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Weekly Update: Russia Loses in Kharkiv
Pessimism is growing among Moscow analysts
Greetings from Zaporizhzhia! I am late with my promised Monday update after a couple days on the road. I only have a couple weeks left in Ukraine but with a lot planned, so updates may be a bit sporadic through early June. Still, I will make sure to get a weekly update out at some point until my departure.
The Battle for Kharkiv Wraps Up
The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War released a report last Friday announcing that Ukraine has already essentially won the Battle of Kharkiv, saying that Russia has already likely decided to withdraw fully from its positions around the city. The assessment, which was widely picked up by the press, was followed by a flurry of similar pronouncements by Ukraine watchers.
Then, on Sunday, the Ukrainian armed forces released footage showing the 227th Battalion of the 127th Brigade of the Territorial Defense Forces planting a post on the border north of Kharkiv, signifying that they had driven a wedge on the Russian line.
To be clear, fighting still continues around Kharkiv. Upon revisiting Slatyne on Friday, we encountered heavy artillery and soldiers blocking our path in the area, citing the enemy’s close proximity. According to Live Universal Awareness Map, the line has remained unchanged around Slatyne as of Tuesday.
But is it premature to call the battle won for Ukraine? Absolutely not; the optimism is reflected by facts on the ground. When the month began, the battle lines looked like this:
The situation was even worse on April 15, the day after I arrived.
Today, the map looks like this.
Russia now has no real way to threaten Kharkiv from the ground, giving the city’s civilians much needed respite from shelling. Ukraine is also now free to attack the Russian supply lines extending south through eastern Kharkiv Oblast to the Donbas front. Ukraine is starting to do just that, launching a counterattack near Izium even as Russia pushes forward (not so effectively) at Severodonestk in Luhansk Oblast.
Russia’s losses at Kharkiv also highlight a likely fatal shortcoming at the heart of the invasion’s inner workings. With the city located just 40 kilometers south of the border, a competent Russian military should have been able to besiege it with relative ease. Supply lines were barely an issue, while the local citizenry represented one of the more Russia-friendly populations in Ukraine. The push instead began stalling out after the first week of the war, leaving the city entirely in Ukrainian hands with the western flank clear. Russia did, however, succeed in alienating the people of Kharkiv Oblast from their “brother nation” to the north, as I discussed last week.
Russia’s Military Analysts Losing Faith
Retired Russian air defense colonel and military pundit Mikhail Khodaryonok delivered a take on the pro-Kremlin talk show 60 Minutes that did not sit well with the host. Urging people not to take “information tranquilizers,” he pushed against host Olga Skabeyeva’s notion that the Ukrainian military is suffering a crisis of morale. Coupled with the fact that the U.S. is set to send some $40 billion in aid through its new Lend Lease Act, Khodaryonok said that “a million armed Ukrainian soldiers needs to be viewed as a reality.”
Skabeyeva pushed back, saying that those soldiers are mostly conscripts, thus the opposing force would not constitute a “professional army.” Khodaryonok retorted that it mattered not if the soldiers were draftees or contract soldiers. “The thing is that the level of any army’s professionalism is determined not by the number recruited for professional service, but by the level of the personnel’s training, and its morale and readiness to shed blood for the homeland,” he said.
This is not the first time Khodaryonok has urged caution against war with Ukraine. In a column published 21 days before the invasion, he warned against underestimating the Ukrainian armed forces, saying that there would be “no Ukrainian blitzkrieg” in the event of war. He also stressed that the war would be against Russia’s national interests (of course, with the Kremlin categorically denying that an invasion would take place, such talk in Russia carried different implications at the time).
An arguably more striking example of disillusionment with the invasion came from Igor Girkin. Unlike Khodaryonok, who has long been granted grudging respect abroad for his sober analysis, the Moscow-born Girkin served as the first Minister of Defense for the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) in eastern Ukraine following a career in the FSB (along with wartime stints as a volunteer in Transnistria and Bosnia in the early 1990s). On his Telegram channel, Girkin on Wednesday admitted that the operation to defeat Ukrainian forces in Donetsk Oblast has thus far failed, with not a single sizable locality “liberated.” Nor can we expect any significant progress from Russian forces going into the summer, he added.
It is important to note that neither Girkin nor Khodaryonok are questioning the rationale for the invasion, nor are they criticizing Putin personally. Both are positioning themselves as critics of the Russian military strategy for their own self-interests, both taking for granted that they are understood to be undying supporters of the Kremlin’s greater objectives. They can both speak freely, safe in the knowledge that they are allowed to say such things given their credentials. Nor are they alone; more minor pro-war bloggers have said similar things in recent weeks. Still, that such views are now coming to the surface in socially acceptable Russian discourse speaks to the scale of the problems facing the Kremlin as the invasion continues to falter.
In other news
Ukraine announced on Tuesday the end of combat operations in Mariupol amid uncertainty as to the fate of the last defenders of the Azovstal steel plant. Wounded Ukrainian soldiers, many presumably from the Azov Regiment, were taken in buses marked with Z’s to Russian-occupied territory. According to the Ukrainian side, a prisoner swap for the men was arranged in advance and they will be returning home shortly. Whether Russia honors that bargain, of course, remains to be seen. Complicating matters is the fact that the Azov Regiment’s roots as a far-right paramilitary makes them a prime target for “denazification.” It is unclear how many fighters remain at Azovstal, and whether or not they will choose to fight to the end.
Writing for Tablet, Danny Gold surveys the scene of Kharkiv’s battlefields as the Russian offensive collapses.
Russian-born historian Sergey Radchenko argues in Spectator that his home country must suffer humiliation in Ukraine in order to get over its imperialism.
Quentin Sommerville of the BBC provides an action-filled account of his day at the frontline near Izium.