Russia launches Kharkiv ground attack to break through Ukraine’s defenses

Russian troops launched an armored ground attack on Ukraine’s northeast Friday, in what Kyiv said was a major new offensive it had been expecting for months.

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said it was rushing reserve units to the Kharkiv border region after a Russian effort to break through its defense lines backed by armored vehicles and artillery.

The ministry said in a statement that the dawn attacks had been repulsed, but that “battles of varying intensity” continued. “The defense forces of Ukraine continue to hold back the enemy’s offensive,” it said.

“Russia has begun a new wave of counteroffensive actions in this direction,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said during a planned news conference in Kyiv shortly after the ministry’s statement. “Ukraine has met them there with our troops, brigades and artillery.”

Ukraine’s command was prepared for a Russian assault in the area, he said, and was ready to meet the enemy “with fire.” The Russian army could send more forces in this direction, he said, adding that a “fierce battle” was ongoing.

Ukrainian officials have been warning that the Kremlin was massing thousands of troops for a major new offensive this summer. Russian President Vladimir Putin has made clear his desire to carve out a buffer zone pushing Ukrainian forces back from their northern border, but until now his military’s push across the front lines had been largely focused in the south and the eastern Donbas region.

It was not immediately clear whether the new Russian attack was an attempt to draw away Ukrainian forces — outgunned and outmanned despite new promises of Western support, or if it represented a major effort to seize territory around Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv.

In discussing Rafah on Friday National Security Council Spokesman John Kirby, “I wouldn’t go so far as to say what we’ve seen here in the last 24 hours connotes or indicates a broad large scale invasion or major ground operation.” 

Kirby also said the U.S. is continuing to urge Israel to keep the crossing open for humanitarian aid: “We urge the Israelis to open up that crossing to humanitarian assistance immediately. That aid is desperately needed, and we urge them as we have in the past, to be as careful, precise and discriminate as they can here so that they are not putting innocent lives at greater risk than they already are.”

On Friday afternoon, President Joe Biden, announced an additional $400 million in assistance to Ukraine via presidential drawdown authority, which draws resources from the U.S. stockpile.

Zelenskyy thanked Biden for the aid Friday on X writing: “This timely and vital U.S. assistance will help save civilian lives and strengthen Ukrainian warriors on the frontlines. It will also allow us to better protect our cities and communities from Russia’s ongoing air terror attacks on Ukrainian critical infrastructure and energy facilities.”

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said Russia had carried out strikes using guided aerial bombs before attempting to breach defenses in the direction of Vovchansk, a town on the border with Russia just 35 miles northeast of Kharkiv.

A sergeant based near Vovchansk who goes by the call sign “Marine” told NBC News that Russians had tried to approach the town. “They got their a**** kicked!” said the soldier, who did not want his name published as he was not authorized to speak publicly. He said this was the most intense attack on the area in recent weeks or months.

Regional Gov. Oleh Syniehubov also said Friday that Russian forces had intensified their shelling in the northern direction, especially around Vovchansk.

Shelling with guided aerial bombs and artillery went on throughout the night, he said, and there were unsuccessful attempts by Russian reconnaissance groups to break through the border.

“The Armed Forces of Ukraine confidently hold their positions: not a single meter has been lost,” Syniehubov said in a post on Telegram. “The enemy group does not pose a threat to Kharkiv, its forces are sufficient only for provocations in the northern direction.”

He also called for residents in the north of the region, especially those near Vovchansk, to heed evacuation calls.

Aftermath of the explosion of a Russian missile in Kharkiv
Emergency responders at the site of a Russian missile attack in Kharkiv on Friday.Anadolu via Getty Images

Ukraine pushed Russian forces out of large swathes of the Kharkiv region in the fall of 2022 in a sweeping counteroffensive that showed the West it could retake territory that had been seized by a much stronger opponent. However, its most recent counteroffensive in the south and east fell short of expectations, and months of delays from its allies have seen Moscow’s military gain the initiative on the battlefield.

Military analysts had been expecting a new Russian push in the region as Kyiv waits for new U.S. military aid to arrive after months of severe ammunition shortages.

Moscow has used this vulnerability to press on, claiming to have taken multiple villages in eastern Ukraine in recent weeks. However, increased activity in the Kharkiv region could mark a new focus for Russian troops.

The Russian Defense Ministry said Friday its forces claimed two settlements to the southeast of Kharkiv this week. It did not immediately release any statements about the alleged attempt early this morning at the breakthrough near Vovchansk.

Russia’s influential military bloggers and war reporters were cautious early Friday, suggesting the reports could be the beginning of a long and arduous effort for Russian troops with no “quick victories.”

And Western military analysts were similarly cautious.

“We need to be very careful about using words like breakthrough. As of now these seem more like probing attacks than a major offensive. Of course, its early days, so this can change,” Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, told NBC News.

The regional capital, Kharkiv, has been badly shelled for weeks, in what some military observers saw as a possible preparation for a large-scale attack.

Putin has vowed to carve out a “sanitary zone” around the broader Kharkiv region to stop Ukrainian attacks from reaching Russia’s own border regions.

Friday’s offensive actions may be an effort to launch a major ground assault or it may be an effort to draw Ukrainian forces to that area so that Russia can then attack elsewhere, said Neil Melvin, the director of international security at the Royal United Services Institute, or RUSI, a London-based think tank.

“For some months, Russia has been putting pressure on the Ukraine defenses, so that Kyiv is forced to continually move around its military forces to make sure that there is not a breakthrough,” Melvin said. “Through these actions Russia is seeking to shape the battlefield to its advantage — to try to create gaps in Ukraine’s defensive lines so that Moscow can then attack where the defenses are weakest.”

“Russia is assessed to have amassed around 50,000 troops in the area,” he said, But “the picture will only likely become clear in the days ahead.”