A top Ukrainian general responsible for defenses swamped by a surprise Russian offensive into the northeastern Kharkiv region was sacked on Monday, as senior Kyiv officials vowed masses of men and weapons were deploying to contain the Kremlin success.

Brig. Gen. Yury Halushkin, commander of joint forces Kharkiv, the top headquarters for Ukrainian troops deployed opposite Russia’s Belgorod Oblast, was relieved of duties some 72 hours after Kremlin forces pushed across the border to grab at least five villages and break into the regional town of Vovchansk.

The semi-official RBK-Ukraina was the first news platform to report senior leadership in Kyiv had yanked Halushkin from his job, and major news media like the UNIAN wire service quickly confirmed the report. There was no official confirmation of Halushkin’s sacking. He took over command of the then-quiet sector in April 2024.

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Although a possible Russian offensive into Ukraine’s Kharkiv region had been widely expected for months, the actual Kremlin attacks when they came reportedly found weak Ukrainian defenses, and in some cases outnumbered Ukrainian troops, many of them lightly armed Territorial Defense infantry. These retreated when hit by Kremlin tanks and artillery.

The Ukrainian defeat gave Russian forces control of an estimated 162 square kilometers of border territory and ten villages in a pair of 5-8 kilometer-deep salients projecting into Ukrainian defenses. Although the Russian advance overran a thinly populated region with no industry and appeared not to threaten Ukraine’s second-biggest city, Kharkiv, 30 kilometers to the south, it was Ukraine’s worst loss of ground to Russia since March 2022.

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In the months before the failure, senior Ukrainian officials had repeatedly claimed that Ukraine’s frontier with Russia’s Belgorod Oblast was heavily fortified and that Kremlin forces stood little chance of overcoming defenses long under construction there.

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Some Ukrainian media has disparaged the national military leadership for failing to prepare and for misleading the public, particularly with claims of strong fortifications that proved to be either ineffective or nonexistent.

Leading Ukrainian military journalist Yury Butusov, following a visit to the key road center of Vovchansk said, “Unfortunately in the first days of the Russian attack there was chaos...and inside the city [of Vovchansk] there is not a single sign of any defensive preparations. The enemy is advancing in all [axes] with almost no hindrance. There are some miniature anti-tank minefields, and the enemy has to deal with them. But unfortunately, minefields with anti-personnel mines, in that region, you can’t see any.”

Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, the overall commander of the Ukrainian military, in a Monday statement published on official information platforms, admitted Russian forces had managed substantial ground gains in the Kharkiv region, but claimed the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) was deploying men, weapons and materiel, and that the Russian offensive was already contained.

"This week, the situation in Kharkiv Oblast has significantly worsened,” Syrsky said. “At present, there are ongoing battles in the border areas along the state border with the Russian Federation. The situation is difficult, but the Defense Forces of Ukraine are doing everything to hold defensive lines and positions, inflicting defeat on the enemy.”

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Syrsky’s comments did not mention Galushkin’s firing, nor did they refer to Galushkin’s widely reported emergency replacement, Brig. Gen. Myhailo Drapatiy.

Brig. Gen. Myhailo Drapatiy, promoted in February 2024 for defensive tactical skill in the Kherson sector, on Monday was appointed overall commander of the threatened Kharkiv sector. He replaced Brig. Gen. Yury Halushkin who was sacked following a successful Russian surprise attack in the sector.

A decorated officer with combat command experience against the Russian military stretching back to 2014, Drapatiy was among a cadre of seasoned field commanders Syrsky promoted to senior army positions in February, at times replacing older officers serving in army headquarters jobs for years. Syrsky said the transfers were intended to bring new blood and fresh combat experience to the top levels of the AFU. Kyiv Post profiled five of them, including Drapatiy.

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According to Ukrainian military media reports on Monday and Tuesday, Drapatiy will wear two military hats as he takes over control of Kharkiv region fighting, serving as the newly appointed senior commander of all troops, and retaining his job as a vice chief of army staff.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a nightly national television message singled out Drapatiy by name and told viewers the situation in the northeastern Kharkiv region, though serious, soon will be under control.

“Our forces continue to counter Russian attacks in the Kharkiv region,” Zelensky said. “This [sector] has been reinforced, particularly in Vovchansk and border areas in general. Brig. Gen. Mykhailo Drapatiy is in charge of this sector and is currently on the ground. He is being provided with all the necessary firepower and forces. Our results are improving. We are destroying the enemy’s infantry and armored vehicles”

Kyiv Post screen grab of combat video published by the pro-Ukrainian/anti-Kremlin Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC) on May 13. According to the RVC the images show a BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicle using its 30mm autocannon to engage an unidentified target in the town Vovchansk in fighting taking place over the weekend.

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Combat reports and drone video arriving from the field on Tuesday painted a picture of a slowing Russian advance and fierce fighting inside the town of Vovchansk.

Russian attacks on Tuesday, according to field reports, were led by infantry on foot and aboard combat vehicles attempting to fight their way deeper into the town. On Monday Russian bombers hit the area with at least 20 glider bombs, a powerful but relatively inaccurate weapon the Russian military in past assaults has most often used to level towns and villages held by Ukrainian forces with air raids lasting weeks and in some cases months.

Oleksandr Lytvynenko, Secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, in Monday comments to AFP said that Kyiv intelligence believes Russia has deployed 30,000 soldiers for its Kharkiv region offensive, and that the overall Russian objective was probably to grab ground to create a buffer zone to limit Ukraine’s ability to strike Russia’s border regions.

The transfer to the threatened sector of three seasoned AFU conventional force combat brigades – 3rd Assault, 66th Mechanized, and 77th Air Assault – had been widely confirmed in battle reports available in open sources on Tuesday. Also, newly in combat in the Kharkiv sector were two more light infantry units, a formation raised from special forces retirees called the Kraken group, and a unit of Russian emigres fighting on Ukraine’s side called the Russian Volunteer Corps, news reports said.

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According to some combatant accounts, Ukrainian drone operators had grabbed short-range air superiority against nearly non-existent Russian jamming, and Ukrainian robot aircraft were operating with near impunity and hitting Russian troops with heavy losses. A Kyiv Post review of drone video geo-located individual cases of Ukrainian drones and artillery cutting up a Russian combat vehicle column in the Kharkiv region but couldn’t confirm that all engagements had that outcome.

According to Ukraine’s General Staff, the Russian incursion into Kharkiv region is serious but contained. Each red area shows recent Russian ground gains. The total area recently grabbed by Russian forces is around 160 square km. Map from the milblog site DeepState.

Maj. Gen. Bargilevich, the AFU chief of staff, in Monday comments to the UNIAN news agency claimed that Russian attacks across open ground into the teeth of Ukrainian drone and shell ambushes had spiked overall Russian personnel losses to an all-time one-day high of 1,740 soldiers lost or seriously wounded in 24 hours. Kyiv Post was unable to confirm Bargilevich’s claim. Like Drapatiy, Bargilevich is one of the officers picked by Syrsky to refresh top leadership in the AFU.

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