Under Relentless Russian Assault, Ukraine Adopts a Defensive Crouch

At a high point for Ukraine in its war against Russia, when its army was sweeping Russian forces from the country’s northeast, a small-town police chief proudly hung a Ukrainian flag on his newly liberated city hall.

A year and a half later, the policeman, Oleksiy Kharkivskyi, was dashing into the burning ruins of the same town, Vovchansk, last week to evacuate its few remaining residents as Russian forces closed in.

“Everywhere they come is just razed to the ground,” Mr. Kharkivskyi said of the advance of the Russian troops, who have returned to the region with a scorched-earth ferocity, setting in motion one of the largest displacements of people since the first months of the war.

Russian troops punched across the border between Russia and Ukraine this month and pushed toward Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, which has a population of about a million people. Military analysts say Russia lacks the troops to capture the city but could advance to within artillery range, touching off a larger flow of refugees.

Militarily, the incursion seems intended to stretch Ukraine’s already thin and underequipped forces by diverting troops from the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, still seen as the likely target of a Russian offensive this summer. It has also had the destabilizing effect of sending thousands of dismayed, disheartened people from the border region deeper into Ukraine.