A Blog by Jonathan Low


Sep 2, 2023

Why Ukraine's Breach of Verbove Line Can Wreak Havoc Among Russian Forces

The Ukrainian breach of heavily defended Russian lines at Verbove accomplishes two major achievements: it brings plentiful Ukrainian shorter range artillery within target distance of Tokmak, rendering that crucial Russian supply hub largely unusable. 

And it opens up the relatively more lightly defended occupied areas beyond to exploitation by Ukrainian armored forces, potentially forcing the Russians to retreat to Crimea or to the east. Either of those Ukrainian gains would be strategically devastating for Russia. JL 

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

Ukrainian troops’ piercing of Russian lines this week marks a move with big potential. Full-scale penetration would allow Ukraine to pour armored vehicles through and wreak havoc among Russian forces. A successful breach of defenses that Moscow’s forces spent months building - and held by its best troops - allow Ukrainian troops to capture more territory, target more of Russia’s critical supply lines and undermine Russia’s ability to wage war across a much wider region. If Kyiv’s troops push to 6 miles outside Tokmak, Ukrainian artillery with plentiful 155mm cannons will target its rail and road lines, "making Tokmak useless as a transportation node. The enemy’s defense is cracking."

Ukrainian troops’ piercing of Russian lines this week marks a small move with big potential. 

The Ukrainians are trying to gradually force their way through the main Russian defensive line in the southeast under heavy fire to expand fissures they opened and achieve a larger-scale breach. 

This is a critical moment in Kyiv’s three-month counteroffensive because a full-scale penetration would allow Ukraine to pour armored vehicles through and wreak havoc among Russian forces. 

Advancing a few miles through the defenses around Verbove—a settlement in the country’s southeast unknown even to most Ukrainians—would amount to a modest gain compared with the roughly 20% of their country that Russia controls, or compared with the greater gains that Ukrainian and Western military leaders had hoped earlier this year to have achieved by now.

But if Ukrainian forces manage to cross minefields, trenches and cement blockades known as dragon’s teeth, they will have overcome impediments that Russia hopes are impassable. Many of Moscow’s best troops have been stationed on the front line.

Russian-controlled area


Russian fortifications









Area of


10 miles

10 km

Note: Russian-controlled area as of Aug. 30

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

Each mile that Ukrainian forces advance puts their artillery closer to hitting Russian targets that so far have sat out of reach, including roads and train lines through the regional hub city Tokmak. Further beyond runs the M14 highway, which follows the country’s southeastern shore and which Russia relies on to move crucial supplies. 

John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council in Washington, said Friday there is reason to be hopeful.

“We have noted that over the last 72 hours or so, some notable progress by Ukrainian armed forces on that southern line of advance coming out of the Zaporizhzhia area, and they have achieved some success against that second line of Russian defenses,” he said.

Kirby said the U.S. is continuing to work with the Ukrainians to ensure they have everything they need for more success.

Big challenges lie ahead for Ukrainian forces, said one U.S. official.

“The jury is still out,” the official said. “This is by no means a done deal. There are no touchdown dances, but no one is holding an Irish wake.”

A successful breach of defenses that Moscow’s forces spent months building would allow Ukrainian troops to capture more territory, target more of Russia’s critical supply lines and undermine Russia’s ability to wage war across a much wider region. Kyiv’s broader goal is to slice through the band of Russian-occupied territory stretching from Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia to the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014. 

Severing what Moscow calls its land bridge would potentially cut off routes to Crimea, where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is based. 

Ukrainian troops’ advances over the past week have boosted morale in the area. Ivan Fedorov, the exiled Ukrainian mayor of Melitopol, the largest nearby city, said that according to local residents, Russian-installed authorities were leaving Tokmak.

“The enemy’s defense is cracking, so the first rats run from the sinking Russian ship,” Fedorov said. 

Russian officials haven’t commented on the Ukrainian advance to Verbove, which followed by days Ukraine’s retaking of the village of Robotyne, roughly 6 miles west. Crossing the short distance entailed an intense fight, said Oleksandr Solonko, a private in an air-reconnaissance battalion who is operating drones in the area.

“Every step, we had to face minefields, trenches,” he said. Passing concrete dragon’s teeth around Robotyne, he said, had given soldiers a psychological boost, but he added: “There is still huge work ahead of us.” Satellite and drone imagery shows many lines of fortifications ahead, and Moscow has moved more troops into the region, according to open-source intelligence reports. It remains unclear how heavily the barricades are manned by troops ready to fire on advancing Ukrainian forces or whether the Russians are under coordinated command.

“All obstacles are only speed bumps if they’re not controlled by fire and not part of a larger defense plan,” said Billy Fabian, a former Pentagon strategist and U.S. Army infantry officer.

While Tokmak is the biggest nearby target for advancing Ukrainian troops, they may not launch an attack on the city, which sits roughly 13 miles south of Robotyne and is now ringed by Russian fortifications, said Western analysts. 

If Kyiv’s troops can push the front line to about 6 miles outside Tokmak, Ukrainian artillery forces with plentiful 155mm cannons will be able to target its rail and road lines, said Trent Telenko, a former official at the Pentagon’s Defense Contract Management Agency who has studied Russian military logistics.


Extending the front to within 6 miles “will make Tokmak useless as a road-rail transportation node,” said Telenko. At that distance, Ukrainian artillery can stay about 10 miles behind the front, which he said is a sufficient distance to be relatively safe from Russian counter-battery fire.

Even without getting so close to a target, each mile of advance allows Ukraine’s longer-range ground-launched rockets to hit more Russian assets. Ukraine’s Western-made Himars and M270 mobile launchers fire projectiles with a range of at most about 50 miles. 

The M14 highway is about 50 miles south of Robotyne and Verbove, but the launchers must stay several miles back from the front for safety, so Ukraine’s recent gains still don’t yet put them in firing range of the Russian supply artery.

Ukrainian military leaders hope that piercing the Russian front at Verbove will allow them to open a much larger breach and flood it with dozens of Western-made tanks and armored vehicles. To protect such a high-profile force from Russian attack, combat veterans say Ukrainian forces must clear a path at least 10 miles wide—and preferably much wider—which will be difficult.

But even a smaller gap threatens Russian forces, said Dave Demorrow, a retired U.S. Army noncommissioned officer who spent years in front-line military intelligence during the Cold War and in Iraq. Smaller, less-armored vehicles such as Humvees or speedy attack squads operating behind Russia’s forward-facing lines could cause chaos, he said.

“Russians can’t fight in 360 degrees—they’re just not trained for that,” Demorrow said. “Even a Humvee with a .50-caliber machine gun on it will tear up an artillery unit” because the unit won’t be equipped to return fire at short range, he said.


Post a Comment