A Blog by Jonathan Low


Sep 25, 2023

The Reason the Word 'Breakthrough' Is Being Used Re Ukraine's Verbove Attack

The Ukrainians have been cautious about describing operations in the Tokmak axis of advance, but numerous sources are now using the word 'breakthrough' to describe the situation around Verbove. 

The reason is that the Ukrainians are using armor, rather than just dismounted infantry and they are reported to have taken some of the heavily defended second and third lines, suggesting that they are past the worst of the Russian obstacles in this crucial area. JL 

Phillips O'Brien reports in his substack:

There have been very few actual breakthroughs in this war, because the defender has major technological advantages and because neither side has been able to gain air superiority. Now, the Ukrainians are using this word about what is happening in Zaporizhzhia. The Institute for the Study of War has assessed that the Ukrainians have ‘broken through’ (notice the word change) Russian defenses near Verbove. The situation could represent a greater advance in pace than we have seen so far. The test is whether the advance starts approaching Tokmak. If it does—then something very important is happening.

All’s Well That Ends Well—or so they say. That (hopefully) is the big story of the week. You might have guessed that Im referring to the US government’s decision, which has widely been reported in the press, to supply the Ukrainians with ATACMs ammunition for their HIMARS systems. This has been one of the longest-standing wishes of the Ukrainian government, but for well over a year, the Biden administration has resisted the call to send them. Indeed even in the middle of last week, it seemed that the decision had been made not to send ATACMS. Then, lo and behold, on Friday stories spread like wildfire that ATACMS were on their way. If they do show up (and hopefully very soon) this will be a very useful step forward for the Ukrainians, particularly for their ongoing campaign against Crimea.

Picture of an ATACMS missile being fired by South Korea: https://kyivindependent.com/ukraine-comes-close-to-getting-atacms-how-will-it-change-the-war/


On Thursday, it was stated openly by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan that, as of yet, President Biden had decided against sending ATACMS to Ukraine—though the President might reconsider in the future.

 Turns out that the future was Friday. Quite what happened to make such a pivot occur remains a mystery. One idea, put forward in a Financial Times article was that the decision to supply ATACMS had been made earlier, but that the administration was keeping it quiet until after Zelensky’s visit, so that the missiles could be used with little notice. Another idea was that the backlash against the decision was so strong, that the administration changed course abruptly. Who knows?

As a communications issue this was a disaster (if you are going to send them, presumably you can say nothing to the press, not deny) but if they do end up appearing in Ukraine soon, then I suppose it doesnt matter. Its a good result and though its far later than I and others would have liked, the fact that ATACMS are being given is a sign that the Ukrainians, eventually, have received pledges for the weapons they most wanted at the start of the year. When I was in Ukraine in April, next to F-16s (and 155mm artillery ammunition) the most talked about support that the Ukrainians wanted was ATACMS. For obvious reasons (see below) they were desperate for the range ATACMS would give them for the coming counteroffensive.

Now instead of me wasting your time recapitulating the ATACMS story, technical and otherwise, in great detail—I thought I would refer you to two really helpful (and very detailed) threads about ATACMS that have come out in the past week. Both are excellent if you want a deeper dive.



What I can summarize about their value is as follows.

They add some extra range to the Storm Shadows/Scalps that the UK and French have sent. The Storm Shadows have a range up to 250km, and the ATACMS can reach up to 300km.

Here is a useful map from the Wall Street Journal from June showing the range. Do you see what’s clearly in it in the bottom right and centre—its the Kerch Bridge and Sevastopol.

U.S. Considers ATACMS Long-Range Missiles to Bolster Ukraine's Fight - WSJ
ATACMS range (Yellow Bubble): https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-close-to-approving-long-range-atacms-missiles-to-bolster-ukraines-fight-cc4e389c

While Sevastopol is clearly in range of storm shadows, so far they have not been used against the Kerch Bridge—plus (and this is key) the UK and France have only been able to supply a limited amount of both systems. They simply didnt have that many because of the slow pace of military spending over the last years, and have drawn down what they feel capable of providing.

So ATACMS provide both the ability to hit everything in Crimea, and they provide an extremely important new option other than storm shadows (which might be running short very soon). Plus, they provide another system that the Russians need to prepare against. When launching complex operations such as missile attacks, the most questions you ask of an enemy, the more difficult it is to defend against. The attacks against Sevastopol that caused such damage more than two weeks ago, included both the storm shadows and UAVs attacking as decoys. If you have layered attacks, across all of Crimea at once, involving Storm Shadows, UAVS, and ATACMS (to say nothing of the Ukrainian home grown anti-ship missile Neptune which has been adapted for ground attack)—its would be a great test for Russian air defense.

The Russians dont seem to be able to cope terribly well with two systems attacking them, imagine 3 or 4, attacking multiple targets at once.

So ATACMS could make a real difference, greater range, increased numbers, leading to greater options for attacks. Thats why its crucial to get them into operation for Ukraine asap.

The Crimea campaign continues

It was interesting to note that almost immediately after the news broke that ATACMS were on their way to Ukraine, that the Ukrainian government called on Ukrainians to evacuate Crimea as soon as possible and await liberation.

 Maybe the most important thing about this strategically was that the Ukrainian government was going to step up the attacks on Crimea—which is exactly what they should be doing.

When the very successful attack on the Black Sea Fleet took place on September 12-13, I said the key thing was not this one attack (as damaging as they were to the Russian fleet) but whether Ukraine could keep up a campaign of attacks.

One-off attacks can rarely be debilitating in war—to grind down an enemy’s ability to resist or to take out a target of such high value as Sevastopol requires multiple even continual attacks over a period of time. That is why it was so important to see Ukraine keep up the attacks on Crimea, particularly Sevastopol, since September 13. Indeed, what we are seeing is a really well conceived (and terribly frightening if you are a Russian officer) campaign. It scored a remarkable success two days ago with the missile attack on what seems to have been a major headquarters building, housing not just the BSF, but where combined arms groups met.

Earlier on September 22 Ukrainian forces appeared to have carried out a successful missile attack on Russia's Black Sea Fleet headquarters in Sevastopol, located on the occupied Crimean Peninsula.
Black Sea Fleet Headquarters Under Attack: https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-black-sea-fleet-missile-strike-ukraine-grain/32604812.html

There are even some close ups of the missile in flight. It seems that two missiles were targeted, as the building is already smoking when a missile hits it.

This was a complex operation of the highest order (once again pointing out the difference between how Ukraine and Russian wage war). To start off, the attack was launched in daylight. Normally these missile attacks have been launched at night, to add extra stress on the systems. Why it was launched at day, was because the building itself was not just the target, it was the (very senior) Russian command team that was meeting in the building at the precise moment of the attack. The Ukrainians have claimed to have hit multiple senior officers in the building.

That means Ukraine had actionable intelligence (maybe human and right there on the ground). So they had a plan worked out, waited for confirmation that the target was ideal, and then had to quickly execute the operation (which they did remarkably well considering both missiles hit the target). If they had waited any longer, who knows if the officers would have left.

Contrast this to what the Russians seem to have done—which was to gather senior officers in an extremely prominent building with military associations—right in the middle of Sevastopol, a city that Ukraine is making one of its highest priorities. That the Russians would do something so stupid, reveals, as I tweeted at the time, that they don’t understand this war yet. The Ukrainians are running rings around them strategically.


What is Ukraine doing? Fundamenally, they are continuing to try and make Sevastopol non-functional as a Russian military base as part of a larger plan to drive the Russians out of Crimea. The ideal would be to start this by driving the Black Sea Fleet out, but even if the Ukrainians cant do that, they seem well on their way to severely degrading Sevastopol as a military asset. Indeed, the Black Sea Fleet seems almost powerless to go to sea in a sea control role. Ukraine is winning the war at sea—rather remarkably.

Points out again why ATACMS are so important. If the campaign against Sevastopol can be combined with one to take out the Kerch Bridge, Russian control of Crimea will be hanging by a logistical thread.


The Ukrainian Breakthrough

What the word ‘breakthrough’ means in this war is not clear. Before the full-scale invasion, the idea was given across by the analytical community that the mighty Russian army would break through all Ukrainian resistance and gallop easily around Eastern Ukraine. Of course, nothing can have been further from the truth. Not only did it reveal profound shortcomings in the analytical communities whole understanding of war, it made war look far easier than it every was or could be.

There have been very few actual breakthroughs in this war, because the defender has major technological advantages and because neither side has been able to gain air superiority over the area of fighting.

Now, however the Ukrainians are using this word about what is happening in Zaporizhzhia.

When the exact language that the Ukrainian military uses is examined, however, its revealed to be very measured. Its not talking about the kind of breakthrough that analysts were saying Russia could do before February 24, 2022. Here is the exact text.

“On the left flank [near Verbove] we have a breakthrough and we continue to advance further,” Oleksandr Tarnavsky told CNN Senior International Correspondent Frederik Pleitgen during an interview on Friday, though he conceded his troops were moving slower than anticipated.

“Not as fast as it was expected, not like in the movies about the Second World War,” he said. “The main thing is not to lose this initiative (that we have). And, well, not to lose it in practice, with actions.”

So, it doesnt look like we will see Ukrainian tanks streaking ahead by 20-30 miles a day. That being said—there does seem to be something happening in Zaporizhzhia, that is of a greater magnitude than we have seen in the counteroffensive so far. The Institute for the Study of War has assessed that the Ukrainians have ‘broken through’ (notice the word change) Russian defenses near Verbove.


Ive asked around Ukrainians I know and trust, and likewise they are being very cautious. They do, however, believe that the situation could represent a greater advance in pace than we have seen so far. The test, as I laid out is last weekend’s update, is whether the advance starts approaching Tokmak. If it does—then something very important is happening.


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