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Kupiansk challenge: Could Ukrainian forces hold the city

Kupiansk challenge: Could Ukrainian forces hold the city Ukrainian military maintains defense near Kupiansk amid shortage of artillery shells (photo by Getty Images)

Since the beginning of the year, Russian forces have advanced slightly closer to Kupiansk, Kharkiv region, amid skirmishes. At the moment, the situation is stable with relatively infrequent assaults, but the enemy continues to gather strength.

Read more details about the situation near Kupiansk, the main threats, and when Russia might dare to launch a major assault in the article by RBC-Ukraine.

In preparing the report, the following sources were used: data from the General Staff, analysis from the American Institute for the Study of War (ISW), maps from the Ukrainian DeepState project, statements from military spokespersons, commands, and local government representatives, Forbes articles, and comments by experts Oleksandr Kovalenko and Oleksandr Musiienko.

Situation is stable: Kupiansk is preparing for battle

The Kupiansk direction remains one of the hottest on the eastern front, although the intensity of fighting has somewhat decreased compared to January. Attacks on Ukrainian positions continue, but the head of the Kupinsk district military administration, Andrii Kanashevich, spoke of stabilization last week.

"Overall, over the past two or three days, the situation has calmed down a bit. The military emphasizes a certain stabilization, the situation is under control," he said.

According to him, activity may have decreased after the Russians received a decent repulse and suffered heavy losses in manpower and equipment. He also assumed that the enemy took an operational pause to conduct a rotation, so it is difficult to predict how the events in the Kharkiv region will develop.

The prevailing trend is confirmed in the reports of the General Staff. At the beginning of the week, the enemy carried out one or two attacks a day, unsuccessfully trying to break through the defenses, and the last day passed without offensive actions. However, enemy mortars and artillery hit the villages of Synkivka, Petropavlivka, Kotliarivka, and Ivanivka, while airstrikes were also recorded in Novoiehorivka, Luhansk region.

Kupiansk, along with Avdiivka, is under the special control of the military and political leadership. Recently, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced that Defense Minister Rustem Umerov and the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Oleksandr Syrskyi headed in that direction. As the latter stated, the operational situation is very difficult and tense, the occupiers are increasing their efforts and, regardless of losses, are going on assaults.

"As a result of our assessments, operational decisions have been made on the deployment of reserves, combat systems, fire support, and troop and force redeployment on these fronts, as well as the containment of enemy forces to reduce their offensive potential," he wrote on Facebook.

However, as of the second half of the day, Syrskyi's post has been edited. In particular, the wording on the reserves and regrouping has been changed to "strengthening the combat capabilities of our units and preventing enemy actions."

Kupiansk challenge: Could Ukrainian forces hold the cityMinister of Defense Rustem Umerov and Commander-in-Chief Oleksandr Syrskyi (

According to Umerov, Kupiansk remains among the important directions on which all attention is concentrated. He placed a special emphasis on strengthening positions, equipping units, drones, and means of radio-electronic warfare, as well as announced a coordinated response to the occupiers.

Oleh Syniehubov, the head of the Kharkiv Regional Military Administration, said that Kupiansk was preparing to take the fight back in December. He called working round-the-clock on the arrangement of fortifications a "separate special operation", not excluding that fortification may appear in the district center. Yesterday, at an external meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers, Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal announced the additional allocation of 3.9 billion hryvnias for the arrangement of defense lines only in the Kharkiv region. It is three times bigger sum than in other frontline regions.

In other words, everything is being done right now to ensure that Kupiansk survives.

Two hot spots. What is happening on the flanks near Kupiansk

The most active battles on the approaches to Kupiansk take place at two points. The first is the area of the village of Synkivka, from which it is about five kilometers to the outskirts of the city. Ukrainian Telegram channels report gunfights on Synkivka's street and that the enemy allegedly managed to occupy part of the lost positions and control 15% of the village, as well as advance in green areas 300 meters towards Petropavlivka. There is no official confirmation.

The American Institute for the Study of War (ISW) records the flank attack of the Russian troops in the area of Synkivka. With reference to geo-located footage, it confirms a slight advance towards Lake Lyman. The Ukrainian project DeepState notes the enemy's attempts to improve the tactical situation. But this is not the first time the Russians have attacked the village, which is key for Kupiansk's defense.

"It happened more than once. The enemy even entered Synkivka, but our forces managed to fight back. Active hostilities continue, and the enemy is trying to advance. The goal is clear - the way towards Kupiansk. On one side is Synkivka district, and on the other is Tabaivka district. But the situation there is more or less stable, they have not seen any success," Oleksandr Musiienko, head of the Сenter of Military Law Researches, told RBC-Ukraine.

Kupiansk challenge: Could Ukrainian forces hold the cityThe Russians are attacking the "gate to Kupiansk" near Synkivka to the northeast of the city (photo

Oleksandr Kovalenko, a military and political expert of the Information Resistance Group, calls Synkivka the main fortified area and the "entrance gate" to Kupiansk. The situation there has been tense for a long time, at least between late May and early June 2023.

"It is difficult to say what will happen next. We must understand that we do not have enough resources," he said.

In his opinion, one of the main problems is that in this direction, as in others, the Defense Forces have to fight without artillery.

"Let's say it as it is. We don't have proportional ammunition. We have 20-30-40 shots per day per artillery battery, it's nothing. One can perceive this information differently, but we can say that today we are fighting without artillery. Currently, there is a unique case in the history of wars and conflicts, when an army without artillery holds back the onslaught of the enemy, which is significantly superior in equipment and personnel. This, to put it mildly, is a titanic test that no army in the world has faced for at least half a century," added the expert.

At the beginning of 2024, the Russians managed to break through to the east of Kupiansk for several kilometers in the area of the villages of Krokhmalne and Tabaivka. Near the latter, the enemy stopped in a swampy lowland, not being able to immediately knock out the AFU from the heights located a little to the west.

According to Kovalenko, the occupiers could not go further because they did not create the appropriate conditions.

"When they started to level the flanks, it became clear that they couldn't do it quickly. They captured the small village of Krokhmalne, destroyed by constant attacks, but it became very difficult to advance further. In this case, they had to advance at the same pace of complete destruction of the settlement or fortified district, but they cannot do that," he said in a comment to RBC-Ukraine.

Kupiansk challenge: Could Ukrainian forces hold the cityOn the eastern flank, the occupiers are trying to advance in the area of Tabaivka (photo:

Oleksandr Musiienko emphasizes that the front is stabilized in this section. He explains the significance of Tabaivka on a tactical level.

"There are heights advantageous for us, and we have well-equipped defensive positions. Therefore, it's crucial to hold the Tabaivka area," the expert said.

In January, the Russian side announced the capture of Tabaivka, but once again rushed. According to the spokesperson for the Eastern Grouping of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Illia Yevlash, heavy fighting is ongoing there, artillery duels are taking place, and the settlement is not controlled by the occupiers.

It's important to understand that holding back pressure on the eastern and northeastern flanks in the areas of the aforementioned villages buys the time necessary for organizing the defense of Kupiansk and Kupiansk-Vuzlovyi.

Russian forces, main goal, and when the assault on Kupiansk may begin

At the beginning of February, Forbes reported on Russia's preparations for the assault on Kupiansk. Specifically, they have deployed 500 tanks, over 600 combat vehicles, hundreds of artillery pieces, and 40,000 soldiers in this direction. Their aim is to regain control of the part of the Kharkiv region that was occupied by Russians in 2022 before the Ukrainian counteroffensive.

The objective is clear – everything east of the Oskil River. The plan is to seize the territory by March, just before the elections in Russia. Capturing a piece of the Kharkiv region would be a gift to Vladimir Putin, according to Forbes. Ukrainian forces, comprising around 10 brigades or roughly 20,000 soldiers, are defending Kupiansk and its surrounding villages. However, the main issue lies in the shortage of artillery shells. Russia's firepower superiority allows them to strike without much fear of Ukrainian counter-battery fire, systematically weakening the defense. Satellite images confirm that the demolition of fortifications around Kupiansk has already begun.

Kupiansk challenge: Could Ukrainian forces hold the cityDestruction in Kupiansk (photo by Getty Images)

Describing the situation, the chief of the Kharkiv Regional Military Administration, Oleh Syniehubov, noted the intense battles in this area lasting over six months, with the enemy assaulting vigorously. Almost daily, occupants bombard with artillery, rocket systems, drones, and airstrikes. General Syrskyi notes that the enemy consistently reinforces their troops.

The spokesperson for the Eastern Grouping, Illia Yevlash, confirmed the estimation of enemy troop strength. According to him, it remains steady at around 40,000 occupiers. However, not all of them are engaged in combat simultaneously, including support staff, medics, repair crews, and communicators. As for their weaponry and equipment, not everything is in proper condition.

"I want to emphasize to those who are spreading panic that the enemy is raising reserves. Yes, they are raising reserves, but they are raising these reserves to replace those that were destroyed earlier," Yevlash said.

Yevlash explained the reasons behind Russia's concentration of forces on Kupiansk.

"For the enemy, Kupiansk in our front sector is the main target now. It's one of those logistical hubs that allows them to transfer their forces by rail, and in the most populous center, they can establish command posts, warehouses, personnel quarters," he said, adding that the Defense Forces have prepared well and built a strong fortification around it, surrounded by minefields.

Oleksandr Musiienko is hesitant to predict when the actual assault on Kupiansk might start. He believes that according to Russian logic, simultaneous pressure from the flanks will be maintained.

"They will constantly exploit the threat over our grouping in the Kupiansk area, given its proximity to the border. They will try to advance towards Kupiansk, reach Oskil, link up with the Lyman grouping, and move further towards Lyman, Sloviansk, and Kramatorsk. This flank will be problematic until Russians are displaced from there or their offensive potential is physically destroyed," he told RBC-Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Oleksandr Kovalenko thinks that a local victory on another front could shift the enemy's focus to the regional center in the Kharkiv region.

"For example, if they achieve some situational success in the Avdiivka area, they could indeed shift their attention near Kupiansk," he noted.

This direction is often discussed in the context of another, more significant threat. Western media predicted an attack on Kharkiv from the direction of Kupiansk as early as January. However, military sources indicate no such large Russian formations, and Kharkiv has demonstrated its resilience as a Ukrainian city.

According to Musiienko, the threat of an offensive deep into the Kharkiv region still exists. However, for now, the aggressor is mostly preoccupied with Avdiivka.

"As for Kupiansk, everything is being done to create fortifications. I don't see that the enemy will achieve success there in the coming days or weeks. The danger will persist. It's important to understand that this direction is and will remain dangerous because the occupiers have amassed strength. I think in the next month or so, they will continue attempts to break through in Synkivka and Tabaivka. Whether they succeed or not will be shown by the combat actions," he concluded.