Russia Mounting New Border Assaults in North, Ukraine Says

Russia Mounting New Border Assaults in North, Ukraine Says

Ukraine rushed reinforcements to its northern border on Friday after Russian forces attempted to break through Ukrainian lines along several sections, applying new pressure on forces already stretched thin along a 600-mile front.

The Russian assaults began around 5 a.m. Friday with massive shelling and aerial bombardments of Ukrainian positions followed by armored columns trying to punch through at several points along the border, according to a statement from Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense.

“As of now, these attacks have been repelled, and battles of varying intensity are ongoing,” the ministry said. “To strengthen the defense in this sector of the front, reserve units have been deployed.”

The breadth and intent of the Russian border incursions remained unclear. Military analysts have said Russia may be trying to force Ukraine to expend valuable resources in defending the region just as Russian assaults in eastern Ukraine are intensifying.

But a senior Ukrainian commander, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the current state of fighting, said on Friday that the Russian attacks went beyond probing or intelligence gathering. The commander called it the start of an offensive operation, adding that the Kremlin’s immediate goal appeared to be to create a buffer zone along the border.

After heavy battles raged overnight and into the morning, smaller skirmishes continued into the evening as Russia sought to solidify control over several small villages located right on the border, a Ukrainian official familiar with the fighting said. While there are few civilians left in the areas that came under attack, at least one resident of the town of Vovchansk was killed in shelling, local officials said, and several more were wounded.

The opening of a new zone of fighting would present a steep challenge for Ukraine. It was unclear how deep the Ukrainian defenses at the border extended, how well they were manned and how they would hold up if Russia were to mount sustained offensive operations in this direction.

New deliveries of powerful Western weapons are on their way, but commanders say they have not arrived in numbers that would make a significant impact. In the meantime, military analysts have said, Russia is likely to try to take advantage of the window before the weapons arrive in force to press new advances.

Ukrainian officials and Western military analysts have said that Moscow probably lacks the combat power to capture Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, which is 20 miles from the Russian border. On Friday, one senior U.S. military official described the new Russian advances as perhaps more of a probing than a full-on press, but acknowledged that the “fog of war” there made the situation murky.

“Russia doubtfully has the forces to take Kharkiv,” said Michael Kofman, a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “The attack is more likely to serve as a fixing effort and to create a so-called buffer zone, straining Ukrainian defenses and drawing manpower from other parts of the front line.”

Russian officials have not commented on the incursions.

It was unclear if Russia had captured any territory. The senior Ukrainian commander said that Kyiv’s forces had stopped one Russian attack in the direction of a village called Lyptsi, less than a mile from the border in the Kharkiv region. That area was now considered a gray zone, meaning the fighting was too intense and the situation too fluid to say who had control over the land.

For Russia, even establishing a bridgehead across the border could expose the city of Kharkiv to artillery, allowing troops to escalate efforts to make the city unlivable. And it would help create a buffer zone that would allow Russia a staging point for deploying personnel and weaponry.

It would also let Russia protect towns and cities across the border from Ukrainian shelling.

The Kharkiv regional administration urged people from the villages close to the border to evacuate. Some, like Vovchansk, which has been badly shelled throughout the war, have been nearly empty for months.

A doctor at the hospital in Vovchansk, which is about four miles from the Russian border, said there was intense fighting all around the small town. “We’re currently evacuating people from the hospital,” he said, asking that his name not be used because he feared for his safety. “They’re hitting very hard and destroying everything.”

He said that Ukrainian soldiers appeared to be preventing an advance into the town but that the Russians were attacking tanks, armored fighting vehicles and warplanes. Many of the small villages in the border regions have been being evacuated for months as shelling intensified and Ukrainian officials said on Friday those efforts were continuing.

President Volodymyr Zelensky, during a briefing in Kyiv with his Slovak counterpart, Zuzana Caputova, said that Russian forces were met with “our troops, brigades and artillery,” adding: “There is a fierce battle in this direction — we met them with fire.”

Russian forces failed to take Kharkiv city in the first weeks of the war and were almost completely driven out of the region in a Ukrainian counteroffensive in the fall of 2022. Hundreds of thousands of people who fled the city returned to their homes and started to rebuild their lives.

But in recent months, Russia has stepped up its bombardment of the city, targeting it almost daily with missiles, drones and powerful guided bombs that have taken aim at energy infrastructure, important industries and residential neighborhoods.

At the same time, Russia has increased the number of soldiers it has moved to the border has been growing.

The Ukrainian military has responded by fortifying its defenses along vast stretches of the border and residents have reported seeing an influx of troops around the Kharkiv and Sumy borders.

Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, the nation’s top military commander, said recently that the Russians were likely to be planning new offensive operations but that he was confident in the Ukrainian defenses along the border, noting the army had already fought the Russians once in the Kharkiv region and won.

Liubov Sholudko contributed reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine.

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