With Ukrainian forces stretched thin and fresh arms supplies yet to reach the frontlines, Moscow is seeking capitalise on its battlefield advantage. Foreign Editor David Pratt assesses what’s at stake

Just last month the warnings were coming thick and fast. “The side that can’t shoot back loses,” was how Nato Supreme Allied Commander General Christopher Cavoli summed up Ukraine’s dire shortage of ammunition, as delays to weapons supplies remained snarled up in US politics.

Ukrainian commanders on the ground, meanwhile, also warned of personnel shortages because of failures to ramp up mobilisation. They talked of delays to the completion of fortified defensive positions in parts of the country, especially in the northwest around Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv.

Since then, of course, US President Joe Biden has signed off on the long-awaited foreign aid bill that provides more than $61 billion in American aid to Ukraine, and the rush has been on to get the badly needed ammunition and weapons to where it matters most – the frontlines.

But the logistics of such an operation are never easy and knowing this, Russia has timed its latest offensive in Ukraine, determined to use the window of opportunity it has to capitalise on its advantages of both ammunition and manpower.

As has so often been the case in this war, the situation on the ground up until recently has been nip and tuck. But just over a week ago, Russian troops and armoured vehicles moved over the border, capturing a handful of villages in the Kharkiv region and facing what many observers worryingly noted was limited Ukrainian resistance.

By the middle of last week, fighting had reached Vovchansk and villages north of Lyptsi, about 20 miles away from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city and home to 1.3 million people.

Since then, there have been mixed messages coming out from Kyiv and its allies as to the extent to which the battlefield situation has been brought under control.

Speaking on Friday, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russia’s forces had reached the first of three defensive lines protecting Kharkiv, but pointed out the advance was now blocked.

“Today our defence forces have stabilised the Russians where they are located,” Zelenskyy said after visiting Kharkiv on Thursday. “The deepest point of their advance is 10km.”

TOPSHOT - Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky poses prior to an interview with AFP at the Presidential Office in Kyiv, on May 17, 2024, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Photo by Roman PILIPEY / AFP) (Photo by ROMAN PILIPEY/AFP via Getty Images).

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky poses prior to an interview with AFP at the Presidential Office in Kyiv, on May 17, 2024, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Photo by Roman PILIPEY / AFP) 

Fresh supplies

No doubt keen to present a picture of reassurance, Cavoli, the same top Nato commander who only last month was warning of the consequences should Ukrainian forces be deprived of fresh supplies of ammunition, was last week striking a different tone.

“The Russians don’t have the numbers necessary to do a strategic breakthrough,” Cavoli told a press conference at Nato headquarters in Brussels after a meeting of military chiefs from across the transatlantic alliance.

“More to the point, they don’t have the skill and the capability to do it, to operate at the scale necessary to exploit any breakthrough to strategic advantage,” he added.

“They do have the ability to make local advances and they have done some of that. They’ve also made some local losses.”

But while Ukrainian forces appears to have held the line for now, events on the battlefield these past days have starkly revealed the extent of Ukraine’s vulnerability without continued support. They have also highlighted what some Ukrainian military commanders have been saying for months about shortages of personnel and battle-weary troops, many of whom have been fighting for two years with almost no rotational respite.

Criticism of the government in Kyiv over its failure to ramp up mobilisation to help counter this has also become more common.

Recent events have also thrown in to sharp focus Russia’s own battlefield abilities and capacity with some Ukrainian commanders openly, if begrudgingly, admitting their enemy has learned many lessons since those early days of the war following the Russian invasion.

So, where does this leave the war now and what can we expect in the coming summer months which many observers say could prove crucial to the conflict’s outcome?

The first thing some military analysts stress is not to see Russia’s recent push towards Kharkiv as necessarily an attempt to take the city. The number of Russian forces deployed to the offensive, two army corps or roughly 35,000, is not enough to attempt any capture of Kharkiv city, some officials and analysts insist.

Many instead are of the view that Russia’s main aim is to create a “buffer zone” to fend off Ukraine’s own cross-border attacks in Russia’s southern Belgorod region.

According to an assessment by the US-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW), the Russian forces’ push in Kharkiv region has made rapid but limited advances with troops destroying bridges over critical waterways in the Kharkiv area.

What they have not done so far is try to make inroads on the southern side of the Vovcha River and move deeper into northern Kharkiv Oblast or towards Kharkiv City, it said.

Earlier this year. the Kremlin pledged to do everything it could to protect the Russian region of Belgorod after it was subjected to a series of cross-border raids.

Some of these attacks have been carried out from Ukrainian territory by ethnic Russia anti-Putin forces, including the Russian Volunteer Corps and Freedom of Russia Legion.

Ukrainian infantry soldiers of the 23rd Mechanized Brigade walk to board an armored fighting vehicle MaxxPro to head toward the frontline in the Avdiivka direction, in the Donetsk region, on April 3, 2024, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Photo by

Ukrainian infantry soldiers of the 23rd Mechanized Brigade walk to board an armored fighting vehicle MaxxPro to head toward the frontline in the Avdiivka direction, in the Donetsk region, on April 3, 2024, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Chinese trip

ON Friday, during an ongoing trip to China, Russian president Vladmir Putin doubled down on the pledge and hit out at Ukraine for the cross-border raids, insisting that Russia wasn’t planning to capture Kharkiv but was indeed aiming to create a buffer zone.

“When it comes to what is happening around Kharkiv, that is their fault too,” Putin said, according to a video posted on the Kremlin website.

“Because they have been shelling and sadly continue to target residential neighbourhoods in the border areas, including Belgorod.

“And I have said publicly that if this will continue we will be forced to create a safe zone, a sanitary zone. That is what we are doing.”

Putin added: “As for Kharkiv, we have no such plans [to capture it] today.”

But the Russian leader’s words will do little to reassure Ukrainian residents of Kharkiv who have borne the brunt of increasing drone, missile and glide bomb attacks while struggling to cope with power blackouts for months now.

Ukrainian military commanders will be wary, too, knowing that the capture of Kharkiv would be a major victory for Russia, coming as the city does only behind Kyiv and Dnipro in its economic importance to Ukraine. In short, Kharkiv’s importance is both both symbolic and strategic.

As Dara Massicot, a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told the Washington Post in a recent interview, Russia’s lates moves “may be phase one of a larger long-term plan”.

That wider military ambition of taking Kharkiv is something that a Ukrainian open source intelligence project (OSINT) called Deep State also warned it was important not to rule out.

“It’s important to note that they [the Russian military] can increase and reinforce their forces in this direction – that’s a fact,” it warned in one recent assessment.

Speaking to the BBC, Russian military analyst Anatoly Matviychuk said that if Russia could capture Kharkiv, it would prove a “turning point” in the war and hit Ukraine’s industrial potential hard.

Conscious of such a threat, Ukraine’s military leadership has sent reinforcements to Kharkiv but has been wary of excessively drawing down its forces in other parts of the front.

Chief of Ukraine’s Defence Intelligence General Kyrylo Budanov believes the Russian attacks are intended to stretch Ukraine’s already-thin reserves of soldiers and divert them from fighting elsewhere.

It’s a view shared by other independent military analysts, among them Jack Watling of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) who told the BBC he believes the main aim of the summer offensive is “the expansion of the Russian push in the Donbas”.

VOVCHANSK, UKRAINE - MAY 17: (EDITORS NOTE: No new use of feed image after June 16, 2024. After that date, image will need to be licensed from the website.) In this aerial view smoke rises from the Ukranian boarder city of Vovchansk, in Chuhuiv Raion,

In this aerial view smoke rises from the Ukranian boarder city of Vovchansk, in Chuhuiv Raion,

New targets

Just a few months on from the capture of Avdiivka there, the Russian military, some believe, has set its sights on other targets in the region, including the strategically important hilltop town of Chasiv Yar.

It’s thought that some Ukrainian troops who were based there have since been moved to Kharkiv, leaving Ukraine with fewer units available in Chasiv Yar.

And on that very issue of available personnel, the latest battlefield pressures on Ukraine have once again highlighted issues over mobilisation.

Only last month, president Zelenskyy signed into law a bill to overhaul Ukraine’s army mobilisation rules, as Kyiv tried to generate fresh manpower to rotate its exhausted troops.

The law lowered the age of mobilisation by two years to 25 and obliges Ukrainian men between 18 and 60 years of age to update their personal data with the military authorities, allowing draft offices to see more easily who can be called up in any given region.

Military-age men will be legally required at all times to carry the registration document they are given by the draft office. Draft officers will be allowed to ask to see the document in the street,

For months now, alongside this legislation, Ukrainian military units have been trying to lure recruits through advertising campaigns as they seek to raise hundreds of thousands of men needed to hold the line against the renewed Russian offensive.

But recruitment efforts have been hampered by reports on social media about the shortages of ammunition, claims of corruption, incompetent commanders, and insufficient training.

Then there is the issue of troops receiving no break from the frontline, with a proposal to allow soldiers to demobilise after 36 months being dropped after army chiefs feared too many experienced troops would leave early next year.

But Ukraine is not alone in having its recruitment problems.

Russia also has soldier shortages which will curtail its latest offensive plans in Kharkiv region and elsewhere in Ukraine.

To try to overcome this, Russia has ramped up recruitment of contract soldiers and significantly boosted sign-up bonuses for men willing to fight – up to the equivalent of nearly £8,000 in some regions, roughly 15 times more than the average salary.

Now, as fighting steps up around Kharkiv and on other fronts, both sides are having to carefully consider their strategic options.

Seen from a Russian perspective, Moscow has a window of opportunity of a few months to make the most of a situation where Ukraine waits anxiously until the next tranche of Western aid filters through to the frontlines and Ukraine’s new mobilisation law gives its forces a personnel boost.

From Ukraine’s position, meanwhile, it knows that help is on the way.

It will come in the shape of everything from European-trained Ukrainian F-16 pilots to air defence systems, artillery, and hundreds of thousands of crucially needed 155mm and 122mm artillery rounds which are not expected to reach the frontlines until June.

Frontline fears

THE problem for Ukraine, of course, is to get these weapons and ammunition flowing to the front.

As most analysts agree, it needs these weapons and ammunition now – not weeks from now such is the gravity of the situation on many frontline positions.

While Russia seeks to pursue gains on the ground and Ukraine remains determined to prevent it from doing so, the one glimmer of positive news comes in the shape of a peace summit scheduled for next month in Switzerland organised at president Zelenskyy’s request.

Already it has drawn delegations from more than 50 countries and while Russia has not been invited, there have been signs in recent days that that the Kremlin could be prepared to return to peace talks abandoned two years ago.

“We are open to a dialogue on Ukraine, but such negotiations must take into account the interests of all countries involved in the conflict, including ours,” president Putin told China’s state news agency Xinhua on the eve of his ongoing visit to the country.

Coming as they do one month before the Switzerland summit, the timing of Putin’s remarks, say some observers, is very significant and perhaps a small sign of a shift in diplomatic efforts.

For the moment, however, it is events on the battlefield that continue to dominate events. Few would bet against the coming summer weeks being some of the most crucial in this war to date.