February 3, 2024
Five hundred tanks. More than 600 fighting vehicles. Hundreds of howitzers. Forty thousand troops. According to Ukraine’s eastern command, Russia has assembled a huge field army in eastern Ukraine opposite the free Ukrainian city of Kupyansk.
It’s obvious what this army aims to do: retake a huge swathe of Kharkiv Oblast that the Russians briefly occupied in 2022—until a powerful Ukrainian counteroffensive liberated most of the oblast late that year.
Everything east of the nearest major river is the goal. “The Russian Federation plans to seize the entire Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts and part of Kharkiv Oblast up to the Oskil River by March 2024,” the Ukrainian Center for Defense Strategies explained. The river threads through Kupyansk from the north.
Why March? Because that’s when Russia will “vote” for “president” in a national “election.” In fact, Vladimir Putin is the only real candidate—and will maintain his brutal, dictatorial control over Russia and the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine.
A slice of Kharkiv would be an election-day gift to Putin from the Russian army in Ukraine.
Some or part of around 10 Ukrainian brigades, anchored in the north by the 3rd Tank Brigade and south by the 4th Tank Brigade, defends Kupyansk and surrounding settlements. It’s a significant force with perhaps 20,000 troops and hundreds of tanks, fighting vehicles and howitzers.
But people and vehicles aren’t the problem for the Ukrainians. The problem is ammunition. The United States was one of the biggest donors of 155-millimeter shells for Ukraine’s best big guns—and pro-Russia Republicans in the U.S. Congress cut off aid to Ukraine last fall.
Since then, Ukrainian forces’ daily allotment of shells has fallen by two-thirds to just 2,000 rounds. Russian forces meanwhile fire as many as 10,000 shells a day, thanks to a steady supply of ammo from North Korea.
Russia’s new firepower advantage allows it to concentrate artillery without much fear of Ukrainian counterbattery fire—and aim the concentrated batteries at population centers. “This situation empowers Russia to execute a well-known approach: the systematic destruction of urban areas, rendering them indefensible,” Ukrainian analysis team Frontelligence Insight explained.
The demolition already has begun. “Our satellite imagery reveals sustained and intense artillery damage” around Kupyansk, Frontelligence Insight reported. “Artillery shortages and delays in Western security assistance will create uncertainty in Ukrainian operational plans,” the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C. warned, “and likely prompt Ukrainian forces to husband materiel, which may force Ukrainian forces to make tough decisions about prioritizing certain sectors of the front over sectors where limited territorial setbacks are least damaging.”
It’s not clear whether Kyiv is willing to trade away any of Kharkiv Oblast. With a pre-war population of 1.4 million, Kharkiv is Ukraine’s second city—and hosts strategic war industries including Ukraine’s main tank plant.
So the Kupyansk garrison must hold. Anticipating the coming offensive, the Ukrainian defense ministry has organized new mechanized brigades and deployed them to Kupyansk to reinforce the garrison. Engineers are digging trenches and building bunkers.
Perhaps most importantly, Ukrainian workshops are building explosives-laden first-person-view drones—tens of thousands of them per month. As artillery ammunition becomes scarce, Ukrainian brigades are flinging more and more FPVs at the Russians: sometimes thousands per day all along the 600-mile front.
But the FPVs range just two miles or so—too short to target artillery that might be 15 or more miles from the line of contact. Drone operators have made quick work of small Russian assault groups that, for months now, have been probing the Kupyansk sector.
But can a swarm of two-pound drones, even thousands of them, defeat 500 tanks and 650 fighting vehicles as they attack behind a wall of artillery fire? We may find out.