The Kharkiv Offensive, which Russia launched its Kharkiv Offensive more than three weeks ago (started March 10). It’s been fascinating to see how the reporting changed—first great drama and doom about Russian “success.” Then a period of confusion when the Russian success seemed to stumble. Now there is only the occasional story about it.

Actually, on reflection the Russian Kharkiv offensive has all the hallmarks of a strategic failure and a tactical morass…

The Kharkiv Offensive is a Russian Strategic Failure for Now

Reporting on war is hard. War is confusing, hard to interpret, and can develop slowly. And because of that, I have a great deal of sympathy for those who take on the difficult task. On the other hand, because reporting on war is so difficult, it behooves those who do it to try and show some perspective when they write their reports, especially when a new military operation is starting, and no one really knows what’s going on or how it will develop.

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This was not the case when the Russians launched their Kharkiv Offensive. From the moment the invasion started, the reporting gravitated to the sensationalist and the judgmental. In this case, the judgements were all one-sided. This was a sign of Russian military intelligence and success, and heralded real problems for Ukraine—even the possibility of collapse.

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It’s worth going back to see some of the stories. Some were outright doom-laden. One analyst in the UK media claimed that Ukraine morale was indeed “collapsing” and said new US aid would not make any real difference until August (it’s starting to help now, by the way). If the Ukrainians were in dire shape (another word widely used at the time), the Russians were showing an extraordinary amount of strategic foresight according to the reporting and analyst….

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The Financial … spoke of Russia in just a few days achieving at least partial success in drawing Ukrainian troops away from the Donbas. It was not a question of whether it was a successful operation—but one of to what degree it was.

The US press was if anything more alarmist. I wrote a few weeks ago about how the New York Times seemed to lose perspective in its reporting on the offensive. The Times spoke of Russian troops having “surged” across the border. Moreover, they created a map (which interestingly seems to get much less prominence these days) which had the Russians pressing forwards all around Ukraine.

According to the analysts the Times used, the Russians again were being clever—and trying to draw Ukrainian forces away to take Chasiv Yar—a supposedly vital strategic city.

It certainly seemed very bleak for Ukraine if you were reading the press and what the analytical community were saying.

It certainly seemed very bleak for Ukraine if you were reading the press and what the analytical community were saying. Russia had launched an operation with real strategic understanding, the Ukrainians had been rocked back, their morale was in question, and the war was definitely trending in Russia’s direction….

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And then all of a sudden, Russian advances ground to a halt—seeming to stop almost entirely in the Kharkiv area…. So foundationally the Kharkiv offensive has basically become static for Russia—with hardly any gains after the first few days.

However, that tells only part of the picture. Russian losses in Kharkiv (and around the line) have become extreme in this period. By pressing the offensive in Kharkiv and around the lines, the Russians have exposed their troops and equipment, and the results have been a noticeable increase in loss claims…. So, the Russian advance in Kharkiv has stalled, and Russian losses have grown to the highest in the war.

But wait—all the clever clogs analysts said that this might have been a feint to draw Ukrainian forces away from the Donbas and allow for the capture of Chasiv Yar. Btw, I don’t buy the simple feint idea—because the Russians are suffering major losses in Kharkiv. You don’t do that for a feint.

The Russians have pushed forward that entire time about 1-2 kilometers. And it’s hard to argue that the town is any closer to falling than it was then. Note—people were saying a few months ago that Putin wanted to take Chasiv Yar by 9 May for his latest coronation. That seems to have been dropped.

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Of course, another supposedly strategic benefit of the campaign for Russia was that it would limit Ukrainian attacks into Russia. If that was an intended benefit, this was probably the most disastrous own-goal, strategic calculation so far since the failure of the original invasion.

Indeed, the offensive was so flagrantly planned to take advantage of US fears, and the Russians compounded that through their terror attacks on Kharkiv, that they caused a boomerang reaction.

What Russia has done with the Kharkiv offensive has opened up Russia to attack by the US system in a way that would have been inconceivable before. Indeed, the offensive was so flagrantly planned to take advantage of US fears, and the Russians compounded that through their terror attacks on Kharkiv, that they caused a boomerang reaction, and the Biden Administration did its volte-face this week and okayed Ukrainian attacks into Russia with US weapons.

This will make the Kharkiv offensive an even greater burden.

Also, it’s worth noting that the US has also given the Ukrainians the ability to disrupt any upcoming Sumy offensive—this time before the Russians cross the border. Another Russian offensive in this area has been discussed regularly—now such an operation will be much harder for the Russians. One of the main reasons for the Russian early, modest successes at Kharkiv was because the Ukrainians could not do such disruption with US systems. Now they can—another Russian own-goal.

So where do we stand? Well, the Kharkiv offensive has done the following:

  • Basically, ground to a halt after a few days of small advances
  • Led to extreme Russian casualties in soldiers and heavy equipment losses
  • Not led to the taking of Chasiv Yar or really any territory of value in the Donbas
  • If anything, drawn Russian forces that could have assisted in those operations away into a meatgrinder.
  • Destroyed one of the most beneficial US government red lines that was helping Russia by keeping Ukraine from firing into Russia.
  • Far from making Belgorod secure, the Kharkiv Offensive has placed it in far greater danger.
  • Made any similar Russian offensive around Sumy much more difficult, as Ukraine can now fire at these forces on the Russian side of the border.

When you add it all together what do you have—a tactical nullity for Russia that is causing a strategic calamity. The Kharkiv Offensive by a normal military/strategic standard has been a major failure for Russia to this point….

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Ukrainian morale has not collapsed. US aid is starting to reach the Ukrainians. Moreover, European support for Ukraine is if anything hardening—with French troops reportedly on their way for an open deployment in the country (something that probably received an extra fillip because of the Russian Kharkiv Offensive).

The Biden Administration's Decision and French Troops Heading to Ukraine?

The Kharkiv Offensive has seemed to have a significant effect on Ukraine’s allies—and that is the other big story for the week. The biggest one was the Biden Administration deciding to sanction Ukraine firing in a limited way into Russia. I went into the decision in some detail in this update, and Mykola and I also discuss it in the soon to be released podcast.

Indeed, this decision seems to hold out the possibility of even greater change. Already it’s been clarified to mean that the Ukrainians can disrupt any Russian Sumy offensive, and Secretary of State Blinken has hinted more changes can be on the way.

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Here is what he said:

When asked if the door was open for the US to allow Ukraine to strike further into Russia, Blinken said the US would continue to “adapt and adjust” moving forward.

“We want to make sure that we’re proceeding deliberately, as well as effectively,” he said.

While the US is crossing one large red line for Ukraine, France seems on the verge of crossing another. Though there have been reports of NATO troops secretly in Ukraine helping with basic training—there have never been publicly acknowledged forces.

Now, the French are getting closer and closer to openly sending troops to Ukraine. Diplomats are saying that a French announcement on the subject is getting closer—and that would be a very different kettle of fish. It’s a far more tangible commitment—and it will almost certainly open the door to more European states following suit.

So, in the last week Ukraine’s partners are (slowly but steadily) making more tangible commitments to helping Ukraine win this war. It’s certainly a better state than the doom and gloom of three weeks ago.

Reprinted in an abridged form from the author’s blog. See the original here.

The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.

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