A Blog by Jonathan Low


Sep 4, 2023

Ukrainian Spearhead Now Aims To Create A Salient Through Russian Defenses

Having overcome the first line of Russian defenses and in the process of penetrating the second, main, line, Ukrainian forces are working to both deepen and widen their advance so as to create a salient from which a strategic breakthrough can be established to create more opportunities for liberating occupied territory. JL 

Daniel Michaels and Isabel Coles report in the Wall Street Journal:

Ukrainian forces are now working to slice through Russian lines and open paths for heavier equipment. Kyiv’s spearhead troops want to create a salient, a bulge into Russia’s rear defenses. Ukrainian troops realize they must maintain pressure on Moscow’s troops. Since Tokmak is so heavily fortified, Ukrainian forces (may) bypass it and look for weaknesses elsewhere. They need to “hold the shoulders” of a breakthrough. “Once the shoulders are held and there is no substantial enemy in front, then forces can achieve momentum for a breakout.”

Ukrainian troops are battling to break through Russian fortifications in their country’s south, but even successfully piercing the line will only mark a start. For a shot at real gains, Kyiv’s forces would need to turn a breakthrough into a breakout. 

Since June, Ukrainian soldiers have been struggling to cross the minefields, trenches and lines of obstacles that Russian troops spent months emplacing. In recent weeks, Ukrainian units have made progress penetrating what Russia refers to as its forward security zone at the town of Robotyne and advancing toward the heavily fortified nearby settlement Verbove.

Ukraine’s push southward

Russian-controlled area

Russian fortifications


Area of detail







10 miles

10 km

Sea of Azov

Note: Russian-controlled area as of Sept. 3
Sources: Brady Africk, American Enterprise Institute (Russian fortifications); Institute for the Study of War and AEI’s Critical Threats Project (Russian-controlled area)

The progress has brought hopeful comments from U.S. and European officials, some of who previously had criticized Kyiv for not pushing aggressively enough. But even Ukraine’s boosters remain sober about the task ahead for its troops. 

Russia not only built formidable defenses—its forces continue to reinforce them. Moscow has also moved more troops into the region, Ukrainian officials and open-source intelligence analysts say.

Ukrainian forces, operating in small units that seek to evade detection by Russian surveillance, are now working to slice through Russian lines and open paths for comrades with heavier equipment to follow. Kyiv’s spearhead troops want to create what military strategists call a salient, a bulge protruding into Russia’s rear defenses. 

If Ukraine can accomplish the hugely difficult task of breaking through Russian lines, they would need to hold and expand any gap so that armored mechanized forces can flood through and attempt to overrun Russian lines. Moscow’s troops are fighting to stop that.

“A breakthrough may get units through the defensive lines, but there is much more fighting before a breakout is achieved,” said Mark Kimmitt, a retired Army brigadier general. “Most times this fails if the enemy is marginally competent and has the units and logistics to support counterattacks against the salient,” he said.

Russian forces have launched localized counterattacks to impede Ukrainian gains outside Robotyne, said a platoon commander with Ukraine’s 47th Brigade who is operating on the town’s eastern outskirts. Russian forces fiercely defended the heavily mined road from Robotyne to Verbove, he said of the recent advance.

“It was really hard,” he said. “Everything was exploding.”

If Ukrainian troops manage to take or bypass Verbove, they are likely to push south toward the country’s Black Sea coast, more than 50 miles away. Their goal is to cut through a corridor that Moscow controls, a “land bridge” running from Ukraine’s border with Russia in the east to the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014.

If Ukrainian troops can pierce Russia’s next lines, their path south will likely depend on a mix of terrain and Russian defenses, analysts and combat veterans say. Russia has created impediments that seek to force Ukrainian troops into areas where Russians can more easily attack them, known as kill zones. 

In all corners of the sprawling battlefield, Moscow has hidden traps and troops that blur the front line and make it hard for Kyiv’s fighters to grasp what lies ahead.

“Every tree line is fortified with trenches,” said Oleksandr Solonko, a private in an air-reconnaissance battalion who is operating drones near Robotyne. “Behind every bush is an enemy position.”

Russia is also building up forces in the largest local town, Tokmak, a rail and road hub that Moscow has surrounded with defenses.

“Every day more troops are coming to Tokmak and other front-line cities,” said Ivan Fedorov, the exiled Ukrainian mayor of Melitopol, a nearby city that Moscow’s troops have held since the early days of the war. “Tokmak is like a military base of Russians.”

Fedorov, who speaks to Ukrainians in areas under Russian control, said Ukrainian forces hit Tokmak daily with artillery and rockets. Last week, he said, Ukrainian troops struck a military warehouse in the city, setting off explosions that lasted for hours.

Since Tokmak is so heavily fortified, some analysts believe Ukrainian forces would bypass it and look for weaknesses elsewhere. If they can punch through, they will need to “hold the shoulders” of a breakthrough, said Kimmitt, the retired general, so they can rush combat forces and logistical troops into the gap, and then seek to widen it. 

“Once the shoulders are held and there is no substantial enemy in front, then your forces can achieve the momentum for a breakout,” Kimmitt said.

Logistical equipment ranges from specialized demining vehicles to tanks modified to help other tanks that get stuck or damaged. The platoon commander near Robotyne said the terrain is so heavily mined that success advancing will depend on having sufficient numbers of demining engineers with the right gear.

“Those are the people and equipment that we really need,” Dobro said.

Having enough artillery to hit and weaken Russian artillery will also be vital, he added. Any Ukrainian advance would likely happen under attack from Russian artillery, soldiers in fortified firing positions and aircraft, meaning ground forces would have to advance beneath an artillery duel.

Breakouts can require months of bombardment, probing and failed assaults. In World War II, after the Allies gained a beachhead in France on D-Day, it took them almost two months of massive air and ground attacks to breach inland Nazi defenses and achieve a breakout.

Ukrainians say that whatever happens over the coming days and weeks, they will continue fighting through winter and into next year. Fedorov and Ukrainian troops say they now realize that giving Russia time to build its defenses was a strategic mistake, and so they must maintain pressure on Moscow’s troops.

“If Ukrainians don’t get a breakthrough, there is nothing stopping the Russians from just digging some more trenches or counterattacking,” said Pasi Paroinen, a Finnish open-source intelligence analyst who has studied Russia’s defensive lines in Ukraine.


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