Russia plans new offensive in Ukraine’s northeast, Zelenskyy says

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks during an interview with Reuters, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine, on May 20, 2024. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Sunday that Russia’s forces were massing for a new ground offensive on the northeast of his country, a day after a Russian missile strike on a hardware superstore in the city of Kharkiv killed at least 16 people and wounded dozens more, according to Ukrainian officials.

“Russia is the only source of aggression and constantly tries to expand the war,” Zelenskyy said in a speech delivered in English inside the ruins of a publishing house in Kharkiv that was destroyed last week in a Russian strike.


“Russia is preparing for offensive actions” about 60 miles northwest of Kharkiv, he said, adding that Russia was gathering “another group of troops near our border.” Zelenskyy gave no further details about the potential attack.

Russia surprised Ukraine on May 10 when its troops poured across the northeastern border, punching through Ukrainian defenses and seizing villages close to the frontier. That forced the government in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, to rush in reinforcements in a bid to halt the Russian advance.

One target for an assault, based on Zelenskyy’s comments, could be the Sumy region in northeastern Ukraine, which has seen frequent cross-border fire but no ground attacks since Russian forces attempted to seize its main city, also called Sumy, at the start of the full-scale invasion in February 2022. They were later forced to withdraw after fierce fighting. Ukraine’s military has previously warned of another Russian border assault in the northeast. A spokesperson for Ukraine’s border guard service, Andriy Demchenko, told Ukrainian television Sunday that it did not appear that the Russian forces gathered near the frontier were sufficient to mount a major attack.

But even a limited increase in Russian military activity near the border “could have the effect of stretching Ukrainian forces along a wider front,” according to the Institute for the Study of War, a research organization based in Washington, D.C. This would be true even if Russia only “threatens penetrations” of border areas beyond Kharkiv, the institute said last week.

This month’s incursion was the most significant in months of fighting, and military experts say that a key Russian objective was to expand the length of the battlefield, which already stretches hundreds of miles, and, in that way, force Ukraine to spread its troops more thinly. In doing so, Russia apparently hoped to extend its existing advantage in terms of the size of its military, the experts say.

The war has ebbed and flowed since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion, with Ukrainian forces now defending against Russian advances in the eastern region of Donetsk, in the northeast and in the southern region of Zaporizhzhia.

One immediate casualty has been Kharkiv, which has seen a sharp escalation in the ferocity of Russian aerial attacks this month, forcing many to flee. On Sunday, the death toll from the attack on the hardware superstore rose to 16, with another 43 people wounded, according to a social media post from the region’s military administration.

Firefighters extinguished the flames at the superstore, local authorities said, and 200 emergency workers were dealing with the aftermath of the attack, according to Kharkiv Gov. Oleh Syniehubov, head of the region’s military administration.

The Ukrainian police service Sunday posted a brief video it said showed the store’s interior at the moment of the attack. It showed customers browsing calmly amid displays of bathroom furniture including toilets and sinks as store workers dressed in blue T-shirts stood nearby. Suddenly, the scene is obliterated in a flash of light. There was no independent confirmation of the video’s authenticity.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the strike had been conducted to ensure maximum civilian casualties. “He can’t occupy Kharkiv, hence he tries to kill it,” Kuleba wrote on social media, referring to Putin.

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