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Counterattack or Ploy? Kyiv Vigilant Despite Heavy Russian Shelling of Northeast Region

While Moscow’s troops have reportedly gained some ground, military experts caution against calling this a full-blown offensive.

Since the start of Ukraine’s counteroffensive in June, Russia’s invading troops have been largely on the defensive along much of the front line that stretches across the country’s east and south.

In recent days, however, Moscow’s troops have once again mounted offensive operations in the Kupiansk region, an area south-east of Kharkiv that Ukrainian troops recaptured late last year.

“They are constantly attacking us,” a Ukrainian lieutenant stationed in the area told the New York Times this week. “On some days they shoot without stopping.”

The assaults, concentrated mainly around three towns to the east of the Oskil River – Kupiansk, Svatove and Kreminna – appear to have borne some fruit. 


Russian forces “have made advances in certain areas”, according to the US-based Institute for the Study of War, which publishes daily summaries of developments in the war in Ukraine.

The infographic shows the region where the Russian army launched an offensive in Ukraine.
The infographic shows the region where the Russian army launched an offensive in Ukraine. © France 24

The attacks have sparked talk of a Russian “counter-counteroffensive” unfolding in the northeast, even as Ukraine steps up its efforts to break through Russian defences in the southeastern Zaporizhzhia region.

Russian troop build-up

Analysts say Moscow started building up troops in the Kupiansk region several months ago. 

“According to the Ukrainian authorities, they have brought in around 100,000 soldiers and almost 900 tanks since January”, says Sim Tack, a military analyst at Force Analysis, a conflict monitoring company.

Huseyn Aliyev, a specialist in the Russia-Ukraine war at the University of Glasgow, describes the Ukrainian estimate as “somewhat fanciful given the overall Russian effort in the southern part of the country”. 

However, he acknowledges that Moscow has stationed more troops around Kupiansk than on other parts of the front line – and not just any troops.

“It would appear that Russia has sent divisions of the First Tank Army, which is better equipped than other Russian units, to the area,” says Tack, noting that certain marine infantry troops have also been deployed to this region.

“Two years ago, these soldiers were considered the Russian army’s elite. It’s hard to say whether this is still the case,” he adds.  

Either way, the fact that Moscow has not just sent “cannon fodder” to the region is fuelling suspicions of a “counter-counteroffensive” in the Kupiansk area.

As Aliyev notes, “You need experienced soldiers to make inroads and gain ground.”

An ‘opportunistic’ assault

Other factors, however, caution against calling this a counteroffensive.

“The Russians managed to advance, but then sent absolutely no reinforcements to push their advantage. This makes no sense, because in this kind of operation speed of execution is the most important factor,” says Aliyev.

The Kupiansk area is also an odd choice of target for Russian forces to go back on the offensive. 

“The aim could be to cross the Oskil River to open up a route to Izyum. But to get there, well over 100,000 soldiers would need to be mobilised,” says Tack.

The lack of urban centres, “which are needed to establish logistical hubs as troops advance,” means the region is even less suited to a counterattack, adds Aliyev, for whom the Russian operation is best described as an “opportunistic assault”.

In this respect, the recent Russian attacks in the region form part of its “active defence strategy”, says Tack.

“Moscow had the choice between spreading all its men along the front line or trying to identify a Ukrainian weak point where it could amass a large number of soldiers ready to put pressure on the enemy,” he explains. 

Russian forces deployed in the Kupiansk area identified it as a potential weak link in Ukraine’s defences. 

“The (Ukrainian) units were not the best equipped and most of the weaponry dated from the Soviet era,” says Aliyev. “This made them the weak point of the Ukrainian system in Moscow’s eyes.”

Kyiv’s dilemma

Having identified its ideal target, Moscow merely waited for the right time to strike.

“It’s no coincidence that this assault comes at a time when Ukraine seems determined to step up its efforts in the southern part of the country,” says Tack.

By attacking Ukrainian lines further up north, Moscow is forcing Kyiv into a delicate choice: either it remains focused on the east and south, hoping to break through Russian defences, or it redeploys some of its troops to contain possible Russian attacks in the north.

In the first case, the risk for Ukraine is that the Kupiansk region remains a thorn in its flank for the months to come.

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Should Kyiv opt instead for a redeployment, however, it could deprive its counteroffensive of the manpower required to tip the balance in the south, Aliyev warns.

The same applies to Russian forces, adds Tack, noting that Moscow’s decision to allocate important resources to the Kupiansk region “is very risky and could backfire”, exposing Russian defences elsewhere.

Moscow’s troop build-up in the Kupiansk area is likely to have resulted in thinner Russian lines elsewhere along the 600-mile front line that cuts across Ukraine. 

The trick for Kyiv’s generals is to find exactly where.

Source: France 2