No threat of ground assault on Kharkiv, Ukraine says

Ukraine's Secretary of the National Security Oleksandr Lytvynenko said Russia's current offensive was likely aimed at creating a 'buffer zone' along the region's borders (Sergei SUPINSKY)
Ukraine's Secretary of the National Security Oleksandr Lytvynenko said Russia's current offensive was likely aimed at creating a 'buffer zone' along the region's borders (Sergei SUPINSKY)

Ukraine sees no risk of an imminent ground assault on the northeastern city of Kharkiv, despite Russia mounting tens of thousands of troops against the region in a surprise offensive last week, Ukraine's security council chief said on Monday.

Russian soldiers crossed the border into the Kharkiv region on Friday, making small advances and capturing several villages in areas it was pushed back from nearly two years ago.

"At the moment, Russian actions in the border area are ongoing," Oleksandr Lytvynenko, the recently appointed secretary of Ukraine's security council, told AFP in an interview in Kyiv.

"We can say that we don't see any threat of assault on the city of Kharkiv.

"But there are a lot of Russians, quite a lot. About 50,000 were on the border," he said, warning that "more than 30,000" were involved in the current attack.

Russian forces fought to capture Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city, at the beginning of their invasion but were forced to pull back from the region in autumn 2022.

Any renewed Russian assault on the city would cause devastation, displace over a million people and inflict "enormous damage" to Ukraine's economy, Lytvynenko said.

He said Russia's current offensive was likely aimed at creating a "buffer zone" along the region's borders to limit Ukrainian attacks into Russia, which have intensified in recent months.

Lytvynenko acknowledged that Kyiv had been striking inside Russian territory, but insisted it was only against military targets, and oil and gas facilities used to fuel the invasion.

"About 15 percent of Russian oil refining capacity has been lost," he said.

"It is very important that Ukraine is hitting legitimate targets."

- 'Long' war ahead -

Moscow launched the Kharkiv region offensive at a time when Ukraine was outgunned, although it has started receiving aid from the United States, Lytvynenko said.

"They are taking advantage of their current advantages, advantages in reserves, advantages in weapons, and are trying to force our army to retreat," he said.

If the US aid had come earlier, "it would have been better. But the fact that it is already coming is a huge advantage," he added.

Moscow claims to have made small inroads, capturing several villages and moving towards the border town of Vovchansk, where Ukraine has reported heavy shelling.

Kyiv has in contrast struggled to hold off Russian advances across the frontline, in part because of a shortage of manpower and months of wrangling in Washington over the aid.

Kharkiv regional governor Oleg Synegubov on Monday said that more than 30 towns and villages "were struck by enemy artillery and mortar attacks", wounding at least nine people.

Just days into the new offensive, Russian President Vladimir Putin sacked long-running defence minister Sergei Shoigu, replacing him with economist Andrei Belousov.

Commenting on the military shake-up, Lytvynenko -- who studied at a KGB school during the Soviet era -- said Belousov was an "experienced manager capable of ensuring a long-term war of attrition" and had "serious ties" with Russian intelligence.

"This suggests that Putin is planning a war for a long period of time ahead. And a war not only with Ukraine, but with the West as a whole. A war with NATO," Lytvynenko said.

But he cautioned Russia could not continue to wage the war at its current intensity indefinitely.

"Soviet stockpiles are huge, but they are also limited. If military operations continue at the same intensity as they are now, the Russians will have enough tanks and armoured vehicles for a year and a half," he said.

"Then they will start having problems," he added.

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