Russia's Kharkiv offensive – what is the plan?

Russia has launched an offensive into the Kharkiv region, and it is the first time in a long time that there is a significantly new vector of attack on the frontline. But at the same time, it is unclear what Russia is trying to achieve. Much of the media has been quick to cover it like a rerun of the 2022 invasion, but the reality is very different.

In this video I discuss what the Russian plan might be, but perhaps even more importantly I argue that maybe the Russian plan is just not very good. Many Western observers put a lot of effort into trying to figure out what the Russian goal is, because they assume that Russia must have a good plan. I think this offensive might be a sign that the Russian command structure is getting fragmented like we saw in the beginning of the war, and that it is rather a sign that the Russian generals are fighting with each other over resources.


Russia has launched an offensive into the Kharkiv region of Ukraine and this has opened a whole new sector of the frontline with active fighting. It's actually the first time since the autumn of 2022 that we have seen sort of dramatic changes in the shape of the frontline on a more fundamental level. Otherwise it has been bouncing back and forth but it's been more or less in the same areas.

But this new Kharkiv offensive, it is a new area where there hasn't been changes since the Ukrainians pushed the Russians out back in 2022. But while the offensive is significant and it's interesting, I also think the media coverage has been quite overblown. It's not immediately obvious what the Russian plan is and what it is they're trying to achieve. And when you look at the forces that they have available for this attack then it becomes quite clear that we're not talking about some of those doomsday scenarios that we have seen in some media articles. So let's talk about it.

About a month ago I made a video about what to expect from a Russian summer offensive and in that video I argued that an attack into the Kharkiv region was less likely because Russia would need a very large number of soldiers and a lot of equipment to have a chance of achieving operational success. And what I meant by that was that of course the Russians could cross the border with fewer soldiers but they would not be able to proceed very far into Ukraine before they would be stopped and then the front line would just stabilize there. So it would not create operationally significant results that fundamentally changed the dynamics of the war.

Well, lo and behold, the Russians did launch such an attack with a fairly limited number of soldiers and very little equipment. A number that has been mentioned a lot is that the Russians have about 30,000 soldiers allocated for this offensive in the Kharkiv region and then maybe there are some 20,000 other soldiers that they are preparing for a similar offensive into the Sumi region a little further west. And what have they achieved?

Well, the words that the military observers have used about this is that the Russians have achieved tactically significant results. For example, that is a phrase that the Institute for the Study of War has been using and it's also been used by some observers from the Ukrainian side. I think some of the confusion in the western media about how bad the situation is for the Ukrainians has come from the fact that the journalists have sort of misunderstood the difference between the different levels in the military terminology.

I had a long conversation with a journalist who really had a hard time understanding why I kept saying that I didn't think the situation looked that dangerous because he was getting messages from other sources that he interpreted as very dramatic. But after a while, we realized that it was actually about the terminology and that we had different interpretations of what the phrase tactically significant was supposed to mean.

So in military terminology, there are three levels in warfare. There is the tactical, there's the operational, and there is the strategic level. And the tactical level is the lowest one. So when the Russians have achieved tactically significant results, then that means that they have taken some hills or towns or some tree lines or something like that. But it also means that they have not achieved operationally significant results because if they had achieved that, then that is the phrase that the military observers would have used. So they would have said that the Russians had achieved operationally significant results.

An operationally significant result would be something where the achievement would have changed the dynamics of a large part of the entire front line. So it's something that would have given the Russians important advantages going forward into the offensive. So that could, for example, have been if they had achieved an important breakthrough that they could have then exploited to take very large area of territory or if this attack had created some weaknesses in other parts of the front line where the Russians could exploit the possibilities. So that would be operationally significant.

A strategically significant result would be if, for example, it would have been something that changed the entire war. So if this had led to a collapse of the entire Ukrainian army, for example, then that would have been strategically significant. But that's not what the observers say. They didn't say that. They did not call it operationally significant. They definitely did not call it strategically significant. They used the term tactically significant.

And what that means is that what happened was exactly the same thing that I was trying to say would happen if Russia did this. Russia would be able to cross over the border and proceed a few kilometers into Ukraine, and then they would be stopped.

And that, of course, begs the question of what it is that Russia is trying to achieve here. There are three big explanations that are being floated. The first one is that it is an attempt to takeKharkiv city. But as I said, that is completely unrealistic. So that is not the explanation.

The second one is that Russia is trying to establish a buffer zone along the border, which will protect against Ukraine's attacks into Russia. So this is an idea that they have been talking a lot about. It would not protect against drone strikes and such things, but it would make it hard for those Russian partisan groups that are working with Ukraine to make raids into Russia. And if the buffer zone is big enough, then it would also bring the Russian artillery close enough to Kharkiv so that they could bomb the city with tube artillery. So that would make the bombardments of the city much worse than they already are. But frankly, the border is pretty long. And I will say that what the Russians have achieved so far is very far from being a coherent buffer zone. So this also does not look like a realistic ambition with the troop numbers that they have for this operation.

The last option that is often discussed is that this is a kind of diversion operation where the point is to force the Ukrainians to sort of stretch out their resources along a very long front line, which can then create weaknesses that the Russians can exploit. So in that case, the goal is actually not so much to take territory in the Kharkiv region, but it's rather to create weaknesses in other places. So this is a possibility.

The challenge with the idea of a diversion operation is that in order for a diversion operation to work, then it has to divert more of the enemy's resources than of your own. And frankly, it's not obvious that that is the case right now. Yes, it is drawing more Ukrainian forces to the Kharkiv region, but it's also drawing Russian resources to the Kharkiv region. So this idea of creating a very long front line to increase the likelihood of breakthroughs somewhere, it requires that you have the necessary reserves that you can then set in when the breakthrough occurs. So you need to exploit those breakthroughs. A breakthrough in itself is not interesting. So we'll use the terminology from before. A breakthrough is a tactical event. The important question is whether you have what it takes to exploit the breakthrough in order to turn it into an operationally significant event. And right now, it does not seem to me that the Russians have the resources to do that. So we have this grinding action along the front line, but we don't actually have a situation where I think it makes a lot of sense to make an offensive in the Kharkiv region as a diversion operation.

So these are the different explanations that are being discussed about why is it that the Russians are doing this. And I think the likely reason is that either they're trying to build the buffer zone or else that it's a diversion operation. It might also be both. That they're trying to build both the buffer zone and in the process of doing that to also divert Ukrainian resources to create weaknesses elsewhere.

But this is also where we get into another important question that I think we need to discuss. And that is that just because there is this discussion about what the Russian plan is, it's important to keep in mind that maybe the Russian plan is not very good. It doesn't have to be good just because they have a plan. They could be acting out a very bad plan.

And frankly, I think that what we are seeing might exactly be that. Because when there is so much discussion about what the Russian plan might be among military observers, then perhaps that is an indication that the Russian plan is not, let's just say, based on impeccable logic.

The situation we have now is that the Russian forces are actually on the offensive in all sectors of the front line. So they are pushing very hard in the south and in the east and in the north. And if you look up the basic principles of war, then you will find things like the need for concentration of forces. And you need to have a razor sharp focus on the aim. You will not, in military theory, find a principle that says that you should spread out your forces very thinly and then press a little bit in many places. But that seems to be what the Russians are doing here.

And that's why I'm saying that when we're trying to figure out what the Russian plan is, then we need to be open to the idea that maybe the Russian plan is just not very good. In the beginning of the war, there was a lot of talk about how the Russian efforts seemed uncoordinated. They did not have a clear command structure with a unified command, where there was one general in command of the whole campaign in Ukraine. And that meant that we had this very fragmented picture where there were forces in different places that seemed to be competing with each other about access to resources and about being the ones to produce the spectacular results. And then there has been a period where it seemed like Russia got sorted out, that their command structure started to work more. And there was a kind of coherent plan across the board.

But when I look at what the Russians are doing now along the front line, then I can't help wondering if what we're seeing is actually a kind of return to the previous structure, where we have maybe now, again, different generals competing about resources. So there's one general in the south, another one in the east, the third one in the north. And they all want to be the one to deliver the great results that will make people happy in Moscow because it will be good for their career.

So just to put this into context, the general in charge of the forces of the northern group of forces is currently Aleksandr Lapin. Back in 2022, General Lapin was the general in charge of the entire operation in Ukraine. He was sacked after the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region, where Ukraine took back this territory. And Lapin was criticized from all sides for being absolutely incompetent and negligent because he let this happen. He did not protect the Kharkiv region well enough, and the Ukrainians had this opportunity.

Since then, he has kind of been working his way back up the ladder, and he's now the commander of the northern grouping of forces. So what I'm hinting at here is that maybe General Lapin also has some personal motives for why he wants to take back the territory in Kharkiv and that he wants to prove that he can deliver some results. And it's the same thing in the southern sector on the front line. There we have General Teplinsky, who also seems like super eager to demonstrate some results.

So maybe what we're seeing is actually an indication of a kind of fragmentation on the Russian side in the command structure, and that this is why we end up with these discussions about what the overarching Russian plan might be. Because as outside observers, we tend to assume that there is a coherent plan. But in reality, behind the scenes, there are all these kinds of corporate politics going on. And it might be that General Gerasimov, who's in charge of the Russian general staff and the overall responsible for the operations in Ukraine, that he is basically handing out bits of resources to everybody, to all his generals to keep them happy and motivated, and to keep the system together.

So obviously, I don't have access to the meetings and conversations between the Russian generals, so I don't actually know what's going on. But I will say this, that when I look at what the Russians are doing in Kharkiv, then it's not self-evident to me that it makes a lot of sense, that this is a good way to use the resources. And I do think that the fact that military observers have a very hard time figuring out what the Russian plan is, that it might be an indication that maybe the Russian plan is not actually very good.

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