The Attack on Kharkov – part 5 of the First Phase of the War discussion

This is the fifth in a series of extended posts examining the First Phase of this war. The first post is here: The Assault on Kiev – part 1 of the discussion on the First Phase of the War | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org)

Second post is here: The Assault on Kherson – part 2 of the First Phase of the War discussion | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org)

The third post is here:  The Attack on Mariupol – part 3 of the First Phase of the War discussion | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org)

The fourth post is here: The Advance in the Northeast – part 4 of the First Phase of the War discussion | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org)

Kharkov:

Kharkov (pop. 1,433,886) in my mind is extremely important to this entire war. Not only is it the second largest city in Ukraine, but it is largest Russian speaking majority city in Russia. Its unwillingness to join with Lugansk and Donetsk in revolting against the new Ukranian government in 2014 was significant then. A sniper did try to assassinate the mayor of Kharkov in April 2014, shooting him in the back and partly crippling him for life. He was a supporter of the Russian-favoring over-thrown Ukrainian President Yanukovich. Yet he opposed the Russian separatists in Kharkov. He died of Coronavirus in 2021 while still mayor.

The city’s willingness to defend itself now is also significant. It is right next to Russia, just south of Belgorod and the area of the Battle of Kursk. It was fought over four times during World War Two, once in 1941 and three times in 1943. It was the largest Russian city fought over in World War II and was used in our urban warfare studies. See: U-1, U-2 and U-3, Measuring the Effects of Combat in Cities, Phase I, II and III: TDI – The Dupuy Institute Publications. Also see Chapter 16: Urban Legends and Chapter 17: The Use of Case Studies in War by Numbers.  It is a big sprawling city, 24.3 kilometers from north to south and 25.2 kilometers from west to east. 

The Attack on Kharkov:

Being only 19 miles south of the border, Kharkov (Kharkiv in Ukrainian) came under attack early in the campaign from forces advancing from Belgorod. They encountered resistance on the first day, slowing down their advance. They did shell the city the first day, 24 February 2022.

On the second day, the Russian advance had reached northern suburbs of the city, the village of Tsyrkuny. There the Ukrainian army put up a fight. See video (2:07): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qDIQf10kHzY. Not the best weather for operations.

Heavy fighting continued outside the city the following day with Russian forces entering the city on the morning of the 27th. By the end of the day they were thrown back. A video of some of the fighting is here (1:59): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UreR-qYgZwU and here (2:46): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ndTla7HQiFw

It is not sure what the strength was of the attacking Russian forces, but they did not seem significant. Not sure of the strength of the defenders either. It does seem like, as in the case of number of the other Russian advances, that they led into these suburban and urban areas with mobile forces with limited infantry support. The results were as expected. 

On 27 February, the Russian forces were clearly repelled from Kharkov. It came under heavy artillery fire on the 28th. It is during these bombardments against the Kharkiv Tractor Plant, Moskovskyi district and Shevchenkivskyi district that cluster munitions were used (no need to use the word “alleged,” they clearly leave behind identifiable fragments).

This kind of became the norm from the subsequent month, with Russian forces operating just outside of the city, regularly bringing it under artillery fire. The governor of Kharkov said that between 24 February and 14 April, at least 503 civilians had been killed in the Kharkov region. Between 24 February to 28 April, 606 civilians were reported killed in the Kharkov region, according to the National Police. One Algerian student was reported killed by a sniper on 28 February, but I gather most civilians were killed due to artillery, missile and air strikes.

This was a strange operation, so it appears that the Russians never arrived with significant forces to take the city and did not have the forces to surround the city. Part of the reason may have been that Kharkov was better defended than Chernigov, Sumy, Kherson, Melitopol, etc. The Russians forces took over three days before they could advance into the city, and they never really seriously attempted to surround it. It is a case where the defenders not only held the city, but they held the countryside on both sides.

Military casualties are only hinted at with a report on 7 March 209 people had been killed, including 133 civilians, and 443 people has been wounded, including 319 civilians. This implies military deaths of 76 killed and 124 wounded, a 1.63-to-1 wounded-to-killed ratio. Russian losses are not known, although it no reason to believe they were higher than Ukrainian losses. Unlike other operations and areas, there are no claims of BTGs getting destroyed, heavy fighting after the 27th of February, or anything similar. For a city this important, not that much happened.

Were the Russians trying to take too much with too little?

This does go to the question of the entire initial Russian operational forces. They sent significant forces to Kiev, a force of 3 to 6 BTGs to Chernigov and eventually to Kiev, forces to surround Sumy and forces to march through Konotop towards Kiev. This pretty much grabbed most of the northeastern Ukraine. Yet, they did not send significant forces to take, threaten, or surround Kharkov. Kharkov, for all practical purposes, anchored the entire northern flank of the Ukrainian Army holding the areas of Lugansk and Donetsk provinces. A significant Russia armed force driving between Kharkov and Okyturka, a front over 60 miles wide (100 kilometers), could have potentially enveloped the city from the north. Instead 20,000 to 30,000 forces were encamped outside of Kiev, other forces that may have numbered more than 10,000 were taking the rest of northeast Ukraine. Meanwhile, Kharkov was holding out, and anchoring the entire line from the north. One can see the Russian line running northwest from Kharkov to Bohodukhiv (town of 14,882 which was never taken) to Okhtyrka (discussed in the last post). This was mostly open country. A concentrated force of 30,000 pushing in that area would have been hard to stop and probably could have surrounded Kharkov. That would have started a process that could have put Izium, then Slovyansk, Kramatorsk, Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk in danger. Instead, tens of thousands of Russian troops were stalled out in the marsh lands to the north of Kiev while thousands more were grabbing open ground in the rest of northeast Ukraine, while Kharkov held firm.

It does appear that the original Russian plan was to march in columns of troops from everywhere to everywhere, strongly indicating that they really did not expect any real resistance. If that was true, then their planned operations makes sense. As that was not the case, then their plan appears to make no sense. A discussion of the Russian thinking behind this is hard to address without more research, including interviews of the participants and decision makers.

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Christopher A. Lawrence
Christopher A. Lawrence

Christopher A. Lawrence is a professional historian and military analyst. He is the Executive Director and President of The Dupuy Institute, an organization dedicated to scholarly research and objective analysis of historical data related to armed conflict and the resolution of armed conflict. The Dupuy Institute provides independent, historically-based analyses of lessons learned from modern military experience.
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Mr. Lawrence was the program manager for the Ardennes Campaign Simulation Data Base, the Kursk Data Base, the Modern Insurgency Spread Sheets and for a number of other smaller combat data bases. He has participated in casualty estimation studies (including estimates for Bosnia and Iraq) and studies of air campaign modeling, enemy prisoner of war capture rates, medium weight armor, urban warfare, situational awareness, counterinsurgency and other subjects for the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, the Joint Staff and the U.S. Air Force. He has also directed a number of studies related to the military impact of banning antipersonnel mines for the Joint Staff, Los Alamos National Laboratories and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation.
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His published works include papers and monographs for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation, in addition to over 40 articles written for limited-distribution newsletters and over 60 analytical reports prepared for the Defense Department. He is the author of Kursk: The Battle of Prokhorovka (Aberdeen Books, Sheridan, CO., 2015), America’s Modern Wars: Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam (Casemate Publishers, Philadelphia & Oxford, 2015), War by Numbers: Understanding Conventional Combat (Potomac Books, Lincoln, NE., 2017) , The Battle of Prokhorovka (Stackpole Books, Guilford, CT., 2019), The Battle for Kyiv (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2023), Aces at Kursk (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024), Hunting Falcon: The Story of WWI German Ace Hans-Joachim Buddecke (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024) and The Siege of Mariupol (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2024).
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Mr. Lawrence lives in northern Virginia, near Washington, D.C., with his wife and son.

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