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Russia Presses Attacks in Northeast Ukraine, Seeking Buffer Zone on Border

Russian forces continued to advance in northeastern Ukraine on Saturday, closing in on a village about 10 miles (16 km) from the outer edge of Kharkiv and raising fears that the city, Ukraine’s second largest, soon be within range of Russian artillery.

The Ukrainian military said on Saturday that Russian troops attempted to break through its defenses near the village of Lyptsi, located directly north of Kharkiv. The attacks were repelled, but battlefield maps compiled by independent groups analyzing publicly available videos of the fighting show that Russian troops almost reached the outskirts of the village.

The Ukrainian Khartia Brigade, which defends Lyptsi, published a video on Telegram on Friday afternoon showing Russian soldiers advancing on foot towards the village and attacking in small groups between the trees. The brigade said it targeted the Russians with rockets, forcing them to withdraw.

Russian troops opened a new front in northeastern Ukraine a week ago, crossing the border and quickly capturing a dozen settlements in what Ukrainian officials and military analysts described as an attempt to put putting the already numerically inferior Ukrainian forces to the test.

The Khartia brigade, for example, was redeployed from another hot spot on the front, around Ocheretyne, a village in the southeast. Russian forces captured Ocheretyne last month, creating a breach in Ukraine’s defenses.

But experts say another, perhaps more immediate, goal for Russia could be to advance deep enough into Ukrainian territory to push kyiv’s forces away from the border, creating a buffer zone that would prevent Ukrainians to target Russian cities with their artillery. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said Friday that was the goal of the current offensive.

A buffer zone could also allow Russian forces to get close enough to Kharkiv to bombard it with artillery shells, intensifying Moscow’s campaign to inflict hardship on the city’s residents by hitting residential neighborhoods with airstrikes and targeting its power plants to cut off electricity.

“Such a buffer zone of 10 to 15 kilometers would certainly create a problem for Kharkiv,” said Mykola Bielieskov, a military analyst at Ukraine’s government-run National Institute of Strategic Studies.

Further Russian advances would return Kharkiv, now home to some 1.2 million people, to the situation it faced in the first months of the war. In 2022, Russian troops reached the outer edge of the city, causing hundreds of thousands of people to flee.

Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov described Russia’s advance toward the city as intended to sow chaos and panic. But he repeated last week that there were no plans to evacuate the population. Instead, the town served as a temporary home to thousands of Ukrainian civilians who fled fighting in the region from villages like Lyptsi or Vovchansk further east.

Kharkiv is not entirely safe, however. In recent months, Russia has increasingly targeted the city with powerful guided missiles called glide bombs, capable of carrying hundreds of tons of explosives, and S-300 anti-aircraft missiles, which Moscow now uses to attack targets on the ground.

“The time it takes for the S-300 missiles to reach Kharkiv is only a few minutes,” Ilya Yevlash, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Air Force, said in an interview this month. “We don’t have time to respond to these threats.”

Only American-made Patriot air defense systems can intercept S-300 missiles fired at short range, Mr. Yevlash said, and Ukraine does not have enough of them. “You can count them on the fingers of one hand,” he said.

Ukrainian officials have urged their Western partners to send more. “We absolutely need air defense to protect Kharkiv” and other cities in northeastern Ukraine, Andriy Yermak, head of President Volodymy Zelensky’s office, said in an interview with the New York Times this week. last. “It’s time.”

Mr Putin said on Friday that Russian forces did not intend to take the city itself. Military experts also say that Russia does not have the necessary forces to carry out such an operation.

Getting closer to Kharkiv, however, will not be an easy task.

Russian forces have so far crossed largely depopulated and poorly fortified areas. The entrance to Lyptsi, which had a pre-war population of 4,000 and is dotted with houses and buildings, will force Russian troops to engage in more difficult street fighting.

Emil Kastehelmi, an analyst with the Finnish group Black Bird, who assessed satellite images and battlefield footage, noted on the social platform X that “a long chain of villages” separates Lyptsi from Kharkiv. Advancing through them one by one, he said, “would force the Russians to fight through more than 17 kilometers of built-up areas.”

In an interview with Agence France-Presse on Saturday, Zelensky said he expected Russia to intensify its offensive in the northeast, possibly opening new fronts elsewhere, such as in the Sumy region, north of Kharkiv.

This would further strain the Ukrainian army, which already has to defend a front line of more than 600 miles. To address the troop shortage, the Ukrainian government has adopted a series of measures aimed at expanding the pool of people who can be conscripted.

A mobilization law passed last month, which provides incentives for volunteers and new sanctions for those who try to evade conscription, came into force on Saturday. Ukrainian men now have two months to update their personal information at military recruitment centers or online, to make it easier for authorities to identify potential conscripts.

Matina Stevis-Gridneff contributed to reporting from Brussels.

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