Kharkiv attack a sign of worse to come unless Ukraine and West move fast

Russia is stretching Ukraine’s defences and exploiting its lack of soldiers and arms

Russia’s limited advance into Ukraine’s Kharkiv region this week capitalised on delays and shortcomings in several crucial fields that Kyiv and its western allies must remedy quickly to prevent Kremlin forces making bigger gains in the coming months.

Moscow sent up to 10,000 troops over the border into the north of Kharkiv region on May 10th, and over the following days advanced as much as 10km in some areas and took control of about a dozen empty or sparsely inhabited villages.

The main fighting is taking place in and around Vovchansk, a town about 5km from the frontier where Ukraine says it has stopped the invasion force in the northern outskirts. Russia seized Vovchansk early in its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, but the town and other occupied parts of Kharkiv were liberated six months later.

Three fundamental and interconnected Ukrainian weaknesses allowed Russia to have some success in Kharkiv: a lack of fortified defences near the border, a shortage of weapons and ammunition, and too few personnel in the armed forces.


Ukraine has been slow to build trenches, reinforced bunkers, anti-tank positions and other defensive installations in vulnerable areas of the 1,000km front line, stretching from Kharkiv in the northeast, through Donetsk and Luhansk regions, to Zaporizhzhia and Kherson provinces in the southeast.

Several fortified lines are now in place, but in Kharkiv they could not be built close to the frontier because Russia could easily have targeted the engineering teams with cross-border artillery fire.

The United States and some other western countries restrict Ukraine to using weapons they supply only on occupied Ukrainian territory, which prevents Kyiv from striking enemy artillery sitting just on the Russian side of the frontier, or the 30,000 or so troops that Moscow massed close to Kharkiv region in recent weeks.

A six-month block on US military aid to Kyiv, imposed by Republican Party allies of former president Donald Trump, left Ukraine desperately short of artillery shells and air defence ammunition and increased Russia’s freedom to operate in border areas, where its airforce has pounded Ukrainian positions and settlements with so-called glide bombs that can weigh up to 1.5 tonnes and fly for 50km.

More weapons are now coming from Washington, but Kyiv is still struggling to persuade allies to part with advanced air-defence systems, particularly US-made Patriots, that are sitting idle in the West but would be daily lifesavers in Ukraine.

It is still unclear when Ukraine will receive F-16 fighter jets from its partners, but they will only go some way to reducing Russia’s aerial advantage – and more air defence systems must be committed to protect the bases that will serve the planes.

In the meantime Russia is also ramping up military production at a rate the West is failing to match, while also receiving weapons from North Korea and Iran and enormous amounts of “dual-use” items from China that soften the impact of western sanctions on Moscow’s military machine.

Russia also continues to expand its army, drawing on a population of 140 million and the readiness of many people to go to war to escape the deep poverty that blights many areas. Russia is now thought to have more than 500,000 soldiers in its invasion force and claims that 30,000 people are volunteering every month to join up.

Ukraine, by contrast, is struggling to bring fresh troops into its ranks as long-delayed reforms to the mobilisation process are implemented slowly, forcing many soldiers to keep fighting despite having spent more than two years at the front.

Since Ukraine’s counteroffensive ended in failure last summer – due in large part to its inability to overcome deep layers of Russian minefields and front-line fortifications in occupied territory – analysts have said this year will be hard for the country as it tries to replenish its own ranks while facing a new offensive by a much bigger enemy.

This week’s Kharkiv incursion shows how Russia will seek to compound the stress on Ukraine by expanding the front line and forcing it to make tough choices about where to deploy troops and equipment.

Moscow will be looking for cracks in Ukraine’s defences, and will hope to open and exploit them before Kyiv can reinforce its lines with freshly mobilised troops and the weapons and ammunition that allies say will soon start to flow in greater volume.

Russia’s immediate goals in Kharkiv region appear to be the creation of a buffer zone to shield its own border province of Belgorod from Ukrainian attack and to stretch Ukraine’s forces and weaken its defences in Donetsk region, which remains the Kremlin’s top priority. Moscow will also hope that news of fresh fighting will discourage Ukrainians from joining the army.

“The outlook in Ukraine is bleak,” Jack Watling of the Royal United Services Institute think tank wrote this week. “However, if Ukraine’s allies engage now to replenish Ukrainian munitions stockpiles, help to establish a robust training pipeline, and make the industrial investments to sustain the effort then Russia’s summer offensive can be blunted, and Ukraine will receive the breathing space it needs to regain the initiative.”