Ukraine withdraws forces as Russia ramps up Kharkiv assault

The Ukrainian retreat followed days of intense bombardment from Russian artillery and airstrikes as Moscow launched one of its biggest ground assaults since its full-scale invasion over a year ago.

Ukrainian forces have conducted a tactical retreat from positions around two towns in the northeastern Kharkiv region, officials acknowledged Wednesday, as Russia presses a renewed offensive to try to break through Kyiv’s defensive lines along the border.

The Ukrainian military’s general staff said its troops had “manoeuvred and moved to more advantageous positions” around the villages of Lukyantsi and Vovchansk, around 18 miles apart near the Russian border. The language mirrored that often used by both sides to signify a battlefield withdrawal.

The retreat followed days of intense bombardment from Russian artillery and airstrikes as Moscow launched one of its biggest ground assaults since its full-scale invasion over a year ago. Thick plumes of smoke could be seen rising over the Kharkiv region’s rural towns and villages.

Kyiv has rushed reinforcements to the area in recent days, with witnesses reporting columns of artillery and armoured vehicles heading toward the front. Holding the line in Kharkiv has taken on critical importance as Russia appears to be diverting resources from its drawn-out battle for the city of Bakhmut further South.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy acknowledged the challenges in Kharkiv during a meeting Wednesday with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was in Kyiv on an unannounced visit. Zelenskyy called for the U.S. to speed up the delivery of longer-range missiles and air defence systems.

Russia’s stepped-up attacks in Kharkiv follow several weeks of Ukrainian drones striking targets inside Russia itself, part of Kyiv’s efforts to take the war into Russian airspace and undermine Moscow’s logistics and air defences. One strike caused a massive blaze at an oil depot in Russia’s Krasnodar region this week.

The Institute for the Study of War, a U.S. think tank, assessed that Russia likely views securing defensive lines in Kharkiv as paramount before Kyiv can receive any more batches of Western weapons and armoured vehicles ahead of a planned Ukrainian spring counter-offensive.

For Ukraine’s battle-hardened forces, maintaining control of Kharkiv takes on both strategic and symbolic importance after their stunning rout of Russian troops from the region’s capital city last year. But with Moscow throwing reinforcements into the fray, the prospects of holding the line appear increasingly difficult.