Russia opens a new front: Mapping three key battles in the Ukrainian war

Russia has opened up a new front in its invasion of Ukraine, launching a surprise offensive in the northeastern region of Kharkiv after focusing much of their forces this year on the east.

The assault, which began earlier this month, saw thousands of Russian soldiers punch through the northern border, and forced Ukraine to move in troops from other areas to defend positions.

It serves as an example of how Russia has been exploiting Ukraine’s main vulnerabilities: insufficient manpower, artillery shortages, sparse air defenses and inadequate defensive fortifications.

Ukraine’s frontline brigades are clinging on as they desperately await munitions from allies and fresh recruits to provide some much-needed manpower.

CNN has laid out the three key frontiers where fighting is now raging, tracking the marginal gains Russia has made along a frontline which had previously been frozen for months.

In the north, Moscow’s troops are aiming to bring its troops within tube artillery range of Kharkiv city. Along the southern front, the battle is on to recapture villages liberated during Ukraine’s counteroffensive last year and push further into Ukrainian territory.

Ukraine, meanwhile, is racing to fix its current weak spots after finding itself on the back foot as it pledges to fight “house by house, street by street.”

The Kharkiv front

The cross-border assault saw the Russians quickly take control of several villages.

Since then, Russia has ramped up its attacks in the area as it tries to take control of the key settlements of Vovchansk and Lypsti.

Lyptsi, which lies around 30 kilometers north of Kharkiv, is under heavy Russian bombardment. Capturing the large village would allow Russian troops to position artillery within range of Kharkiv city, Ukraine’s second largest, which is already vulnerable to missile attacks, as this weekend’s strike on a hardware store showed.

The attack also allows Russia to divert already thinly stretched Ukrainian resources away from other front lines, and to create a buffer zone from Ukrainian attacks on Russian border regions. The nearby Russian city of Belgorod, for instance, has increasingly come under Ukrainian attack in recent months.

The east - Avdiivka and Bakhmut

Before the Kharkiv offensive, Russia had been largely focusing its offensive capabilities in the east, where it had been inching forward since October 2023 as Ukraine’s highly-anticipated counteroffensive floundered last summer. Capturing Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland – known as the Donbas - remains a major Kremlin goal.

In February, Moscow’s troops notched up a major success along this front when they took the town of Avdiivka. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that the decision to pull back was made to “save our soldiers’ lives” and came in the face of constant, heavy Russian bombardment and a ten-to-one shell disadvantage.

Since then, Russian troops have made steady progress westwards in the direction of Pokrovsk, which serves as a vital military hub in Ukraine’s war effort.

A few dozen kilometers to the north, eastern city of Bakhmut was recaptured by the Russians in spring last year following a grinding, nine-month battle. Now, Russia’s forces are edging west towards Chasiv Yar. Getting control of high ground on which the town sits would put Putin’s troops closer to the strategic city of Kramatorsk.

The battle for Robotyne

Further to the south, Ukrainian forces are coming under pressure southeast of Zaporizhzhia, one of the few areas where they achieved success, albeit modest in size, in last summer’s counteroffensive.

Both Russian military bloggers and Ukraine’s DeepStateMap report small Russian advances into a pocket of recaptured Ukrainian territory.

Robotyne, a tiny village that is now completely destroyed, has changed hands several times during the war. It was first captured by Russian forces in early March 2022 and Moscow again claimed control over it earlier this month, something denied by Ukraine.

The battle for Robotyne highlights the fluidity of the battlefield and is a stark illustration of the nature of the fighting, with the war being decided in brutal battles for often abandoned villages.

Sources: The Institute for the Study of War with AEI’s Critical Threats Project (map data from May 29, 2024 at 3 p.m. ET), OpenStreetMap.

Notes: “Assessed” means the Institute for the Study of War has received reliable and independently verifiable information to demonstrate Russian control or advances in those areas. Russian advances are areas where Russian forces have operated in or launched attacks, but they do not control them. “Claimed” areas are where sources have said control or counteroffensives are occurring, but ISW cannot corroborate nor demonstrate them to be false.

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