Russia attempts ground offensive into Ukraine’s Kharkiv

Ukrainian forces fighting to halt new Russian assault aimed at creating Putin’s planned ‘buffer zone’.

Russian forces attempted an armoured ground invasion of Ukraine’s northeastern Kharkiv region with artillery and guided aerial bombs, Ukrainian officials have said.

On Friday, Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence said that Russian forces tried to breach Ukrainian defences near the town of Vovchansk with “armoured vehicles” at 5am (02:00 GMT), hitting an area near the border with aerial attacks. The assault had been repulsed, but “battles of varying intensity” continued, it said.

A senior Ukrainian military source told the Reuters news agency that Russian forces had pushed one kilometre (0.6 miles) into the region. They aimed, he said, to advance as far as 10km (six miles) to establish the buffer zone that Russian President Vladimir Putin promised to create earlier this year as a means of halting Ukrainian attacks on Russian border regions.

Ukraine had previously said it was aware that Russia was assembling thousands of troops along the northeastern border. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said his forces were prepared for the ground assault.

“Ukraine met them there with troops: brigades and artillery,” he told a news conference.

Ukraine has sent more forces to the area as reinforcements.

Vitaliy Ganchev, a Russian-installed official in the Kharkiv region, said on the Telegram app that there was “fighting on several parts of the line of contact, including in the border areas”, and asked residents “to be careful and not to leave shelters without an urgent need”.

Kharkiv’s Governor Oleh Syniehubov said the authorities were evacuating about 3,000 civilians from Vovchansk, fewer than five kilometres (three miles) from the border, which had come under heavy shelling.

New front

Ukraine chased Russian troops out of most of the Kharkiv region in 2022, the first year of the war, but after weathering the Ukrainian counteroffensive last year, Russian forces are back on the offensive and slowly advancing in the Donetsk region further south.

[Al Jazeera]

Fears grew in March over the Kremlin’s intentions in the Kharkiv region when Putin called for the creation of a buffer zone inside Ukrainian territory when asked whether he thought it necessary to take Kharkiv, which borders Belgorod, a Russian province that has come under regular attack from Ukraine.

Since then, Kharkiv, which is particularly vulnerable because of its proximity to Russia, has been hammered by air raids that have caused major damage to the region’s power infrastructure.

Friday’s assault opens a new front, with Russia reportedly intent on exploiting a window of opportunity to make small, tactical gains while Ukraine remains outgunned and outmanned.

Ukrainian officials have repeatedly said that they need more Western-supplied weapons to hold out and ultimately push back Russian troops. On Thursday, Zelenskyy said that the United States’s $61bn military aid package would turn the tide.

Friday’s advance into Kharkiv came as Ukraine began to receive parcels of long-delayed US military aid for the first time in weeks. On Friday, a high-ranking Ukrainian military source told Reuters that Ukraine expects US-made F-16 fighter jets to be delivered in June-July.

Ukraine’s parliament voted on Thursday to crack down on draft dodgers, as the country grapples with a serious shortage of soldiers available to fight more than two years of war.

The bill, backed by a majority of lawmakers but not yet signed into law by Zelenskyy, includes raising fines for anyone caught trying to avoid the call-up and allowing authorities to detain draft dodgers for up to three days.

It comes in the same week that Parliament passed a bill allowing some convicts to enlist in the army and days before a new mobilisation law, that lowers the minimum age for new recruits, is due to come into force.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies