Home News Russians are pouring into Ukraine’s border. Nothing can stop them.

Russians are pouring into Ukraine’s border. Nothing can stop them.

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Last week, Russian troops crossed Ukraine’s northern border with great speed and force. Ukraine’s weak defenses were almost unable to stop the Russian army’s offensive. Some Ukrainian soldiers were caught off guard and retreated from their positions, while villages liberated nearly two years ago were suddenly and relentlessly bombarded, forcing hundreds to flee in scenes reminiscent of the early days of the war.

“They are cleaning the streets,” said Tetiana Novikova, 55, a retired factory worker. She said she nearly died on Friday when her village of Wovchansk came under heavy fire from Russian troops. She said that when she fled the village where she had spent her life, there was not a single Ukrainian soldier in sight.

The stunning incursion into the Kharkiv region exposed the challenges facing Ukraine’s exhausted and overstretched military as Russia ramps up its summer offensive. Russian forces across the border enjoyed a huge advantage in artillery shells and used air power, including fighter jets and heavy glide bombs, with disastrous consequences while Ukrainian air defenses were depleted.

Once across the border, Russian soldiers easily overran defenses such as trenches, mines and tank barriers, some of which the Ukrainian army said were inadequate or poorly constructed.

But the biggest challenge facing Ukraine’s military is its people. After more than two years of war, Ukraine’s army is struggling to raise enough soldiers to effectively defend its 600-mile front line, even as Russia’s military has mobilized thousands of new troops.

As the scale of Russia’s offensive became clear over the weekend, Ukraine’s military scrambled to divert troops from other areas of the front line rather than deploy reserves. The reason, Ukrainian officials say: There are very few reserves available for deployment.

Ukrainian military officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military details, said the situation in Kharkiv was critical but under control. Ukrainian forces appeared to slow Russia’s advance on Saturday, but heavy fighting was reported in a stretch five miles from the Russian border.

As of Saturday, nearly 10,000 residents of the region had fled the fighting, and residents reported entire villages had been destroyed, according to the Kharkiv region’s governor. As Russian troops advance, there are fears they could come within artillery range of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, for the first time in nearly two years.

A Ukrainian commander who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the invasion said the Russians “knew what they were doing.” He added that he felt sorry for the civilians who thought they were safe.

Ukrainian military analyst Kostantin Mashavetz said that Russia has been building up troops on Ukraine’s northern border for several months, with 50,000 people deployed around the Kharkiv and Sumy regions. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov said Kharkiv “plays an important role” in President Vladimir V. Putin’s expressed desire to create a “sanitary zone” along Russia’s borders, signaling that Moscow’s intentions.

Senior Ukrainian officials appear to be taking the danger seriously, with President Vladimir Zelenks making a carefully choreographed visit to fortifications around Kharkiv on April 9.

“We have to be ready,” Zelenquez said. “Russians must see that we are ready to defend ourselves. Our people must understand that Ukraine is ready in case the enemy attempts to attack.”

These preparations would do nothing to thwart a Russian offensive. Part of the problem lies in restrictions on the use of sophisticated U.S. weapons. Although Ukrainian troops can be seen massing on the border, the White House has banned the use of U.S. high-precision weapons such as the HIMARS multiple rocket launcher to attack targets in Russia, making it impossible for Ukraine to attack these targets.

Furthermore, Ukraine has been at a disadvantage since the war began: they face a larger country with a considerable manpower advantage and a vast arsenal that is constantly replenished by a defense industry with record budgets.

Some Ukrainian officials say it is almost impossible to fortify areas near the border because of Russian shelling.But, they added, stronger defenses built farther from the border have so far held out against the Russian offensive.

Iryna Sykhina, 42, from the town of Lyptsi, about 10 miles north of Kharkiv, said she was shocked when her village came under relentless Russian shelling in the early hours of Friday. , she realized something was different, and wrong. “They attacked the whole village at once instead of every now and then like before,” she said in a telephone interview.

Ms Sisina said she saw concrete blocks and machinery moving along a road in front of her house in what she believed was preparations for fortifications.

“But in fact, as far as I know, nothing was built,” Ms. Sichner said.

Lieutenant Denys Yaroslavsky of the 57th Brigade said that once the Russians attacked, some points along the Ukrainian defenses yielded, with troops fleeing amid heavy bombardment.

“There are further questions for those who are responsible for building the fortifications on the front line, for those who are supposed to lay the mines and reinforce the fortifications,” he said.

Wovchansk Mayor Tamaz Gambalashvili insisted in an interview that his town was prepared for an invasion. “I have been in this town and I can say that we are ready for the Russians to come and the defenses are complete,” he said in an interview last week.

He said the defenses were not made of concrete “because Russia is constantly shelling everything we are building,” but added that “the hand-built defenses are prepared to the maximum extent possible.”

Officials and military analysts say Russia may not have enough troops to capture the city of Kharkiv. After nearly two years of relative calm, long-range missile attacks are now occurring daily, causing civilian casualties. Russia appears to be relying on its numerical superiority to push the Ukrainian military to the brink.

An analysis published this week by the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank, showed that Russia currently has about 510,000 soldiers involved in combat. These numbers are enough to launch an attack on the entire front, keeping the Ukrainian military constantly off-balance as it struggles to deal with multiple incursions.

“Russia’s goal is not to achieve a major breakthrough, but to convince Ukraine that it can maintain an unstoppable advance along the front kilometer after kilometer,” the analysis said.

New weapons arriving as part of the Biden administration’s $61 billion weapons program, including artillery shells and anti-aircraft munitions, should help relieve some of the pressure on Ukraine’s military, as should a new mobilization effort by the Ukrainian government that has reduced the age. Conscription is available until the age of 25.

The question now is whether that will be enough to halt Russia’s momentum as the summer fighting season officially begins.

For residents of Ukraine’s northern border, the pressure is unbearable. Russia’s invasion began in February 2022, and much of the region was quickly captured within the first few days. But six months later, Ukrainian forces drove them out in a stunning offensive that now appears to be the climax of the war.

Villages and settlements in the area have long been subject to intermittent Russian shelling, and many residents have fled. Those who remained, however, said they were surprised by the attack and the rapid advance of Russian troops.

“People have been preparing for summer, tending gardens, taking care of livestock,” Lipsey Village Board member Christina Havland said in an interview. “No one expected an attack.”

Mark Santora Contributed reporting.

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