Ukraine update: Having nearly secured territory around Kharkiv, what’s next for Ukraine?

Mud and trenches on the eastern front.

It was an eventful weekend in Ukraine, and Mark Sumner did an admirable job summing it all up here and here. In short, Ukraine is on the move around Kharkiv, pushing Russian forces to their side of the international border, while Russia is on the move in Donbas, picking up a stray kilometer here and there. If it sounds like I’m being too glib about Russia’s gains, just know that I’m not alone. 


Ukraine advanced 30 miles in one week, while Russia managed “single digit” miles in the last what, tw to three weeks? At this pace, it will only take a few millennia to accomplish their (supposed) strategic goal—to push Ukraine out of the 5,000+ square miles of Ukrainian-held territory inside the administrative boundaries of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts (collectively, the Donbas). Meanwhile, Russia will have to decide what to do about those frisky Ukrainians up north. Heck, the Ukrainians will have to decide what to do up north as well. 

As you can see in the map below, there are two potential targets—Vovchansk to the northeast, or Kupiansk to the southeast. 


The purple arrows denote the three rail lines feeding into Kupiansk, which in turn feeds the Russian advance in both the Izyum salient, as well as the approach down the east bank of the Oskil reservoir (directly south of Kupiansk). In an ideal world, Ukraine would hit both targets. In the real world, it’s a wonder Ukraine has managed to get as far as it has. Theirs is still not an army fully built for offensive operations.  

Once Ukraine secures the areas around Kharkiv, digging new defensive emplacements and manning them with territorial defense forces, where does Ukraine go? Vovchansk is attractive as it would 1) cut off a major source of resupply to the war front, all the stuff arriving from Belgorod, and 2) place more Ukrainian artillery in range of Belgorod. On the other hand, every bridge over the Donets has been reportedly blown, and it’s doubtful Ukraine has extensive river-fording capabilities. But a Ukrainian presence in Vovchansk would force Russia to reinforce its border, “fixing” Russian troops in a defensive posture inside Russia, rather than gaining inches down in the Donbas front. 

What about Kupiansk, then? This strategic city would, by far, be the most impactful of the two, cutting off all the supply lines to the northern edge of Russia’s main war effort, crippling a fatal blow to Russians on the Izyum salient, and severely hampering resupply of Russian forces directly to its east. Easy call, right? Except that Russia reportedly has around 22 battalion tactical groups (BTG) in the region that could pivot and potentially deal substantial losses to any under-resourced Ukrainian approach. (On paper, a BTG is 800-1,000 men, 10 tanks, 40 infantry fighting vehicles, and artillery and air defense support. In reality, current BTGs are operating at dramatically lower manpower.) There are also no natural defensive barriers in the way—great for avoiding rivers, but not-so-great for avoiding Russian air power. This is close enough to Russian-held territory that its timid air force could venture out and cause trouble in those wide open fields. 

Kupiansk is certainly the bigger prize, but only after securing all Ukrainian territory near Kharkiv west of the Donets, leaving behind some of their old shorter-range Soviet artillery guns to pound Vovchansk’s rail lines and Russian supply convoys into powder. An assault on Kupiansk is risky, but the reward is game-changing. 

Sunday was not a good day for Russian forces in Ukraine, and not because of anything on the battlefield. Vladimir Putin’s refusal to declare war and/or a general mobilization means that no help is on the way. Those 130,000 or so conscripts currently training in Russia can’t be legally deployed into Ukraine, and while some might be coerced into signing contracts, it won’t come close to making up the losses Russian and proxy forces are currently suffering. (And Russian mothers are getting increasingly good at working the system to get their boys to safety.)

Bringing those conscripts into Ukraine would further strain Russia’s sorry logistical efforts, and a lack of any functional reserves would leave them with ancient and ineffective gear. They aren’t a panacea for what ails Russia, but it might at least shore up some of Russia’s depleted BTGs. Unlike Ukraine’s army, sitting on hundreds of thousands of reservists eager to join the battle, Russia’s is getting smaller every single day. Given how weak and ineffective it’s proven thus far, there is no scenario, assuming conventional weapons, in which Russia comes out ahead. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2022 · 1:15:36 PM +00:00

Mark Sumner

Because you’ve been waiting to see something like this: What it means to have artillery that outranges your opponent and which is capable of conducting accurate counter-battery fire.

Whether that fire is being directed by the firing solutions calculated from fire-control systems on the artillery itself, or from this handy observation drone isn’t clear. The absolute obliteration of this artillery positions is.

Oh, and if you still hadn’t grabbed that morning cup of coffee, this soundtrack should be an adequate substitute.


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