Second Russian invasion of Kharkiv caught Ukraine unprepared (2024)

KHARKIV, Ukraine — Russia’s new offensive across Ukraine’s northeastern border had been expected for months — yet it still surprised the Ukrainian soldiers stationed there to defend against it.

Ukraine’s 125th Territorial Defense Brigade — stretched thin along a roughly 27-mile stretch of the Kharkiv region’s border with Russia — used reconnaissance drones to monitor, daily, how Moscow was steadily building up forces for a possible attack. But the morning it happened, May 10, the brigade lost all its video feeds due to Russian electronic jamming.


Its Starlink devices — satellite internet the Ukrainian military relies on for basic communication — failed, the first time it was knocked out completely for them since Russia’s invasion in February 2022.

“We were left at a certain point completely blind,” said a drone unit commander in the brigade. The Post agreed to identify him by his call sign, Artist, in keeping with Ukrainian military protocol.


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“This was the biggest problem, we didn’t see how they were moving, we only worked through radio or through phones where they still worked,” Artist, a 53-year-old sergeant, said. The drone feeds, he said, “simply disappeared.”

Within days, the Russians had captured — for the second time — some 50 square miles of territory along the border, capitalizing on a moment of particular vulnerability for Ukraine’s military.

A U.S. aid package, including funding for precious ammunition for artillery and air defense, stalled in Congress for more than six months before it was approved last month, leaving forces on the front line often unable to fire back as their positions were pummeled.

Meanwhile, despite military personnel complaining for months of personnel shortages and extreme fatigue among troops who have been fighting for more than two years, the government in Kyiv has been slow to ramp up mobilization, leaving some areas of the front critically understaffed.

But Russia’s battlefield gains in recent days were not only a result of Ukrainian shortfalls.


Begrudgingly, Ukrainian troops admit that their enemy has gotten smarter and adapted, especially with technological advancements such as electronic warfare — a sharp contrast with the first year of the invasion, when Russia’s own blunders and overconfidence allowed the Ukrainians to hold key cities and later liberate large swaths of territory in successful counteroffensives.

The new Russian advances, in Kharkiv and in the neighboring Donetsk region, have prompted questions about the viability of Ukraine’s defense — not only if Kyiv can fulfill its promise of expelling all invaders, but also if Russia will soon overpower Ukraine’s forces and seize more territory.

The latest assault on the Kharkiv border has forced Ukraine to redirect some reserves north, potentially imperiling other positions.

Even as they watched the Russians building up forces, Artist, the drone commander in the 125th Brigade, said the Ukrainians were largely unable to construct the kind of fortified defense lines now being emphasized by the government and by military commanders.

The Russians’ own layered web of “dragon’s teeth” antitank pyramid blocks, mines and concrete-reinforced trenches proved effective against Ukraine’s disappointing southeastern counteroffensive last summer.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky even visited the Kharkiv border in April to inspect the newly reinforced defenses. But Artist and other soldiers said that every time the units stationed here tried to build fortified lines, the Russians — using their own reconnaissance drones — would monitor their activity and fire on them.

Excavators and other engineering equipment were needed but not brought in because it would have been easily destroyed by the Russians.


Especially with the U.S. aid lagging, Ukrainian soldiers said they lacked the means to fire back and give themselves the time to build stronger defenses. The Ukrainians were also prohibited by the White House from using U.S.-provided weapons to strike Russia despite the Russians firing at them from across the border.

Artist said that soldiers in his unit would dig with shovels at night. “We tried to do what we could, but it’s not the same,” he said.

“Because the soil is very heavy here, it’s machines that can dig through that and machinery that can install concrete fortifications,” he added. “We weren’t able to do that. Ammunition, artillery could have protected us. … People would’ve been able to work in those moments. But sadly, we have wasted a lot. More than half a year has been wasted because we weren’t able to do this.”

Russia chose points of attacks smartly, moving between rivers that could be used for natural cover.

The assault on Vovchansk, a small city that Russian troops have already breached, could give Russia a lane to move toward Kupyansk, a city liberated by Ukrainian forces in September 2022. A second flank of the attack, toward the village of Lyptsi, could put Moscow’s forces in range to shell Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.

Nearly 8,000 civilians have been evacuated — a wave of displacement not seen since the early days of the invasion.

The scale and goal of Russia’s new offensive in Kharkiv remain murky, but experts say, at this stage, that capturing Kharkiv city is out of reach, partly because of Russia’s own soldier shortages. Russia has ramped up recruitment of contract soldiers and significantly boosted sign-up bonuses for men willing to fight — up to nearly $10,000 in some regions, roughly 15 times more than the median salary.

“Russia has resourced this as a limited incursion for a ‘buffer zone’, rather than an attempt to occupy the entirety of Kharkiv all at once,” said Dara Massicot, a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “However, this may be phase one of a larger long-term plan.”

The buffer zone is intended to protect Russia’s Belgorod region, which is adjacent to Kharkiv, from repeated Ukrainian strikes. It’s one of the few areas in Russia where residents feel the persistent, direct impact of a war that has destroyed Ukrainian cities and displaced millions.

Speaking from China during a state visit Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin himself said the operation was only to create buffer zone to protect Belgorod after repeated attacks on the city. “As for Kharkiv, there are no such plans as of today.”


The Russian troops fighting in Kharkiv region appear to be drawn from new units that were trained or regenerated from inside Russia, Massicot said, adding that Russia’s priority remains capturing the Donetsk region. Notably, Moscow has not withdrawn forces from Donetsk to support the new offensive in Kharkiv, she said.

Ukraine, however, had to send reinforcements from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions to repel the assaults in Kharkiv. One of the redirected brigades — the National Guard’s Khartia — now has units stationed on the border.

Ukraine’s military command has insisted that the situation in Kharkiv has stabilized. But in a post on social media on Thursday, Zelensky described it as “extremely difficult.”

Khartia’s commander, Col. Ihor Obolyenskyi, said Russian troops attempted to storm his soldier’s positions six times on Wednesday. “That’s only on one site,” he said.

In a tactic similar to one Russian forces used to capture the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut last year, groups of infantry have attacked in waves. But the groups now have more than 15 soldiers, Obolyenskyi said — twice as many as in Bakhmut.

“Previously, they walked and stretched, three people each, and made small attacks,” he said. “Now they are making big advances. Twenty people each try to run in, try to throw grenades.”

The Russians also drop glide bombs, sometimes weighing half a ton, every 15 to 20 minutes, said the commander of a reconnaissance unit in Khartia whom The Post is identifying by his call sign, Navigator. Unlike missiles, the bombs themselves can’t be intercepted by air defense once they’re dropped from Russian aircraft. This is one reason Ukrainians have pleaded for F-16 fighters, which would be able to challenge the encroaching bombers.


The frequent airstrikes mean Ukrainian forces must constantly change their positions by at least 1,000 feet, sometimes multiple times per a day. If they’re spotted, a bomb will surely follow. Navigator said that before a strike, a Russian drone with electronic warfare capabilities will fly over the area to disrupt communications.

“I think they’re going to try to get as far as they can here until they’re stopped,” Navigator said. “And if they get entrenched, then it’ll be with concrete fortifications. And from our experience, we know they’re quite good at doing that. They very quickly build their defense lines, so we’ll do everything we can to prevent them.”

Ilyushina reported from Berlin. Anastacia Galouchka in Kyiv and Serhiy Morgunov in Warsaw contributed to this report.

Second Russian invasion of Kharkiv caught Ukraine unprepared (2024)


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