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Ukraine fears new Russian offensive is only ‘the first wave’ in a brutal summer

Ukraine is just about holding the line, for now.

But President Volodymr Zelenskyy has warned that Russia’s new offensive in the northeast — which saw the Kremlin’s troops sweep across the border and capture miles of territory before being halted by Kyiv’s army — could be just the first of many.

Russia’s summer assault “could consist of several waves. There was the first wave” in the Kharkiv region, Zelenskyy said Friday in an interview with the AFP news agency.

It’s just the latest suggestion by a Ukrainian official that Moscow’s military might be planning to open new fronts across the front lines while Kyiv waits for U.S. military aid and new conscripts to boost its depleted forces. Zelenskyy also renewed criticism of his Western backers, saying they had left his country in a “nonsense situation” where it gets enough support to avoid total defeat, but not enough to achieve victory.

Image: TOPSHOT-UKRAINE-RUSSIA-CONFLICT-WAR
Rescuers evacuating an elderly civilian from Russian shelling in the Kharkiv region Friday. HANDOUT / AFP – Getty Images

Russia launched a new offensive a week ago in a bid to exploit Ukraine’s issues before new support arrives, raising fears that the country’s second-largest city may even fall into Moscow’s hands.

But President Vladimir Putin said Friday his goal was to carve out a buffer zone around Russia’s own under-fire border regions, rather than to seize Kharkiv itself.

“There are no such plans today,” he said after wrapping up his visit to China.

Zelenskyy has downplayed Russia’s gains, but he warned that Moscow was still the one advancing in the war.

“I won’t say it’s a great success (for Russia) but we have to be sober and understand that they are going deeper into our territory,” he told AFP, “not vice versa.”

Kyiv is also desperate to replenish its own military, but analysts say that Ukraine is losing troops faster than it can replenish them and the new efforts might be too late, even if Ukraine got the weapons it has been asking for.

On Friday, Zelenskyy signed into law a new bill that will allow some convicts to be drafted into the military in exchange for being released on parole. And a new mobilization law comes into effect Saturday.

“No matter how many thousands of rounds of artillery you got, you can’t have a soldier in two places at once,” said Frank Ledwidge, a former British military intelligence officer and senior lecturer in war studies at England’s University of Portsmouth.

“An army is a really complex system of systems which interlock and takes years to build huge resources,” he told NBC News. “You don’t just conjure them up.”

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Ukrainian forces fire a multiple rocket launcher toward Russian positions in the Kharkiv region earlier this week.ROMAN PILIPEY / AFP – Getty Images

Zelenskyy acknowledged issues with manpower and “morale,” but said for now his troops had stabilized the front lines and that Russian forces had advanced no more than 6 miles into the Ukrainian territory. Fierce fighting is ongoing in the streets of Vovchansk, a front-line town from where thousands of residents have fled in recent days.

Ukraine rushed reserves to the area, a move that helped prevent further losses in the northeast. But it could spread its forces even thinner on the battlefield and expose other parts of the frontlines as the Russians push in the eastern Donetsk region and reportedly mass forces near Sumy, west of Vovchansk.

The Russian military said it had dealt Ukraine another setback in the area Saturday by taking control of Starytsa, a village to the west of Vovchansk.

The Ukrainians did not comment on the claim, though Kyiv’s general staff said in an update that “the enemy does not stop trying to break through the defense of the Ukrainian troops” in the area. “Our defenders are trying to push back the enemy,” it said.

NBC News could not independently verify the battlefield reports from either side.

While the Kremlin’s forces may not be sufficient to take Kharkiv, Ledwidge said, “they’re sufficient to probe Ukrainian forces and expose the lack of their defenses,” and the fall of Starytsa is another example.

Zelenskyy has blamed the lack of air defenses for the breach around Kharkiv, repeating Friday his plea for more defense systems and fighter jets.

Ukraine is desperately waiting for supplies from the $60 billion U.S. military aid that was approved last month, which includes rocket launch systems, artillery rounds, infantry vehicles and other military equipment.

While his allies are calling for a swift end to the war, Zelenskyy says Ukraine will only accept a “fair” peace solution.

“We are in a nonsense situation where the West is afraid that Russia will lose the war,” he said, “And it does not want Ukraine to lose it.”

As the death toll mounts on the Ukrainian side, a total victory for Kyiv appears increasingly distant.

“How long are you going to go throwing your young middle-aged men into a war that you cannot win on your own terms,” Ledwidge asked.

That line of thinking may renew a focus on peace talks.

Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed to forge deeper ties this week as their countries increasingly clash with the West, and Zelenskyy wants to use Beijing’s “influence” with Moscow to his advantage.

He urged China to attend a summit next month in neutral Switzerland, while Russia has not been invited.

China and other global powers “have influence on Russia. And the more such countries we have on our side, on the side of the end of the war, I would say, the more Russia will have to move and reckon with,” he said.