Cipher Brief

Philip Wasielewski and William Courtney

April 9th, 2024


President Vladimir Putin is signaling a renewed Russian lunge into northern Ukraine, to create a buffer zone and seize Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city. Whenever Putin makes his move, Ukraine’s defense will depend on being allowed to use Western arms to strike military targets across the border in Russia.

On March 18, Putin called for creation of a new ”sanitary zone” between Russia and Ukraine. Russia already occupies an eastern and southern slice of Ukraine; by adding a buffer in the north, Putin may shift the center of gravity of fighting to Ukraine’s northern border, where its forces abut Russia. A recent investigative report quoted a Kremlin official saying “Kharkiv is next,” with plans to recruit as many as 300,000 new forces to turn the city into a “second Mariupol” – a reference to the city the Russians flattened in 2022. Russian advances in the north would be more difficult if the U.S. and its Western allies allowed Ukraine to use their advanced missiles and artillery against targets across the border in Russia.

Russian forces have a poor record in Ukraine’s north. In spring 2022, they failed to seize the country’s two largest cities, Kyiv and Kharkiv. A few months later, Ukrainians routed Russian forces elsewhere in the Kharkiv region.

Recent smaller-scale defeats appear to be getting under Putin’s skin. A few weeks ago, Ukraine-based ethnic Russian paramilitaries crossed Ukraine’s northern border and seized villages in Russia. The sight of Russians fighting other Russians on Russian soil may embarrass a Kremlin that boasts of the country’s unity. Putin fired his top naval commander after Ukrainian sea drones sank or damaged a third of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. The March 22 ISIS-K rampage in Moscow further humiliated Putin, who derided a U.S. warning to his later embarrassment.

Small failures can sometimes cause an adversary to make hasty but unwise decisions. The 1942 Doolittle Raid on Tokyo did little damage but stirred Japan to advance plans for what became the disastrous (for Japan) Battle of Midway. In 1940, a modest Royal Air Force (RAF) bombing of Berlin spurred Hitler to cease successful attacks on RAF airfields and launch the Blitz bombing of civilian targets. This ended his chances of gaining air superiority and winning the Battle of Britain.

Putin seems confident. He may think a buffer zone on Ukraine’s northern border will prevent future incursions, and use this moment to take advantage of Ukrainian manpower and ammunition shortages or further interruptions of Western military aid. Once seized, the buffer zone would be fortified, as Russian-held territory has been in eastern and southern Ukraine.

But much of this optimism is unfounded. Russian forces in other parts of Ukraine have struggled to advance. Europe is augmenting the flow of ammunition and equipment, including some

F16 combat aircraft. And prospects may be improving in Congress for approval of new U.S. military aid.

Putin also appears to be overriding the advice of Russian military leaders. Last year he fired General Sergey Surovikin for pursuing a defensive ground war, but that strategy helped blunt Ukraine’s counter-offensive. The Kremlin ordered Russia’s newly mobilized but poorly trained forces to take Bakhmut and Avdiivka, which they did but only at the cost of massive attrition.

Alone at the top, lacking a military background, and looking cocksure, Putin may stumble. As Russian forces grapple with manpower, equipment, and logistics challenges of their own, they may be unwise to widen their area of operations. Russia’s military leaders might be wary of assaulting Ukraine’s north that could weaken their forces in the south and east. And as was the case on the eve of Russia’s invasion in February 2022, Western intelligence would likely give Ukraine advance warning of Russia’s marshalling of forces.

As with the 2022 invasion, while a thrust into northern Ukraine may be ill-advised for Putin, he might still go for it. Any new mobilization, would likely be unpopular. Russia’s military would need time and resources to train and equip new soldiers. Not all the new forces would be additive; some may only make up for the losses at Bakhmut and Avdiivka. Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu has announced plans to create 14 new divisions and 16 brigades. If this is his intent, and he wants those new troops to be properly prepared, Russian forces might not invade northern Ukraine for some time.

Nonetheless, Ukraine and the West cannot lose time in getting ready. Since Russia does not occupy land in the north, Ukraine’s defenders would need to strike targets across the border. To enable this, the West should end its refusal to permit Ukraine to use U.S. long-range ATACMS guided missiles, HIMARS mobile rocket launchers, and Western artillery against ground targets in Russia.

Since the first days of the war, the West has worried that Ukraine’s use of its arms might trigger Russian escalation. These concerns are overblown; Russia is already going all out. Moreover, Ukraine’s long-range Patriot air defenses are striking targets over Russia and the Russian-controlled Sea of Azov. And Ukraine’s aerial and sea drones that attack military and oil facilities far and wide in Russia doubtless rely on Western commercial electronics.

Any Russian escalation in northern Ukraine deserves to be met with the full force of Ukraine’s own arms and those from the West.