Ukraine stabilizes the north after surprise Russian push – but faces fresh pressure in the east

Ukraine has stabilized the northern Kharkiv front after Moscow launched an offensive a month ago, thanks to more weapons and permission to use them to target positions within Russia. But its forces are being stretched elsewhere along the 1,000km (620 miles) long front line and are defenseless against Russia’s deadly aerial glide bombs.

A senior officer in Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU), who goes by the call sign Bankir, and is currently fighting in the Kharkiv region, told CNN the ability to hit Russian targets across the border was already having a positive impact.

“It is now possible to conduct local counter-attack operations and recapture the territories that, for example, were captured by the enemy a week ago,’ the SBU officer said.

For much of the war, Ukraine has been constrained when it comes to using powerful Western weapons against Russia.

Kyiv’s allies have long been adamant that their fighting machines must not strike within Russian territory for fear of provoking Moscow, limiting their use to targets within Ukraine, including in occupied areas.

But that changed in the wake of the Kharkiv offensive. First, European countries including France and Germany allowed Ukraine to strike targets within Russia, then, most significantly, the US gave the go ahead for Ukraine to use its weaponry around Kharkiv.

“Our policy using long-range strike weaponry to go into Russia hasn’t changed, but what we have done is provide Ukraine the ability to counterfire, to fire back at those Russian troops that are firing at them and to be able to take out their artillery batteries as they’re firing at the Ukrainians and I think that’s going to prove to be very, very helpful to Ukraine going forward,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.

Smoke rises after a Russian missile strike in Kharkiv on May 17. - Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters
Smoke rises after a Russian missile strike in Kharkiv on May 17. - Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

The US HIMARS system has become the go-to weapon system to hit the Russian positions, according to Yehor Cherniev, deputy chairman of the Ukrainian Parliament’s Committee on National Security, Defense and Intelligence.

Due to the threat of being hit by HIMARS, the Russians have begun to use S-300 and S-400 missile systems much less to fire at the Kharkiv region but glide bombs remain an issue. These are dropped from so high they are out of range of Ukrainian defenses.

“Unfortunately, we do not yet have permission to hit Russian aircraft at airfields with American weapons and we do not have permission to use ATACMS missiles on Russian territory,” said Cherniev, referring to a long-range missile system. “Because of this, we have not yet been able to resolve the problem of glide bomb strikes on our territory. Kharkiv and other border areas are still suffering from bombing attacks, and a lot of civilians die.”

While the Russian advance has slowed as assessed by the US and Ukraine, Moscow’s forces continue to press along the new front line in the north.

Russians are focusing on trying to push through the village of Hlyboke north of Kharkiv. If Russian forces manage to take hold there they could push through to the village of Lyptsi which sits 30 kilometers north of Kharkiv – bringing the city with historic, cultural and industrial importance within artillery range.

Ukrainian soldiers of the assault brigade defend the front line, which passes through the Ukrainian border city of Vovchansk, in Chuhuiv Raion, Kharkiv Oblast, on May 20, 2024. - Kostiantyn Liberov/Libkos/Getty Images
Ukrainian soldiers of the assault brigade defend the front line, which passes through the Ukrainian border city of Vovchansk, in Chuhuiv Raion, Kharkiv Oblast, on May 20, 2024. - Kostiantyn Liberov/Libkos/Getty Images

Northeast of Kharkiv, Russian forces continue to maintain a foothold in the town of Vovchansk. The fighting has turned to close combat, with units fighting street by street, according to Nazar Voloshyn, a Ukrainian military spokesman in the east. But “most of the city is under the control of the Ukrainian Defense Forces” Voloshyn told CNN.

“To disperse the forces and means of our defense forces, the enemy launched an additional Kharkiv campaign… they partially succeeded, but the defense forces stabilized the situation,” said Yurii Fedorenko, a company commander with the 92nd Separate Mechanized Brigade currently fighting in the Kharkiv region.

The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU) recorded a “significant increase” (31%) in civilians killed in Ukraine in May compared to April. According to HRMMU, more than half of the casualties occurred in the new northern front and because of “air-dropped bombs and missiles in populated areas such as communities near the front line and Kharkiv city.”

To counter the Russians in Kharkiv, Ukraine has to divert men and arms from other parts of the front line in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. A main goal for Russia has been to exert complete control over the two eastern regions. And that’s exactly where Russia has been pressing quite actively, according to Voloshyn.

In the east, Moscow had set its sites on on the town of Chasiv Yar in the Donetsk region. Russian troops have made some advances. Further south along the eastern front line, Russians have made advances to the west of the city of Avdiivka which fell to Russian forces in February.

“The Russian army is trying to do everything possible on the front line before the arrival of US aid to Ukraine and is trying to use this window of opportunity in all possible ways,” according to Voloshyn.

Russians are trying to seize the momentum as the weather and daylight hours make conditions more conducive to ground operations. They are also in race against the clock before more arms arrive from Ukrainian partners, particularly as the West is slowly coming around to allowing Ukraine to use the weapons on Russian territory.

NATO F16s are expected to arrive shortly and France has pledged to equip Ukraine wih its Mirage 2000-5 fighter jets. Western weapons and a new push to draft more soldiers in to the Ukrainian military could give Ukraine the boost it needs.

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