A Blog by Jonathan Low


Sep 22, 2023

Ukrainian Forces Extend Gains South Towards Tokmak

Ukrainian forces are extending their gains in the country's south as Russian forces are increasingly stretched thin by the Ukrainians advances on multiple axes. 

In doing so they are flattening the salient to lessen the potential for Russian counterattacks while further reducing the Russians ability to strengthen their defenses. JL 

Kos reports in Daily Kos:

Ukraine is breaching Russian lines and continues to expand the salient, flattening the front. A great number of the armored vehicles punching through the breach near Verbove aren’t tanks but the bulk of the armor are MRAP—mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, such as American Strykers. Their presence means that Russian armor has been depleted enough that these vehicles are less exposed to enemy fire. As Ukraine consolidates this territory, it will be able to more effectively sweep toward Tokmak. There aren’t even that many mines in that direction, giving Ukraine a mobility advantage as it continues widening that salient.Ukraine liberated Robotyne, in the southern Zaporizhzhia front, in late August. Since then, things seem to have slowed down, but Ukraine has been busy. And in the last few days, things have gotten truly interesting again.

For the broader context, here is open-source intelligence account Deep State’s map of the southern front:

Zaporizhzhia Front Lines
The southern front

Green marks the territory liberated since the start of Ukraine’s summer counteroffensive. Blue is the “gray area” between fronts, in which neither side has confirmed control. As is clear at this scale, the Robotyne axis, in the direction of the strategically important city of Tokmak, has proven most fruitful for Ukraine. Not only have its forces penetrated deeper into Russian lines than anywhere else, but it’s done so by piercing two of Russia’s major lines, including the (in)famous “Surovikin line.”

After Robotyne’s liberation and the first confirmed puncturing of the Surovikin line, I wrote that ideally, Ukraine could begin rolling up the full line from that breach in the east, sweeping westward behind those lines.

Aug. 31 image

Well, that’s exactly what is now happening. Ukraine has consolidated its gains behind that line, outside of Verbove, and begins to push out from that beachhead (breachhead?).

Having consolidated gains behind first two defensive lines (the yellow lines), Ukraine is pushing out

The map above comes from a credible pro-Russia source Suryak, but it may already be outdated. We now have geolocated confirmation that Ukraine is operating well into the gray area in the map above. And even more notably, Ukraine is moving armored vehicles into the breach. That means two key things:

  • Ukraine has cleared the area of mines, allowing armor to more freely operate in that backfield.

  • Ukrainian infantry has cleared the area of anti-tank traps—defensive emplacements equipped with anti-tank guided missiles—while pushing suicide-drone operators further from the contact line (making their drones both more susceptible to running out of power before finding a target, and more vulnerable to electronic countermeasures).

Remember, rather than wage costly head-on charges with vulnerable armor (which bit them at the start of the counteroffensive), Ukraine has held back its heavy gear and painstakingly pushed forward using small-infantry tactics. This has made it harder for Russia’s strained artillery guns or massive minefields to stall the advance, at the expense of slower Ukrainian gains.

Interestingly, a great number of those armored vehicles punching through the breach near Verbove aren’t tanks, and while we’ve seen Marder infantry fighting vehicles, the bulk of the armor are MRAP—mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles. Those are the big heavy-wheeled vehicles, such as American Strykers.

As much as Ukraine begged for armor, those have proven vulnerable to suicide drones and are expensive to equip, operate, and move. Their fuel needs are beyond comprehension. (An American M1 Abrams tank uses 2-3 gallons of fuel per mile, not a typo.) MRAPs are faster, more nimble, less difficult to maintain and support, and there are a lot more of them available to donate by allies.

Their presence likely means that Russian armor has been depleted enough along the contact line that these vehicles are less exposed to tank fire—their biggest enemy. Sure, they are vulnerable to infantry-fired anti-tank guided missiles, but those can do only so much against a swarm of MRAPs, and Western vehicles do a good job of protecting the crews inside them. As long as Ukrainian lives are protected, and they are, Ukraine will happily trade a handful of MRAPs for valuable territory. There are plenty more where those came from.

And Ukraine isn’t just advancing east of Robotyne. There have been methodical gains to the west as well.

Ukrainian advances around Robotyne the past week

Just like the east, around Verbove, Ukraine has punctured two layers of the Surovikin Line in the high ground to Robotyne’s west. Russia’s defenses are starting to leak like a sieve. As Ukraine consolidates this territory, it will be able to more effectively sweep downhill toward Tokmak. There aren’t even that many mines in that direction, as Russians violated their own doctrine to frontload their entire mine supply in front of the first line. That has left little for the backfield, giving Ukraine a big mobility advantage as it continues widening that salient.

The biggest danger, for now, is exactly that salient. Ukraine will need to figure out what to do about Verbove, which sits in a valley surrounded by hills crawling with Russian defenses. Ideally, it would bypass the settlement, maybe even cut off supply routes to its east, but those look safe for now. It can’t leave that hornets nest of Russians on an exposed flank. Or can it? Can Ukraine plop in some territorial defense forces on the now-occupied Surovikin line itself to protect that flank? Beats me. But as this counteroffensive has developed, it’s been clear that wherever Ukraine makes gains, it spends time flattening the front. It does not like salients—and probably for good reason.

Meanwhile, Ukraine is putting pressure directly on the main line, south of Robotyne.

I don’t know if Ukraine thinks it can breach the lines at those points while Russia holds the heights along the bottom of that salient, especially around the now-famous Hill 166, the highest point in that entire region. But as long as the line is pressured, Russia can’t shift forces toward Verbove or Robotyne to contain those breaches, so it makes perfect sense to keep pushing southward. Russia is forced with an unwinnable dilemma—attempt to plug the holes in the line, weakening its main line, or hold the middle of the lines and see them rolled up from behind.

With Ukraine regaining lost territory up north around Kupyansk, it’s clear that Russia has shifted whatever it had up there to the south. It is running out of reserves. Meanwhile, Ukraine is reportedly ready to roll, preparing reserves to move into action. As Euromaidan Press writes:

Russian analysts claimed that Ukrainians already started preparing for the next big push. Russian sources reported that Ukrainians are gradually reinforcing the region with elements from the 71st Jager Brigade, 82nd Assault Brigade, and 46 Airmobile Brigade.

Russians claimed that Ukrainians were accumulating these forces in the Chubenkova gully, somewhere in the center of the bridgehead. Having forces in such close proximity to the front line increases the chances of successful exploitation of the element of surprise because the probability that Russians notice and react on time to a massive assault is low.

On top of that, by keeping these forces right in the middle, Ukrainians create for Russians an unpleasant dilemma because the Russian defense line is breached not only near Verbove but in several places along the entire line. So, Russians must be prepared to face a big attack on Verbove, Novoprokopivka, between the two, and also near Kopani.

All the while, Ukraine’s “shaping” operations continue, with counterbattery fire absolutely decimating Russian artillery, and suicide drones continuing to systematically attrit Russian tanks, armored vehicles, infantry, and their logistics (supply trucks and vehicles).

And Russia being Russia, it continues to counterattack lost positions out in the open, rather than reinforcing their defensive lines.

In yesterday’s update, Mark Sumner included a snippet from Russian Telegram complaining about those suicidal efforts. “[Russia’s situation] is very difficult, mainly not because the enemy, in principle, managed to push through our defenses in this area,” wrote the account Philologist in the Gray Zone. “The key problem is the hysterical retaliatory actions that our command is taking in this Area. We have hysterical attempts to recapture the ruins of Andreevka. Equally hysterical attempts to counterattack occur in the surrounding area.”

And the reason Russian commanders keep sending people to die in those fruitless counterattacks? I wrote about that a couple of days ago. “In direct text, [Russian commanders] tell us: go, fix yourself there,” said the wife of a mobilized soldier stationed around Bakhmut, relaying his reports from the front, according to Russian-language publication Radio Liberty. “We see that it's not our position for a long time … And in general, you can see with the naked eye that our positions have not been there for a long time. And the command claims that it's ours.”

As long as a Russian soldier is moving in that contested territory, commanders can report back to Moscow that they retain control. So they keep sending wave after wave of soldiers to die, in order to maintain their charade. You can literally see that happening in the video posted above.

Ukraine is breaching Russian lines and continues to expand the salient, flattening the front. The biggest question hanging over all of this is the question of reserves—how much, and how fresh, does each side have? The fog of war is thick, and it’s oftentimes hard to sift between reality and wishful thinking. So here’s hoping that Russia truly is running low, and Ukraine truly has multiple brigades ready to spring into action.


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