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Frontline report: Russian offensive in Kharkiv stalls with Vovchansk as bridges over river destroyed

Geolocated footage shows Russian military equipment digging trenches near Vovchansk, suggesting a change to a defensive posture after Ukrainian resistance halted Russian offensive in Kharkiv Oblast aimed at establishing a 20km buffer zone inside Ukraine’s border.
Ukraine's map, battles near Vovchansk, Kharkiv Oblast
Ukraine’s map, battles near Vovchansk, Kharkiv Oblast Source: Screenshot from a video Reporting from Ukraine
Frontline report: Russian offensive in Kharkiv stalls with Vovchansk as bridges over river destroyed

Day 828: 31 May

Today, there are a lot of updates from the Kharkiv direction.

Here, Russians have sabotaged their own future operations while Ukrainians are seizing the initiative.

The initial Russian goal was to advance as quickly as possible and establish a deep buffer zone on the Ukrainian side of the border. This buffer zone was to extend up to 20km to push Ukrainian barrel artillery out of range of Russian military targets in the Belgorod region.

Russians stalled in Vovchansk

However, the Russian offensive was immediately halted at Vovchansk, where Russians encountered their first major obstacle. 

As you remember from the previous report, Russians were not able to break through the Ukrainian defensive belt around the high-rise and industrial districts north of the river. Furthermore, Ukrainian counterattacks severely blunted the Russian offensive, as the Institute for the Study of War reported that Russians were slowly being forced into defensive operations. 

Because of the Russian offensive momentum slowing, Russians resorted to intensely shelling Vovchansk with TOS-1 thermobaric artillery and Tulip heavy mortar systems, as well as dropping a large number of glide bombs on the town. 

Screenshot a from Reporting from Ukraine video

Russians destroy bridges to prevent counterattacks

Geolocated footage shows that these strikes targeted not only Ukrainian defensive positions but also the bridges over the Vovcha River. Russian military bloggers report that this was the last intact bridge connecting southern Vovchansk to the Ukrainian defenses in the town center. 

Looking at the strike’s aftermath, the bridge is likely unable to sustain heavy vehicles. In contrast, lighter vehicles, cars, and especially infantry should still be able to make the journey across, meaning Ukrainians in the north are not cut off from supplies. 

Russians likely destroyed these bridges to prevent Ukrainians from conducting any further counterattacks over the river, relieving some pressure on Russian forces fighting in the town.

Destroying these bridges not only limits the Ukrainians’ ability to conduct large counterattacks into Vovchansk but, in turn, also severely hampers the Russian ability to cross the river in the future. The Institute for the Study of War concluded that Russians are destroying bridges they would need to cross should they want to penetrate deeper into Ukraine. 

They also state that this indicates that Russians in Vovchansk are primarily focused on maintaining their marginal gains rather than developing their offensive further. Recently released geolocated footage north of Vovchansk also shows a Ukrainian FPV kamikaze drone destroying a Russian military excavator. This Russian excavator was busy digging a trench line or bunker, further underscoring the Russian intent to go on the defensive in Vovchansk.

Screenshot from a Reporting from Ukraine video

However, before the Russians can consolidate their gains in Vovchansk, they must first push the Ukrainians from their defensive line around the high-rise and industrial districts. 

Russians secure positions in surrounding suburbs

As Ukrainians slowly pulled back to their strongest defensive positions, Russians expanded their control over the surrounding suburbs. To secure their flanks against a possible Ukrainian counterattack from the east, Russians also advanced towards the settlement of Tykhe. To prevent Russians from attempting a future flanking attack over the bridge here, Ukrainians decided to blow the bridge in advance. 

Geolocated footage shared by the engineers shows how they placed modified heavy anti-tank mines and other explosives on the bridge before detonating them from a safe distance. 

Possible further developments 

In Vovchansk, Russians are unlikely to be able to cross the river, as they have destroyed all bridges they would need for such an operation. Additionally, the first real Ukrainian defensive line is situated behind the river, further complicating any attempt to cross it, even with pontoon bridges. 

On the other hand, Ukrainians can still cross with light vehicles,  infantry, and munitions, continuing to supply the Ukrainian defensive belt. If Ukrainians continue to execute their counterattacks successfully, they will be able to create enough of an opening to allow pontoon bridges to be built and mechanized units to cross.

 Such a development would allow Ukrainians to conduct mechanized assaults out of Vovchansk, pushing the already battered Russian forces back to the border.

To the east, Russians are unable to outflank and bypass Vovchansk, as Russians would again run into the Ukrainian defensive line behind the river. Additionally, Ukrainians would continue to destroy any bridge Russians could use for such a crossing way before Russians got the chance to use it. 

For the Ukrainians, the destroyed bridges are much less of an obstacle for offensive actions, as, unlike Ukrainians, Russians do not have fortification immediately on their side of the river. So, the availability of trenches and fortifications immediately on each party’s riverside dramatically changes the probability of a successful offensive across the same river.  

Nonetheless, a Ukrainian attack on the eastern flank would easily be countered by attacks from the Russian territory. The difficult situation on the eastern flank will make it unlikely that either Russians or Ukrainians will decide to make their next move here.

On the western flank of Vovchansk, the deputy head of the Ukraine president’s office, Roman Mashovets, stated that Russian forces are building up near the settlement of Buhruvatka in preparation for future assaults on Vovchansk.

 A successful Russian assault in this direction would undercut Ukrainian control over eastern Vovchansk while establishing a bridgehead for future Russian operations to the south. However, if we take a look at the topographic map, we can see the probability of such a Russian assault being successful is low for a multitude of reasons. 

Screenshot from a Reporting from Ukraine video

Firstly, any Russian assault over the bridge would immediately be met by Ukrainian fire not only from the defensive line behind the river but also from the forest to the south. 

Similarly,  if the initial Russian assault succeeded, Ukrainians would simply continue to perform flanking attacks from the forest. This would cut off any Russian units that made it across, leaving them an easy target for Ukrainian counterattacks. 

Thirdly, Russians would not be able to set up a pontoon bridge further away from the bridge to the south,  as they would have to move the large and heavy equipment through their own forest, while the bridge itself would be under direct fire from the Ukrainian defensive positions. 

In the end, the actions of Russian forces were their own undoing. Russians had destroyed all their viable crossing points over the river with no prospect of laying down makeshift bridges. These actions eliminated any hope for Russian forces to conduct a deeper breakthrough and achieve their goals of establishing a large buffer zone.

 Meanwhile, Ukrainians maintain a strong foothold in the northern part of Vovchansk, not allowing Russians to consolidate their gains, possibly even leading to large Ukrainian counterattacks out of Vovchansk. 

Based on the recent build-up of Russian forces near Buhruvatka, Russians will either  attempt a suicidal push across the river to outflank Vovchansk or attack towards the west, where Ukrainians are already on high alert.

In our daily frontline report , we pair up with the military blogger Reporting from Ukraine to keep you informed about what is happening on the battlefield in the Russo-Ukrainian war.

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