April 22, 2024

Institute for the Study of War: Russia bombarding City of Kharkiv, urging population to flee

Institute for the Study of War

The Kremlin is conducting a concerted air and information operation to destroy Kharkiv City, convince Ukrainians to flee, and internally displace millions of Ukrainians ahead of a possible future Russian offensive operation against the city or elsewhere in Ukraine. Kharkiv Oblast Head Oleh Synehubov and the Kharkiv Oblast Prosecutor’s Office reported that Russian forces struck a TV tower in Kharkiv City possibly with a Kh-59 cruise missile on the afternoon of April 22 and that the strike disrupted TV signals in the area.[1] Ukrainian and Russian media and Russian milbloggers widely amplified footage and images of the damaged TV tower, which broke in half and partially collapsed as a result of the strike.[2] Russian state media and milbloggers attempted to justify the strike by claiming that Ukrainian forces installed unspecified air defense communication and coordination equipment on the tower.[3] Russian milbloggers praised the accuracy of the Russian strike and insinuated that Russian forces had tried and failed to down the Kharkiv City TV tower and other TV towers in Sumy and Chernihiv oblasts several times, including in March 2022.[4] Russian forces notably struck a TV tower in Kyiv City on March 1, 2022, shortly after Russian forces launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.[5] Kremlin may intend to invoke the memory of the March 2022 Kyiv City strike and the early weeks of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to create panic among Ukrainians during another challenging moment of the war.

Kremlin mouthpieces are seizing on concerns about a future Russian offensive operation against Kharkiv City to conduct a likely coordinated information operation in an effort to create outsized panic among Ukrainians. ISW assesses that the likelihood of a successful Russian ground offensive against Kharkiv is very low if Ukraine receives renewed US military aid rapidly. The Ukrainian Center for Combatting Disinformation warned as early as February 2024 that Russian Telegram channels are spreading claims that Ukrainian officials were fleeing Kharkiv City, and Russian sources claimed in early April that there is a “mass exodus” of civilians from Kharkiv City.[6] The Ukrainian Center for Strategic Communications and Information Security recently identified a Russian information operation claiming that Ukrainian officials prevented civilians from leaving Kharkiv City and noted that Russian forces are seizing on concern about a possible Russian offensive operation against Kharkiv City to sow panic and a feeling of “impending, inevitable catastrophe” in Ukraine.[7] Russian state TV propagandist Vladimir Solovyov claimed on March 28 that Russian forces should destroy Kharkiv City “quarter by quarter” and suggested offering Ukrainian civilians 48 hours to leave the city, presumably before being killed in Russia‘s destruction of the city.[8] Russian neo-nationalist publication Tsargrad amplified claims from several unspecified military sources on April 16 that a Russian offensive operation to capture Kharkiv City is inevitable and that the situation in Kharkiv City will become “worse than Bakhmut and Avdiivka.”[9] Tsargrad claimed that there is “no doubt” that Russian forces will seize Kharkiv City but that “blockade tactics,” such as “cutting off electricity, gas, and water” for civilians, are the most reasonable way for Russian forces to seize the city and avoid large-scale losses. A prominent Russian milblogger claimed that Russia’s April 22 strikes against Kharkiv City are an indication that Ukrainian civilians should leave Kharkiv City “while they still can” and that it does not make sense for civilians to hide in and protect their apartments if Ukrainian forces are “hiding in the basement,” implying that Russian forces may deliberately target residential infrastructure.[10] Another Russian milblogger claimed that Ukrainians should abandon Kharkiv City before their “neighbors” kill them, likely referring to Russian forces.[11] Ukrainian officials have previously discussed the possibility that Russian forces might launch a ground operation against Kharkiv city later this summer, and ISW continues to assess that the Russians lack the forces necessary to seize the city as long as Ukrainian forces defending it are adequately supplied, as they will be if the US restarts military assistance soon.

Russia is intensifying strike and information operations against Ukrainians in Kharkiv City to exploit ongoing constraints on Ukrainian air defenses and heightened tensions in Ukraine in the likely relatively brief window before the anticipated arrival of US military assistance to frontline areas. Ukrainian officials have recently warned about a possible future Russian offensive operation to seize Kharkiv City, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov signaled Russia’s interest for such an operation on April 19, claiming that Kharkiv City “plays an important role” in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s idea of establishing a demilitarized “sanitary zone” in Ukraine to supposedly protect Russian border settlements from Ukrainian strikes.[12] Russia’s envisioned “sanitary zone” could represent a range of on-the-ground conditions from the seizure of Kharkiv City and the surrounding areas to the creation of an uninhabitable, razed “no man’s land” that neither side controls. ISW previously assessed that a Russian offensive operation aimed at seizing Kharkiv City would be an extremely ambitious undertaking that would pose significant challenges to Russian forces and that the Russian military command will likely have to reconsider its objectives for its forecasted summer 2024 offensive effort to account for better equipped and manned Ukrainian forces.[13] The Russian military command may attempt to destroy Kharkiv City with air, missile, and drone strikes and prompt a large-scale internal displacement of Ukrainian civilians if the Russian military determines that it cannot successfully seize the city with ground operations. Continued timely US and Western military assistance, particularly the provision of air defense systems and missiles, will be critical to Ukraine’s defense of Kharkiv City.

Russian forces appear to be aiming to make a wide penetration of Ukrainian lines northwest of Avdiivka, Donetsk Oblast, but their ability to do so will likely be blunted by the arrival of US and other Western aid to the frontline. Russian forces have committed roughly a reinforced division’s worth of combat power (comprised mainly of four Central Military District [CMD] brigades) to the Berdychi-Novokalynove line northwest of Avdiivka.[14] These forces are pursuing three mutually reinforcing drives — pushing westward of Berdychi; pushing into and westward of Ocheretyne along the O0544 (Keramik-Myrhorod) road; and pushing northwards towards Novokalynove — which are all likely aimed at supporting the Russian operational-level goal of reaching the Donetsk Oblast administrative boundary via Pokrovsk (west of the Avdiivka area). Russian offensive operations in these three areas north and northwest of Avdiivka have succeeded in creating three small salients along a frontline that is about seven kilometers long, but each of these three salients is currently too narrow in isolation to serve as meaningful launch points for further ground offensives that would accomplish a broad encirclement of the general area west of Avdiivka. The force composition, density, and general battlefield geometry of this area suggest that Russian forces currently hope to combine the pushes from all three salients to create a wider breach along the Berdychi-Novokalynove line, predominantly using forces of the CMD.

Russian forces do not have an indefinite timeframe in which to pursue this wider breach, however. European military aid will soon start arriving in Ukraine’s arsenal along with renewed US military aid should the US Senate pass the supplemental appropriations bill.[15] European Union (EU) High Commissioner Josep Borrell stated on April 22 that the first deliveries of artillery ammunition sourced through the Czech-led initiative for Ukraine will arrive in country by the end of May to beginning of June.[16] Ukraine’s ability to even the ratio of artillery fires in comparison to Russian forces on the battlefield will be essential to Ukraine’s ability to deprive Russian forces of the initiative and slow the rate of ongoing Russian advances in areas of the front such as the Avdiivka direction. Russian forces are similarly intensifying the rate of tactical-level gains elsewhere in the theater, namely in the Lyman direction and west and southwest of Donetsk City, to consolidate gains as rapidly as possible. The Russian military command is likely aware of the closing window before more Western aid arrives and is trying to secure offensive gains before the window closes. Russian forces are likely to continue to make tactical gains along the Berdychi-Novokalynove line and elsewhere in theater in the coming weeks as they intensify offensive operations in anticipation of the arrival of Western aid. However, the currently closing window of low Ukrainian resources will likely inhibit Russian forces from being able to translate tactical advances into operationally significant gains for the most part, though some are possible; and Ukraine’s receipt of Western aid will likely position Ukrainian forces to receive the upcoming offensives for which Russian forces are preparing.[17]

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on April 22 that Finland is taking concrete steps to protect itself against Russian hybrid operations weaponizing Russian-manufactured migrant crises on the Russian-Finnish border.[18] WSJ noted that the Finnish government believes that Russia has sent waves of migrants to the Finnish border as part of a wider hybrid operation meant to intimidate Finland and test its security services following Finland’s accession into NATO. WSJ reported that in addition to the manufactured migrant crisis in late 2023, Russia has also escalated cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns against Finland. Finnish diplomat and former Finnish Ambassador to Russia Heikki Talvitie told WSJ that recent Russian hybrid efforts against Finland have fundamentally changed the Finland–Russia relationship and that it is now “existential.” The Kremlin explicitly threatened Finland on April 6 and accused Finland of pursuing a “destructive course” in its relationship with Russia in order to undermine Finnish sovereign decision-making and NATO accession.[19] ISW has consistently assessed that such Russian statements against NATO states are meant to force NATO leaders into self-deterring against taking concrete actions to protect themselves against Russian hybrid efforts.[20]

The Kremlin appears to be highlighting its relationship with Azerbaijan while downplaying deteriorating Russian–Armenia relations following Russia’s failure to prevent Armenia’s loss of Nagorno-Karabakh in September 2023. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev met in Moscow on April 22 to discuss “very sensitive” regional security questions.[21] Putin stated that relations between the two countries are at a high level and are continuing to develop. Putin stated that Russian–Azerbaijani trade is increasing and highlighted that Russia has invested $6 billion in the Azerbaijani economy. Aliyev called Russia a “fundamental country” in ensuring the security of the Caucasus region. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated on April 22 that Putin and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan will likely meet in person soon — a repetition of Peskov‘s similarly vague statement on April 10.[22] Peskov also claimed that Russian peacekeepers, whom the November 2020 Russian-brokered Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire stipulated would remain to the area until 2025, withdrew from Nagorno-Karabakh because the “geopolitical realities” in the region changed “after Armenia recognized Azerbaijan’s 1991 borders” and there were no more functions for the peacekeepers to perform.[23] Secretary General of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) Imangali Tasmagambetov stated that relations between the CSTO and Armenia are “not going through the best period,” but that Armenia’s activities in the CSTO are continuing.[24] Tasmagambetov stated that Armenia and the CSTO are working on unspecified issues in a “working manner.” Pashinyan previously stated that Armenia would leave the CSTO if the CSTO fails to meet certain Armenian expectations.[25]

Key Takeaways:

  • The Kremlin is conducting a concerted air and information operation to destroy Kharkiv City, convince Ukrainians to flee, and internally displace millions of Ukrainians ahead of a possible future Russian offensive operation against the city or elsewhere in Ukraine.
  • Kremlin mouthpieces are seizing on concerns about a future Russian offensive operation against Kharkiv City to conduct a likely coordinated information operation in an effort to create outsized panic among Ukrainians. ISW assesses that the likelihood of a successful Russian ground offensive against Kharkiv is very low if Ukraine receives renewed US military aid rapidly.
  • Russia is intensifying strike and information operations against Ukrainians in Kharkiv City to exploit ongoing constraints on Ukrainian air defenses and heightened tensions in Ukraine in the likely relatively brief window before the anticipated arrival of US military assistance to frontline areas.
  • Russian forces appear to be aiming to make a wide penetration of Ukrainian lines northwest of Avdiivka, Donetsk Oblast, but their ability to do so will likely be blunted by the arrival of US and other Western aid to the frontline.
  • The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on April 22 that Finland is taking concrete steps to protect itself against Russian hybrid operations weaponizing Russian-manufactured migrant crises on the Russian-Finnish border.
  •  The Kremlin appears to be highlighting its relationship with Azerbaijan while downplaying deteriorating Russian-Armenia relations following Russia’s failure to prevent Armenia’s loss of Nagorno-Karabakh in September 2023.
  • Russian forces recently advanced near Chasiv Yar, Avdiivka, and Donetsk City and in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area.
  • The Russian state “Sudoplatov” volunteer drone initiative is reportedly equipping Russian military personnel operating in the Bakhmut direction with cheap and defective first-person view (FPV) drones.
Share the Post: