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Russia had a golden opportunity to open a new front in Ukraine but is squandering it, military experts say

Mia Jankowicz   

Russia had a golden opportunity to open a new front in Ukraine but is squandering it, military experts say
  • Russia opened up a new front in the northern Ukrainian region of Kharkiv last month.
  • At the time, things were bleak for Ukraine. Even so, Russia's attack appears to have stalled.

Russia is fumbling a golden opportunity in Ukraine as its latest offensive stalls, experts told Business Insider.

A month ago, an estimated 30,000 Russian troops began pouring over Ukraine's northern border into the Kharkiv region, opening up a new front for Ukraine's already-stretched defenses.

Ukraine was in a particularly weak spot. Yet four weeks later, Russian forces have stalled, and White House National Security Communications Adviser John Kirby declared the offensive "all but over."

Looking back, what's remarkable is "how little so far Russia has actually achieved," Patrick Bury, a military analyst at the UK's University of Bath, told BI.

Not only that, the offensive has backfired strategically, prompting the US to allow Ukraine to strike targets on Russian soil using its weapons.

A dangerous moment

Rewind one month, things were looking grim for Ukraine.

The seeds had been sown much earlier. The monthslong Republican delay over a new tranche of US military aid had left Ukrainian forces desperately short of ammo and equipment.

Months of back-and-forth by Ukrainian parliamentarians over the terms of conscription had resulted in a backlog of fresh soldiers reaching the battlefield.

And in Russia, President Vladimir Putin was changing up his military leadership, readying to promote a technocrat to Minister of Defence, in a sign that he was getting serious about the needs of a long war, as Business Insider's Jake Epstein reported.

Russia had also begun pressuring Chasiv Yar, a strategic town in the eastern Donbas region, probing for a breach in an exhausted front line, while Ukraine was scrambling to build defensive fortifications, leaving its soldiers dangerously exposed.

When Putin's forces spilled over the border into the Kharkiv region on May 10, the defenses were so poor that one soldier told the BBC that they "just walked in."

Ukrainian soldiers also found that their Starlink-powered communications were jammed, The Washington Post reported.

Twenty miles away was Ukraine's second-largest city: Kharkiv.

A smattering of villages quickly fell, and soon Russian forces were claiming they had reached the strategic town of Vovchansk, which straddles a key highway. They didn't get much further.

Russia wouldn't reach it

Putin likely never had the means to capture Kharkiv city, RAND geopolitical strategist Ann Marie Dailey told BI, and the Russian leader himself soon claimed he had no plans to do so.

The goal of the offensive, Putin said, was to create a buffer zone on Ukrainian territory to shield the border region of Belgorod from Ukrainian attacks.

But it's likely Putin had other goals — and he may have succeeded in some of them, Bury told BI.

"It had a whole dynamic of panic, a new front close to Kharkiv. Could it rattle the Ukrainians?" he said.

The approach might have been one of "suck it and see," he added. "If there is some sort of collapse, if there is a success, we'll reinforce it," he said, describing the likely thinking.

Putin also likely wanted to draw off Ukrainian forces from elsewhere.

Ukraine had to move badly needed units from Chasiv Yar to repel the attack, Foreign Policy Research Institute Senior Fellow Rob Lee told the Chain Reaction podcast soon after the offensive was launched.

"They have to use their most elite units to plug holes," he said.

Even so, it looks like Russian forces were quickly overextended and poorly protected, The Telegraph reported.

Nick Reynolds, a land warfare research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, told BI that if Russia had waited until it was able to bring better-trained units to the fore, its forces might have been able to at least begin to encircle Kharkiv and control key highways.

But the Institute for the Study of War said that Putin may have rushed the offensive in an attempt to get ahead of incoming Western aid — fielding "an understrength force" in the process.

A strategic misstep

By mid-May, renewed Western aid appeared to be filtering through to Ukraine — with an influx of Howitzer shells starting to ease desperate ammunition shortages, the Kyiv Post reported.

On May 25, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that his forces were killing eight Russians for every Ukrainian lost in Kharkiv — a figure that both Bury and Dailey told BI was plausible given the advantages of defensive action, as well as Russia's notoriously cavalier attitude to its own soldiers.

As for Putin's stated goal of creating a buffer zone protecting Belgorod from Ukraine — in effect, he achieved the exact opposite.

Belgorod has long been vulnerable to cross-border attacks and had seen an increase in drone and rocket attacks throughout the spring, which Russia blamed Ukraine for.

But in gaining a small amount of cover for Belgorod, Putin has opened up a far more significant set of possibilities for Ukraine.

"The problem was strategically, it helped increase the Western understanding of how perilous the situation was getting," Bury said.

On May 30, Politico reported that President Joe Biden — prompted by the alarming news of the Kharkiv offensive — had quietly shifted on one of his long-held red lines.

The White House was now open to allowing Ukraine to strike inside Russian territory using US-made weapons, according to unnamed sources.

While Politico said this is only allowed to protect Kharkiv, Dailey said that as far as US red lines go, it's one of the most significant ones crossed so far.

Reynolds believes that ultimately, this step was coming anyway. "All the conditions were set for this," he said.

But as it stands, the primary goal of Russia's Kharkiv offensive has backfired, Bury added. "The US response has now put Belgorod under fire of better artillery."

The attack is far from over

While Russia is not banking on a dramatic breakthrough, it still has the initiative, Bury said — especially with its tendency to simply "grind it out" until something gives.

"That window of opportunity will not close for a while," he added.

Ukraine is likely to remain vulnerable for some time, as further military aid slowly arrives.

"I think that there's a broader offensive effort that you'll see from Russia later in this summer," Dailey told BI. "And so it is very possible that this was a probing attack — theater-setting operations for a larger push later in the year."

On Sunday, Russia's forces attacked border towns in Ukraine's northern Sumy region, some 100 miles west of Kharkiv, the Kyiv Post reported, in a sign that more attacks are to come.

"The Kharkiv offensive, even if it wasn't what the Russians have hoped for, ultimately in many ways it served its purpose," said Reynolds. "It placed increasing pressure on Ukrainians."

He added: "The Ukrainian situation is very worrying."

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