Russia launches surprise fierce attack on Ukraine.

May is a cruel month for Ukraine as Russian forces launched a fierce attack on many cities in Ukraine.

The town of Vovchansk in the northern Kharkiv region, liberated from Russian occupation more than 18 months ago, awoke Friday to intense shelling and aerial bombardment. Russia has found another way of stretching Ukraine’s already thin blue line.

President Volodymyr Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials said that Russian efforts to advance towards the town had been thwarted, but the Russians have since tried to cut road links with Vovchansk.

The Russians launched battalion-strength attacks along a 60-kilometer stretch of the border on Friday, claiming to occupy several villages in what is known as the ‘gray zone’ along the frontier, after focusing much of their offensive capabilities this year on a grinding advance in Donetsk in the east that has seen incremental but significant progress.

As of Saturday, it appeared the Russians still held a handful of Ukrainian border villages, with intense aerial bombardment continuing in the Vovchansk area.

The cross-border attack is yet another example of what’s going wrong for the Ukrainians this year. Their forces are thinly stretched, with much less artillery than the Russians, grossly inadequate air defenses and above all a lack of soldiers. Their plight has been worsened by dry weather, allowing Russian mechanized units to move more easily.

The deputy head of Ukrainian Defense Intelligence, Major-General Vadym Skibitsky, told the Economist last week: “Our problem is very simple: we have no weapons. They always knew April and May would be a difficult time for us.”

Ukrainian intelligence estimates that despite immense losses since the full-scale invasion began, Russia has more than half-a-million men now inside Ukraine or at its borders. It is also “generating a division of reserves” in central Russia, according to Skibitsky.

The northern border assault follows the creation of a new Russian military grouping called Sever. George Barros at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington told Legacy Daily that Sever is an “operationally significant group.”

“Russia sought to generate 60,000-100,000 troops for its group to attack Kharkiv and we assess it’s closer to 50,000,” Barros says, but “it still has a lot of combat power.”

It’s from this new force that units of armored infantry tried to cross the border. The available evidence suggests they were expected and suffered significant losses. But if more elite units join (there are reports that elements from other divisions may do so) Russia’s ambitions could grow.

As a Ukrainian special forces unit told Legacy Daily this weekend, “This is only the beginning, the Russians have a bridgehead for further offensives.”

One former Ukrainian officer who writes about the conflict on the blog Frontelligence says that “Manpower shortages compel Ukraine to avoid deploying large units along the border continuously, with fully stocked and ready for immediate-use artillery.”

He expects the situation to evolve, “with Russian forces deploying more units to penetrate additional border areas or to reinforce initial successes.”

Several analysts expect the Russians to broaden the border attacks westwards to Sumy region, which has seen months of raids by Russian special forces.

The Sever grouping could not attack and occupy a city the size of Kharkiv, but that’s likely not the goal. Barros says that it is instead to compel Ukrainian forces to pivot from Donetsk to Kharkiv region. The Russians seek to “thin Ukrainian forces out along the 600-mile frontline and create opportunities, specifically in Donetsk oblast, which is Russia’s main operational objective for 2024,” Barros says.

The latest cross-border assaults may also divert Ukrainian units from the defense of Kupiansk, also in Kharkiv region, where a Russian assault has stalled for months, as well as create a buffer zone inside Ukraine that the Kremlin says it wants to reduce attacks on Russian cities like Belgorod.