Fighting in Ukraine’s northern Kharkiv sector is continuing but Russian attacks are making no progress and often taking heavy casualties, spokesman for Ukraine’s Army General Staff (AGS) Andriy Kovalev said during a Monday evening news broadcast. Units of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) are repelling all attacks and the situation in the sector is tense but stable, he said.

Ukrainian milbloggers this week have widely echoed Kovalev’s statement that Russian forces are still attempting to attack around the town of Vovchansk and the village of Liptsy, in northeastern Ukraine, but gaining no ground. According to on-the-ground accounts, video, and independent news reports, recent assaults have frequently been weak, unsupported by heavy weapons, and almost always have been cut to pieces by Ukrainian mortar and artillery barrages, followed up by FPV drone swarms.

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Moscow’s official position, a month into its Kharkiv offensive, has not changed, claiming Russian attacks backed by heavy air strikes are still relentlessly advancing. A June 3 Defense Ministry statement said Russian forces were “continuing to advance into the depths of the enemy’s defense” and had “defeated” Ukraine’s 57th Motorized Infantry and 82nd Air Assault Brigades in battles in the Kharkiv region. The report also claimed that Ukrainian forces had launched five unsuccessful counterattacks in the vicinity of Vovchansk.

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In one of his first announcements on the situation at the front, the newly-appointed Russian Defense Minister Andrei Belousov told a war council in the Kremlin on May 31: “Advances are taking place in all tactical directions. As a result of our active actions, in critical sectors, in the Kharkiv region, the enemy has retreated 5-8 kilometers. Just in this month, we have liberated 28 villages and towns... The armed forces of Russia are systematically reducing the combat capability of the AFU.” Credible accounts from the ground – some of them Russian – contradict the Kremlin narrative of powerful Russian assaults plowing through Ukrainian defenses. Aside from reports by Moscow-linked information platforms, the picture emerging from Ukraine’s northern Kharkiv region was of a stalled Russian offensive being picked apart by Ukrainian artillery and swarms of kamikaze drones.

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Russian Defense Minister Andrei Belousov tells a Kremlin meeting on May 31 that the offensive in Kharkiv sector has been successful. Screenshot Russian Ministry of Defense video.

Ukrainian milblogger and news reports have widely reported since late May about the redeployment of experienced attack drone units from elsewhere on the front to the Kharkiv sector. Transfer of sub-units from one AFU regional command to another is rare, and normally only authorized by the AFU’s top commander, General Oleksandr Syrsky.

Among the drone units recently deployed to the Kharkiv sector was a reconnaissance and strike formation led by Robert Brovdi, a junior officer and volunteer donations organizer with a massive social media presence. He announced on June 1 that his unit, called Ptakhky Brovdi (Brovdi’s Birds), left its positions in the southern Kherson sector in late May and is now operating in the Kharkiv region near the village of Liptsy.

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The entire Ptakhky Brodvi strike group is now deployed to the new area of operations, he said. The unit, originally an all-volunteer section made up of a few drone enthusiasts, had metamorphosed into a battalion-sized formation capable of launching dozens of FPV strike drones supported by, its own jamming, reconnaissance, and technical support sections by late 2023. Like most Ukrainian drone units, the formation is largely crowdfunded.

Robert Brovdi, drone battalion commander announcing his Patchki Brovdi unit has been transferred to the Kharkiv sector to contain a Russian offensive. Screenshot Telegram

Open sources identified at least five or more attack drone units, all drawn from elsewhere on the 1,500-kilometer-long front line, that have transferred to the Kharkiv sector in the past two weeks and are currently carrying out strikes interdicting Russian attacks in the north.

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Video accounts from various groups tell of an almost completely free-fire environment in which Ukrainian drones have been able to hit attacking Russian columns undefended by jamming.

Video published on June 2 by the Perun drone group, an outfit attached to Ukraine’s 42nd Mechanized Infantry Brigade, showed drones homing in on the weak points of Russian tanks, and armored personnel carriers and striking individual soldiers.

The unit claimed its aircraft and pilots destroyed three T-62 tanks, one BMP infantry fighting vehicle, one self-propelled artillery piece, and killed or wounded 41 Russian soldiers in a single day of operations.

The Russian drone advocate group Project Arkhangel, citing frontline reports from Russian troops, in a June 1 editorial said that Ukrainian FPV (First Person View) drones are operating freely and in swarms over most battlefields, and that “enemy” drone units like Brovdi’s, once in sector, are able to stop almost any Russian attack, no matter its size.

It said: “How is the situation now? It sucks. From October to the present day, the Ukrainian Armed Forces have been slowing down and stopping our offensive in one area or another with the help of special [separate] UAV detachments… The result is dozens of knocked out and destroyed tanks and infantry fighting vehicles/armored personnel carriers/MTLBs.”

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It went on to say that Ukrainian drone operators appear to be supplied with hundreds of FPV drones per strike team and are able to launch as many as 10 explosive-carrying drones to attack and destroy a single Russian combat vehicle, and up to four to hunt down individual Russian soldiers.

Maksim Kalashnikov, a Russian drone unit volunteer supporter, wrote of the Ukrainian drone threat in a June 1 post: “I’m writing from the northern sector… I can with great confidence tell you that enemy [Ukrainian] drones and artillery in this sector are extremely powerful... The little birds [drones] are constantly flying from launch sites to our positions and back. With drones the situation is critical, you can only hide. We can jam the Mavics [a cheap Chinese quadcopter] easily, but against FPV drones we have almost nothing that works.”

Increasingly anecdotes of local Ukrainian counterattacks in the Kharkiv sector, in some cases made by Russian prisoners of war, are also undermining Kremlin claims that its assaults are effective, and casualties are low.

One Russian soldier identified as Valery Avchenkov told an interviewer that of his unit of more than 200 men, only nine survived a Ukrainian gauntlet of artillery and drone strikes in the Kharkiv sector, in a video posted on X by the prolific Ukrainian milblogger PSO1 on June 2.

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Avchenkov did not identify the Ukrainian unit that took him prisoner but Ukrainian media reports, indicate that experienced Ukrainian ground units have also deployed to the Kharkiv sector and are participating in targeted counterattacks. Open-source intelligence has identified combat teams from the battle-tested 36th Marine Brigade and the Dozor border troops commando unit, among others, participating in the attacks.

The independent Russian news platform Astra published a video recorded by Russian army soldier Anton Andreev on July 2 that tells of being ordered into an assault in the Vovchansk sector on foot, without any supporting tanks or artillery, and coming under intense fire from Ukrainian artillery and drones. The attack failed and Andreev said only 12 of his 100-man unit were unhit. Both Avchenkov and Andreev criticized commanders for using them as cannon-fodder in “meat” assaults.

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