According to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), Russia has expressed intentions to establish a significant "buffer zone" in the Kharkiv region, extending 15 kilometers into Ukrainian territory.
This strategic move aims to create a defensive barrier between the Kharkiv Oblast and Belgorod Oblast, potentially impacting the dynamics of the ongoing conflict in the area.
The ISW reports that despite the Russian military's current limitations in conducting large-scale operations, there is a renewed push for an offensive in Kharkiv Oblast.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, on January 9, emphasized the Russian military's commitment to prevent Ukrainian shelling of Belgorod Oblast. This statement has been leveraged by Russian sources to advocate for the creation of a buffer zone that would push Ukrainian MLRS (Multiple Launch Rocket Systems) and artillery away from the border area.
The concept of such a buffer zone is not new. Russian ultranationalists had been calling for a similar operation since the summer of 2023, driven by frustration over cross-border raids by pro-Ukrainian forces in Belgorod Oblast. However, the ISW assesses that executing an invasion to establish a 15-kilometer deep and several hundred kilometers wide buffer zone would require a significantly larger and better-equipped force than what Russia currently has positioned along the Ukrainian border, particularly in the Belgorod region.
The ISW also notes that Russian military efforts in the Kharkiv region are currently limited to tactical actions. These actions are likely to serve as a diversion and fixation point for Ukrainian forces, drawing attention away from potential Russian operational movements in the Kupyansk direction. The report suggests that the Russian grouping in the Kupyansk area might be more capable of conducting intense offensive operations compared to other regions in Ukraine or along the border.
This development indicates a strategic shift in Russia's military approach in the region and highlights the ongoing complexities of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. The proposed buffer zone in Kharkiv Oblast underscores Russia's continuous efforts to fortify its positions and prevent Ukrainian advances, even as it faces challenges in executing large-scale offensive operations.