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Weekly Ukraine war summary: Russian advances near Kharkiv and Donetsk stalled, unprecedented Ukrainian drone attack on Russia and Crimea

RU

In today’s summary:

  • The Russian Armed Forces’ advances in the north of the Kharkiv Region have slowed considerably, with the furthest advance reaching up to 10 km;
  • Vladimir Putin claimed that Russia has no goal to capture Kharkiv, saying that the goal of the offensive is to create a “security zone” in the border region;
  • Forward progress of Russian troops in the Avdiivka and Marinka operational areas has completely stalled;
  • The Russian Defense Ministry announced the “liberation” of the village of Robotyne in the Zaporizhzhia region, but Russian pro-war channels expressed skepticism about the claims;
  • ATACMS strikes on Belbek airfield near Sevastopol destroyed two Russian MiG-31 and one Su-27 aircraft;
  • Last week saw the largest combined attack of sea and air drones on occupied Crimea and Russia’s Krasnodar Krai since the start of the full-scale invasion;
  • A debt-ridden Russian serviceman named Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky [a full namesake of the founder of the Soviet secret police] was killed at the front;
  • The Insider revealed that Austrian-made Steyr Mannlicher sniper rifles are being shipped to Russia despite international sanctions and Vienna’s “neutral” stance.

Situation on the front

Over the past week, attention has been focused on the north of Kharkiv Oblast, where the Russian offensive, which began on May 10, is unfolding. According to data from the Russian Defense Ministry (1, 2) and the Ukrainian DeepState open-source intelligence (OSINT) project (1, 2), which for the most part do not contradict one another, Russian forces managed to occupy around 10 border villages during the first days of the operation. The Russians also reached the outskirts of Vovchansk, entered the northern part of the town, and engaged in street fighting. By Wednesday, Russian “war correspondents” were eager to announce the capture of two-thirds of the town — or even to claim full control of it.

One infantry group was visually confirmed to have infiltrated at least as far as the Central District Hospital before being hit by Ukrainian fire. In the meantime, accusations of war crimes committed by the Russian military in Vovchansk keep mounting — specifically, the shooting and capture of humanitarian volunteers who assisted the evacuation of civilians from the area.

On the Ukrainian side, Brigadier General Mykhailo Drapatyi, deputy chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU), assumed command of the Operational-Tactical Group of Forces «Kharkiv», and President Volodymyr Zelensky temporarily canceled any plans for international travel. The moves indicate the gravity with which Kyiv assesses the current situation on the battlefield in the north.

Nevertheless, according to Ukrainian military observer Kostiantyn Mashovets, by May 16 the Russian offensive toward Kharkiv through the village of Lyptsi had been completely halted. Mashovets attributed the development to a lack of reserves on the Russian side. He cautioned against evaluating the situation in Vovchansk as having stabilized. However, the Ukrainian General Staff declared that the Russian Armed Forces' plans to cut into the Ukrainian defenses in Vovchansk had been foiled, and Volodymyr Zelensky said that the situation on the Kharkiv axis had generally stabilized, with the enemy's furthest advance being limited to only 10 km.

Vladimir Putin assessed the situation quite differently, saying that the Russian army was still making progress in the Kharkiv area every day. At the same time, Putin admitted that “as of today,” Russia had no goal to capture Kharkiv, as the military’s task was apparently to create a so-called “security zone” designed to degrade Ukraine’s capacity to shell the southern Russian city of Belgorod and its surrounding region. One undisputed effect of the Russian offensive is that, according to AFU commander-in-chief Oleksandr Syrskyi, the active front has been stretched by at least 70 kilometers. According to a report by a Russian pro-war channel, this has forced the AFU to commit disparate reserves from different brigades.

Neither the Russian offensive nor the Ukrainian defense near Kharkiv seems to be going smoothly. Russian servicemen and their relatives complained (1, 2) about weak counterbattery fire capabilities and “meat grinder assaults.” For their part, Ukrainian analysts drew attention to the sorry state of the AFU’s defensive fortifications (1, 2), and journalist Yuri Butusov noted the lack of air defense assets. President Zelensky said that two more batteries of Patriot SAMs are needed for the defense of Kharkiv and Kharkiv Oblast. Aside from that, Ukrainian soldiers reported that Starlink satellite communication terminals suddenly stopped working on the first day of the offensive (apparently due to interference by Russian electronic warfare).

Ukrainian sources drew attention to the situation in the Sumy Oblast, where the Russian Armed Forces may launch an operation similar to the one in Kharkiv. The first to raise the concern was Ukraine’s military intelligence agency (HUR) chief Kyrylo Budanov. Ukrainian serviceman Stanyslav Buniatov later reported that the Russians were pulling up equipment to the border, and two Russian tanks were destroyed in the Kursk Oblast near the border soon after.

The situation in the Avdiivka and Marinka operational areas west of Donetsk has not seen any major changes over the week, as Russia’s full control over any of the settlements still being contested has not been officially announced. Russian “war correspondents” have reported (1, 2) about insignificant advances and “clean-up operations.” The situation in multiple locations has been described by the curt phrase “no change” — or even “the situation hangs in the balance…”

BILD columnist Julian Röpcke also wrote about the halt of the Russian offensive near Avdiivka, explaining it as the result of Western ammunition deliveries combined with Ukraine's successful use of kamikaze drones. But developments in the direction of Kupiansk were somewhat better for the Russian army — there, the AFU General Staff was forced to acknowledge its forces’ withdrawal to “more favorable positions.” This move was accompanied by DeepState's report on the “partial success” of Russian forces in the area of Kyslivka and Berestove.

One of the most sensational events of the week was the Russian Defense Ministry's announcement of the “liberation” of the village of Robotyne (or what was left of it after the Ukrainian and Russian offensives) in the Zaporizhzhia direction. The ministry posted footage featuring a Russian flag flying over the lunar-like landscape at the site of the former village. However, the Russian army’s control over the settlement has not been confirmed, with both Ukrainian (1, 2) and Russian (1, 2) sources calling the claim into question. Russian bloggers even brought up Putin’s late February announcement that the Russian forces had completed the “clean-up” of Ukraine’s Krynky beachhead on the left bank of the Dnipro River — the AFU still maintains a presence in Krynky to this day.

The dispute around the situation in Robotyne is striking against the background of the Russian pro-war public's admiration for the phrase of its newly-appointed Defense Minister Andrei Belousov: “you can be wrong, but you can't lie!” (1, 2, 3). Many pro-war commentators had time to praise the new appointee — although others were initially perplexed by the decision to replace Sergei Shoigu with an economist.

Although Russia now has a new Defense Minister, Vladimir Putin claimed that no changes to the General Staff are planned. At least judging by his words, it would appear Putin is generally satisfied with the work of the Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, who, as commander of Russia’s Joint Group of Forces, is directly responsible for the “special military operation.”

Belousov, meanwhile, has outlined the priorities of the Russian Armed Forces: supplying ammunition, missiles, UAVs, and electronic warfare equipment to Russian troops in occupied Ukraine. According to Belousov, “every ruble of [state] budget money” should be directed towards achieving the goal of staffing military units, “but not mobilization.”

In turn, Russian pro-war commentators and members of the public have already complained to Belousov about a variety of issues. They say that soldiers have had to pay for shrapnel recovery operations themselves, that the bureaucracy surrounding new weapons designs is too onerous, and that wounded mobilized soldiers set to be sent back to war again are being illegally detained.

Mutual strikes and sabotage

The past week was marked by several successful Ukrainian strikes on the territory of Russia and occupied Crimea.

Two nights in a row (on May 15-16) the Belbek military airfield in Russian-occupied Crimea was hit by US-supplied ATACMS ballistic missiles (the Russian Defense Ministry both times reported the interception of all missiles — 1, 2) armed with cluster warheads, which led to the destruction of several aircraft (at least two MiG-31 and one Su-27), vehicles from the S-400 SAM system, and a refueling station.

The strikes and the publication of images of their aftermath triggered a flurry of criticism on Russian pro-war Telegram channels (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), which noted the Russian command’s failure to build reinforced concrete shelters (or at least steel hangars). They also complained about officials who cheerfully — and, it turns out, falsely — reported the complete suppression of attacks by air defense installations, and about the Russian authorities who failed to enforce rhetorical «red lines» previously drawn regarding such strikes by Ukraine.

Also in Crimea, Storm Shadow / SCALP-EG cruise missiles struck an air defense unit on Mount Ai-Petri (the death of its commander, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Kulakov, initially reported by ASTRA, was later confirmed by open-source data). Other notable targets of Ukrainian strikes in the occupied territories included an oil depot in occupied Roven’ky in the Luhansk Region (hit by ATACMS) and an ammunition depot in Sorokyne (called “Krasnodon” until 2016). A gathering place for a motor rally and a restaurant in Donetsk — both of which were linked to celebrations marking the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the self-proclaimed Donetsk “people’s republic” — were targeted, with civilian and Russian military deaths being reported.

On Russian territory, Ukrainian forces hit an oil refinery and a freight train in the Volgograd Oblast, an electrical substation in the Lipetsk Oblast, an oil depot in the Rostov Oblast, and the “Bazalt” defense company in Tula.

The night of May 17 saw the largest aerial and naval drone attack on Russian territory and occupied Crimea since the start of the full-scale invasion, with as many as 140 UAVs and 20 naval drones potentially involved. Among the targets hit were an electrical substation in Sevastopol, port and other fuel infrastructure (1, 2) in Novorossiysk, and a refinery in Tuapse, which had recently resumed operations after a Ukrainian strike in January.

From the other side, Russian forces continued to bomb Ukrainian military and civilian targets. The former include an temporary airfield in the Zaporizhzhia Region (Russian commentators claim the destruction of two Mi-24s helicopters and damage to two others, as well as a Mi-8), a cluster of kamikaze UAVs in Kherson Oblast, an ammunition dump in Donetsk Oblast (the strike was considered unsuccessful), crossings in Kharkiv Oblast (1, 2), one of which was restored relatively quickly, and a possible armored vehicle parking lot in Mykolaiv (6 people were injured).

The authorities of the Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk (1, 2), Kherson (1, 2, 3) and Odesa oblasts reported civilians killed and wounded as a result of Russian strikes during the week. It is worth noting that in April, according to the UN, overall 89% of civilian deaths and injuries and 86% of attacks on educational and health facilities occurred on the territory controlled by the Ukrainian authorities, rather than that currently occupied by Russian forces.

More broadly, the Wall Street Journal noted a decline in the effectiveness of Ukraine's air defense systems against Russian missile attacks (from 73% of targets shot down to 30%). This was attributed to Russia’s increased use of ballistic missiles, along with the exhaustion of Ukraine's arsenal of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). On the other hand, the AFU Air Force Command (1, 2, 3), reported that all Russian Shahed drones launched over Ukraine last week were shot down.

The most intense exchange of fire leading to civilian casualties occurred between Ukraine’s Kharkiv (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) and Russia’s Belgorod (1, 2, 3) oblasts. According to calculations by the independent publication Verstka, the city of Kharkiv was attacked more often between January and May 2024 than in the whole of 2023.

At the same time, new data has emerged concerning a strike on an apartment building in Belgorod. An entire section of the building collapsed, killing 17 people. Several analysts, including Oliver Alexander, the publication Pepel, and the Ukrainian OSINT project Kiber Boroshno, reported that the explosion occurred on the northeastern side of the building, which faces away from the Ukrainian border. A similar conclusion was reached by the Conflict Intelligence Team, which is inclined to believe that the cause of the explosion was either a Russian SAM hit or an “abnormal release” of a UMPK guided bomb from a Russian jet.

While the exact cause of the explosion in Belgorod cannot yet be determined, similar incidents have occurred across the region. On the night of May 11, a Russian missile reportedly fell in the village of Novosadovy, injuring three people. Incidents involving the impact of Russian aerial bombs on Russian territory occurred several times during the week — in particular, in the village of Razumnoye in the suburbs of Belgorod, less than 8 kilometers from the building where 17 people were killed on the same day.

In total, The Insider has calculated that Russian munitions have fallen “abnormally” in the region at least 44 times since the beginning of 2024.

The situation in the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” is even worse, according to a report by ASTRA. There, 40 “abnormal” aerial bombs have impacted various locations. Unlike the Belgorod Oblast, they cannot be defused due to a lack of explosive technicians.

Losses

Russian casualties, as confirmed by open-source data analyzed by the independent outlet Mediazona, the BBC Russian Service, and a team of volunteers, rose by 1,431 in two weeks to reach 53,586. The total number of dead Russian servicemen has been estimated at 107,000.

The most notable of the Russians whose deaths were confirmed was Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky, who adopted the name, surname, and patronymic in honor of the Bolshevik revolutionary who oversaw the Red Terror of 1918-1922. While the “original” Dzerzhinsky founded the Soviet state security agencies, the recently deceased Dzerzhinsky left behind microloan debts totaling 30,000 rubles (just over $300).

As for equipment losses, the Russian pro-war Telegram channel “Rubrika ot Ledka” («Рубрика от Ледка») counted 231 units of AFU equipment lost in April. These include 20 tanks, 22 howitzers, 47 infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), and 22 MRAPs (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected light tactical vehicles).

In turn, the AFU’s 47th Mechanized Brigade published a tally of Russian personnel and vehicle losses, claimed by the brigade's fighters in April in the Avdiivka direction. The brigade counted 494 killed Russian soldiers and 65 destroyed vehicles, including 13 tanks, 20 IFVs, 18 armored personnel carriers (APCs), and 11 MT-LB tracked fighting vehicles.

According to calculations by the researcher Naalsio based on visual data, the Russian side lost at least 44 pieces of military equipment in the Avdiivka operational area between May 3 and May 10, while the Ukrainians lost 24. In the Krynky area on the left bank of the Dnipro River, the confirmed losses of Russian equipment for the same period amounted to 12 units. Naalsio did not record any equipment losses on the part of the AFU.

In the Kharkiv direction, as of May 13, according to Naalsio, the confirmed losses of the Russian Armed Forces amounted to 6 units of equipment, while the AFU lost 7. This ratio can be explained by reports that the Russians in this area are advancing mainly with small infantry groups, practically not using armored vehicles. However, Russian tanks were involved in the assault on Vovchansk, and Ukrainian sources report the destruction of at least one.

Russian pro-war channels noted rather high Ukrainian artillery losses in the Kharkiv Region — Voyenniy Osvedomitel (lit. “Military Informant”) counted three destroyed Ukrainian-made “Bohdana” self-propelled wheeled howitzers. Given the conditions created by the Russian offensive, Ukrainian self-propelled artillery has to constantly be on the move, exposing themselves to attacks, rather than taking cover in entrenched, camouflaged shelters, which are the AFU’s “best countermeasure” against Russian Lancet drones, as per U.S. analyst Rob Lee.

Weapons and military equipment

Significant military aid packages pledged to Ukraine this week include a shipment from Spain that will include Leopard 2A4 tanks, IFVs, SAMs and counter-air defense systems, as well as Denmark's €750 million allocation for artillery and air defense, along with F-16 fighter jets that are set to arrive at an as-yet unspecified date. Germany has also promised another IRIS-T SAM, while France has committed to providing a new batch of Aster 30 missiles for the SAMP/T system. Lithuania has supplied Ukraine with reconnaissance drones, ammunition, generators, and folding beds.

The German-led “air defense coalition” continues to take shape. Within this framework, Lithuania will supply Ukraine with six AMBER-1800 radars. The following contributions from other participants have already been confirmed:

  • Germany is to transfer one battery of Patriot air defense systems;
  • Belgium: €200 million;
  • The Netherlands: €150 million;
  • Denmark: €134 million for the purchase of a Patriot battery;
  • Canada: €52 million to supply SAMs for IRIS-T air defense systems.

The U.S. is also considering transferring another battery of Patriot systems — complete with radars — to Ukraine. Apart from that, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the allocation of an additional $2 billion for Ukraine's military needs. The money allocated under the previously passed bill will be combined with remaining outlays in the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program to create a fund that will provide Ukraine with weapons, investments in the defense industrial complex, and financing for equipment purchases in other countries.

As for Moscow’s “partners,” since last September North Korea has supplied Russia with 6,700 containers of ammunition that could hold up to 3 million 152-mm artillery rounds or up to 500,000 122-mm artillery rockets, according to the assessment of the Minister of National Defense of the Republic of Korea, Shin Won-sik.

As for less obvious sources of weapons, investigations by The Insider revealed that 169 Steyr Mannlicher sniper rifles and at least 3,606 Glock pistols have been imported from Austria to Russia over the past two years. The shipments are taking place despite sanctions imposed by the European Union, of which Austria is a member state. Vienna holds a self-proclaimed “neutral” position with regards to the war in Ukraine.

The Insider has reported extensively about how the Russian defense industry is circumventing sanctions and receiving foreign military and dual-use goods:

  • Russia has bought Western-origin tantalum capacitors needed for missiles and drones;
  • Russia has also smuggled small arms from Europe through Turkey and Kazakhstan;
  • Imports of precision machine tools manufactured by the German company Gühring to Russia have been confirmed;
  • Imports of ammunition and small arms manufactured by the Italian Beretta holding company have also been confirmed;
  • Russia has procured scarce machine tools through a Belgian company run by a Brussels-based GRU agent;
  • Russia’s defense industry has also managed to procure machine tools from Taiwan;
  • Microchips for missiles, electronic warfare stations, and drones have been supplied via China;
  • Western companies’ involvement in the production of Russian Armata and T-90 Proryv tanks has also been confirmed;
  • Russian companies not under sanctions have bought components for the Kinzhal missile;
  • Latvian companies have sold electronics for Iskander missiles and Tor-M2E SAMs;
  • The Insider has reported on imports of U.S.-made electronics through intermediaries from China, Hong Kong, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands, and Germany;
  • Russia has managed to get its hands on lasers, transistors, and tactical antennas through the Serniya smuggling network;
  • In May of last year, 25 European companies were confirmed to be cooperating with Russian defense enterprises;
  • The Insider has reported on the general failure of Western sanctions policy to block supplies of electronics and microchips to Russia.

The Ukrainian military has diversified its arsenal of drone drop ammo with Serbian M93P1 grenades for AGS-17 grenade launchers and AZB-5 incendiary aerial bombs, as well as adding anti-drone grills to Polish BRDM armored vehicles and captured Russian tanks.

The Russian Armed Forces, in turn, are expanding their use of “Tsar-Mangals” (or Turtle Tanks) and utilizing ATVs and quadbikes as platforms for mortars and anti-aircraft turrets.

Aside from the «grills», colloquially known in the West as «cope cages», Russian volunteers also appear to be relying on spiritual protection for equipment sent to the front line.

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