As Russia advances towards Kharkiv, Ukraine faces shortages of weapons and troops

Ukraine's military is facing a “critical” situation in the country's northeast due to troop shortages as it tries to repel a Russian offensive that has been advancing for several days, a top Ukrainian general said Monday.

Russian troops crossed the border last week to open a new line of attack near Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city after Kiev, capturing at least nine settlements and villages and forcing thousands of civilians to flee.

“The situation is at the limit,” General Kyrylo Budanov, head of Ukraine's military intelligence agency, said in a video call from a bunker in Kharkiv. “Every hour this situation becomes critical.”

His bleak assessment echoes that of other Ukrainian officials in recent days that the country's military prospects are dimming. In addition to being outnumbered, the Ukrainians face a severe shortage of weapons, particularly artillery ammunition, and $60.8 billion worth of weapons from the United States – approved three weeks ago after months of stalemate Congress – they just started arriving.

Like most Ukrainian officials and military experts, General Budanov said he believes Russian attacks in the northeast are aimed at exploiting Ukraine's already scarce reserves of soldiers and diverting them from fighting elsewhere.

This is exactly what is happening now, he acknowledged. He said the Ukrainian army was trying to redirect troops from other areas of the front line to strengthen its defenses in the northeast, but that it was difficult to find personnel.

“All our forces are here or in Chasiv Yar,” he said, referring to a Ukrainian stronghold about 120 miles to the south that Russian troops have assaulted in recent weeks. “I used everything we had. Unfortunately we don't have anyone else in the reserves.”

General Budanov assessed that Ukrainian forces would be able to strengthen their lines and stabilize the front within the next few days. But he expects Russia to launch a new attack further north of Kharkiv, in the Sumy region.

Fighting raged on Monday on the outskirts of Vovchansk, a small town about five miles from the Russian-Ukrainian border, northeast of Kharkiv. According to Denys Yaroslavsky, a senior lieutenant commanding a unit currently fighting there, Russian airstrikes were hitting the city.

“They drop five to seven bombs every three minutes,” Lt. Yaroslavsky said in a telephone interview Monday morning.

Vovchansk had a pre-war population of around 17,000 people, and local officials struggled to evacuate the approximately 200 to 300 remaining residents. Hryhoriy Shcherban, a volunteer who was in Vovchansk on Monday morning, said he had received more than 200 requests to evacuate overnight.

“We're driving around trying to find addresses. Russia is bombing the evacuation road,” she said. “You hear explosions all the time.”

The advance on Vovchansk came after weeks of warnings from Ukrainian authorities that Russia was massing forces on the border with the aim of launching a new offensive in the northeast. Those warnings became reality early Friday morning as Russian troops crossed the border along two main lines: one immediately north of Kharkiv and the other about 12 miles east, around Vovchansk.

According to online maps of the battlefield published by the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, Russian forces have so far managed to push about five miles into Ukrainian territory and seize about 50 square miles of land .

“The enemy is currently achieving tactical success,” Ukraine's General Staff acknowledged in a statement late Monday. Later in the day it was added that Russian forces had approached another settlement, Lukyantsi.

In a possible sign of Ukraine's difficulties on the battlefield, the Ukrainian commander in charge of the northeastern front was fired and replaced on Monday, according to President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Military experts and Ukrainian officials say Russian troops have so far mostly advanced through poorly defended and largely depopulated territory, explaining the relatively rapid progress. The border in northeastern Ukraine has been subject to regular Russian shelling during the war, they point out, which has made it difficult to establish fortified positions and forced many civilians to flee.

However, Russian forces are approaching more populated areas and the fighting could increase in intensity. Local authorities have already evacuated nearly 6,000 people since Friday, according to Oleh Syniehubov, head of the military administration of the Kharkiv region.

“It's hell there,” said Tetyana Polyakova, who was evacuated from Vovchansk on the night between Friday and Saturday, describing the incessant shelling of the city. “Believe me, I've seen it all living in Vovchansk since the war began. I saw the bombing. I've seen everything, but I've never seen that.”

The front line in the region is moving rapidly, leaving many settlements in what Ukrainian officials have called the “gray zone” – the areas contested between Ukrainian and Russian positions.

Ukrainian civilians said Monday that fighting broke out near Lyptsi, a village north of Kharkiv, suggesting that Russian forces may have advanced to within 10 miles of the town.

“We were running as fast as we could, because we could hear small arms fire there,” said Krystyna Gavran, 32, catching her breath in Kharkiv after an evacuation mission in Lyptsi. She estimated that fewer than 100 people remained in the village, which had a pre-war population of 4,000.

General Budanov said the Russians' goal in the northeast is to sow panic and confusion in the region. “At the moment, our task is to stabilize the line and then start pushing them back across the border,” he said, adding that an influx of Ukrainian reserves managed to “partially disrupt their plans.”

It remains to be seen whether these troop movements will weaken Ukraine's defenses elsewhere on the front line.

Russia's main goal, according to Franz-Stefan Gady, a Vienna-based military analyst, is to draw forces away from Khasiv Yar, a town on strategic high ground where Ukrainians have fought for weeks to repel a Russian attack . It is crucial to defending the Ukrainian-controlled part of the southeastern Donbass region, which Russia hopes to conquer.

Pasi Paroinen, an analyst at the Black Bird Group, a Finland-based organization that analyzes satellite imagery and social media content from the battlefield, said Ukraine had sent reinforcements to the northeast from units that had recently fought at Chasiv Yar, as the 92nd Assault Brigade.

But Paroinen noted that it is possible that Ukraine drew from elements of the brigade resting in Kharkiv, their national garrison, rather than weakening the defenses of Khasiv Yar.

Military analysts say Russia has yet to commit large numbers of troops to the offensive – probably deploying only a few thousand troops – and that much will depend on Moscow's next move.

As fighting intensifies in the region, cross-border fires are likely to intensify. Russian authorities said Monday that Ukrainian shelling killed 19 civilians in Russia's Belgorod region, across the border from Kharkiv.

In a particularly deadly incident, the Russian Defense Ministry said fragments from an intercepted Ukrainian missile hit an apartment building in the region on Sunday. Vyacheslav Gladkov, governor of Belgorod, said 15 bodies had been found in the rubble. The claims could not be independently verified; Ukrainian officials denied firing into residential areas.

General Budanov said he expects the attacks in the Kharkiv region to last another three or four days, after which Russian forces are expected to make a strong push in the direction of Sumy, a city about 90 miles northwest of Kharkiv. Ukrainian officials had previously said Russia had massed troops across the border from Sumy.

Pavlo Velycho, a Ukrainian officer operating near the Russian border in the Sumy region, said Russian shelling on the outskirts of Sumy had recently increased.

“I have no idea if it means anything because those places were often bombed anyway,” Velycho said. “In any case we are in full combat readiness.”

Emile Ducke contributed reporting from Kharkiv

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