Kharkov fight aims to disintegrate Ukraine’s army – Asia Times

Kharkov fight aims to disintegrate Ukraine's army - Asia Times

There is a large Russian operation underway in Ukraine focused on the Kharkov area. At the same time, the Russians are also attacking elsewhere, primarily in Donbas but also in Zaphorize. The threat in the north has compelled Ukraine to pull troops deployed elsewhere, including Chasiv Yar, to try and hold the line in the Kharkov area. 

If Russia intended to force Ukraine’s army to move its troops northwards, then it looks like a success so far. These troop movements will offer the Russian army the chance to do more damage to Ukraine’s army.

The big question concerns Russia’s underlying objective. Military experts do not think Russia has enough new troops deployed (an additional 50,000) to actually take Kharkov. Some think Russia may bring in additional forces to conquer Kharkov, but so far at least, that has not happened. 

There seems to be a strong conviction in NATO circles that Kharkov is the target. I am far less certain, and in fact, it seems to me that is not the objective. 

While it is true that a cauldron is being built by the Russians around the city, my own belief is they want to fight the Ukrainians more out in the open than inside a big city. Kharkov is Ukraine’s second-largest city.

To my mind, Russia’s objective is to force Ukraine’s army to chase after invading Russian units. The idea is to cause heavy casualties on the Ukrainian side and, if all goes according to plan, either to split Ukraine’s army into two, or disintegrate it altogether.

In such a manner the idea is not just to take territory but to destroy Ukraine’s ability to resist. There are many indicators that Russia is having success in the ongoing operation.

The first is that the commander of Ukraine’s northern tier defense, Brigadier General Yuriy Halushkin, was fired by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on May 15 for his failure to properly organize the defenses in the Kharkov area. He was replaced by Major General Ihor Tantsyura. Firing Halushkin, however, changes nothing on the battlefield.

Brigadier General Yuriy Halushkin has been relieved of his duties.

The second is that Ukraine’s defenses have not sufficed at all. Mostly it is digging deep trenches because there is little time to build cement bunkers. In any case, Russia is bringing in more flamethrowers and artillery to destroy the trenches. 

Russian troops are reportedly going into trench fortifications and slugging it out with their Ukrainian defenders. While we don’t know much about Russian casualties, we know the Ukraine’s dead and wounded are climbing.

The third point is that Ukrainian armor has not been effective. One of the lessons of the Ukraine war is that armor is no longer a front-line weapon if it can be destroyed by cheap drones, air-launched mines and antitank weapons. 

Reportedly another Abrams and at least one more Leopard tank were knocked out on the Ukraine side in the past few days. Large-scale tank battles seem to be consigned to history.

The fourth point is that a larger number of Ukrainian troops are being captured or are surrendering. For the most part, these are hardened fighters, not recent conscripts, so the surrenders are psychologically significant. 

There are also reports of units unwilling to carry out offensive tasks or who retreat without orders from their commanders. The numbers are so far not too high but the Russians are doing their best to publicize them.

The fifth point is that at least two colonels in the palace protection force have been arrested and the head of Zelensky’s security team has been dismissed. Zelensky says they were planning to kill him and other high officials and he blamed the Russians. 

It is doubtful the Russians would try and knock off Zelensky unless they had another candidate to replace him, which, if they do, is far from obvious. If one looks at the war, the Russians have not targeted Zelensky, although they may have tried to knock off Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s GRU (military intelligence).

Two weeks ago Russia put Zelensky, Budanov and others on their “wanted” list for unspecified crimes. The Russian list is not, as far as anyone knows, a kill list comparable to Ukraine’s, although that is not certain.

Zelensky probably used this as an excuse to arrest the colonels and blame the Russians but it is not at all certain if he is right. It could just as well have been an attempted coup d’etat and it could have been some of his NATO partners who have found Zelensky to be unpopular and problematic who were behind the operation. 

Of course, it isn’t convenient for Zelensky to say this but the arrests and firing of the head of the service certainly sent out a clear message.

The final point is Zelensky and his army now know that the West is not going to send in troops to save him or Ukraine. I feel my exposure of French troops, (perhaps mercenaries, as Russia prefers to call them) and President Emmanuel Macron’s increasingly angst-driven threats to send in the French army, show my report was accurate, not fake, as Paris has claimed.

Washington has said no NATO troops. NATO has said no NATO troops.  And now even Macron is saying he really didn’t mean it. Forgive me for suggesting that my reporting helped contribute to shattering the immediate dream of NATO intervention, although it can’t be dismissed into the more distant future.

The video below is of a captured French Foreign Legion soldier who says he is still on active duty and reports to the President of France. He says he and his cohorts operate drones and other equipment. While those in captivity generally want to please their captors, this is extraordinary because (a) the French insist they have no soldiers in Ukraine and (b) the Russians describe these soldiers as “mercenaries.”

It would be nice if esteemed news services, which said my claim was false or fake, pay attention (but of course they won’t and even if they do they will rationalize it away). As a mom used to say, “forget about it.”

Quite possibly the Ukrainian army cannot stay in the fight even in the medium term. There are not enough soldiers and those still fighting are tired and some clearly dispirited. I believe Russia’s immediate aim is to discombobulate Ukraine’s army and is already well-advanced. Next is what transpires in Kiev.

Stephen Bryen served as staff director of the Near East Subcommittee of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as a deputy undersecretary of defense for policy. 

This article was first published on his Weapons and Strategy Substack and is republished with permission.