Is Russia's Attack on Northeastern Ukraine Already Losing Momentum? - Latest Global News

Is Russia’s Attack on Northeastern Ukraine Already Losing Momentum?

Kyiv, Ukraine – The policeman had to scream because of the incessant, crackling cannonade around him.

“The enemy is taking position on the streets of Vovchansk, so evacuate the people,” the bearded officer in a protective vest and helmet urged residents of the Ukrainian town near the Russian border.

His call was filmed and posted on Telegram on Wednesday. As Russia’s war against Ukraine escalates, the film has since been viewed more than 13,000 times.

Vovchansk is an industrial city in the northeastern Kharkiv region, just five kilometers from the Russian border, that has been under attack since Friday.

At this point, Russian forces began their two-pronged raid on the region, capturing nearly a dozen villages within a few days.

With residential and factory buildings that can be defended by small groups of military personnel, Vovchansk is more difficult to crack.

The Russians are still trying to capture an unused Soviet-era airfield and slaughterhouse that could serve as a base for further advances.

The second direction of their offensive began in the border town of Liptsy, about 50 km (31 miles) west of Vovchansk.

It is located on a highway that leads to the regional capital Kharkiv.

Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city with a pre-war population of 1.5 million, has been bombed almost continuously in recent months.

To date, the raid is Russia’s largest ground attack on Ukraine since August 2022, when the Ukrainian military drove the invaders out of most of the Kharkiv region.

“This is successful combat reconnaissance, they have made progress at the tactical level,” Lt. Gen. Ihor Romanenko, a former deputy chief of the general staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, told Al Jazeera.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow wanted to set up a “sanitary zone” in Kharkiv to protect Russia’s Belgorod region to the north, which has come under heavy fire from Ukrainian forces.

And although Ukrainian intelligence reported weeks ago that the Russians were attacking the region, Ukrainian forces have failed to establish a stable defensive line to prevent the invasion, Romanenko said.

“The situation there is difficult,” he said.

However, so far the Russians do not appear to have enough forces – at least 150,000 troops are needed to siege the city of Kharkiv, as their current contingent along the border is about three times smaller, Romanenko said.

However, Moscow is conducting a “covert mobilization” of hundreds of thousands of men and could send larger troops to take Kharkiv by late May or early June, he said.

“We can gather resources, build a defense system and thwart their attack plan,” he said.

Moscow’s move into Kharkiv may seem worrisome, but “given the challenges Russia faces, it is unlikely to result in operationally important penetration and exploitation,” retired NATO general Gordon “Skip” Davis Jr. told Al Jazeera.

Russia has deployed significant numbers of combat vehicles toward Kharkiv, supported by intensive air support, in an apparent attempt to pin Ukrainian forces in the north to enable advances south, he said.

“These advances would allow Russian forces to seize areas in the illegally annexed regions that remain under Ukrainian control,” he said.

Russia’s air superiority

One of its success factors is its undisputed air superiority since the start of the war in 2022.

The ground attack is supported by Russian bombers dropping heavy glide bombs capable of destroying even the most heavily fortified buildings.

These bombs played a crucial role in Moscow’s recent conquests in the eastern Donetsk region.

Ukraine abolished most of its Soviet-era air force and handed over all strategic bombers to Russia in the late 1990s to pay off natural gas debts.

Western powers agreed to deliver several dozen F-16 fighter jets, but the first six are not expected until the summer.

Another major obstacle is the taboo on using NATO weapons on Russian territory, as Western leaders fear angering Putin.

Firefighters work at the site of a Russian airstrike, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kharkiv, Ukraine May 14, 2024. REUTERS/Sofiia Gatilova
Firefighters work at the site of a Russian airstrike in Kharkiv, Ukraine, May 14, 2024 [Sofiia Gatilova/Reuters]

As a result, “Moscow’s forces are exploiting adjacent Russian land and airspace, which have essentially become havens for Western-provided long-range fire systems and munitions,” Davis said.

“It is time for Western leaders to lift these externally imposed restrictions and allow Ukraine to effectively defend itself using all available means.”

The U.S. Helsinki Commission, a human rights group, said Wednesday that the White House “must not only allow but encourage Ukrainian forces to attack Russian forces firing and stationing on Russia’s borders and share information to carry out massive… “To prevent loss of human life.”

The White House appears to be reeling.

“We have not encouraged or enabled attacks outside Ukraine, but ultimately Ukraine must decide for itself how it will fight this war,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said earlier on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Russian soldiers are paying a heavy price for their success.

According to Kyrylo Sazonov, a Ukrainian military analyst, those who refused to take part in front-line attacks on Ukrainian trenches – which usually result in next to no survivors – were killed by other Russian soldiers.

Sazonov posted on his Telegram channel written denials found on the bodies of four Russian soldiers killed near the village of Staritsa.

Ukrainian counterattacks forced the Russians to abandon the village of Zelene, which lies on the road to the city of Kharkiv.

“On this leg of ‘Russia’s great advance toward Kharkiv,’ its speed dropped to almost zero,” military analyst Konstantin Mashovets wrote on Telegram on Thursday.

Western analysts agree with him.

The speed of Moscow’s offensive in Kharkiv “continues to decline after Russian forces initially captured areas that Ukrainian officials have since confirmed are less well defended,” the Institute for the Study of War think tank said on Thursday.

However, many Kharkiv residents feel disoriented and scared.

“This feels like a recurring nightmare,” said Oleksandra Bondarenko, a 42-year-old saleswoman who fled Kharkiv in 2022 to settle in Kiev with her teenage daughter and two cats.

“Europe and America are arguing about whether to give us planes or missiles, voting on military aid, and the Russians just won’t give up,” she told Al Jazeera outside the grocery store in central Kiev where she works nervously puffs on a cigarette.

“Democracy doesn’t seem to work during war, and for us that means endless losses.”

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