Ukraine Situation Report: “Fierce Battles” Rage In Kharkiv Region

Russia claims to have taken control of nine villages in the Kharkiv region, with reports of much more rapid progress than has been seen on other fronts.

byThomas Newdick|
A Ukrainian self-propelled howitzer 2S1 Gvozdika drives past a damaged car on a road in the Vovchansk district, Kharkiv region, on May 12, 2024, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Thousands of people have been evacuated from border areas in Ukraine's Kharkiv region, as Russia kept up constant strikes on a key town as part of a cross-border offensive, officials said on May 12, 2024. The surprise Russian attack across Ukraine's northeastern border began on Friday, with troops making small advances in an area from where they had been pushed back nearly two years ago.
Photo by ROMAN PILIPEY/AFP via Getty Images
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Intense fighting is taking place in the north of Ukraine’s Kharkiv region, where Russia launched a new offensive last Friday, as you can read about here. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has confirmed that his forces are now taking part in fierce battles with the advancing Russian Army in different border areas. Meanwhile, Kyiv confirmed today it had replaced the commander responsible for the Kharkiv front line in the northeast of the country, although no reason was provided.

“Defensive battles are ongoing, fierce battles, on a large part of our border area,” Zelensky said in his nightly video Sunday.

Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi, commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, described the situation in the region as “difficult.”

Syrskyi denied that Russian forces had made a significant breakthrough, but admitted his forces were on the defensive. “[We] are fighting fierce defensive battles. The attempts of the Russian invaders to break through our defenses have been stopped,” he wrote on Telegram.

Meanwhile, the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces stated that Russia had launched at least 22 attacks over the previous 24 hours in two parts of the Kharkiv region and had achieved “tactical success.”

“The enemy is trying to deliberately stretch [the front line], attacking in small groups, but in new directions,” the governor of the Kharkiv region, Oleh Syniehubov, said on local TV.

Syniehubov claimed that Ukrainian forces were holding Russian troops back but warned that fighting threatened to spread to new settlements.

The Russian Ministry of Defense claims that its forces have taken up improved tactical positions outside four settlements in the region: Vesele, Neskuchne, Vovchansk, and Lyptsi, although this cannot be independently confirmed. In all, Russia claims it has captured at least nine villages in the Kharkiv region since this latest offensive began.

Clearly, the border town of Vovchansk has become a focal point of the Russian offensive, but the two sides are disputing exactly what is happening there.

Russia claims its forces have now entered Vovchansk, something that Ukraine denies. The fighting has seen the town come under heavy bombardment in recent days, forcing the evacuation of several thousand residents.

According to Syniehubov, at least 4,000 civilians have fled the region since Friday. The town had a prewar population of around 17,000.

Volodymyr Tymoshko, the head of the Kharkiv regional police, has provided specific details about the fighting around Vovchansk, claiming that Russian forces are using the same tactics employed in the campaigns for Bakhmut and Avdiivka, in the eastern Donetsk region.

In those last two cases, heavy bombardment was accompanied by large-scale infantry assaults that proved highly attritional for the attackers. Eventually, after months of fighting, Bakhmut and Avdiivka both fell into Russian hands but they were almost completely destroyed in the process and Russian losses were likely the heaviest of the war.

“Now the Russians are simply wiping [Vovchansk] off the face of the earth and advancing with the scorched earth method,” Tymoshko said. That is, they first scorch a specific area and then the infantry comes in, and they always advance in this way,” he said.

Tymoshko added that, as of Sunday afternoon, Russian forces were on the outskirts of the town and approaching from three directions, with engagements already taking place with Ukrainian infantry.

Other Ukrainian claims suggest that the country’s forces have had “partial success” in blunting the Russian advances in the region.

The General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said today that its units had stopped Russian forces from moving on the village of Lukyantsi in the north of the Kharkiv region. The general staff said on Telegram that Russian troops were still launching offensive actions, but that Ukraine would continue to build up its forces in the area, as required.

Analysts have suggested that the new Russian offensive is timed to exploit weaknesses in Ukrainian defenses that will not start to be addressed until significant amounts of new weaponry, recently approved by its U.S. and European allies, begin to arrive.

Russia has already been making progress in its ground offensives elsewhere in Ukraine. Despite heavy losses, the overwhelming numerical superiority that Moscow enjoys in terms of troops and hardware is making itself felt.

Ukrainian tanks on the way to the front line on May 12, 2024, in Vovchansk, Kharkiv Region, Ukraine. Photo by Kostiantyn Liberov/Libkos/Getty Images

For their part, Russian officials have talked of plans to create a “buffer zone” to protect its border regions against continued Ukrainian attacks, which have included drone and artillery strikes, as well as incursions into Russian territory involving small groups of ground forces, some of them supported by armor. The Belgorod region, adjacent to Ukraine, and where the offensive is occurring now, has come under repeated assault.

“We’re pushing the enemy back from the border, destroying the enemy in order to deprive the Kyiv regime of the opportunity to use relatively cheap rockets to attack Belgorod,” explained Yevgeny Poddubny, a military correspondent for Russia’s VGTRK state TV corporation, in a post on Telegram. He added that the operations in the Kharkiv region marked the beginning of “a new phase” in the war.

Additional signs that the fighting here may not be going in Kyiv’s favor emerged earlier today with the news of the removal of the commander of Ukraine’s operational forces in the Kharkiv region.

Local media announced that Brig. Gen. Mykhailo Drapatyi is the new commander of Ukrainian forces in the region, replacing Yurii Halushkin.

Ukrainian officials said that the decision to replace Halushkin was taken on May 11. This was a day after Russia launched its new operation in the region, since when Kremlin forces have made small but significant gains, according to reports.

The BBC reports that Russian forces have advanced only a few miles deep into Ukrainian territory, in the areas where they have penetrated, but the length of the front means that around 100 square kilometers (62 square miles) of Ukrainian territory has been taken. This represents much quicker gains than has been the case when Russia has launched similar offensives in the east of the country.

One feature of the new offensive in the Kharkiv region appears to be a new Russian theater tactical symbol, applied for identification purposes to tanks, armored vehicles, and other equipment, seen in the tweets below.

The new Russian offensive should also have the effect of drawing dwindling Ukrainian resources from elsewhere on the front lines, stretching its equipment and manpower, with Moscow set to benefit from having increased its troop numbers while Ukraine has struggled with recruitment to fill its own ranks.

While the offensive in the Kharkiv region is very much in its infancy, Moscow appears to see the potential to make extensive gains in the area, especially before Ukraine can benefit from the new batches of Western weapons headed its way. With that in mind, the situation is a highly dangerous one for Kyiv that could have major repercussions on the course of the war.

Before diving into more developments from the conflict in Ukraine, The War Zone readers can review our previous coverage here.

The Latest

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken believes that the delay in getting new arms shipments to Ukraine has had an adverse effect on Kyiv’s efforts in the war.

Blinken told CBS News yesterday that there is no doubt there has been a “cost in months-long delay in getting the supplementary budget request approved and the equipment sent out to Ukraine.”

However, Blinken said he still believes Ukraine can “hold the line in the east.”

“[Ukraine] can continue to press the advantages achieved for itself in the Black Sea, where it’s getting as much out through the Black Sea, feeding the world as it did before the Russian re-invasion of Ukraine, as well as to hold Russian forces at risk, including in Crimea to make it more difficult for them to continue this aggression,” Blinken added.

In a surprise move, Russian President Vladimir Putin fired his defense minister Sergei Shoigu, one of his longtime allies, as part of a major reshuffle to the military command structure. Shoigu’s replacement is Andrei Belousov, a former deputy prime minister and a specialist in economics with no military background. As part of the reshuffle, Shoigu will take up a position as the head of Russia’s security council.

In a statement seemingly calculated to endear him to Russia’s soldiers and their families, Belousov announced that he would campaign for the armed forces to have improved access to accommodation, hospitals, and welfare benefits. According to Russian state media, Belousov complained that the system of benefits paid to military personnel was too bureaucratic.

The new defense minister was making his first address to a parliamentary committee since taking office.

Ukrainian officials have responded to the developments in the Kremlin. Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said that the new appointments are evidence that Moscow wants to expand its war effort and configure the economy so it can better support the demands of the conflict.

“Russia is finally isolating itself and will try to scale up the war, and expand its formats while reconfiguring the economy,” Podolyak said on Telegram today.

Ukraine has continued its attacks on Russia’s Belgorod region, with which it shares a border.

Overnight, one-way attack drones launched by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) set fire to energy infrastructure targets in the Belgorod and Lipetsk regions, a Ukrainian intelligence source told Reuters today.

The attacks damaged the Oskolneftesnab oil depot near the city of Staryi Oskol in the Belgorod region and the Yeletskaya power substation in the Lipetsk region.

“Russian industry which works to wage war with Ukraine will remain a legitimate target for the SBU,” the security service said. “Measures to undermine the enemy’s military potential will continue.”

In related news, Russian industry is apparently now developing protective coverings for oil storage tanks, and other energy infrastructure. In the example below, a company producing gabion mesh — usually used to build cages filled with rocks or concrete for use in civil engineering — offers a presentation on how this could be used to protect infrastructure against Ukrainian long-range drone attacks.

The drone attacks followed reports of a major Ukrainian attack on the Belgorod region on Sunday, one of the deadliest of the war.

At least 15 people were killed and 20 injured when part of a Russian apartment block collapsed after being struck by fragments of a missile, Russian officials said. They added that a barrage of missiles and artillery rockets had been launched by Ukraine and at least one was then shot down by Russian air defenses, although it’s unclear which of those projectiles impacted the building.

Russian officials said that Ukraine fired at least 12 missiles, including Tochka (SS-21 Scarab) short-range ballistic missiles as well as Ukrainian Vilkha and Czechoslovak-made RM-70 Vampire multiple-launch rocket systems.

The Russian Ministry of Defense described the incident as a “terrorist attack on residential areas.”

Ukrainian officials have not commented on the attack, although Kyiv has, in the past, said that targeting Russian military, transport, and energy infrastructure is a legitimate strategy to undermine Moscow’s war effort.

Another recent incident purported to have taken place in the Belgorod region is this drone attack on a Russian AMN-590951 multi-purpose combat vehicle. The footage is said to have been captured by Russian soldiers who watched as the vehicle, said to be carrying ammunition, was targeted by a Ukrainian quadcopter-type drone, which evaded gunfire from the Russians before pressing home its attack.

Another significant Ukrainian attack on Russian energy infrastructure took place on Sunday, with a drone strike targeting a refinery in Volgograd. The attack led to the partial shutdown of the Lukoil’s LKOH.MM refinery, two sources familiar with the matter confirmed, according to Reuters.

The attack was the second this year on the refinery, the largest in southern Russia, with a daily output of 300,000 barrels.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s suggestion that the deployment of Western troops to Ukraine might be considered in the future continues to produce fallout in Russia.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that his country is ready to fight the West on the battlefield, according to the state-run RIA news agency.

Last week, the Kremlin warned that NATO sending troops into Ukraine would potentially be extremely dangerous.

After Macron recently reiterated that he had not ruled out sending troops to Ukraine, the Russian Foreign Ministry called out the French leader for what it described as statements that “cannot but amaze with their irresponsibility and thoughtlessness,” while also making a baseless claim that “mercenaries from the French Foreign Legion are already in Ukraine.”

At the same time, Russia announced drills practicing the use of tactical nuclear weapons, as a response to what it claims are provocative threats from the West. You can read more about that here.

A reported Ukrainian attack using U.K.-supplied Storm Shadow air-launched cruise missiles targeted a Russian air radar defense site in Russian-occupied Crimea. The attack, which targeted the site on the peak of Ai-Petri in the Crimean Mountains, is said to have killed a local commander, Oleksandr Kulakov. Unconfirmed Russian sources claim that at least one other serviceman was killed, and an unspecified number of personnel were injured.

Among the latest developments in the world of the ‘turtle tank’ are these examples of the unusual, improvised armored vehicles. In the first instance, a ‘turtle tank’ apparently based on a Cold War-era T-62 was knocked out and abandoned on the battlefield, location unknown. As well as the now-familiar ‘turtle’ carapace, this vehicle features extra cage armor, a feature we have also discussed before.

The second example has more in common with the shed-like metal cover on top of the tank, which first appeared on the battlefield last month.

The ‘turtle tanks’ are primarily designed to protect against drone attacks, especially by highly maneuverable first-person-view (FPV) kamikaze types, as seen in the video below.

The same video indicates that the ‘turtle tank’ also now seems to be in use in the Kharkiv region, where Russian forces have launched a new offensive, as discussed above. This example was said to have been headed toward Vovchansk before it struck a mine, which was claimed to be some 1,000 feet within the Russian side of the border. The vehicle was then knocked out by Ukrainian FPV drones.

As well as tanks, Ukrainian FPV drones continue to exact a heavy toll on other Russian vehicles. Here, one of the Ukrainian drones is seen being flown directly into the interior of a MT-LB tracked armored fighting vehicle, in which a Russian soldier was hiding out.

The next video shows FPV operators from the Ukrainian 47th Mechanized Brigade targeting a group of Russian soldiers, this time hiding out in abandoned farm buildings. The drone was reportedly fitted with some type of incendiary warhead, resulting in an enormous fireball.

Russia is employing various means to try and actively counter the FPV threat. In this footage, we see a Russian attack on a group of Ukrainian FPVs and their operators, while they were preparing for a mission. Russia appears to have employed some kind of cluster munition in the strike.

Ukrainian drone operators are repeatedly changing the radio frequencies used to maintain a link with their drones, to try and avoid being jammed by Russian electronic warfare systems. In the game of cat-and-mouse between Ukrainian FPVs and Russian countermeasures, this backpack device used by Russian counter-drone operators is reportedly already obsolete. However, the tetrahedron-shaped device mounted on a vehicle in the same video is claimed to be more effective.

The next video shows the destruction of a very obvious decoy by Russian forces. Reportedly, Russia launched an Iskander-M short-range ballistic missile to strike what it thought were elements of a Ukrainian Patriot air defense system.

While we have seen some highly accurate decoys used in the conflict in the past, the manufacturers of this example seem to have been much less concerned with realism when they set about recreating mockups of the M903 transporter-erector-launcher and AN/MPQ-64 Sentinel radar.

The results of a purported Ukrainian attack using the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) recently seem to have been notably more effective. The target is said to have been a celebratory gathering marking the anniversary of the so-called referendums in the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic in the Russian-occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine.

Held in the Donetsk region over the weekend, the event included a motor rally and was reportedly organized by Russian security forces and pro-Russian elements in the regions. The second video indicates that several people were killed as a result of what was reported as a HIMARS attack.

A video that recently appeared provides more evidence of the little-seen Russian BMP-T armored fighting vehicle in the war in Ukraine. Said to have been taken in February, the footage shows a BMP-T accompanying Russian tanks in the village of Novomykhailivka in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine.

In our last Situation Report, we shared footage showing an apparent Russian strike on one of Ukraine’s so-called FrankenSAM air defense systems, a weapon that had not previously been seen. Now, we also have what appears to be our first look at a successful Russian attack on another unique Ukrainian air defense system: the 6x6 Supacat High Mobility Transporter (HMT) vehicle armed with adapted ASRAAM air-to-air missiles. Developed by the British, you can read more about the system here. This example seems to have been struck by a Russian Lancet loitering munition, on around May 7.

That’s all until our next update on the war in Ukraine.

Contact the author: thomas@thewarzone.com

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