May 18, 2024

Institute for the Study of War:  Russia defines buffer zone it seeks near Kharkiv to include ‘all of Ukraine’

Institute for the Study of War

Russian forces have recently intensified their effort to seize the operationally significant town of Chasiv Yar, seeking to exploit how Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast and ongoing offensive operations throughout eastern Ukraine have generated greater theater-wide pressure on Ukrainian forces. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces conducted an unsuccessful roughly reinforced company-sized mechanized assault with two tanks and 21 infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) in the direction of the Novyi Microraion in eastern Chasiv Yar on May 17. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces conducted a roughly reinforced platoon-sized mechanized assault in the same area on May 18. Geolocated footage published on May 17 shows Russian forces attacking with at least seven armored vehicles near Ivanivske (east of Chasiv Yar). The Ukrainian General Staff noted that Russian forces are widely using armored vehicles in the Chasiv Yar area, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenksy thanked Ukrainian forces near Chasiv Yar for destroying at least 20 Russian armored vehicles (presumably over the past day). Russian forces have not made notable tactical gains in the Chasiv Yar area since conducting a company-sized mechanized assault on the town’s eastern outskirts on April 4 and have not conducted similar sized-mechanized assaults in the area until May 17. The April 4 mechanized assault was followed by intensified Russian offensive operations near Chasiv Yar, and recent Russian mechanized assaults in the area likely portend an overall intensification of the Russian effort to seize the town. The Russian seizure of Chasiv Yar would be operationally significant since it would provide Russian forces with favorable positions to launch subsequent offensive operations against Kostyantynivka and Druzhkivka, cities that form the southern portion of a Ukrainian defensive belt that is the backbone of Ukraine’s defense of Donetsk Oblast.

Zelensky also outlined materiel requirements for Ukraine to combat Russia’s air superiority and defend against the Russian air threat, especially given US-imposed restraints on Ukraine that prohibit Ukraine from striking targets within Russian territory and airspace. Zelensky stated that Ukrainian forces only have 25 percent of the air defenses that Ukraine needs to defend against Russian strikes and called for Western countries to send two Patriot batteries, which Ukraine would specifically deploy to Kharkiv Oblast, as a show of strength against the Russian offensive. Zelensky also stated that Ukraine would need about 120-130 F-16s or other advanced fighter aircraft to achieve air parity with Russia. Air parity is the lowest level of air control, in which no side controls the sky. Zelensky stated that Russia’s biggest advantage is Ukraine’s restriction against using Western-provided weapons to strike military targets in Russia, and ISW has recently noted that this restriction creates a sanctuary for the Russian military in Russia to strike Ukraine safely without leaving Russian airspace. Ukrainian forces have been able to strike Russian airbases in Russia and occupied Ukraine with some success, but Ukrainian forces have not made a sufficient impact to deter Russian forces from conducting missile and drone strike campaigns against Ukrainian deep-rear areas or glide bomb strikes on frontline and near rear areas. Zelensky’s proposed two Patriot batteries in northern Kharkiv Oblast will have a limited effectiveness in defending against Russian airstrikes if Ukrainian forces cannot use the Patriots to intercept Russian fighter-bombers in Russian airspace.

Ukrainian officials have reportedly asked the US presidential administration to ease the restriction against using US-provided weapons to strike military targets in Russia. The New York Times (NYT) and Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on May 17, citing Ukrainian and US officials, that Ukraine submitted the request within the past week. The NYT and WSJ reported that Ukraine also requested additional targeting assistance for military targets inside Russia, and former Ukrainian military officials reportedly told the NYT that targeting assistance would allow Ukrainian forces to more accurately plan for drone and missile strikes given the requirements for more detailed terrain mapping for these strikes. White House officials state that the United States does not want to encourage or enable attacks within Russia, and the NYT noted that the White House has rejected similar appeals in the past. ISW continues to assess that this US policy severely compromises Ukraine’s ability to defend itself, particularly against Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast.

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian forces have recently intensified their effort to seize the operationally significant town of Chasiv Yar, seeking to exploit how Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast and ongoing offensive operations throughout eastern Ukraine have generated greater theater-wide pressure on Ukrainian forces.
  • Russian forces are likely preparing for the second phase of their offensive operation in northern Kharkiv Oblast, which Russian forces likely intend to launch following their anticipated seizure of Vovchansk.
  • Zelensky also outlined materiel requirements for Ukraine to combat Russia’s air superiority and defend against the Russian air threat, especially given US-imposed restraints on Ukraine that prohibit Ukraine from striking targets within Russian territory and airspace.
  • Ukrainian officials have reportedly asked the US presidential administration to ease the restriction against using US-provided weapons to strike military targets in Russia.
  • Zelensky noted that Ukraine must overcome its manpower challenges in order to contest the theater-wide initiative in Ukraine.
  • Ukraine’s new mobilization law went into effect on May 18 and will help Ukraine stabilize its force generation apparatus amid ongoing manpower constraints.
  • Russian Security Council Deputy Chairperson Dmitry Medvedev called for Russia’s envisioned “buffer zone” to encompass all of Ukraine, illustrating that the Kremlin’s concept of the buffer zone is a thinly veiled justification for Russia’s long-held intent to subsume the entirety of Ukraine and likely an effort to garner domestic support for the Russian war effort.
  • Founder of the Kremlin-linked Rybar Telegram channel, Mikhail Zvinchuk, gave an uncharacteristically public interview in which he criticized the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and speculated on possible changes in the MoD.
  • Should the Kremlin allow select prominent Russian milbloggers to increase their criticisms of the Russian MoD, public pressure may grow in favor of reforms that would, if implemented, assist Russia’s war effort in Ukraine.
  • Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili vetoed the Russian-style “foreign agents” bill on May 18, but the ruling Georgian Dream party will likely override Zurabishvili’s veto in the coming weeks.
  • Russian forces recently marginally advanced near Avdiivka, Hulyaipole, and Robotyne.

  • The BBC News Russian Service reported on May 18 that Russian military authorities in Astana, Kazakhstan, detained a Russian contract service personnel (kontraktnik) for desertion on April 23 – the first such instance in Kazakhstan.

For full report:    https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-may-18-2024 

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