Russian assault opens new front, diverting Ukraine forces as Western aid trickles in

Ukrainian officials and commanders say Russian troops are locked in intense battles with Ukrainian soldiers in the embattled town of Vovchansk and are pushing ahead with a ground offensive that opened a new front to put pressure on overstretched Ukrainian forces
Ukrainian military medics of the 47th Brigade shift an injured comrade to a stretcher at the field hospital in Avdiivka direction, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Friday, May 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

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Ukrainian military medics of the 47th Brigade shift an injured comrade to a stretcher at the field hospital in Avdiivka direction, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Friday, May 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian troops were locked in intense battles with Ukrainian soldiers around the embattled town of Vovchansk in northeast Ukraine on Monday, pushing ahead with a ground offensive that opened a new front and put more pressure on overstretched Ukrainian forces.

Moscow's renewed northeast offensive, launched late last week, was the most significant border incursion since the full-scale invasion began.

In just two days, Moscow has captured from 100 to 125 square kilometers (38 to 47 square miles) that include at least seven villages, most of them already depopulated, according to two open source monitoring analysts.

Vovchansk, among the largest towns in the area whose pre-war population of 17,000 had dwindled to just 2,500 before Russia renewed its ground assault last week, has emerged as a key focus of the pitched battles engulfing the Kharkiv region. By Monday, only 200 to 300 residents remained, said Kharkiv Gov. Oleh Syniehubov, as Russian forces closed in from three sides.

Poorly built fortifications and long-term ammunition shortages enabled Russia's sweeping advance in the area since Friday, local officials and soldiers said. The Kremlin's forces were seeking to divert and distract Ukrainian troops across the 1,000-kilometer (620-mile) front line until a big batch of new military aid for Kyiv from the U.S. and European partners arrives on the battlefield in the coming weeks and months, Ukrainian commanders and analysts said.

That makes this period a window of opportunity for Moscow and one of the most dangerous for Kyiv in the two-year war, they said. By intensifying offensive operations, Russia seeks to stretch Ukraine's forces thin and forge breakthroughs.

Russian forces claimed to have taken an additional 90 square kilometers (35 square miles), which has not been independently confirmed.

Opening a new front from two points along the border with the Russian region of Belgorod was the easiest tactic to pin down and divert Ukrainian forces from heavy battles raging in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, Russia's most sought-after prize.

“The enemy identified the most geographically convenient place ... the state border line,” said Yurii Federenko, commander of the ACHILLES battalion of the 92nd brigade. His unit was among others rotated into the northeast from the Donetsk region to stabilize the northeast front, he said.

He fears a similar front may be opened in the Sumy region, which also shares a border with Russia.

The string of villages captured along the contested gray zone, where enemy shelling precludes the building of fortifications, were also the easiest for Moscow's forces to nab. Their momentum will likely slow as they approach better fortified settlements, Ukrainian commanders said.

Small batches of U.S. military aid have started to trickle into the front line in the form of much needed artillery, said Federenko, whose unit received some of the aid. But it will take at least two months before incoming supplies will meet Kyiv's needs to hold the line, he said. Until they arrive, Ukraine won't be able to seize the battlefield initiative, he said.

“They now have an opportunity to attack us while we cannot properly reply,” he said.

Russia's offensive seeks to take advantage of this window of time. “In order to achieve success, in my opinion, in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the enemy needed to spread ... our defense forces. Accordingly, the enemy started the campaign in Kharkiv region specifically,” Federenko said.

Top Biden administration officials and Ukrainian national security officials held a 90-minute call on Monday to discuss the situation on the ground in Ukraine as Russia intensifies its bombardment around Kharkiv.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and Gen. CQ Brown, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff spoke with Defense Minister Rustem Umerov, Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi, and head of the office the president Andriy Yermak, according to Sullivan.

“It was a detailed conversation about the situation on the front, about the capabilities that they are most in need of, and a real triage effort to say, ’Get us this stuff this fast so that we can be in a position to effectively defend against the Russian onslaught,” Sullivan told reporters at a White House briefing.

Sullivan added that a new influx of U.S. weaponry for Kyiv was expected to be announced by the U.S. administration in the coming days.

The Kharkiv incursion has effectively pinned Ukrainian forces in the region, while potentially drawing precious reserves away from heavy battles in the Avdiivka and Chasiv Yar areas of the Donetsk region, where Russia’s advance has been far more significant and strategically important.

Ukrainian local officials said they feared Vovchansk's fate may mirror that of Bakhmut and Avdiivka, Ukrainian cities where fierce fighting and scorched earth tactics forced Ukrainian withdrawals.

Russian forces were inching closer to Vovchansk, and heavy battles were ongoing on the town's outskirts. Using assault infantry units Russian forces are attempting to secure positions in three directions, as Ukrainian forces attempt to dislodge them using firepower. Ukrainian commanders describe the battles as dynamic and complicated.

Russian troops have so far entrenched themselves in the villages of Strilecha, Pylna, Borysivka, Krasne, Oliynykove, Mrakovets, Pletenivka, and from there were launching attacks near Hlyboke Zelene Hatysche, and Buchansk.

The capture of the Donetsk city of Avdiivka in February opened a door for the Kremlin's troops to push westward, deeper into Donetsk. Russia illegally annexed Donetsk and three other regions in 2022 shortly after it invaded Ukraine, and taking control of all of Donetsk is one of the Kremlin's main war goals.

If Ukraine isn’t able to halt Moscow’s advance, it could create conditions for a possible attack on Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.

It could also create a "buffer zone" to protect Belgorod, where frequent Ukrainian attacks have embarrassed the Kremlin. In March, Russia announced plans to evacuate about 9,000 children from the Belgorod region because it was being shelled continuously.

Russian emergency services on Monday finished clearing the rubble in the region’s capital city of Belgorod, where a section of a residential building collapsed following what authorities said was Ukrainian shelling.

Fifteen bodies were pulled from the rubble, Belgorod regional Gov. Vyacheslav Gladkov said, and 27 other people were wounded.

Another three people in the city of Belgorod were killed by shelling late Sunday, he said.

Yevgeny Poddubny, a usually well-connected military correspondent for Russia’s state TV corporation VGTRK, said in a recent Telegram post that the Kharkiv assault marked the beginning of “a new phase.”

“We’re pushing the enemy back from the border, destroying the enemy in order to deprive the Kyiv regime of the opportunity to use relatively cheap rockets to attack Belgorod,” he said.

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In this photo taken from video released by the Russian Emergency Ministry Press Service on Sunday, May 12, 2024, Russian emergency services work at the scene of a partially collapsed block of flats authorities said was hit during an attack by Ukrainian shelling, in Belgorod, Russia. (Russian Emergency Ministry Press Service via AP)

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In this photo taken from video released by the Russian Emergency Ministry Press Service on Sunday, May 12, 2024, Russian emergency services work at the scene of a partially collapsed block of flats authorities said was hit during an attack by Ukrainian shelling, in Belgorod, Russia. (Russian Emergency Ministry Press Service via AP)

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People walk with their belongings to the evacuation point in front of a building that was damaged by a Russian airstrike in Vilcha, near Vovchansk, Ukraine, Sunday, May 12, 2024. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

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Rescue workers help Liudmila Kalashnik, 88, after evacuation from Vovchansk, Ukraine, Sunday, May 12, 2024. Her husband was killed in their house after a Russian airstrike on the city. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

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People sit in a bus after evacuation from Vovchansk, Ukraine, Sunday, May 12, 2024. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

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This photo released by Belgorod regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov's Telegram channel on Sunday, May 12, 2024, volunteers help an elderly woman to leave an area of a partially collapsed block of flats after a missile attack by the Ukrainian Armed Forces in the Russian city of Belgorod, Russia.In a statement, Russia's Investigative Committee, the country's top law enforcement agency, said that the 10-story block had been hit by Ukrainian shelling. (Belgorod Region Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov Telegram channel via AP)

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Liudmila, 85, looks though the window of a bus after being evacuated from Vovchansk, Ukraine, Sunday, May 12, 2024. Her husband was killed in their house after a Russian airstrike on the city. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

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In this photo taken from video released by Belgorod regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov's Telegram channel on Sunday, May 12, 2024, Russian emergency services transport a wounded person from a partially collapsed block of flats authorities said was hit during an attack by Ukrainian shelling, in Belgorod, Russia. In a statement, Russia's Investigative Committee, the country's top law enforcement agency, said that the 10-story block had been hit by Ukrainian shelling. (Belgorod Region Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov Telegram channel via AP)

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