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Putin’s Kharkiv Head Fake & Cabinet Kremlinology

vladimir putin Sergey Shoigu
Russian troops are advancing quickly in part because they haven’t yet reached Ukraine’s main defensive lines, but also because the offensive comes after key problems have been allowed to fester on the Ukrainian side. Photo: Contributor/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
May 14, 2024

In the last few days, Russian troops have launched an offensive in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region, advancing around 5 kilometers and seizing a few border villages along the way. None of this is surprising: Ukrainian forces have been shelling the neighboring Russian region of Belgorod for months, and Russian officials have been openly discussing creating a buffer zone to protect the territory and its residents. Troops have been massing on the Russian side for weeks. The only thing left was for Vladimir Putin to approve the order to move in. 

The Kharkiv offensive is likely designed to achieve two parallel political and tactical goals. “Moving the border a few kilometers is not necessarily going to prevent Ukraine from launching drones and missiles at Belgorod,” noted the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Michael Kofman. “When they’re discussing a buffer zone, what they are attempting to do is shift the line so that they can threaten Kharkiv and force a partial evacuation, which would prove politically significant.” Kharkiv is Ukraine’s second-largest city and, until the war, was primarily Russian-speaking. “It’s not the Russians’ intention to take Kharkiv, nor do they have the forces for it,” Kofman explained. “The point is to draw Ukrainian forces to its defense, fix their reserves there, potentially weakening the front line in Donetsk for a Russian attack.”