The war moves East, as Putin looks for a victory
By Thomas Gibbons-Neff
Soldiers waved off traffic, emerging from trenches dug into the side of a multistory apartment building, telling motorists to turn around. Firefighters arrived soon after, unfurling hoses to combat a growing blaze ignited by an artillery round that hit a nearby housing complex.
More than 30 days into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine there is little chance that Russian forces can soon seize Kharkiv, a city of 1.4 million roughly 30 miles from the Russian border. But every day howitzer shells, rockets and guided missiles slam into its neighborhoods. Parts of the city are now unrecognizable. Many people have fled or live underground.
This systematic destruction produces little military gain, but it is part of a broader strategy to seize the country’s East, analysts and U.S. military officials say.
The devastation of Kharkiv is a template for Russia’s shifting strategy as it turns its attention to Ukraine’s Donbas region, a swath of land in the East that is roughly the size of New Hampshire. It encompasses two breakaway enclaves located 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.
Having failed to score a quick victory or capture Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, Russia has resorted to shelling large population centers like Kharkiv in the north and Mariupol in the south, to ensure that Ukrainian resources, manpower and civil services are occupied away from the front lines where the Russians are looking to take territory.
“They’re trying to tie up Ukrainian forces so they can focus on the northern and southern part” of the country’s east, said Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Virginia.
It is a critical goal for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Gaining control of the Donbas would effectively partition off a piece of Eastern Ukraine, and the Russian leader could sell it to his country as a victory — perhaps by May 9, Russia’s Victory Day, when the country honors its triumph over Germany in World War II.
At the same time, Putin also has aides engaged in peace talks that could serve as something of a backup option if Russia falls short of a decisive battlefield victory. A peace agreement that includes significant Ukrainian concessions could give Putin a way to declare that Russia’s mission was accomplished, even if its forces failed to topple the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city and once home to a vibrant social scene, is practically a ghost town. At 8 p.m., shades are drawn and a citywide blackout lasts until sunrise. Stars are easily seen in the night sky.
Some neighborhoods are untouched by the shelling, while others are completely decimated. Apartments in the hard-hit areas are burned out, cars flipped over, wires severed and shrapnel litters what seems like every square foot of some thoroughfares, easily popping car tires.
The shelling diverts resources that might otherwise go toward fighting. Soldiers have to dig trenches around the city’s perimeter waiting for a ground attack that will likely never come. Police dart around the city, pulling people over and arresting those suspected of being Russian saboteurs. The city’s fire department logs an average of 10 to 20 calls a day, often just to deal with the damage from the shelling, and it is frequently forced to rely on its own water tankers because of the extensive damage to hydrants.
Russia’s initial attempts to completely seize Ukraine failed almost as soon as they began, an outcome that surprised many analysts. The conventional thinking was that Ukraine, with the far smaller and less equipped military, would be outmatched and that the Russians would end up fighting an insurgency instead of a standing military.
The Russian failure boiled down to one point, analysts said: doing too much at once.
“Eventually it became clear their initial campaign was a completely unworkable military strategy,” Kofman said. “They were competing along axes of advancement, and they were basically advancing in opposite directions on the way. There was no way they were going to succeed.”
Russia’s repositioning has created, in some ways, a pause in the war. With its first phase over and the second phase just beginning, both sides are trying to prepare for each other’s next move.
“To attempt an assault in the Donbas, the Russians will need access to all the forces they’ve stuck around Kyiv,” Kofman said, a conclusion that military officials in Washington have also reached.
By shifting forces to the east, Moscow has limited the amount of pressure on its forces; the occupied separatist regions and the heavily mined front lines there provide a natural backstop for any future Russian advances. The separatist forces there have also provided willing backup troops that helped Russia make progress earlier in the war.
But even with modest Russian gains around the Donbas and the reshuffling of forces from Kyiv, it remains unclear if Russia has enough forces to complete its strategy of encircling the Ukrainian forces entrenched in the Donbas, seizing the region and completing a land bridge to occupied Crimea, which it seized in 2014.
“The Ukrainian forces have had a lot of success where Russian forces have been really degraded and have had to retreat because of their losses,” Kofman said. “But there are still major battles to come.”