15 May 2024

The real aim of Russia’s Kharkiv campaign


Russia’s long-anticipated Kharkiv offensive, launched this weekend, may not have Ukraine’s second city as its immediate objective. Actually seizing the sprawling metropolis, dangerously close to Russia’s border, is both a major war aim for Moscow and a harder task than any Russian victory in the conflict so far. A mostly Russian-speaking city that is at the same time the birthplace of Ukraine’s most radical nationalist forces, Kharkiv could have been captured in the first hours of the 2022 invasion. Then, Russian tanks paused, for no obvious reason, on the city’s surrounding ring road, allowing Ukraine’s defenders time to seize the initiative and eventually push them back to the border.

That autumn, overstretched Russian troops were forced to relinquish their gains as a well-organised Ukrainian counteroffensive punched through their lines, recapturing almost all of the province and establishing Kharkiv as the launchpad for heavily publicised incursions into Russian territory, fronted by exiled Russian renegades. In doing so, they made the entire region on both sides of the border a contested grey zone.

Over the weekend, though, this dynamic changed. It is now Ukraine’s army, overstretched and undergunned, that is on the back foot as Kharkiv has once again become a major front in this industrial war of attrition. Intensified bombardment of the city in recent weeks, along with chatter of a looming Russian push, had made Moscow’s awakening of the long-dormant Kharkiv front a seeming inevitability.

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