NewsKremlin Eyes Kharkiv Capture in Bid to End Ukraine War This Year

Kremlin Eyes Kharkiv Capture in Bid to End Ukraine War This Year

Władimir Putin
Władimir Putin
Images source: © PAP

3:44 AM EDT, March 31, 2024

Russians claim that the war in Ukraine could end this year, with the capture of Kharkiv as a pivotal condition. Two years ago, Putin's forces attempted to seize the city but failed. The question now is, can they succeed in entering Kharkiv?

The Russian outlet Meduza, essentially a licensed opposition platform, has reported that the Kremlin views the end of the "special military operation" as possible within this year. This perspective was invigorated by what was seen as an unsuccessful Ukrainian counteroffensive in 2023, bolstering Putin's belief in his army's capabilities, further strengthened by the capturing of Avdiivka.

"Meduza's sources unanimously believe Putin is determined to press on with the war. Nonetheless, they differ in their views on his ultimate objectives. One Kremlin source mentioned that the failed counteroffensive by the Ukrainian Armed Forces led Putin to perceive Ukraine's vulnerability, positioning him to aim for outright victory, even if it means advancing to Kyiv, regardless of the cost," Meduza reports.

Kharkiv: A Major Objective

Sources indicate that the Kremlin is setting "realistic goals", with the capture of Kharkiv being a primary target. Putin has publicly stated the need to establish a "sanitary zone" around the Belgorod region to halt shellings, which would encompass the Kharkiv region. The ambition to control Kharkiv, seen by Russians as inherently Russian, has been long-standing.

"Kharkiv has always been a significant military objective for Russia," notes Eastern Europe expert Dr. Dariusz Materniak. "It's important to remember that back in 2014, Kharkiv was the epicenter of unrest instigated by 'Putin's tourists' – individuals transported en masse from Russia to Ukraine to foster protest potentials," he added.

"The city also witnessed the initial clashes and casualties. Moreover, the short-lived 'Kharkiv People's Republic' was declared in April but was swiftly dismantled by the Ukrainian Security Service and National Guard a few hours later."

Nonetheless, the Kremlin has not forgotten about Kharkiv. With the onset of a full-scale war, it became one of Russia's initial targets.

"Why Kharkiv? It's believed that the city holds symbolic importance for Putin - being the first capital of the Ukrainian SSR. By capturing Kharkiv, Putin aims to symbolically recreate the USSR, placing the capital where it stood over a century ago," Dr. Materniak explains.

The Battle for Kharkiv

Home to one and a half million people, Kharkiv is merely 31 miles from the Russian border. On the war's first day, Russian forces aimed to divide Ukrainian defenses into north and south by moving through Kharkiv and Sumy, with Kyiv as the ultimate goal.

"In 2022, the Russians made a significant push to capture Kharkiv, marking one of the main assaults," says Dr. Materniak. "However, their efforts were swiftly and bloodily rebuffed, with most forces decimated near the city outskirts and reconnaissance units inside Kharkiv neutralized," he recounted.

The Russians struggled significantly around Kharkiv. Every attempt to penetrate the city resulted in losses, with elite units only managing to hold a minor suburb briefly before being forced to retreat.

Despite three days of attempts, Russian forces ceased their assaults by February 28, shifting to regular bombings. Kharkiv's mayor, Igor Terekhov, reported that, by March 23, 2022, 1,143 infrastructure sites were destroyed, including 998 residential buildings.

In April, following their setback near Kyiv and refocusing on the Donbas, the offensive on Kharkiv lessened. The bombardment subsided, with the last significant attack damaging six vehicles on May 4. For the following five days, no Russian shells hit the city.

Can Russia Succeed Now?

Russians themselves believe their army is capable of capturing Kharkiv, though advancing further might prove challenging. Despite this, Putin has yet to order an assault on Kharkiv, with a notable obstacle being the shortage of manpower. Nonetheless, Meduza's sources suggest that a new mobilization could follow if the decision is made.

Presently, Russian forces are depleted, having lost about 30 percent of their total tank reserves since the war's outset, including roughly 50 percent of their primary vehicles. Even with increased production, it barely offsets the losses on the front line, not to mention the diminishing quality of conscripts and mobilized forces. If elite Russian units failed to capture the city two years ago, can hastily trained troops succeed?

"The odds of capturing Kharkiv are currently low," observes Dr. Materniak. "Taking smaller cities like Avdiivka or Bakhmut required months of bloody warfare, resulting in significant casualties and equipment destruction. Considering Kharkiv's size and strategic importance, the likelihood of a successful Russian siege is minimal," he concludes.

Ukrainian officials also view a potential capture as unlikely. Reserve Colonel Petr Chernik of the Ukrainian Armed Forces suggests that Russia lacks the necessary forces, viewing Meduza's claims as primarily targeting domestic audiences.

Oleg Sinegubov, leading the Kharkiv region, emphasized on social media that Russians failed to subdue Kharkiv's indomitable spirit in 2022, 2023, and couldn't maintain control over populated areas in the region, indicating they won't succeed now.

The extensive resources required for such an endeavor became clear during the battle for Avdiivka. To take the town of 32,000, Russia deployed 60,000 soldiers and around 2,000 military vehicles in the first wave, enduring a campaign that lasted over five months and resulted in massive casualties. The situation with Kharkiv might yield even grimmer outcomes.

Related content