May 13, 2024

Institute for the Study of War:  Russian forces advance northeast of Kharkiv in apparent drive to create a buffer zone

Institute for the Study of War

Russian forces continued to make tactically significant advances north and northeast of Kharkiv City on May 13 and currently appear to be prioritizing the rapid establishment of a “buffer zone” along the international border over setting conditions for deeper penetrations into northern Kharkiv Oblast. Geolocated footage published on May 13 shows that Russian forces have advanced into Hlyboke (north of Lyptsi) and raised a flag in the center of the village, but Russian sources claimed that Russian forces have not yet seized the entirety of Hlyboke and advanced west of the settlement along the west (left) bank of the Kharkiv River. Additional geolocated footage shows that Russian forces advanced southwest of Oliinykove (northeast of Lyptsi) and north of Lukyantsi (northeast of Lyptsi and southeast of Oliinykove). The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces achieved unspecified tactical success near Lukyantsi. Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces entered Lukyantsi, but ISW has not observed visual confirmation of this claim. Russian forces also continued attacking in the Lyptsi direction near Pylna (northeast of Lyptsi and Oliinykove), and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) reported that Ukrainian forces counterattacked near Hlyboke.

Geolocated footage published on May 12 shows that Russian forces seized the Vovchansk Meat Processing Plant in northern Vovchansk, and Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces also captured a shoe factory in northern Vovchansk on the morning of May 13 and advanced into central Vovchansk up to the northern (right) bank of the Vovcha River by the evening. A Russian milblogger claimed that Russian forces are also clearing Starytsya and Buhruvatka (both west of Vovchansk on the C-210817 road) but that Russian forces do not control the settlements, and also advanced in a forest area further south of Ohirtseve (northwest of Vovchansk). Russian forces also attacked on the Izbytske-Starytsya-Buhruvatka line west of Vovchansk and near Tykhe (east of Vovchansk), where the Russian MoD also reported Ukrainian counterattacks. Russian sources claimed that fighting continued between the Lyptsi and Vovchansk salients near Zelene (on the international border between Lyptsi and Vovchansk) and that Ukrainian forces partially withdrew from Ternova (immediately southeast of Zelene).

Russian forces’ relatively rapid rate of advances in Vovchansk and their reported destruction of several bridges across key waterways within the settlement suggest that Russian forces are prioritizing the creation of a “buffer zone” over a deeper penetration, as ISW previously assessed they would. ISW has not yet observed claims or confirmation that Russian forces have crossed to the southern (left) bank of the Vovcha River in Vovchansk or its immediate environs. Russian forces notably conducted strikes against bridges over the Vovcha River immediately west and east of Vovchansk on May 12 and began targeting bridges over the river and logistics lines in Vovchansk itself on May 13, reportedly only leaving Ukrainian forces with two usable bridges over the Vovcha in Vovchansk. It is unclear why Russian forces would largely target bridges they would need to cross and ensure stable logistics across the Vovcha River for offensive operations deeper into northern Kharkiv Oblast, so these strikes suggest that Russian forces may be prioritizing immediate gains in an unfortified area of northern Ukraine. Russian forces are also reportedly fielding armor in this area — Russian sources reported that Russian forces conducted a mechanized attack with an unspecified number of tanks against Vovchansk on the night of May 12 and continued armored attacks during the day on May 13. The deployment of armored assets in this area suggests that Russian forces are seeking to make rapid gains, but they do not appear to be setting conditions at this time for such gains to be on the southern side of the Vovcha River deeper into northern Kharkiv Oblast. These indicators collectively suggest that Russian forces are likely trying to create the promised “buffer zone” in the border area instead of pursuing deeper gains into Kharkiv Oblast or towards Kharkiv City.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Kremlin officials have frequently suggested that Russia establish a “demilitarized buffer zone” in occupied Ukraine to protect Russian territory from Ukrainian strikes, and Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov directly connected this buffer zone with intensified Russian offensive operations south of Belgorod Oblast on May 13. Ukrainian and Western officials have also recently stated that Russian forces intend to establish a 10-kilometer buffer zone in Kharkiv Oblast, and ISW has recently noted that this buffer zone would simultaneously bring Russian forces within tube artillery range of Kharkiv City and remove major Russian logistics hubs from Ukrainian tube artillery range. A Ukrainian battlefield commander recently expressed concern that Ukrainian fortifications in northern Kharkiv Oblast are not along the immediate international border area, enabling Russian forces’ quick and relatively shallow advance. More senior Ukrainian commanders have recently stated that Ukrainian forces have established a multi-layered defense-in-depth deeper in the oblast, which is congruent with the other battlefield commanders’ reports. The current pace of Russian advances on this axis is not necessarily indicative of the further offensive capabilities of the Russian forces conducting the offensive operations, although Russia reportedly retains considerable reserves available to exploit initial successes on this axis.

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian forces continued to make tactically significant advances north and northeast of Kharkiv City on May 13 and currently appear to be prioritizing the rapid establishment of a “buffer zone” along the international border over setting conditions for deeper penetrations into northern Kharkiv Oblast.
  • Russian forces’ relatively rapid rate of advances in Vovchansk and their reported destruction of several bridges across key waterways within the settlement suggest that Russian forces are prioritizing the creation of a “buffer zone” over a deeper penetration, as ISW previously assessed they would.
  • Newly appointed Russian Security Council Secretary Sergei Shoigu participated in his first Security Council meeting as secretary on May 13, amid continued reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin is focusing on mobilizing the Russian economy and defense industrial base (DIB) to support a protracted war in Ukraine.
  • Putin’s decision to remove Shoigu from the Russian MoD appears to have also opened the door for the departure of certain Shoigu affiliates from the MoD, likely one of the intended effects of Putin’s recent cabinet reshuffles.
  • Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted successful missile strikes against a Russian air defense base in occupied Crimea and successful drone strikes against Russian energy infrastructure in Russia.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Lyptsi and Vovchansk in northern Kharkiv Oblast.
  • The Russian military may be intensifying efforts to recruit conscripts through the Russian Volunteer Society for Assistance to the Army, Aviation, and Navy of Russia (DOSAAF) as part of ongoing crypto-mobilization efforts.

For full report: https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-may-13-2024

Share the Post: