Russia has launched an offensive in the direction of Ukraine’s second largest city Kharkiv. While the full scope and scale of this operation remains unknown at this time, initial activity near the small city of Vovchansk nearer to the Russian border suggests that the Russian military lacks the manpower to seize Kharkiv and may not event get to its more limited object of bringing the city under the threat of artillery and rocket fire. However, one objective that Russia has achieved is drawing Ukrainian reserves to another front and thinning out Ukraine’s defenses. That’s a dangerous development before Russia launches the most intense phase of its summer offensive. 

There are indications may try another operation further north towards the city of Sumy to further spread Ukrainian forces over a wider front. The thing is, Ukraine has been expecting these attacks for months. Unfortunately national leadership and local governors did not do nearly enough to harden border defenses and establish robust fortifications in these areas. That is entirely a Ukrainian leadership failure.  

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The other factor, however, is that the U.S. and its European allies restrict the use of western weaponry on Russian soil. The restriction is intended to reduce the possibility of Russian escalation and retaliation against the West. That is an irrational constraint. The West is not employing these weapons. When we sell arms to another country we don’t issue such drastic constraints on employment. Additionally, when Russian weapons are used to attack the West, Russia is not considered a belligerent party. This constraint is only for Ukraine and is entirely due to Russia’s nuclear saber-rattling.

Guerrillas Sabotage Near Russian-Occupied Oleshki, Triggering Large-Scale Fire
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Guerrillas Sabotage Near Russian-Occupied Oleshki, Triggering Large-Scale Fire

As a result of the sabotage, Russian weapons and food warehouses were destroyed, and twenty Russian servicemen received severe burns.

This pattern of U.S. behavior is very concerning and harmful to U.S. interests. Think of another scenario in which Russia attacks NATO. Do we only coordinate our defense on NATO territory? What if Russia is launching rockets and artillery from their side of the border at American targets - do we allow that to happen and permit the deaths of U.S. troops? The fact is that in this scenario, munitions launched from within Russian borders are considered relevant targets within the theater of war. Destroying these targets would be completely appropriate and wouldn’t implicate a broader attack or threaten Russia’s regime.  The same argument should be applied to Ukraine today. Ukraine should be able to retaliate against and preempt Russian attacks within this border region in order to properly defend itself. The current policy is harmful to Ukraine’s war efforts as well as NATO deterrence. We should not be establishing norms that handicap our immediate or long-term interests.

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As Ukraine’s second largest city and a historic center for industry, Kharkiv represents a major pressure point for the Ukrainian government. A renewed Russian offensive would likely lead to the displacement of the city’s remaining population and an unimaginable amount of civilian casualties. In targeting the city, Russia is likely looking to divert Ukrainian resources and attention away from the line of contact in Donetsk Oblast and force Kyiv to spread its capabilities across a wider geographic area. This offensive would be a spoiler for Ukrainian military activity in Donetsk and is designed to throw Kyiv off-kilter as western-supplied equipment arrives in the coming weeks. Additionally, it is also possible that the Russian military is launching this offensive with the goal of securing as many gains on the battlefield as possible before the ammunition and equipment allocated by the United States’ recent security package reaches the line of contact.Like much of Ukraine, Kharkiv has been subjected to near-nightly attacks by the Russian military since the start of the war. However, what separates Kharkiv from Kyiv and many cities in central and western Ukraine is that it is far enough east that Moscow may use Russian territory as a staging ground and launch point for its attacks. Over the past two years ballistic missiles have been frequently launched at Kharkiv from its Russian sister city, Belgorod. The White House’s request for Ukrainian restraint in striking targets within the Russian Federation has provided Moscow a safe-zone to gather troops and material with impunity. If Kyiv had the approval to use ATACMS and other systems to strike military targets in the Russian oblasts bordering Ukraine (as it does in Crimea and other occupied territories), it’s highly unlikely that Moscow would be able to organize this offensive. 

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Reprinted from the author’s blog Why It Matters. See the original here.

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