The five fronts Ukraine is defending with troops and weapons pushed to the limit

Russia is pressing its advantage in troops, munitions and air dominance in several towns in the provinces of Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kharkiv to expand the front line and achieve strategic victories this summer

Ukranian boarder city of Vovchansk, in Chuhuiv Raion, Kharkiv Oblast
Aerial view of Vovchansk, in Kharkiv, this Friday.Libkos (Getty Images)

The Russian army is pressing to achieve strategic victories in Ukraine this summer. The main objective, as indicated last April by Oleksander Syrskyi, commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, is to take Chasiv Yar, in Donetsk. But the invading forces have other cards on the table. In addition to Chasiv Yar, Russian troops have been modest advances during spring in the direction of the town of Pokrovsk, also in Donetsk, in Robotyne, on the Zaporizhzhia front, and in the towns of Vovchansk and Kupiansk, both in the Kharkiv region.

Russian progress is slow but steady, following a tactic of wearing down the Ukrainian defenses. Superiority in troop numbers and weaponry, plus its control of airspace, has allowed Moscow to expand the front line by 70 kilometers (43.5 miles), Syrskyi said Friday, while straining Ukrainian resources to the limit. “The enemy is looking for us to use more reserve brigades [in the northern part of Kharkiv],” the Ukrainian commander-in-chief said in a statement. Ukrainian Defense Ministry (GUR) intelligence services warn that the enemy may also seek to open new fronts in the north, in Sumi province.

Kyrylo Budanov, head of the GUR, has reiterated in recent days that Russia intends to take advantage of a window of opportunity, lasting until June, to launch a major summer offensive during the weeks it will take for the Ukrainian army to receive fresh supplies of U.S. weapons in bulk. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has repeatedly acknowledged that his NATO allies are providing Kyiv with enough weapons to resist, but not to expel Russian forces.

EL PAÍS visited the Sumi region, which borders Russia, at the beginning of May and witnessed the race against the clock to build new defensive fortifications. In Kozacha Lopan, on the Kharkiv border with Russia, the invader’s artillery is intensifying its fire and fear of a possible land offensive are growing. These territories were overrun by Russian troops at the beginning of the invasion in February 2022 and were not liberated until the Ukrainian counteroffensive in September of the same year.

This year has been marked by a widening deficit of artillery ammunition and troops on available to Kyiv. Depending on the front, Russia has stockpiles of between six and 10 times more shells than Ukraine. Another significant change from 2023 is Russian air dominance, both in numbers of drones and in the greater freedom with which with its aviation attacks Ukrainian positions. The main symptom of this was the Russian conquest of Avdiivka last February. From this stronghold near the city of Donetsk, Russian forces have advanced 15 kilometers in the direction of Pokrovsk, the municipality which serves as the capital of the rearguard in the south of the province. For the Kremlin, it is a priority to finish conquering the half of Donetsk it does not control, in order to have total control of the Donbas region. The capture of Chasiv Yar would be even more decisive, as it would threaten to cut in two the Ukrainian defenses in Donetsk.

Despite having thrown tens of thousands of soldiers at Ukraine’s defensive positions, Vladimir Putin has surprised his own military by stating that he does not intend to occupy Ukraine’s second-largest city. “As for Kharkiv, there are no such plans today,” said the supreme commander of the Russian Armed Forces on his official trip to China. According to Putin, the idea is to create a so-called “sanitary zone” to prevent Ukrainian attacks on the neighboring city of Belgorod: the two are just 80 kilometers (50 miles) apart.

“This is the first war in history in which the plans do not provide for the assault on strategically important enemy cities,” former State Duma deputy and Soviet colonel Viktor Alksnis wrote on Telegram. “How, without occupying Kharkiv, can the main goals of the operation declared by Vladimir Putin on February 24, 2022 — denazification and demilitarization of Ukraine — be achieved?” Alksnis also said Putin’s statements hint at “serious problems with the ability of our forces to assault Kharkiv and other Ukrainian cities.”

Russian air dominance

Last week, EL PAÍS witnessed recurrent Russian air strikes by in the Vovchansk area, as well as the use of cluster munitions. The mayor of this town near Kharkiv, Tamaz Gambarashvili, confirmed both reports to this newspaper on Wednesday. A day later, at a civilian evacuation point, he was wounded by a cluster bomb.

The Ukrainian General Staff reported that in Liptsi, the other locality Russia is seeking to take in this disputed area of Kharkiv, aerial guided bombs had wreaked havoc. The progressive deficit of anti-aircraft systems is Ukraine’s biggest defensive problem, Zelenskiy stressed this week during a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Zelenskiy also noted that after the first Russian onslaught in Kharkiv, the situation, despite being “extremely difficult,” has stabilized and their advance has slowed. This was confirmed by EL PAÍS during visits to Vovchansk and Liptsi, where Russian positions have even fallen back. “A few days ago this was hell; now we are giving them some trouble,” said Maxim, a member of the Sich Battalion, last Thursday.

Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kharkiv, Ukraine
Ukrainian police inspect the remains of a bomb dropped during a Russian airstrike in Kharkiv this Saturday.Valentyn Ogirenko (REUTERS)

International support for Ukraine

International support for Ukraine remains firm. As leaders such as France’s Emmanuel Macron and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg reiterated this spring, Europe cannot afford to let Putin win the war. But at the same time, as the Ukrainian government admits, it will be increasingly difficult to convince European and U.S. allies to provide Kyiv with large amounts of military assistance. It took the U.S. legislature over six months to approve a $60 billion arms package pledged by President Joe Biden. Further uncertainty will be provided by the European parliament elections in June — where populist parties on the left and right are questioning support for Ukraine — and above all by the U.S. presidential election in November, in which the presumptive Republican candidate, Donald Trump, is in favor of turning off the tap for Kyiv on the grounds that it is fighting an unwinnable war. Even Biden, as reported by media outlets such as Politico, wants the debate on the war in Ukraine to take a back seat during the upcoming election campaign.

A report published on May 12 by The Times newspaper caused a stir in Ukraine. British government sources claimed that the foreign minister, David Cameron, had during a meeting in April raised with Trump the need to support Ukraine until 2025, at which point the two sides would sit down and negotiate a peace agreement.

For its part, the course of the war has strengthened Moscow’s dependence on Beijing, the Putin regime’s main economic lifeline, even though it has been more hesitant than Russia’s staunchest allies, such as Iran, when it comes to sending weapons and ammunition.

Domestically, Putin has strengthened his power with the persecution of all opposition, both liberal and ultra-nationalist. An example of this is that hardly anyone has dared to criticize the president after his latest purge in the Ministry of Defense, during which he removed Sergei Shoigu and two important high-ranking officials were arrested for corruption. The choice of an economist as the new head of the ministry is an indication that Putin aims to prolong the war.

Mobilization of civilians

Zelenskiy does not have a wide margin domestically either. Polls indicate that his popularity is waning and that a large majority of Ukrainians are against being called up to join the army. Last Saturday the new civilian mobilization law came into force, which aims to provide around 400,000 new recruits for the Armed Forces of Ukraine, a measure that is unpopular in society but essential to renew regiments that have been decimated after more than two years of war. The new contingents could start fighting from the second half of the summer. The question is whether such a mobilization will be possible in the future without provoking a political crisis in the country.

Both sides currently have even numbers of combatants on the battlefield: about half a million troops to cover some 2,000 kilometers (1,243 miles) of frontline, according to data from the Russian Center for Analysis of Technologies and Strategies, which warns that the potential of the Russian Armed Forces in 2024 will be absolutely determined by the Kremlin’s readiness to execute a new mass call-up.

Despite the steps taken by Kyiv to reinforce itself, Russia’s new Minister of Defense Andrey Belousov has ruled out that the Kremlin will also carry out a forced conscription, although he was not very convincing. “There are certain problems with army conscription, but we are not talking about carrying out a mobilization,” Belousov said this week.

Outside the Moscow bubble, in the soldiers’ farms that Russia’s poor provinces have become, cemeteries are filled with the graves of military personnel killed in Ukraine. The Defense Ministry has managed to weather the losses for now through its 2022 mobilization and the massive influx of volunteers thanks to a very attractive salary for the average citizen: more than 200,000 rubles a month — about $2,200 — for enlisting, and compensation to the family for returning wounded or dead.

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