Putin claims he doesn’t want to capture Kharkiv anyway

Severodonetsk. Bakhmut. Mariupol. When Russia can get a Ukrainian city in range of artillery, the result seems almost inevitable: weeks of crushing destruction followed by “meat waves” of Russian forces climbing over the rubble. Cities with centuries of history, treasured architecture, and tens of thousands of inhabitants are left as empty, blackened wastelands marked by the burned-out shells of fractured apartment buildings standing like oversized headstones in an abandoned cemetery.

For an authoritarian nation led by a brutal dictator who has no concern about civilian deaths, the destruction of culture, or how many of his own forces have to die to advance the lines by a single meter, it’s an almost perfect strategy. 

Russia’s idea of “liberation” isn’t the kind of celebration that greeted Ukrainian forces as they marched into the city of Kherson. It’s the silence of the streets of Bucha. Since Vladimir Putin’s illegal, unprovoked invasion began in February 2022, Russia has brought this result to dozens of towns and hundreds of villages across Ukraine.

Three weeks ago, Russian troops began a renewed push toward Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. Now Ukraine has slowed Russia’s progress and is holding Russian forces away from the city.

But that’s okay, says Putin. He doesn’t want Kharkiv anyway.

It seems like every time Russia has difficulty winning a battle, it turns out they didn’t mean to win it in the first place. They didn’t mean to take Kyiv, they claim. Surrendering Kherson was all part of the plan, military commanders insist.

This time, Putin isn’t even waiting to be chased back across the border. He’s out front with a claim that just because tens of thousands of Russian forces are driving toward Kharkiv, it doesn’t mean they’re trying to take it. That must be comforting to the thousands of Russian soldiers who have died not trying to take Kharkiv.  

Russia’s renewed push into the Kharkiv region initially met with apparent success. However, since those first days, the pace of the Russian advance has slowed.

Not much has changed since May 15.

There’s no sign that Russian troops are simply digging in and trying to secure the border area, as Putin claims. In the past week, Russia has broadened its area of control west of Vovchansk and expanded into the area immediately north of Lyptsi, but the major areas of fighting have moved only a little. According to CNN, Ukraine has rushed battle-hardened units to the front lines north of Kharkiv. Their goal is to keep the fighting from reaching places like Nove, Male Vesele, and Shestakove—all positions from which artillery could easily fire into the city.

As a secondary objective, Ukrainian forces are trying to hold on to Vovchansk. The area includes a road and rail hub that Russia previously exploited to support its troops throughout the region. If Ukraine loses control of Vovchansk, it becomes more difficult for them to hold positions south and east.

The fighting in the Vovchansk area has been difficult, but some claims go beyond the normal course of battle. According to those on the ground, the town is becoming another Bucha, its streets scattered with civilian bodies. 

Fifty kilometers away, life in Kharkiv proceeds with a shocking level of normality, but that could change at any moment. Any slip by Ukraine could leave the city subject to the kind of bombardment that has marked Russia’s idea of “liberation”

Ukraine could shift more forces to defend the northern border, but doing so might mean weakening the defenses in the Bakhmut area, where Russia has an equally large push aimed at the town of Chasiv Yar.

Compared to the city of Kharkiv, Chasiv Yar is tiny. However, it sits on high ground at a highway intersection and offers a commanding view of the area in all directions. Russia has been trying hard to take it, and this week Russian forces advanced south of the town. Russian troops are still at the bottom of the bluffs that make Chasiv Yar so valuable, but the fighting is happening close to critical locations.

The result has been a widening area of evacuations as Russian artillery, MLRS, and drones bring misery to one village after another.


As with many other fights in this war, Ukraine’s defense of Chasiv Yar has been stubborn, brave, and tough. Russia has lost an incredible number of forces in trying to reach that high ground.

But the same thing was true of the iron-willed defense in Bakhmut, Mariupol, and Avdiivka. Ukraine made Russia pay a price, but Putin paid that price without question. It’s not as if any of his family is out there on the front lines.

This is a very difficult moment for Ukraine in a war made of nothing but difficult moments.

For Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the frustrations of trying to fight off a multi-year invasion by a much larger nation using erratic supplies from allies are clearly growing. This week, Zelenskyy spoke to The New York Times to ask Western allies why they were so reluctant to engage in a fight against an enemy that so clearly means to bring harm to them all.

With his army struggling to fend off fierce Russian advances all across the front, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine urged the United States and Europe to do more to defend his nation, dismissing fears of nuclear escalation and proposing that NATO planes shoot down Russian missiles in Ukrainian airspace.

At this point, the decisions the West needs to make are no longer about whether Ukraine gets a certain model of tank, or just what range of artillery shells to deliver. What Ukraine is asking for at this point, and what may be necessary to end this war, is direct involvement.

That doesn’t necessarily mean “boots on the ground” in terms of positioning Western troops on the front line. But it may very well mean NATO forces inside Ukraine to position and operate missile defenses.

“So my question is, what’s the problem?” Zelenskyy asked New York Times reporter Andrew Kramer. “Why can’t we shoot them down? Is it defense? Yes. Is it an attack on Russia? No. Are you shooting down Russian planes and killing Russian pilots? No. So what’s the issue with involving NATO countries in the war? There is no such issue.”

France has been vocal about the possibility of sending some forces into Ukraine. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz nixed the idea of sending German forces in February, but in the past month members of the German parliament have argued in favor of sending some sort of force.

As with every step that came before, this may be necessary for the survival of Ukraine. If it is, the best thing that the West can do is make that decision before it’s too late.


Tsiklon was a relatively new addition to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and was capable of firing the most modern Zircon missiles. “Was” is the operative word.

It really is starting to be turtles all the way down on both sides.

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