Ukraine War: With a surprise cross-border attack, Russia mercilessly exposes Ukraine’s vulnerabilities



CNN

For Ukraine, May seems to be the harshest month.

The town of Vovchansk in the Kharkiv region in the north of the country, liberated from Russian occupation more than 18 months ago, woke up on Friday to intense aerial bombardment. Russia has found another way to extend Ukraine’s already thin blue line.

President Volodymyr Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials said Russian efforts to advance on the city had been thwarted, but the Russians had since tried to cut road links with Vovchansk.

The Russians launched battalion-strength attacks along a 60-kilometre stretch of the border on Friday, claiming to occupy several villages in what is known as the “gray zone” along the border, after focusing much of their offensive capabilities this year on a milling operation. The advance on Donetsk in the east saw gradual but significant progress.

As of Saturday, the Russians appeared to still be in control of a few Ukrainian border villages, with intense aerial bombardment continuing in the Vovchansk region.

CrossThe border attack is another example of what is wrong with Ukrainians this year. Its forces are widely dispersed, have far less artillery than Russia’s, have largely inadequate air defenses, and, most important of all, are short of soldiers. Their plight was exacerbated by dry weather, which allowed Russian mechanized units to move more easily.

“Our problem is very simple: we have no weapons,” the deputy head of Ukrainian defense intelligence, Major General Vadim Skibitsky, told The Economist last week. “They always knew that April and May would be a difficult time for us.”

Ukrainian intelligence estimates that despite heavy losses since the start of the full-scale invasion, Russia now has more than half a million men inside Ukraine or on its borders. It also “generates a division of reserves” in central Russia, according to Skibitsky.

The attack on the northern border comes after the establishment of a new Russian military grouping called Siver [North]. George Barros, of the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, told CNN that Sèvres is a “group of practical importance.”

“Russia sought to raise between 60,000 and 100,000 troops for its group to attack Kharkiv, and we estimate it is closer to 50,000 troops, but it still has a significant amount of combat power,” Barros says.

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From this new force, armored infantry units attempted to cross the border. Available evidence suggests that they were expecting and suffered significant losses. But if more elite units join (there are reports that elements from other divisions may do so), Russia’s ambitions could grow.

As a Ukrainian special forces unit told CNN this weekend: “This is just the beginning. The Russians have a beachhead for more attacks.”

“Manpower shortages are forcing Ukraine to avoid deploying large units along the border on a continuous basis, with artillery fully equipped and ready for immediate use,” says one former Ukrainian officer who writes about the conflict on the Frontligence blog.

He expected the situation to develop, “as Russian forces deploy more units to penetrate additional border areas or to consolidate initial successes.”

Many analysts expect the Russians to expand their border attacks westward into the Sumy region, which has seen months of raids by Russian special forces.

Sever’s group could not attack and occupy a city the size of Kharkiv, but that was probably not the goal. Instead, Barros says, the goal is to force Ukrainian forces to shift from Donetsk to the Kharkiv region. Barros says the Russians are seeking to “reduce Ukrainian forces along the 600-mile front line and create opportunities, specifically in the Donetsk region, which is Russia’s main operational goal for 2024.”

The latest cross-border attacks could also divert Ukrainian units from defending Kobyansk, which is also in the Kharkiv region, where the Russian offensive stopped months ago, as well as creating a buffer zone inside Ukraine that the Kremlin says it wants to reduce attacks on. Russian cities such as Belgorod.

What is happening in Kharkiv is not isolated. The Ukrainian military this week acknowledged a significant rise in combat engagements (more than 150 on Thursday alone), coming on top of a notable increase in the March-April period.

In fact, the Russians have the manpower to stretch Ukrainian defenses across multiple attack points hundreds of kilometers apart from each other, forcing Kiev to guess where and when the attack expected in early summer will be focused.

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The increasing pace of attacks exacerbates Ukraine’s two critical vulnerabilities: insufficient manpower and weak air defenses. Russia is hastily exploiting both, eager to establish the facts on the ground before a new wave of Western aid can help. This is at least weeks away in any meaningful amounts.

“Manpower remains a key challenge, and Ukraine is working to restore its existing degraded brigades as well as about 10 new maneuver brigades,” says Barros.

An apartment building in Sumy, eastern Ukraine, was severely damaged by a Russian drone strike.

Just last month, a law was passed to expand mobilization, nearly two years after Russia mobilized about 300,000 additional troops. The process has stalled in the Ukrainian parliament for months, and President Zelensky has been wary of the cost and political ramifications of a more widespread mobilization. Numerical shortages have worsened sharply across the front lines, providing Russian commanders with an increasing number of opportunities to explore vulnerabilities.

Western analysts believe that in Chasiv Yar, Donetsk, for example, the Ukrainians may be outnumbered 10:1, as well as suffering from chronic missile imbalance and a complete lack of air cover. One Ukrainian military blogger estimated this week that elements of as many as 15 Russian motorized rifle brigades (each with up to 1,000 men) were operating in the direction of Chasev Yar alone.

The loss of the high ground around Chasev Yar and an important belt of industrial towns and cities: Slavyansk, Kramatorsk and Kostyantinivka, makes it even more vulnerable.

Losing Chasev Yar is a distinct possibility – “not today or tomorrow, of course, but it all depends on our reserves and supplies,” Skibitsky told The Economist.

Northeast of Chasiv Yar, a soldier named Stanislav told Ukrainian television this week that after a month of “very active hostilities,” the Russians are “advancing from the direction of Kremina, where they are accumulating significant reserves.”

The soldier said: “Huge numbers of Russian infantry attack day and night, in large and small groups.”

Shooting at Russian positions in the Kharkiv region on April 21.

Besides the shortage of trained soldiers, “Russia is exploiting Russian airspace as a haven to strike the Kharkiv region, highlighting the urgent need for the United States to provide more long-range air defense assets and allow the Ukrainians to use them to intercept Russian aircraft in the region.” “Russian airspace,” Barros says.

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The United States on Friday announced a $400 million package of air defense munitions and other weapons, but more will be needed.

Ukraine’s losses are exacerbated by the lack of prepared defensive positions behind the front lines. Where they can retreat. In Krasnohorivka, for example, Ukrainian units were able for several months to use residential buildings and a brick factory as defensive positions. They were slowly being wiped out – with one Russian military blogger claiming that artillery fire buried them “under the rubble of their shelters”.

President Zelensky and others have talked more about “active defence” — that is, having better defensive fortifications as a building block to turn the tide of the Russian advance. Zelensky himself toured such fortifications. But it is too little, too late in critical areas, especially in Donetsk.

Zelensky stressed this week that “we will be able to stop [Russians] In the East” when aid arrived. But he acknowledged that “the situation there is really difficult” and stressed that the aid that has arrived so far “is not the amount that was voted on.”

“We need everything to come faster,” he added.

And every day that this does not happen, the Russians move forward – and the Ukrainians lose soldiers they cannot afford to lose.

Barros says the Russians were prepared to stop military aid. The recent Russian gains we are seeing now are not merely opportunistic; The Russians have prepared for it and are now exploiting it. “Ukraine may need to make difficult decisions because of the slowness of US action and the dilemma it is now causing.”

This may amount to trading for some time. and ultimately accepting that much of the territory now lost may never be regained.

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