April 19, 2024

Institute for the Study of War:  Russia eyes conquest of Kharkiv 

Institute for the Study of War

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov signaled Russia’s intent to seize Kharkiv City in a future significant Russian offensive operation, the first senior Kremlin official to outright identify the city as a possible Russian operational objective following recent Ukrainian warnings that Russian forces may attempt to seize the city starting in Summer 2024. Lavrov stated during a radio interview with several prominent Russian state propagandists on April 19 that Kharkiv City “plays an important role” in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s idea of establishing a demilitarized “sanitary zone” in Ukraine to protect Russian border settlements from Ukrainian strikes. Lavrov stated that Putin has very clearly stated that Russian forces must push the frontline far enough into Ukraine – which Lavrov explicitly defines as into Kharkiv Oblast – to place Russian settlements outside of the Ukrainian strike range. This requirement is a very vague definition that could include the entirety of Ukrainian territory as long as an independent Ukrainian state exists and is willing to defend itself. Lavrov stated in response to a question about where Russian forces will go after creating a “sanitary zone” that Russian authorities are “completely convinced” of the need to continue Russia’s war against Ukraine. Lavrov responded in seeming agreement to a comment from one of the interviewers, who suggested that Lavrov’s earlier remarks meant that Russian forces will have to continue to attack further into Ukraine after creating the “sanitary zone” to protect the settlements that would then be within the zone and Ukrainian strike range. Lavrov’s remarks suggest that the Kremlin will likely use the idea of a constantly shifting demilitarized “sanitary zone” to justify Russian offensive operations further and further into Ukraine.

Prominent Russian propagandist and state television host Olga Skabeyeva framed Russia’s drone and missile strikes against Kharkiv Oblast as part of Russia’s efforts to create the “sanitary zone” during a speech on April 19, suggesting that additional prominent Kremlin mouthpieces are also laying the informational groundwork to justify ongoing Russian strikes and a future offensive operation against Kharkiv City under the pretext of defending Russian citizens. Ukrainian officials, including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, have recently identified the threat of a possible Russian summer offensive operation aimed at seizing Kharkiv City. ISW continues to assess that a Russian offensive operation to seize Kharkiv City would be an extremely ambitious undertaking that would pose significant challenges to both the Russian forces responsible for the effort and to the wider Russian campaign in Ukraine. ISW also assesses that US military assistance is vital to Ukraine’s ability to defend against any summer Russian offensive operation, including against Kharkiv City.

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov signaled Russia’s intent to seize Kharkiv City in a future significant Russian offensive operation, the first senior Kremlin official to outright identify the city as a possible Russian operational objective following recent Ukrainian warnings that Russian forces may attempt to seize the city starting in Summer 2024.
  • Ukrainian officials announced that Ukrainian forces downed a Russian aircraft as it conducted missile strikes against Ukraine for the first time overnight on April 18 to 19, demonstrating a capability that may constrain how Russia conducts its strike campaign against Ukraine.
  • Ukrainian air defense capabilities remain limited and degraded, however, allowing Russian aircraft to operate freely without threat on certain critical areas of the front.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stressed that Ukraine requires Western provisions of artillery ammunition, air defense materiel, long-range artillery and missile systems, and fighter aircraft as Ukrainian constraints continue due to delays in US military assistance.
  • Pro-Russian Moldovan actors continue to set conditions to justify possible future Russian aggression in Moldova as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov compared Moldova to Ukraine and Armenia.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and Donetsk City.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) continues to expand the newly reformed Leningrad Military District (LMD) in preparation for an anticipated future large-scale conventional conflict with NATO.
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