Russia advances on new front, stretching outnumbered Ukrainian troops

Ukrainian officials say Russia is likely to ramp up offensives into summer.
Ukrainian officials say Russia is likely to ramp up offensives into summer.

Summary

Ukrainian troops are fighting enemy forces inside the border city of Vovchansk, as Moscow forces them to spread themselves more thinly while they await much-needed U.S. weaponry.

KHARKIV, Ukraine—Russian forces are fighting inside the northeastern border city of Vovchansk, as Moscow grinds forward on a new front while Kyiv is still waiting for much-needed U.S. weaponry to reach the battlefield.

Russia’s advance into the city, located about three miles south of the border with Russia, is part of a push into Kharkiv province that is drawing Ukrainian troops from other fronts in the east and is aimed at threatening the regional capital of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. Russia has seized a handful of villages since it sent armored vehicles and infantry across the border on Friday.

“The situation in Vovchansk is extremely difficult," the city’s chief of police, Oleksiy Kharkivskiy, said Wednesday in a video posted from inside Vovchansk on Facebook. “The enemy is taking positions on the streets." As he spoke, the sound of gunfire popped constantly around him.

Ukrainian officials and Western analysts said Russian forces were unlikely to be sufficient for a major breakthrough or to launch a direct assault on Kharkiv. But the advance could gobble up territory and further stretch Ukraine’s outnumbered forces. Ukraine’s military acknowledged pulling back troops around Vovchansk and another village to the west, but said it was fighting to retake lost positions.

Before departing Ukraine Wednesday after a two-day visit, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. is looking at ways to rush in additional air-defense systems for Ukrainian troops, especially in Kharkiv. During his two-day visit, he said he had detailed discussions with top officials about the delivery of Patriot missiles and other systems into the country.

“We are intensely focused on Patriots and other possible defense, and making sure that we can find them and bring them to Ukraine," he said. “Kharkiv is of course one urgent priority. There are others."

U.S. officials said that some of the newly approved aid is already arriving in Ukraine, and that Russia is redoubling its offensive in anticipation that resistance will stiffen as it arrives. The new aid will include long-range ATACMS, or Army Tactical Missile Systems, that can hit any Russian target inside Ukraine. Kyiv, at the behest of the Biden administration, has pledged not to use U.S. weapons on Russian territory, the launchpad for the Kharkiv offensive.

For months, Ukrainian officials had warned that Russian forces were again preparing to assault Kharkiv, which stands just 25 miles from the border. Russia occupied much of the Kharkiv region, including Vovchansk, at the start of its full-scale invasion in February of 2022. Ukrainian forces retook almost all occupied territory in the Kharkiv region during a lightning offensive in September of that same year.

But when the Russian assault began last week, Ukrainian forces were caught unprepared, according to military analysts—with units out of position and without substantial fortifications in some border areas, including in Vovchansk. More considerable fortifications have been constructed deeper into the country, analysts say.

Some of Ukraine’s best units have been moved from the eastern Donetsk region—which had been the focus of Russian assaults in recent months—to help shore up defenses in the Kharkiv region. Still, most of the weaponry that the U.S. approved last month still hasn’t arrived, leaving Ukrainian forces short on artillery ammunition.

Sr. Lt. Denys Yaroslavsky, the commander of a unit in the 57th Brigade defending Vovchansk, was in a bunker inside the city on May 9, watching from a drone feed as two Russian armored fighting vehicles charged through a fence that demarcates the international border and a group of 15 Russian troops came out and entered the city. At least two more waves followed as Yaroslavsky alerted the military leadership and fed coordinates to Ukrainian artillery teams.

“We’ve got another Bakhmut on our hands," he said in an interview, referring to the Ukrainian city that Russia seized last year after nine months of brutal fighting a year ago, and which Yaroslavsky’s unit defended.

The Russians are dropping heavy glide bombs on Vovchansk and shelling it with artillery. They are also using Lancet drones that smash into targets at more than 100 miles an hour.

For Russia, it would already be a success to get back into artillery range of Kharkiv city. Throughout most of 2022, the regional capital was menaced by Russian artillery bombardments, which killed hundreds and devastated the north district of Saltivka.

At an evacuation hub in Kharkiv on Wednesday, volunteers from the International Rescue Committee and other nongovernmental organizations each day register some 300 new arrivals from Vovchansk and Lyptsi, another village the Russians are assaulting. About 8,000 people have evacuated to Kharkiv from Vovchansk and surrounding villages since the new Russian offensive began last week, according to the Kharkiv administration.

Volodymyr Kharchenko, an employee of the local hospital, said he stepped over two Russian corpses as he walked from his house in north Vovchansk to an evacuation point in the city’s southern part on Wednesday. “The city is now divided between us and them," he said. A tank positioned near a meat factory several hundred yards away was targeting homes, he said.

Nadiya Mizharyova, a pensioner who left the city on Tuesday, said only the homeless and infirm remained in Vovchansk. “Everything is on fire," she said.

Lt. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine’s military-intelligence chief, said Ukrainian forces were stabilizing the situation in the Kharkiv region and working to push the Russians back. He also warned that the Russians were also massing forces for a potential incursion into the Sumy region west of Kharkiv.

“The main goal of this operation is an information operation to create chaos and panic in order to force our groups to withdraw from the eastern directions," Budanov said Wednesday on Ukrainian television.

Franz-Stefan Gady, a Vienna-based military analyst, said that by attacking on multiple axes, Russia was exploiting Kyiv’s growing shortage of manpower.

“It’s primarily a way to pull resources away and then push on into Chasiv Yar and Kramatorsk," Gady said, naming two of the largest cities in the eastern Donetsk region that remain under Ukrainian control. “They’re essentially setting up the Ukrainian armed forces for a game they can’t really win. They simply don’t have enough manpower to plug all these gaps."

Ukrainian forces are limited in their ability to strike back at the Russians—not only because of the shortage of manpower and ammunition, but also because the U.S. prohibits Kyiv from firing American weapons into Russian territory. That rules out the use of Himars rocket systems and ATACMS missiles, two of Ukraine’s longest-range and most effective weapons.

George Barros, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, said the U.S. could immediately alter the battlespace in Kharkiv if the U.S. would lift this ban.

In other parts of the country where the fighting continues, Russian forces have to run their supply lines through occupied parts of Ukraine, which Kyiv has repeatedly struck.

In the Kharkiv region, however, the front line runs along the border, meaning that Russian forces are setting up command posts, ammunition depots, air fields and other logistics centers inside of Russia.

The ban on firing American weapons at those targets, Barros said, lets Moscow move troops and weapons to the front far more efficiently than they’re able to in other regions, where they have to disperse and camouflage positions behind the line.

“It allows the Russians to bring a whole bunch of combat power into this really big area, and the Ukrainians are not able to engage them until they cross the international border," he said.

Asked Wednesday if the U.S. would allow Ukraine to use ATACMS against targets inside Russia, Blinken said: “We have not encouraged or enabled strikes outside of Ukraine. But ultimately Ukraine has to make decisions for itself about how it’s going to conduct this war, a war that it’s conducting in defense of its freedoms, of its sovereignty and its territorial integrity."

Nikita Nikolaienko contributed to this article

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