At the beginning of May, Russian forces still occupied the ring of towns and villages just outside Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv. From that position, they rained down a constant barrage of artillery into the city, damaging over half the apartment buildings and homes, reducing some neighborhoods to smoldering wreckage, and making anything that looked like normal day-to-day life impossible. It is not clear that Russia had any intention of trying to capture Kharkiv, but the constant shelling killed dozens of civilians each day and made life there hellish… and that seemed to satisfy Vladimir Putin.
Then, in a period of just over two weeks, Ukrainian forces surged out of the city, capturing the ring of suburbs just outside the city, places like Bobrivka and Zutuzivka and Tsrykuny. Days later, those forces were up the road at Cherkaski Tyshky and Mykhailivka, another 5 km from the city. And days after that, locations like Shestakova, a full 15km from the city. In the next week, Ukrainian forces bypassed Russian-held positions north of the city to capture Staryi Saltiv. while also cutting up roads northwest of the city to capture Tsupivka.
This was not the kind of wholesale withdrawal of Russian forces that was seen in areas around Chernihiv or Kyiv. This was active, daily fighting, with Ukrainian forces outflanking, outthinking, and simply outfighting Russian forces and conscripts from the Russian-controlled area of Luhansk.
When Ukrainian forces captured Ternova, right on the Russian border, in the second week of May, then somehow managed to cross the reservoir east of Staryi Saltiv to threaten Russian supply lines, it was tremendously exciting for everyone who had been waiting for the moment when Ukraine would strike back, make advances, and garner some measure of revenge against an invasion force that had been absolutely rampaging across their nation.
However, that was also around the time when Russia, finally aware of the danger at the northern end of the line, pulled back some battalion tactical groups that had been down near Izyum, as well as pushed across reserves from Belgorod. Those forces contended with the Ukrainian bridgehead on the east of the Siverskyi Donets River, pressed back at the town of Rubiznhe, and managed to shore up Russian positions around Lyptsi and Kozacha Lopan.
The daily excitement of seeing Ukraine liberate village after village, town after town, was over.
But that does not mean the fight north of Kharkiv was over. Russia has a high regard for artillery, not just as means of grinding down forces in their front, so that their army can eventually advance across the rubble, but as a psychological weapon. For Russia, keeping the body count in Kharkiv ticking ever upward, and preventing the people of the city from returning to the kind of stability now seen in Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy, was important. So much so that when Russia has not been able to generate their quota of destruction through dumb, cheap, artillery shells, they’ve supplemented with much more expensive rockets fired from GRAD systems. And when Ukraine has made using even those GRAD systems difficult, Russia has pumped in short range ballistic missiles fired from from across the border in Belgorod.
In Russia’s attempt to straight-up conquer Ukraine, the forces in and around Kharkiv forcefully repelled every Russian advance. The city also acted as a base from which Ukrainian forces were able to destroy columns of Russian hardware attempting to travel toward Kyiv from the east. Russia wants Kharkiv punished, it wants to beat the fighting spirit out of the city. It wants to make sure that the next time a column of Russian tanks appears, Kharkiv just lies down and surrenders.
Except… yeah, that’s not happening. And neither is the big Russian counterattack at Kharkiv.
Just over a week ago, Ukrainian forces finally managed to take Vesele, located along the road east of Lyptsi. This position was the last remains of a small Russian salient that jutted down along a chain of villages, and was one of the few remaining positions from which Russian forces could lob plain old artillery into Kharkiv, about 20km to the southwest.
In mid-June, Russia announced a counterattack in the Kharkiv area, and for days Russian sources have been insisting that their troops were “right back on the outskirts of the city” and had retaken almost everything Ukraine gained in the May counteroffensive. For days now, pro-Russian sources on Twitter have been claiming everyone would see proof that Russia was back in Staryi Saltiv, back in Shestakova, back in even the suburbs of the city. Except a lot of days have passed, and the Russian counterattack seems to have been limited to contesting Ternova (again) and Rubizhne (again).
Instead, there has come fresh evidence that the Ukrainian bridgehead on the east side of the river is still there, and is continuing to contest with Russian forces for the positions across from Rubizhne. Also, Ukrainian forces are fighting in Slobohanske, on the south edge of Lyptsi, as well as securing positions to the east.
About the only Ukrainian action that does not seem to have translated into a gain was a move ten days ago in which Ukraine bypassed Lyptsi on the east and was said to be disputing control of Hlyboke. If anything more is happening up there, I haven’t been able to find it.
Looking at the same area on FIRMS, there are some interesting things to see.
In this image, I’ve colored blue the fire that is likely to be coming from Ukrainian artillery. What’s immediately obvious is: there’s more blue than red. Even if that block of “who knows?” hot spots north of Slobohanske actually originated from Russia, it’s the Ukrainian guns that are delivering more impact on Sunday. In particular, it’s interesting to see Ukraine apparently pushing hard in the area of Kozacha Lopan. Russian forces northwest of Kharkiv retreated to this area in the very early days of the Ukrainian advance, and reportedly began immediately preparing defensive positions. This is also the area that has been reportedly reinforced with reserves from Belgorod and with newer equipment – that brand new T-90M tank that Russia lost? it was right up there.
Exactly what Ukraine is doing up near Kozacha Lopan is unclear. The area does not seem to be the source of Russian counterattacks, and its main goal seems to be to safeguard the highway crossing into Russia just to the east. Maybe that’s why Ukraine is going after it, to once again threaten Russian supply lines and push against the major route into the region. Maybe they just want those Russians off their land.
The other thing that may be most interesting about all this artillery fire is that essentially none of it is going into Kharkiv. There are still reports of random shelling into the city. But if there was a real Russian counterattack that had taken it to the edges of the city, this whole map would look very, very different. Mostly, it would look like a ring of fire, with Russian forces pumping shells into the streets of Kharkiv, as they did every day for two solid months.
One of those hotspots caused by Russian fire does appear to be significant — that one little spot north of Staryi Saltiv is reportedly a Russian air strike against a Ukrainian supply depot at Verkhnii Saltiv (Upper Saltiv). But it is also significant that Russia is reporting this because it shows just how far their forces actually are from moving toward Kharkiv. They’re still way up there where even reaching Verkhnii Saltiv requires an air strike.
That does not mean they’re not still causing misery in Kharkiv.
Because Kharkiv has to suffer, not matter what the price tag.
On Saturday, an explosion in Belgorod reportedly killed three people and injured four others, according to Russian sources. Those same sources tagged the center of this explosion in a civilian area of the city, and has blamed a Ukrainian missile for the attack.
For some Ukrainians, it’s safe to say that launching a single missile into a city that has hosted hundreds of Iskandar missile launches into Ukraine, as well as provided the base for MLRS systems making long-range strikes into Kharkiv, seems more than justified. However, Ukraine has previously been extremely careful in their attacks on Belgorod, such as the daring attack by two Ukrainian helicopters that cut across the city to take out Russian fuel supplies while firing no weapons into other areas.
Other Ukrainian sources have insisted that the point of attack actually was a military position, and not the civilian home that Russian officials have insisted was at the heart of the explosion. Meanwhile, angry Russian voices have insisted that this attack justifies “carpet bombing Kharkiv” because apparently killing three Russians is worse than the 10,000+ civilians Russia has already killed in Kharkiv. And honestly, if Russia could carpet bomb Kharkiv and come away with a surviving air force, they would probably be doing it already.
Go back to the Ukrainian side, and there are voices saying that the whole explosion in Belgorod was staged by Russia as an excuse for making a formal declaration of war and conducting a general mobilization and draft.
Honestly, I do not know.
However, the explosion in Belgorod – which seems to be pretty darned explosive for just a house…
Looks pretty similar to another explosion in Melitopol…
And followed explosions that took out a Russian command and control center in Izyum.
It seems likely that, assuming the Belgorod explosion was caused by Ukraine, that it was also another strategic target.
Meanwhile, in the areas still under Russian occupation…