Will Ukraine Invade Russia After Pushing Putin's Forces Back?

Ukraine's military released an unverified video last week of its troops by a border post marked in their flag's colors of yellow and blue.

Intended as a boast at how far Ukraine's counteroffensive had pushed Russian troops back from the second city of Kharkiv, the celebrating soldiers purportedly had enemy territory almost underneath their boots. But just how likely is it that troops like these could push further and enter Russia?

While there are no indications Ukraine is looking to send soldiers into its neighbor, the war has taken some unexpected turns. In the eastern Donbass region, where fighting is concentrated after Russia's withdrawal from Kyiv, Russian cities are tantalizingly close for Ukraine's troops to embarrass Moscow.

Russia claimed that Ukrainian helicopters struck a fuel depot in Belgorod just over the border last month, which Kyiv has denied. But unexplained explosions at infrastructure sites on the other side of the frontier point to the importance for Ukraine of targets in Russia.

However, military experts doubt that Ukrainian attempts to make an impact over the border could take the form of an incursion into Russian territory by troops.

"I think any entry of Ukrainian troops into Russian territory is unlikely," said Steven Horrell, a researcher at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) think tank.

"That entails risk at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels for very little gain in terms of achieving Ukraine's own objectives," he told Newsweek.

"The objective is to expel the Russian troops from Ukraine. Redirecting Ukrainian forces from an area where they've successfully reclaimed the border to fight Russian occupiers elsewhere offers far more gains than chasing fleeing Russians across the border."

"In addition to tactical risk to any troops across the border— by definition they're exposed on three sides as soon as they start that excursion," he added.

U.K. Armed Forces Minister James Heappey sparked anger from Moscow last month when he said it was "completely legitimate" for Ukraine to hit logistical targets in Russia. Ukraine can secure those gains with artillery, Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS), attack helicopters or drones, rather than with boots on the ground.

Moreover, an entry by Ukrainian troops into Russia would risk the international backing enjoyed by Kyiv, possibly push away Western countries wavering in their support and change the narrative that Russia is the aggressor.

"It would validate Putin's worldview that the world is against Russia," said Mick Ryan, a retired Australian general, whose book War Transformed: The Future of Twenty-First-Century Great Power Competition and Conflict was published only days before Putin invaded Ukraine on February 24.

"Even if it's just Ukraine, stepping out of the border, he could then go back to the Russian people like he said on May 9 and say, 'the world is against us' and 'we're already being invaded again by the Nazis,'" a narrative that "would be troubling for NATO."

"The Ukrainians don't need to go to Russia to show they can beat the Russians. They've been doing it pretty well so far."

"I think some form of incursion into Russia would have to be something that had a very significant military payoff for Ukraine to do it," added Ryan, an adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

After failing to seize Kyiv and Kharkiv, Russia is trying to take full control of Donbass. The Joint Task Force of Ukraine's armed forces said on Thursday that Moscow's forces had attacked more than 40 towns in the eastern Donbass and Luhansk regions.

Meanwhile, the cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk have come under intense bombardment. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said Russian forces are advancing east and west of Popasna to cut Ukrainian communication lines southwest of Severodonetsk so it can encircle Luhansk.

"I am not sure Ukrainian forces entering Russia is a realistic possibility," said Alex Vershinin, a retired U.S. Army colonel. "The Ukrainian offensive in Kharkov is not as decisive as it appears," he told Newsweek.

Vershinin said that Ukraine had committed up to four brigades to push back three battalions of the Russian army. Meanwhile, the Russian army conducted a delay, an operation in which a small force was left to trade space for time on a secondary front, while it massed bulk combat power elsewhere.

"As a result of Russian tactics, Ukrainian troops made progress, but failed to trap any sizable Russian [troops], or capture any important terrain.

"At the same time, the Donbass front is facing major pressure," he said, which has resulted in the Ukrainian General Staff pulling a big portion of forces from the Kharkiv offensive for reinforcement.

"I do not foresee any real offensive around Kharkiv again. Ukraine urgently needs every combat capable soldier in Donbass where the front is threatening to collapse.

"Severodonetsk and Lisichansk are under threat of encirclement. If that happens, it will be another Mariupol," Lt.Col (ret) Vershinin said, referring to the southern port city that was under a brutal Russian siege for months.

"Ukraine simply does not have the forces for an attack into Russia."

Ukrainian soldiers
Ukrainian soldiers on a moving truck-mounted multiple rocket launcher near Lysychansk, eastern Ukraine, on May 13, 2022. YASUYOSHI CHIBA/Getty Images