By Big Serge

SMO: There are certain regions of the world that seemed destined by the cruel caprice of geography and chance to be perennial battlegrounds. Often these ravaged lands lay at the crossroads of imperial interests, as in the case of Afghanistan or Poland, which have been so frequently trampled by armies going this way or that, or else they are simply plagued by perennially unstable governance or roiling ethnic conflict. Sometimes, however, it is the peculiar logic of military operations that brings violence to the same place, again and again. One such notorious sufferer is the great industrial city of Kharkov, in northeastern Ukraine.
Originally founded as a modest fortress in the 17th Century, Kharkov was fated to play an unusual role in the Second World War. The city became a sort of symbol of frustration for the warring Soviet and German armies: it was the place that both armies wanted to get to, but could not quite seem to take and hold. In 1941 the city was captured in the waning phases of Germany’s colossal invasion of the USSR, and fell under occupation through the winter. In 1942, the city’s environs became the scene of an enormous battle when the Germans planned to launch an offensive out of Kharkov at exactly the same time that the Red Army planned an offensive towards it. The following year, the city was briefly recaptured by the Red Army as it pursued retreating German armies away from Stalingrad, before once again changing hands after a timely German counterattack. Finally, at the end of August 1943, the Soviets retook the city for good as they began their inexorable drive towards Berlin.
No major city changed hands as many times in World War Two as did Kharkov, which became the scene of no less than four substantial battles. The cruelty of fate had turned Kharkov into a sort of mutual culmination point - the spot on the map beyond which both armies repeatedly found it difficult to advance.
History does not repeat, as they say, but it does rhyme. Kharkov’s strategic position, as the great urban center blocking the inner bend of the northern Donets River, has not changed much in the eighty years since the Soviets and the Germans last fought in the forests here, and Kharkov Oblast is once more becoming the rope in a deadly game of tug of war. The area was briefly overrun by the Russian army in the opening weeks of the Special Military Operation, with the Russians establishing a screening line to cover their capture of the Lugansk shoulder. Later that year, Kharkov became the scene of Ukraine’s seminal military achievement of the war, when they overran the thin Russian defenses and launched a pursuit all the way to the Oskil River. And now, the Russians are back, launching a fresh attack into Kharkov Oblast on May 10. The sound of artillery is once again heard in the city.
The Northern Front
I understand the impulse to draw “big arrows”, as the parlance goes. Many people are becoming frustrated with the pace of the war and the positional nature of the combat, and so Russia opening a new front looks like a chance to unlock the frontline and restore mobile operations. I think this is misguided for several reasons, and more generally the idea that the Russians are making some sort of serious play for Kharkov is very wrongheaded. In fact, the opposite is true - it’s likely that we will see the Russians attempt to avoid fighting in Kharkov’s shadow. On the other end of the spectrum are those labeling the new offensive a “feint”, which is wrong both as a misunderstanding of the military nomenclature and of the Russian intentions.
First off, let’s clarify something about the word “feint”, and see how it does not at all apply to Russia’s Kharkov operation. A feint refers to a deceptive or distracting maneuver designed to disrupt the enemy’s decision making or pull his forces out of position. That is not what is happening here, for two reasons. First, the Kharkov operation is a real attack involving meaningful Russian forces. Russia currently has two Army Corps in this area of operations - the 11th and 44th, along with elements of the 6th Combined Arms Army and the 1st Guards Tank Army. This is a grouping with serious punch - the Ukrainians are of course forced to divert forces in response, but they are doing this not because they have been deceived but because the Russians are presenting a serious threat that warrants response. Secondly (as we will see shortly), this is an operation that has the potential to be supportive of Russia’s operations on the Oskil front (around Kupyansk).
In other words, it’s not a deception or a feint, but a real front that forces Ukraine to reallocate assets. By extending the front, they are drawing in Ukrainian reserves and fixing them in place - more on that later. But the new front is far more than just a distraction.
It may be useful to look a stripped down map of the area to get a handle on things. There are of course a variety of great mappers out there, like Kalibrated and Suryiak who do excellent work geolocating the war and marking front lines, but one drawback that they all share is that they use Google Maps for their base, which can make things look rather cluttered. In this case, a more minimalist view can help us see what is going on.
Right now, Russian operations are directed on two towns close to the border - Volchansk and Lypsti. Let’s consider what this means.
The first thing that we have to note is that Volchansk is on the east bank of the Donets River, meaning it is on the Kupyansk side and not the Kharkov side. The initial Russian thrust managed to cut Volchansk off from the west bank of the river, which means the main route for AFU forces to access the town would be the arterial road running north and crossing the river at Staryi Saltiv. However, on May 11 the Russians managed to destroy the bridge in Staryi Saltiv. There were only two bridges over the Donets within 30 miles of Volchansk; one is now physically blocked by the Russians after they captured the village of Staritsa, and the other is destroyed. Russia has also struck several ancillary bridges on the Volchya river, preventing the Ukrainians from efficiently moving reserves to the flanks of Volchansk.
This has put the AFU in a real bind. To feed reinforcements into Volchansk, they are forced to take a circuitous route (crossing the Donets near Chuguiv) and drive up a well surveilled road where they are extremely vulnerable to Russian fires. In essence, Volchansk has become an isolated battlespace where approaching Ukrainian reserves can be pummeled on the march. Geolocated Ukrainian losses from LostArmor confirm this, with hits clustering on that main avenue of approach.
This has turned Volchansk into a very well shaped battlespace, with Russia managing to partially bifurcate the front along the Donets River. Meanwhile, the Russian advance on Lyptsi has an important supportive role, in that it will allow Russian tube artillery to bring the city of Kharkov in range.
Ukraine has to defend this front, of course. Most of Russia’s forces in this grouping are still in reserve, and it is very clear that the AFU cannot simply allow the Russians to open a backdoor to Kupyansk for free. However, in the short term this defense is costly for the AFU, because the shaping of the battlespace and the lanes of approach for their reserves allow Russia to fight an effective interdiction battle. The Ukrainian army simply does not have adequate road access to Volchansk to hold the town for long.
In sum, the reopening of the Northern Front does not signal a qualitative change in the conduct of the war, but it does create a major stress on the AFU. Russia is not going to suddenly unlock the front and begin slicing mobile operations. This is still the same war that it has been for the last two years, with methodical positional fighting and paralyzing strike capabilities. But the Kharkov front does serve a variety of Russian interests, and supports the following goals:
Stretch the front laterally to denude Ukrainian strength and draw in AFU reserves.
Fight an interdiction battle, striking AFU forces as they deploy on the east bank of the Donets and degrading Ukraine’s ability to sustain their defenses.
Place the AFU around Kharkov under tube artillery fire.
In the longer term, exploit the front by isolating the Ukrainian grouping around Kupyansk.
The most important aspect of all this, however, is the ability to both force the Ukrainians to commit precious assets *and* attrit them in an efficient manner by forcing them to feed units into an isolated combat area on the east bank of the Donets. Ukraine’s ability to generate new forces and provide replacements is reaching its limits, with mobilization covering perhaps only 25% of losses. Budanov has complained that there are essentially no reserves left, and Ukraine has begun begging for western military trainers to deploy in Ukraine to allow for faster throughput on their mobilization and deployment.
For Russia, therefore, it’s very important to prevent Ukraine from husbanding resources, and that means drawing as many AFU assets into well shaped battles as possible. Kharkov would be an ideal example of this, with an operationally significant pressure point opened up so that the AFU is forced to funnel forces into a furnace. Opening an additional front in Sumy would have a similar effect.
The bigger problem for Ukraine, from a force generation perspective, is their increasing reliance on a small roster of premiere brigades which are constantly being shuttled around the front to fight fires and attend to pressing combat tasks. The most notorious example would be the 47th Mechanized Brigade, which was at the center of Ukraine’s failed Zaporizhian Counteroffensive before being scrambled to Avdiivka, where it was at the center of Ukraine’s fierce, but unsuccessful defensive stand. Now, the 47th is increasingly combat incapable, and a botched attempt to pull it out of the line for badly needed refit led to the debacle at Ocheretyne, where Russian forces exploited a yawning void in the Ukrainian line.
Reopening the Kharkov front creates yet another emergency to suck in these premiere assets. Already, the 93rd Mechanized Brigade has been scrambled into the Volchansk area - or at least, elements of it, as some units of the Brigade appear to still be fighting around Chasiv Yar in the Donbas. In total, the new Kharkov front seems to have absorbed nearly 30 Ukrainian battalions, which would be almost 10% of the AFU’s frontline strength (based on the 33 Division equivalent estimate that I discussed here).
The broader point here is that Russia’s vastly superior force generation allows it to accelerate the burn off of Ukraine combat power in two ways. First, by widening the front, they can create more and more hotspots that force the rapid reshuffling of Ukraine’s premiere assets; secondly, simply extending the active front can force Ukraine to feed newly mobilized personnel into the front faster.
The mess at Ocheretyne provides the best example of this. This sector had originally been under the auspices of the 47th Mechanized - once a premiere asset, now a hollow shell. When an attempt to swap the 47th out of the line went horribly wrong, how did the AFU plug the gap? By rushing in the 100th Mechanized Brigade - a unit which had been constituted less than a month before, and which had not yet even received heavy weapons characteristic of a Mechanized formation.
These sorts of emergencies add up to a simultaneous burn off of both the AFU’s present and future combat power; keeping the 47th in high intensity combat for months degraded a current critical asset, and the ensuing gash in the line forced the AFU to prematurely send an embryonic brigade into combat, burning off the future.
Under conditions like these, it becomes frankly nonsensical to chart Ukraine’s path forward on the ground. An army that is in a constant state of reacting to emergencies can only continue for so long before they stop reacting at all, and an army that is constantly forced to scramble its best brigades around and deploy unprepared units to hold the line can never regain the initiative. It has no ability to accumulate resources, and remains in a permanent state of reactivity and awful, awful churn. Ultimately, this is an army with serious resource constraints and no ability to conserve those resources.
In effect, we’re now seeing Russia reverse the events of Autumn 2022, when the Russian army was forced to accept a radical shortening of the front - withdrawing from west bank Kherson and being run out of Kharkov oblast. In that case, it was Russia that had inadequate force generation. The difference is that Russia had a higher gear - untapped mobilization and a war economy that gave it the prospect of a long term surge in combat power. Ukraine doesn’t have a higher gear. Furthermore, Ukraine lacks the ability to shorten the front. Russia was able to withdraw from large sectors of the battlespace in order to more efficiently allocate resources. Ukraine cannot do this, because giving up sectors of front means letting the Russian army roll over large swathes of the country. Russia has the ability to both shorten and widen the front at will, and Ukraine does not. This pivotal strategic asymmetry is simply the reality for an overmatched country fighting on home turf.
It is possible that Russia will further stretch the front with a similar foray into Sumy oblast - in either case, it’s highly unlikely that we see any serious effort to capture either Sumy or Kharkov. The main purpose of these fronts will be to fix Ukrainian reserves in place and denude Ukraine’s ability to react on other fronts. This war will not be won or lost in Kharkov, but in the Donbas, which remains the decisive theater.
We currently appear to be solidly in the preparatory/shaping phase of a Russian summer offensive in the Donbas, which (likely among other things) will feature a Russian drive on the city of Konstyantinivka. This is the last major urban area shielding the advance towards Kramatorsk-Slovyansk from the south (remembering that these twin cities form the ultimate objective of Russia’s campaign in the Donbas). Let’s make a brief perusal of what the lines of contact and advance look like on this front.
The shape of the Russian advance is already quite clear, and was facilitated by the temporary Ukrainian collapse which allowed Russia to capture Ocheretyne in only a few days. Konstyantinivka (prewar population of some 70,000) sits at the center of a concentric Russian advance out of Ocheretyne and the Bakhmut area, and the emerging Russian operation here promises several major benefits.
The Russian advance out of Ocheretyne will have as its objective the highway connecting Konstyantinivka and Pokrovsk. The latter is among the most important transit hubs in the Donbas (the map below shows the spiderweb of highways running through it, like spokes through the hub of a wheel.) Pokrovsk’s nature as an operational hub means that Russia does not need to capture it to render it sterile; simply turning Pokrovsk into a frontline city, with Russian forces screening the eastward highways, will be sufficient to neuter it and handicap Ukrainian sustainment in the region. Ocheretyne also serves as a launching pad to partially (or perhaps fully) envelop the Toretsk-New York defenses.
Toretsk and New York are both strongly held and very well fortified settlements. They have been held continuously by the Ukrainian army since 2014, and accordingly are among the best fortified positions on the map. Russia will clearly aim to avoid a head on assault, and they are well positioned to do so. They can advance out of Ocheretyne and Klischiivka and approach the Toretsk agglomeration obliquely, taking them into a firebag and forcing a difficult Ukrainian decision as to whether to funnel resources into the defense there.
In short, I would expect Russia to begin a dedicated summer operation with Konstyantinivka as its center of gravity, aiming to capture Chasiv Yar for use as a launchpad against Konstyantinivka’s northern flank, while severing the line to Pokrovsk through advances out of Ocheretyne. Moving concentrically on Konstyantinivka in this manner will naturally bypass the Toretsk position.
Eyes on the prize, as they say. The locus of Russian operations continues to be their grind towards Kramatorsk and Slovyansk, notwithstanding the new extensions of the front in Kharkov (and potentially Sumy). By stretching the front, however, Russia is powerfully synergizing two of the critical asymmetries in this war - namely, that Ukraine has to defend on every front (Russia does not) while the Russian army has substantial reserves on hand (while Ukraine does not). The AFU simply does not have the luxury that Russia enjoyed in 2022 of being able to withdraw from large sectors of the front. They are obliged to respond to everything, at the cost of denuding their strength and hollowing out their positions elsewhere.
Command Shakeup
Russia’s extension of the front coincided with two important political events - somewhat oddly, an election that happened, and an election that did not. Vladimir Putin was predictably reelected easily as President of Russia - notwithstanding all manner of complaints about Russia’s state-steered media and regulated political culture, observers in the west have grudgingly admitted that the war in Ukraine has actually strengthened Putin’s popularity. Simultaneously, Zelensky’s legal term in office expired after Ukraine’s elections were cancelled, ostensibly due to the stresses of the war.
Putin’s reelection led almost immediately to a substantial rearrangement of the Russian national security leadership, followed by a currently unfolding series of arrests in the Russian officer corps. Let’s briefly consider the meaning of these changes.
The headline move, of course, was the removal of Defense Minster Sergei Shoigu with Andrei Belousov. Belousov is a technocratic economist by trade, who formerly held the economic development portfolio in the cabinet. Shoigu was shunted over to the secretariat State Security Council, which is still a meaningful role, responsible for the coordination of Russia’s security organs. The fact that Shoigu retains a prominent role means that his removal from the Defense Ministry is not entirely a rebuff, but Belousov is clearly being brought in for a particular reason.
The basic problem, as such, is that Russia’s defense spending has risen dramatically while problems with corruption (particularly in procurement) remain. There is no need to naively idealize the Russian state - corruption, while certainly much improved from the calamitous 90’s, does remain a thorn in the side of good governance, as in almost all post-Soviet states.
The obvious problem for Russia is that the stakes are obviously much higher during wartime, and the ballooning defense budget makes it harder to control such leakages. Simultaneously, Russia needs to chart a sustainable military-industrial policy as defense spending swells to some 7% of GDP. Hence, Belousov - a man known for being a true believing devotee of the state who lives a modest lifestyle and is himself seen as essentially resistant to corruption. The near instantaneous launch of a high-level purging of senior MoD officers under charges of corruption signals a similar sea change.
There is, however, another aspect of these anti-corruption arrests which is being overlooked. Most western analysis wants to regard these arrests as a Stalin-esque “purge”, possibly in an attempt by Putin to remove “Shoigu loyalists” from the ministry of defense. In this framework, Putin - like Stalin - fears a rival power center under Shoigu and wishes to neutralize an imagined threat by reassigning Shoigu and arresting “his men.” I think, rather, there is a different and more straightforward explanation. Putin has spoken repeatedly about his desire to promote a new Russian leadership cadre comprised of proven veterans of the SMO in Ukraine. Behind the particular Russian political vernacular, there’s an obvious truth: for the first time in the post-Soviet era, Russia has a growing pool of experienced and battle-hardened officers to promote. The arrested officers represent a class of peacetime promotions, grown soft and corrupt on the largesse of the MOD’s past permissiveness. Under Belousov, it is clearly intended that the MOD be remade with leadership made up of commanders proven in Ukraine. They want a leaner and more economizing defense apparatus led by wartime promotions. Who can blame them?
Putin’s team is clearly aiming to put the war economy on a sustainable footing, which means controlling costs, economizing resources, and cracking down on corruption. There are, however, some conflicting signals as to what this will look like. Belousov is known as a believer in the state’s role as the driver of industrial policy - some have taken this to mean that he will lead the transition to a perennial war economy, with military spending as a critical economic driver in the long run. I rather think it’s the opposite. Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov noted that Russia’s defense spending had soared to levels not seen since the late Soviet era, and pontificated that this needed monitoring. Peskov noted that “it’s very important to put the security economy in line with the economy of the country” - in effect an official statement that defense spending is much higher than the government would like in the long run.
The mental picture that I have is one where defense spending ramped up in a somewhat uncontrolled manner as Russia kicked its war economy into gear, with Shoigu overseeing a sort of binging phase. Belousov is now being brought in to trim and economize; as a civilian technocrat, he is not connected to any of the military-industrial cliques and will have the political standoff required to manage the cutting phase.
Some of this is fairly standard stuff - new management for a restructuring phase; someone detached enough to make dispassionate cuts. In the United States, for example, the Truman administration made a series of personnel changes at the top as it attempted to rapidly demobilize from WW2 and bring spending back under control. Secretary of Defense Louis A Johnson even at one point mused that the Marine Corps might be abolished in its entirety. What is different about Russia’s case, of course, is that it is still very much in a state of war. Ordinarily it might be deemed unwise to change horses midstream, but the Putin team clearly feels that the situation on the ground is favorable enough (with Gerasimov keeping his post as chief of the general staff) and the need to rein in spending is great enough that he feels comfortable putting an economist in charge of a wartime defense apparatus.
Rockin’ in the Free World
While Putin was rearranging his cabinet and initiating high profile corruption arrests, a different sort of show was playing in Kiev. American Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in town, mesmerizing the people with his preternatural musical talents, playing hits like “Rockin in the Free World”.
The “Free World”, as the Atlantic Bloc sees itself, remains pivotal to the Ukrainian conflict, as the material and fiscal engine driving Ukraine’s ability to stay in the fight. Aside from the Kremlin, the American government is the decisive actor in Ukraine, and the stance of American policy is always among our chief considerations.
I think it’s worthwhile to think about the way American policy has changed vis a vis Ukraine. Slowly but surely, the United States has pushed through all of its self-imposed limitations on aid to Ukraine. It seems absurd now, but not so long ago the Pentagon was adamant that American tanks would not be sent to Kiev. There were similar hesitations around F-16 fighters, and ATACMs systems. All of those limits were eventually breached. We’ve reached the point where when Washington says there is some system that is off limits, it really means that Ukraine just has to wait a few more months.
Now we come to a point where one of the last remaining American taboos - the use of western weaponry to attack pre-war Russian territory - is being pushed on, with both congressional Republicans and Secretary of State Blinken urging the Biden administration to give the green light.
This seems to have been spurred at least partially by Russia’s new Kharkov front, with Ukrainian leadership complaining that they were unable to disrupt Russian staging due to American rules against firing on Russian territory. This is, of course, not true - Ukraine has been striking Belgorod oblast for many months, and have even made it a point of pride that they have “brought the war home” to Russia. We’re trapped in a narrative disparity where there are regular boasts about Ukraine’s successful strike program on targets in the Russian strategic rear, and yet we are to believe that the Russians were allowed to stage unmolested for the Kharkov operation because the AFU is not allowed to fire into Russia. It’s odd, to say the least.
Regardless, the track record shows that the American government will inexorably yield to every Ukrainian ask, given enough time. Abrams, F-16’s, ATACMs - Ukraine always ends up getting what it asks for. It seems likely that before long, the formal American blessing will be given to accelerate strikes on prewar Russia. Facilities inside Russia will be hit. The Kremlin’s response will underwhelm and infuriate its supporters on the internet.
The problem for Ukraine is that they tend to maniacally focus on token “big ticket” items that do not ameliorate their broader strategic crisis. License to hurl ATACMs at targets inside Russia is not a panacea for Ukraine’s bigger problem. Ukraine has already showed the ability to hit Russian strategic assets - sniping naval installations, radar, and air defense batteries. Ukraine’s successful strikes on such assets have continually trickled in as the west has propped up their strike capability with Storm Shadows, ATACMs, and more. And yet, Ukraine continues to give ground in the Donbas amid an increasingly dire shortage of basic war making necessities like infantry.
The trajectory of the war suggests that the NATO bloc will do everything in its power to prop up Ukraine’s strike capabilities, and that Ukraine will continue to hunt for high profile strategic assets, even as it continues to be ground down in the critical theater, which is the Donbas. When the AFU is finally ejected from their last toeholds along the line - losing Kramatorsk and Slovyansk, being squeezed out of southern Donetsk Oblast, and forced back on the west bank of the Oskil, the temptation in Kiev will be to blame the west - that they gave too little, too slowly, too late. This is one lie that they must not be allowed to get away with. The NATO Bloc has, virtually without exception, given Ukraine everything they’ve asked for. It just didn’t matter.