Buffer Zone: Implications of the Russian Military Operation in Kharkiv

As the Russian-Ukrainian war enters its third year, the city of Kharkiv, the second-largest city in Ukraine, has become one of Moscow’s main targets. Since May 10, 2024, Russian forces have launched a large-scale attack on the city, achieving some penetrations to open a new front in the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine. Evidence suggests that this Russian escalation marks a decisive beginning for the outcome of the war, through which Moscow seeks to exert more pressure to negotiate its demands. It also aims to exhaust Ukrainian forces, divert them from fighting elsewhere, and demonstrate the futility of Western aid to Ukraine.

Tactical Success

The focus of Russian attacks on Kharkiv and the attempt to control the area calls for consideration of the following key dimensions:

  1. Kyiv’s Recognition of Moscow’s Tactical Gains: On May 13, 2024, the Ukrainian army acknowledged that Russian forces had captured several settlements during their swift attack on Kharkiv, indicating a tactical success on the battlefield. This raises further concerns about the outcomes of the Russian military offensive. Several military experts and Ukrainian officials pointed out that Russian forces advanced in many positions within Kharkiv by exploiting areas with limited defensive capabilities and largely abandoned zones. However, as Russian forces approach more densely populated areas, the intensity of the fighting is likely to increase. Consequently, local authorities have evacuated thousands of civilians since the Russian attack began, as stated by Oleh Syniehubov, head of the Ukrainian military administration in the Kharkiv region. Reports indicate that between May 9 and 15, 2024, Russia controlled 257 square kilometers in the Kharkiv region in northeastern Ukraine.
  2. Moscow’s Aim to Exhaust and Distract Ukrainian Forces: Through the new offensive, the Russian army is trying to increase pressure on already exhausted Ukrainian lines and ultimately break through them. Russia had intensified its military operations around Kharkiv gradually over the past month, benefiting from limited Ukrainian air defenses to bomb Kharkiv and its surroundings in an attempt to convince more of its 1.3 million residents to flee. On May 10, 2024, Moscow escalated its attack on Kharkiv, capturing nearly a dozen villages and settlements, ending the prolonged stalemate in the Kharkiv area. In this context, Russia might be trying to divert Ukrainian forces from protecting the Donbas region in southeastern Ukraine to facilitate Russian control of the territory there. The region is a Ukrainian stronghold under attack by Russian forces for several weeks, with significant strategic importance. President Putin aims to reach the administrative borders of the Donetsk province, which would represent a decisive victory in his battle against Ukraine and the West.
  3. Exploitation of U.S. Weapon Usage Restrictions by Kyiv: Current U.S. policy prohibits Kyiv from using U.S.-provided weapons, especially missiles, on Russian territory. American officials have only allowed Ukraine to use these weapons within Ukrainian territories and airspace. This policy has endangered Ukraine’s ability to defend itself against renewed Russian cross-border attacks in the Kharkiv region, providing Russia with an opportunity to mobilize its ground forces. Russia exploits its airspace as a safe haven to strike the Kharkiv area, rendering Ukraine incapable of defending its positions against Russian glide bombs as long as Ukraine cannot intercept Russian aircraft in Russian airspace using U.S.-provided air defense systems. Russian aircraft can strike Kharkiv without leaving Russian airspace, taking advantage of Kharkiv’s proximity (40 km) to the Russian-Ukrainian border. The range of Russian glide bombs (40–60 km) allows Russian air forces to strike vast areas of Ukraine without obstacles, enabling them to hit at least 869 settlements in the Kharkiv region without leaving Russian airspace.
  4. Failure of Ukrainian Preparedness for the Expected Russian Attack: It had long been anticipated that Russian forces would make a significant attempt to break through Ukrainian lines in May or June, with Putin eager to seize the opportunity before more Western munitions and weapons arrived to aid Ukrainian forces. In recent months, senior Ukrainian officials repeatedly claimed that the Russian Belgorod region was heavily fortified for a potential ground attack on border areas in Ukraine, arguing that Kremlin forces had little chance of overcoming long-established Ukrainian defenses. However, the Ukrainian military leadership underestimated this information and tried to prove that the alleged fortifications were ineffective or nonexistent. Furthermore, Ukrainian and Western intelligence agencies were aware of a potential Russian attack in the summer, including an attempt to capture Kharkiv. Despite Kyiv’s insistence that its forces could resist any potential Russian attack, reality has shown that Ukraine was not well-prepared. The recent attack also revealed some of Ukraine’s slow-to-address issues, such as mobilizing sufficient troops or building adequate defensive lines.
  5. Revealing Ukraine’s Defense System Deficiencies: Ukraine’s shortage of defense systems has enabled Russia to make significant progress in the region. This concern was highlighted by several Ukrainian officials, who warned that Western delays in sending ammunition to Kyiv significantly advantaged Moscow, weakening Ukraine’s defense capabilities in the area. Many military experts agree that the number of Russian forces deployed in the Kharkiv attack was insufficient to capture the city. Some have criticized Ukraine’s preparations to prevent Russian advances in the northeast, noting a lack of fortifications and mines to hinder Russian progress, which facilitated the Russian military operation. Ukrainian armed forces faced significant obstacles due to long delays in approving U.S. aid, finding themselves under-armed by a ratio of 10 to 1 in artillery ammunition, with dangerously low air defense munitions.
  6. Moscow’s Interest in Establishing a Buffer Zone with Ukraine: In March 2024, the Russian president emphasized the need to establish a buffer zone to protect Russia from shelling and cross-border incursions. Since then, Kharkiv, with its long border with Russia to the northeast, has been subjected to numerous Russian attacks. Reports indicate that Moscow hopes to create a 10 km buffer zone up to the Russian Belgorod region. On May 10, 2024, U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby stated that Russia “will make further progress in the coming weeks to try to establish a buffer zone along the Ukrainian border.” The Russian president reiterated the buffer zone concept on May 17, 2024, during his visit to China, stating that the ground offensive launched by Moscow in the Kharkiv region in northeastern Ukraine aims to establish a “buffer zone.” He added, “What is happening in the direction of Kharkiv is also their (Ukrainians’) responsibility because they have shelled and continue to shell residential areas in the border (Russian) regions, including Belgorod.”

Russian Superiority

Undoubtedly, the Russian military operation in Kharkiv will have several potential repercussions, including:

  1. Kyiv Implementing Military Changes in the Kharkiv Region: In an attempt to change the course, Kyiv announced on May 13, 2024, the replacement of the commander overseeing the northeastern frontline in Kharkiv without a clear explanation, implicitly understood as his failure to manage the Russian attack. There were increasing criticisms that the defensive lines and fortifications built north of Kharkiv in recent weeks were below the required standard, with many gaps. Later that day, the Ukrainian General Staff announced that additional reserves would be moved to the Kharkiv region to try to halt the Russian advance.
  2. Pressure for American Aid: Following the U.S. approval of a $61 billion aid package in April 2024, Kyiv may push to receive as much of this aid as possible as soon as possible, arguing the need to repel the Russian attack in Kharkiv and prepare for any further anticipated Russian offensive during the summer. Kyiv may also seek to launch counterattacks or preemptive strikes against Russian forces stationed within its territory. During his visit to Kyiv, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated on May 14, 2024, that the issue of sending aid to Ukraine is very close, indicating his country’s swift action to equip military gear to reach Ukraine during this critical period of the war. This aid includes air defense munitions, artillery shells, anti-tank weapons, and armored vehicles. However, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky emphasized during his meeting with the U.S. Secretary on May 14, 2024, that the country’s most significant shortage is air defenses, noting that Ukraine urgently needs two air defense batteries for the Kharkiv region.
  3. Possibility of Ukraine Launching a Counterattack: Given the U.S. Secretary of State’s assurance to President Zelensky that the military aid package would make a “real difference” on the battlefield, Kyiv might use this American support to launch a counterattack on Russian forces. Despite the challenges facing this scenario, it is important to consider it, especially after Ukraine pledged to crush the unexpected Russian ground attack on Kharkiv. It is also notable that U.S. officials believe that Ukraine can still achieve significant victories over Russia, including reclaiming about 50% of the territories seized by Russian forces in the early months of the war.
  4. Encouraging Moscow to Intensify New Attacks: If Russian forces successfully control large areas of Kharkiv and maintain control over the strategically important eastern city of Chasiv Yar for an extended period, they may be encouraged to exploit this to strike the remaining major cities controlled by Ukraine in the Donetsk region, particularly Kramatorsk, Sloviansk, Druzhkivka, and Kostyantynivka. This scenario aligns with Zelensky’s expectations of Russia preparing for a major attack by summer, and his assertion that Ukrainian forces are ready to face any potential Russian attack aiming to push Ukrainian forces up to ten kilometers inside Ukraine, as part of an effort to create a buffer zone.
  5. Distracting Kyiv from the Main Frontline: Opening a new front in the Kharkiv region was the easiest tactic to distract Ukrainian forces and divert their focus from the fierce battles ongoing in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, considered the greatest victories in this protracted war. Evidence of this is that Russian forces have intensified their operations by deploying additional personnel and mechanized brigades in the Kharkiv and Luhansk regions, conducting limited offensive operations on Ukrainian lines in the Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions. Russia maintains an offensive posture in the Luhansk, Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Zaporizhzhia areas, while Ukrainian forces maintain a defensive stance with limited capability for counterattacks on advancing Russian forces.

In conclusion, the Russian military operation in Kharkiv serves as a prelude to broader Russian military operations in other parts of Ukraine, specifically the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. Russia focuses on exhausting Ukrainian forces within the battlefields there and weakening the efficacy of recently renewed Western aid flowing into Ukrainian territories. Moreover, Russia aims to undermine Western morale regarding the possibility of achieving a decisive victory in the battle, seeking to maximize material gains to secure a better position at the negotiation table in the future.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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