regions southeast of Kharkiv, where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian government forces for eight years. A significant amount of Ukrainian forces are still entrenched there.
Unable to achieve a quick victory or capture the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, Russia resorted to shelling of major population centers such as Kharkiv to the north and Mariupol to the south, to ensure that resources were not available. Ukraine’s forces, manpower and civil services were taken from the front lines. where the Russians are trying to take territory.
“They’re trying to tie up Ukrainian forces so they can focus on the northern and southern parts of the country,” said Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at CNA, a think tank in Arlington, Va. .
That is an important goal for Russian President Putin. Gaining control of the Donbas would effectively split part of Eastern Ukraine and the Russian leader could sell it to his country as a victory – perhaps on May 9, Victory Day of the Russian Federation. Russia, as the country honors its victory over Germany in World War II.
At the same time, Putin also has aides involved in the peace talks that could serve as a backup if Russia lacks a decisive victory on the battlefield. A peace deal that includes key Ukrainian concessions could help Putin declare that Russia’s mission is accomplished, even if its forces fail to topple the government of President Volodomyr Zelensky of Ukraine. .
Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city and once home to a vibrant social scene, is in fact a ghost town. At 8 p.m., shades were drawn and the citywide blackout lasted until sunrise. The stars can be easily seen in the night sky.
Some neighborhoods were unaffected by the shelling, while others were completely devastated. Apartments in the hard-hit areas burned down, cars overturned, power lines were cut and shrapnel littered every square meter of some roads, easily exploding car tires.
The shelling redirects resources that can be turned into combat. Soldiers had to dig trenches around the perimeter of the city waiting for a ground attack that might never come. Police darted across the city, pulling people over and arresting suspected Russian saboteurs. The city’s fire department records an average of 10 to 20 calls a day, often just to deal with shelling damage, and is frequently forced to rely on its own water tanker due to damaged hydrants. serious harm.
Russia’s initial efforts to completely take over Ukraine failed almost from the get-go, an outcome that caught many analysts by surprise. Conventional thinking is that Ukraine, with its smaller and less equipped army, will be defeated and that the Russians will eventually fight an insurgency instead of a standing army.
The opposite turned out to be true. As Russian forces retreated around Kyiv, Ukrainian forces gained positions in the northeast and south of the country. The southern city of Mariupol has been besieged and besieged by Russian troops for weeks, but has yet to be captured. No other southern coastal city, Mykolaiv, was also targeted by Russia. Hand-to-hand firefights became the norm as infantry forces of both sides engaged.
But although Russia was plagued by low morale, logistical problems and casualties, its units, for the most part, did not immediately surrender or flee.
Analysts say that Russia’s failure has stemmed from one point: doing too many things at once.
“Ultimately, it became clear that their initial campaign was a military strategy that was completely unworkable,” Kofman said. “They are competing along the advancement axis, and they are basically going in opposite directions along the way. There is no way they will succeed. “
In a way, Russia’s repositioning provided a pause in the war. With the first phase over and the second just beginning, both sides are trying to prepare each other’s next move.
“To carry out an attack in Donbas, the Russians will need access to all the forces they have trapped around Kyiv,” Kofman said, concluding that military officials in Washington has also been achieved.
By shifting forces to the east, Moscow has limited the amount of pressure on its forces; Occupied breakaway regions and the heavily exploited front lines there are natural fulcrums for any future Russian advance. The separatist forces there have also provided backup troops ready to help Russia make progress earlier in the war.
But even with Russia’s modest interests around the Donbas and the reshuffle from Kyiv, it remains unclear whether Russia has enough forces to complete its strategy of encircling Ukrainian forces entrenched in Donbas, taking over this area and complete a land bridge to occupy Crimea or not. , which it seized in 2014.
Russo-Ukrainian War: Main developments
The number of Russian losses in the war is unknown, although Western intelligence agencies put the figure at around 10,000 killed and 30,000 wounded. The losses of armored vehicles – key equipment needed in any attack in this war – amounted to hundreds of vehicles, according to military research groups.
What is even more horrifying is the current state of Ukrainian forces.
The Ukrainian government has severely limited information on their casualty numbers, and front-line access to their forces is practically non-existent for most news organizations. But what is clear is that Ukrainian units are engaged in a protracted war, and in receiving advanced weapons, air support, heavy artillery and a determined enemy. This begs the question: How long can they hold up?
Around Izium, a city about 45,000 about 75 miles southeast of Kharkiv, Russian forces suffered less severe losses than Ukrainian fighters, according to a US military official, helping the military. Russia reinforces their front lines. Despite the city’s strategic importance, Ukrainian forces were unable to withstand the attack.
“The Ukrainian army has lost a significant amount of equipment and will need a significant amount of ammunition for its artillery units,” Kofman said. “The Ukrainian government has also mobilized a significant amount of their reserves; they just don’t have enough equipment for them. ”
Although Western-supplied weapons, such as the Javelin anti-tank missile, have received a lot of attention, the war in Ukraine has also focused on indirect fire: mortars, artillery and rockets. So far, Russia’s strategy has been to use heavy artillery to help capture territory, then build fortifications and defend it until their casualties become zero.
That strategy has also worked for the Ukrainians. This was evident in Trostyanets, a town in northeastern Ukraine that was recaptured from the Russians a few days ago. According to residents, the tide of the battle changed when Ukrainian forces shelled and successfully destroyed a Russian artillery position in one of the town squares.
Analysts say this dynamic will continue in the Donbas, an area less densely populated than western Ukraine, with small towns, a mile-long road network and mostly flanks flat plain.
“Ukrainian forces had a lot of success when the Russian forces really degraded and had to withdraw because of losses,” said Kofman. “But there are still big battles to come.”
Natalia Yermak contributed reporting from Kharkiv, Ukraine and Anton Troianovski from Istanbul.