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Spread too thin Russia’s new offensive near Kharkiv is gaining ground, but the real objective might be exhausting Ukraine’s limited reserves

Source: Meduza

Like our earlier reports on the combat situation in Ukraine, this article takes stock of the recent developments on the battlefield based on open-source information. Meduza has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from the very start, and our detailed military analyses are part of our commitment to objective reporting on a war we firmly oppose.

Our map is based exclusively on open-source photos and videos, most of them posted by eyewitnesses on social media. We collect available evidence and determine its geolocation markers, adding only the photos and videos that clear this process. Meduza doesn’t try to track the conflict in real time; the data reflected on the map are typically at least 48 hours old.

Key updates as of May 14, 2024

Last Friday, Russia opened a new front in Ukraine’s northeast. With the help of artillery and air support, Russian infantrymen crossed the border into the Kharkiv region and reportedly proceeded to advance five to seven kilometers (about three to four miles) in two operational directions. In the process, they captured positions held by Ukrainian Border Service officers, which were reinforced by detachments of Ukraine’s Main Intelligence Directorate (the HUR). The Russian army also claims to have occupied several border villages and entered the towns of Vovchansk and Lyptsi.


Vovchansk, located 50 kilometers (about 30 miles) northeast of Kharkiv and just five kilometers (about three miles) from the Russian border, was liberated by the Ukrainian Armed Forces (AFU) in October 2022 after six months under Russian occupation. Since then, the proximity to the Russian border and continuous shelling have prevented Ukrainian troops from establishing a strong defensive line around the city.

The AFU’s primary defensive line in the area is positioned 10-12 kilometers (6-7.5 miles) south of Vovchansk. To the north, there are only minor, scattered outposts. The day before Russia launched its new offensive, the Ukrainian command deployed Main Intelligence Directorate (HUR) special forces units to these outposts from their stations in Kharkiv and the surrounding region.

The city is roughly bisected by the Vovcha River (not to be confused with another river of the same name to the west of Avdiivka, where Russian troops have also advanced). Russian forces are currently advancing to the north of the Vovcha. In recent days, several bridges over the river have been blown up, although it’s unclear which side is responsible. It’s likely that the city’s few defenders will soon be forced to retreat across the river. Once this happens, everything hinges on how quickly Russian forces can cross the Vovcha in or to the west of the city.

It appears the AFU is planning to deploy reserves to Vovchansk to confront Russian troops north of the main defensive line, mirroring Russian tactics used during the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the summer of 2023. At that time, prolonged fighting wore down advancing Ukrainian forces before they could reach the main defensive line, leaving them too weakened to break through.

However, unlike Russian forces in 2023, the Ukrainian military has to build a new front line from scratch. The relentless Russian offensive in Donbas over the past months few months meant the Ukrainian command couldn’t afford to keep large reserves on the secondary and comparatively quieter Kharkiv front. Engineered defenses like trenches and bunkers prove ineffective without sufficient combat-ready troops.

On May 13, Russian forces entered the northern outskirts of Vovchansk, capturing a meat processing plant and several residential blocks. The AFU is attempting to hold back the advance with artillery and drone strikes. However, the two sides are mismatched, particularly in terms of firepower: since May 10, Russian forces have been relentlessly bombarding the city and its surroundings with artillery and air strikes.


Russia selected an area approximately 20-25 kilometers (12.5-15.5 miles) west of Vovchansk for the second prong of its offensive. Here, Russian troops are advancing directly toward Lyptsi, a satellite town northeast of Kharkiv. There’s a continuous residential stretch from this village to the Kharkiv Ring Road — a landscape Russian forces have favored for their decisive offensives in recent months, as the built-up area offers cover from surveillance and drone strikes.

Just as in Vovchansk, the Ukrainian army’s main fortified defenses are positioned south of Lyptsi. However, the pathway through the residential area seems unobstructed by fortifications, and there are no water barriers to impede the Russians’ advance either. The choice of attack location ensures that that a significant water barrier — the Travyansky reservoir — shields the western flank. Russian forces are pressing forward along this reservoir in an attempt to penetrate Ukrainian defenses around Lyptsi.

On May 13, the leading assault groups had overtaken the village of Hlyboke and were positioned roughly four kilometers (about two and a half miles) from Lyptsi.

What are Russia’s objectives? 

Judging by the direction of the strikes, the Russian offensive does not appear to be aimed at capturing or encircling Kharkiv. It also seems unlikely that the Russian command is trying to push the Ukrainian army back 15-20 kilometers (9-12.5 miles) from the border to create a “buffer zone” (a term used by Russian President Vladimir Putin) to prevent the Ukrainian military from shelling Russia’s bordering Belgorod region. For now, Russian troops are only making narrow, localized breakthroughs into Ukrainian territory, and only to the east of Kharkiv.

The offensive plan is probably linked with other Russian military operations. In the spring of 2022, it was through Vovchansk, to the east of Kharkiv, that Russian troops launched their primary attack. Their objective then was to capture the city of Izyum and advance northward toward Donbas, to the cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk. The AFU only managed to halt this offensive in the summer of 2022, on the outskirts of Slovyansk.

Now, the Russian command may not be pursuing such ambitious objectives. Instead, the operation seems aimed at reaching Kupyansk, behind Ukrainian lines. The Russian army spent over a year unsuccessfully trying to seize this city, which lies on the Oskil River, by attacking along the river’s eastern bank. If successful near Vovchansk, they’ll be able to approach Kupyansk from the west. Another potential strategy, but with the same objective of breaking Ukraine’s Kupyansk front, might involve an assault from Vovchansk and Lyptsi towards Chuhuiv and Shevchenkove along the Siverskyi Donets River. Both scenarios, if successful, could lead to the collapse of the entire Ukrainian front at the juncture of Ukraine’s Kharkiv, Luhansk, and Donetsk regions on the eastern bank of the Oskil.

The outcome and scope of the battle will hinge on the forces each side can deploy. The Ukrainian command is reportedly sending reinforcements to the new front, although the details of these forces remain undisclosed. Ukraine’s problem is that it’s already short on reserves. For instance, it lacks sufficient troops to stabilize the defense west of Avdiivka, where a major Russian offensive is ongoing.

Ukraine only has a few brigades that have been pulled back from the front to rest and regroup in recent months. Several other brigades couldn’t be withdrawn because of a breakthrough by Russian troops north of Avdiivka.

It’s also possible to pull troops from forward positions in “quiet” sectors of the front. However, the Russian command has been exploiting such withdrawals, promptly striking at the weakened defenses and transforming these areas into active combat zones. Alternatively, Ukraine could consider redeploying Marine Corps brigades engaged in amphibious operations on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River. If withdrawn from the bridgeheads near Krynky (a village in the Kherson region), the river would naturally protect the western bank, particularly as the Russian army is currently incapable of conducting large-scale amphibious operations across the Dnipro.

The composition of the advancing Russian forces (assembled as the operational group “Sever” and made up of formations from the newly reestablished Leningrad Military District) remains somewhat ambiguous. However, it’s evident that only a portion of the Leningrad Military District’s troops is participating in the offensive near Kharkiv. It’s likely that the following formations were immediately engaged in combat:

  • The infantry of the 11th Army Corps (permanently based in the Kaliningrad region), specifically the 18th Guards Motor Rifle Division;
  • Both motor rifle brigades of the weak 6th Combined Arms Army from the Leningrad region;
  • The 44th Army Corps, established in 2024 in the Leningrad region, which officially contains the new 72nd Motor Rifle Division and one motor rifle brigade (the actual composition is unknown).

The 11th Army Corps and the 6th Combined Arms Army have demonstrated limited combat effectiveness. For example, the 11th Corps was defending Balakliya when the Ukrainian army broke through in the fall of 2022, and two brigades of the 6th Combined Arms Army have been trying to break through to Kupyansk for more than a year. The newly established 44th Army Corps has yet to be tested in battle; as of March, it was still actively recruiting.

Notably absent near Kharkiv are some of the Leningrad Military District’s combat-ready formations: the 200th Separate Motor Rifle Brigade is advancing on Chasiv Yar, while the 80th Arctic Motor Rifle Brigade and the 61st Naval Infantry Brigade of the Northern Fleet are engaged on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River.

It’s unclear where the most famous (if not the most combat-capable) unit of the district, the 76th Guards Air Assault Division, is right now. From the summer of 2023 until recently, the division was fighting in Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region (near the towns of Robotyne and Verbove, where the AFU delivered their main blow during their offensive). Channels close to the division’s command hinted that it was moved to Russia’s Kursk region in March (where other “Sever” units were also located). Possibly, this airborne unit (or part of it) is in reserve for the Russian offensive in the Kharkiv region.

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There are about 50,000–60,000 troops that Russia could use in the offensive, but so far, only a fraction have been engaged. The advancing group has scarcely used armored vehicles; videos of battles to the east of Kharkiv almost exclusively show infantry units, supported by a formidable artillery-missile group and aviation. The Russian command likely plans to deploy armored forces after breaching the AFU’s defenses. Naturally, the pace of an offensive carried out by infantry alone is slow — even though Ukrainian reserves have yet to reach the front.

For now, it appears that the Russian group isn’t strong enough for the offensive to have a decisive impact on the situation on the Kupyansk front. It’s possible that the Russian command has the smaller goal of forcing the Ukrainian army to commit all its reserves near Kharkiv so that they can’t be used in the battle for Donbas.

However, the strategy of opening a new front to divert Ukrainian reserves might not succeed. The Russian army lacks the strength to build on successes near Avdiivka and Chasiv Yar. It would seem more strategic to concentrate the Leningrad Military District’s reserve troops in the center of Donbas, where the Kremlin is trying to achieve the war’s political objectives, rather than on a remote section of the front near Kharkiv.

The red dots show recent events, and the gray dots show earlier events. Black indicates the approximate contact line as of the last update; the red and blue areas mark places occupied (since early September) by Russian and Ukrainian forces. Clicking on them will provide additional information. Air strikes are marked with a special icon, ground operations with dots. Click on the point on the map to pull up source links.
Meduza is careful in working with data, but mistakes are still possible, and perhaps even inevitable. If you spot one, please let us know by sending an email to [email protected]. Thank you!

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