The Russians invaded the Ukrainian border. There was little that could stop them.

Russian troops crossed Ukraine’s northern border with such speed and force last week that Ukraine’s sparse fortifications offered almost no obstacle. Some Ukrainian soldiers, taken completely by surprise, retreated from their positions and villages that had been liberated almost two years earlier suddenly came under relentless shelling, forcing hundreds of people to flee in scenes reminiscent of the early days of the war.

“They are erasing streets,” said Tetiana Novikova, 55, a retired factory worker who said she barely escaped with her life on Friday when her village of Vovchansk came under withering fire from Russian forces. As she fled the village where she had spent her entire life, she said, she did not see a single Ukrainian soldier.

The surprising incursion into the Kharkiv region lays bare the challenges facing Ukraine’s tired and stretched forces as Russia intensifies its summer offensive. Russian troops crossing the border enjoyed a huge advantage in artillery shells and employed air power, including fighter jets and heavy gliding bombs, to disastrous effect, unhindered by depleted Ukrainian air defences.

Once across the border, Russian soldiers easily made their way through fortifications such as trenches, land mines and tank barriers, some of which Ukrainian troops said were insufficient or poorly constructed.

But the biggest challenge for Ukrainian forces is the people. Downed during more than two years of war, Ukraine’s military is struggling to muster enough soldiers to effectively defend the 600-mile front line, even as Russian forces have been augmented by thousands of newly mobilized troops.

As the magnitude of the Russian advance became clear over the weekend, the Ukrainian military rushed to divert troops from other areas of the front, rather than deploying reserves. The reason, according to Ukrainian officials: There are few reserves to deploy.

Ukrainian military officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military details, said the situation in the Kharkiv region was critical but under control. On Saturday, Ukrainian forces appeared to have slowed the Russian advance, although fierce fighting was reported along a strip of territory five miles from the Russian border.

As of Saturday, nearly 10,000 residents of the Kharkiv region had fled the fighting, according to the regional governor, and residents reported that entire villages had been razed. As Russian troops advance, there are fears that for the first time in almost two years they could come within artillery range of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.

The Russians “know what they are doing,” said one Ukrainian commander, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the raid. He added that he felt sorry for the civilians who thought they were safe.

For months, Russia has been building up troops along Ukraine’s northern border, with 50,000 deployed in the area around the Kharkiv and Sumy regions, according to Kostiantyn Mashovets, a Ukrainian military analyst. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov signaled Moscow’s intentions when he said Kharkiv “plays an important role” in President Vladimir V. Putin’s stated desire to create a “health zone” along the Russian border.

Ukraine’s top officials appeared to be taking the danger seriously, with President Volodymyr Zelenksy making a highly choreographed visit to the fortifications around Kharkiv on April 9.

“We have to be prepared,” Zelenksy said. “And the Russians must see that we are prepared to defend ourselves. And our people must understand that Ukraine is prepared in case the enemy tries to attack.”

Those preparations did little to stop the Russian attack. Part of the problem lies in restrictions on the use of sophisticated American weaponry. Although Ukrainian forces could see the buildup on the border, the White House’s ban on using high-precision US weapons, such as HIMARS multiple rocket launchers, against targets on Russian territory prevented Ukraine from attacking them.

Then there is the disadvantage with which Ukraine has operated since the beginning of the war: it faces a much larger country with a considerable advantage in manpower and a large arsenal of weapons that is constantly replenished thanks to a defense industry that operates on a record budget.

Some Ukrainian officials said fortifying areas near the border was nearly impossible because of Russian bombing. But, they added, so far the strongest defensive lines, built further from the border, have withstood the Russian attack.

Iryna Sykhina, 42, from Lyptsi, a town about 10 miles north of Kharkiv, said she understood something was different, and wrong, in the early hours of last Friday, when her village came under relentless fire. Russian bombing. “They attacked the whole town at once, not just from time to time like before,” she said in a telephone interview.

Ms Sykhina said she had seen concrete blocks and machinery being moved along a path in front of her house, in what she believed were preparations for fortification.

“But actually, as far as I know, nothing was built,” Sykhina said.

Once the Russians opened their attack, some points along the Ukrainian lines gave way and troops fled amid heavy shelling, said Denys Yaroslavsky, a lieutenant in the 57th Brigade.

“There are many more questions for those who were responsible for building the fortifications on the front line, who had to exploit it and strengthen it,” he said.

The mayor of Vovchansk, Tamaz Gambarashvili, insisted in an interview that his city was prepared for a raid. “I’ve been in this city all the time and I can say that we were ready for the Russians to come and fortifications were built,” he said in an interview last week.

The fortifications, he said, were not built of concrete “because Russia was constantly bombing everything we built,” but he added, “the handmade ones were prepared to the maximum.”

Military officials and analysts say Russia probably does not have enough forces to take the city of Kharkiv. After almost two years of relative calm, long-range missile attacks now occur daily, killing and injuring civilians. Russia appears to be relying on its numerical superiority to push Ukrainian forces to the limit.

Russia now has about 510,000 troops in the fight, according to an analysis published this week by the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank. Those numbers are enough to launch attacks along the entire front line, keeping Ukrainian forces constantly off balance as they struggle to respond to multiple incursions.

“Russia’s goal is not to achieve a breakthrough, but rather to convince Ukraine that it can maintain an inexorable advance, kilometer by kilometer, along the front,” the analysis said.

New weaponry coming as part of the Biden administration’s $61 billion arms package, including artillery shells and air defense munitions, should help ease some of the strain on Ukrainian forces, as should a new mobilization campaign by the Ukrainian government, which lowered the conscription age to 25 years.

The question now, as the summer fighting season begins in earnest, is whether it will be enough to stop Russia’s momentum.

For residents along Ukraine’s northern border, the tension is difficult to bear. Much of the region was quickly occupied in the early days of the Russian invasion, which began in February 2022. But Ukrainian forces drove them out six months later in a stunning offensive operation that now looks like a climax of the war.

Villages and settlements in the region have long been subject to intermittent Russian bombing and many residents have fled. Still, those who stayed said they had been taken by surprise by the assault and rapid advance of Russian troops.

“People had been preparing for the summer, taking care of their gardens, taking care of their livestock,” Krystyna Havran, a member of the Lyptsi village council, said in an interview. “No one imagined there would be an offensive.”

Marc Santora contributed with reports.

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