Putin in 'Dire Straits' as Russia Fortifies Border Near Ukraine's Kharkiv

The governor of Russia's Belgorod region shared pictures Tuesday of an earthen fortification line that is being constructed along the Russia-Ukraine border in the area.

"The working day began with an inspection of the construction of the security line with my deputy Vladimir Bazarov," Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov wrote on Telegram.

The day before, Gladkov said at a press conference that the border fortifications were being carried out in light of what he alleged was cross-border Ukrainian shelling and attacks.

Belgorod is one of Russia's southern regions with a population of about 1,530,200 as of 2022, according to the Federation Council of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation. The region's identically-named administrative center is just 25 miles from the Ukrainian border, The New York Times reported, and is in proximity to Ukraine's eastern Kharkiv region.

There have been several reported instances of explosions and other attacks in Belgorod amid Russia's war in Ukraine, which Russia has blamed on Ukraine even though Kyiv has not claimed responsibility. Experts believe that apart from protecting Russia, the reinforcements on Belgorod's border can provide other insights about Russian President Vladimir Putin's current war strategy and how his regime views its faltering war.

Michael Kimmage, professor and chair of the Catholic University of America's history department, told Newsweek that he doesn't believe that Putin has given up on any part of Ukraine in his war, but Russia is currently in "dire straits" after "a string of pretty embarrassing defeats."

Russia Reinforcing Border Near Kharkiv
Ukrainian servicemen stand and sit on a structure trying to catch mobile network near the borders of the Kharkiv and Donetsk regions of Ukraine on November 10, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The governor of Russia's Belgorod region shared pictures Tuesday of an earthen fortification line that is being constructed along the Russia-Ukraine border in the area. Ihor Tkachov/AFP via Getty Images

This means that Russia has to keep its border in mind because of the Ukrainian military's proximity, Kimmage said. Ukraine launched a rapid counteroffensive in Kharkiv in September that forced Russian troops to flee the area. Ukraine said later that month that it had freed the vast majority of the region from Russian control.

During the counteroffensive, a Ukrainian soldier recorded a video bragging about reaching the Russian border in Kharkiv, though Newsweek was not able to verify the authenticity of the footage at the time.

The border fortification may also be a public relations stunt on Russia's part aimed at showing the Russian population that they're threatened by Ukraine, Kimmage said, but added that he doesn't believe Ukraine would actually send troops across the Russian border.

William Reno, a political science professor at Northwestern University, told Newsweek that Russia's defensive posture signals that there won't be forward movement from its forces "any time soon."

"The Russian military isn't likely to collapse, but for the next several months the operational plan appears to be holding the line," Reno said. "The defensive preparations at the international border also might be an effort on the part of Russians to shift some portion of their forces to other parts of the line of contact to support their defensive positions there."

He also noted that as Russian forces "appear to be hunkering down," another question that should be considered is whether its defensive preparations are "well thought out and supported with operational reserves...or rudimentary, shallow, and unsupported."

"I think that it's the latter," he added.

Dan Soller, a former U.S. Army intelligence colonel, also told Newsweek that Russia's border reinforcements indicate that it is taking a defensive stance in light of the reality that "Kharkiv is no longer a realistic objective for them."

"What any military will do, and this is very much in our doctrine...is that when you can no longer continue the offense, then you automatically go on the defense," Soller said.

In October, Russian authorities announced the construction of border fortifications along another Russian region, Kursk, which shares its eastern border with Ukraine.

In general, Russia's fortifications in Kharkiv and elsewhere "are a recognition of the losses in the battlefield, the danger that they face right now," Soller added.

Newsweek reached out to Russia's Defense Ministry for comment.