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Ukraine’s intel: Russia prepares for assault in Kharkiv, Sumy oblasts, awaits outcome in Donbas

Ukrainian intelligence general Skibitskyi says Russia is now focused on seizing the Donbas first, then potentially assaulting Kharkiv and Sumy oblasts, while using three-pronged military, disinformation, international isolation campaign against Ukraine.
Ukraine’s Military Intelligence Deputy Chief General Vadym Skibitskyi. Credit: RBC-Ukraine
Ukraine’s intel: Russia prepares for assault in Kharkiv, Sumy oblasts, awaits outcome in Donbas

In his interview with The Economist, Major-General Vadym Skibitskyi, the deputy head of Ukraine’s military intelligence agency HUR, has outlined Russia’s three-layered strategy involving a phased offensive campaign to first seize full control of two eastern provinces before potentially turning toward assaults on northeastern Kharkiv and Sumy, which is coupled with disruptive disinformation efforts aimed at undermining Ukraine’s mobilization, and a campaign to isolate Ukraine internationally.

Russia’s near-term objective is full-occupation of Donbas region

Skibitskyi says May will be the key month, predicting that Russia will first press on with its goal of “liberating” the entire Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, with orders to “take something” before key dates like Russia’s Victory Day on 9 May. Luhansk and Donetsk are Ukraine’s two easternmost provinces known as the Donbas region.

He cited Ukraine’s immediate concern as being Donetsk Oblast’s high-ground stronghold of Chasiv Yar, which could fall to Russian forces like Avdiivka did in February.

While Russia continues to push on multiple directions in the front, the spymaster assumes that Russia’s main offensive will start towards the “end of May or beginning of June.”

He states that Russia has currently committed a total of 514,000 land troops to the operation in Ukraine.

Northeastern regions of Ukraine. Map: liveuamap

Two weeks ago, HUR chief, Lt-Gen Kyrylo Budanov, stated that Russia would launch a large-scale offensive in June to seize all of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, and aim to achieve battlefield gains to influence Western decision-making, particularly focusing on the US November elections.

Sumy and Kharkiv oblasts under threat if Donbas falls

Skibitsky warned that the speed and success of Russia’s advance in the Donbas will determine the timing and locations of subsequent strikes, with Russia potentially gearing up for assaults around Kharkiv and Sumy regions in the northeast. He revealed Russia’s northern grouping near Kharkiv currently has 35,000 troops but is set to expand to between 50,000 and 70,000, while also “generating a division of reserves” in central Russia, consisting of between 15,000 and 20,000 men, which could be added to the main effort.

The general says this number of troops is “not enough” to capture a major city, a view that Western military officials also share; however, it could suffice for a smaller operation:

“A quick operation to come in and come out: maybe. But an operation to take Kharkiv, or even Sumy city, is of a different order. The Russians know this. And we know this.”

Russia’s three-layered campaign: military escalation, disinfo campaigns, efforts towards Ukraine’s int’l isolation

Skibitskyi outlined Russia’s “three-layered” strategy to destabilize the country, with the military aspect being the primary factor.

Even though the US has approved long-stalled military aid, it will take weeks to reach the front lines and is unlikely to match Russia’s shell inventory or effectively counter Russia’s low-tech, destructive guided aerial bombs.

The spymaster says its second factor is a disinformation campaign aimed at undermining Ukraine’s mobilization efforts and the political legitimacy of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, whose tenure formally ends on 20 May. The constitution permits the indefinite extension of his term during wartime, but his opponents are already highlighting the Zelenskyy’s vulnerability.

As Ukraine’s mobilization doesn’t run smoothly, Ukrainian officials worry that the next wave of recruits could make for unmotivated soldiers with poor morale, according to The Economist.

Finally, the third factor is Russia’s campaign to isolate Ukraine internationally.

Peace prospects foggy

Skibitskyi believes that such wars end only in peace treaties, but says meaningful negotiations can only begin in the second half of 2025 at the earliest.

According to him, both sides are currently jockeying for the most favorable position ahead of potential talks. Then Russia will be facing serious headwinds, as its military production capacity is expected to plateau by early 2026 due to shortages of materials and engineers. While both sides could eventually run out of weapons, Ukraine is likely to run out first unless foreign supplies increase.

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