A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jun 21, 2023

How Ukraine Is Adapting Counteroffensive To Seize Opportunities

The counteroffensive is making progress, but at a slower rate than many expected. 

Those expectations may have been unrealistic to begin with, but Ukrainian commanders have demonstrated a core strength of their leadership throughout this war, which is the ability to adapt to circumstances in order to avoid threats - and take advantage of opportunities - achieve their goals. JL

RO37 reports in Daily Kos:

If there is one thing that has defined the Ukrainian Army, it has been adaptability. Ukraine has made tactical adjustments (and) has fed more and more of its best and brigades into an attack to the east at Velyka Novosilka, shifting the weight of its attack a few km. Velyka Novosilka represents a 100km detour to strike Tokmak from the east, but the defenses in this area in density and depth are vastly lighter than the Tokmak area. (And it) appears to have made some tweaks to how it is positioning its anti-air resources.

The earliest impression of Ukraine’s attack on Russia’s defense line was defined by an early Ukrainian disaster—the loss of multiple Leopard 2 tanks and Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles in a minefield north of Tokmak. In the subsequent weeks, it became clear that Russia had a nasty surprise waiting for Ukraine, in the form of a new tactic of aggressive attacks by attack helicopters on Ukrainian assault columns slowed in minefields.

In the subsequent week, Russia proceeded to show this same image of destroyed Tanks and IFVs from every imaginable angle and level of zoom.

That being said, Ukraine needed to adapt to this setback. If the Ukrainian Army was like the Russian Army at Vuhledar, this early catastrophe would have continued and repeated, over and over. Ukraine could have fed more and more soldiers and armored vehicles into the same minefield until the attacks succeeded at crushing costs, or Ukraine ran out of armored vehicles and soldiers.

Fortunately, if there is one thing that has defined the Ukrainian Army in the Russo-Ukrainian War, it has been adaptability. Ukraine and its commander, General Zaluzhnyi, are already demonstrating the adaptability it has demonstrated time and again for the last 16 months.

Namely, Ukraine has fed more and more of its best and brigades into an attack to the east at Velyka Novosilka and Ukraine has shifted the weight of its attack north of Robotyn a few km to the east.

Although Ukraine has been conducting counterattacks all over the front lines with advances being made on the Northern (Svatove/Kreminna) Front, and Eastern (Bakhmut/Donetsk) Front, the two main thrusts of the Ukrainian Summer Counteroffensive are in the south.


Initially, it appeared that Ukraine’s main effort would be in the Tokmak direction. Ukraine committed two NATO-trained heavy armored brigades equipped with Western arms like the Leopard 2 tanks and the Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV) towards Tokmak—later identified as the 33rd and 47th Mechanized Infantry Brigades.

It’s less than 30km (20 mi) from the initial front lines to the key railroad hub of Tokmak, making it tantalizingly close, so it’s understandable why Ukraine wanted to make a strong push in this direction.

However, Tokmak is arguably the most well-defended city in Russian-occupied Ukraine.


There are at least four primary defensive layers that Ukraine must penetrate before they reach the city of Tokmak, consisting of defensive minefields, pre-sighted artillery (test fired to identify firing angles beforehand), and entrenched infantry positions. These were backed up by attack helicopters based in the Berdyansk Air Force Base about 100km behind the front lines to the southeast, with the UK Ministry of Defense identifying 20+ helicopters operating from that area.

These defenses have proven formidable.

However, Ukraine also chose to make an attack using three veteran light infantry brigades to the east, around Velyka Novosilka, initially consisting only of the 35th and 37th Marine and 68th Jaeger Brigades.

Velyka Novosilka would represent a 100km detour to strike Tokmak from the east, but the defenses in this area are far lighter. Russian positions north of Staromlynivka are defended only by some minefields, and the main fortification line south of Staromlynivka consists of only a single layer of trenchworks. In density and depth, the defenses in this area are vastly lighter than the Tokmak area.


From its initial starting position, Ukraine needed to advance around 20km to reach the main Russian defenses from Velyka Novosilka. In two weeks, Ukraine has covered around half that distance, but both the Russians and Ukrainians have rushed reinforcements to this area.

If you contrast Ukrainian force commitments to the Tokmak and Velyka Novosilka directions, you can see the difference in force commitment (aggregated from Kyiv Post, UA Control Map, and Poulet Voulant)

  • Tokmak Offensive
    • West: 128th Mountain Brigade (V)
    • East: 65th Mechanized (N), 33rd Mechanized (E), 47th Mechanized (E)
  • Velyka Novosilka Offensie
    • Original Force Commitment: 35th Marines (V), 37th Marines (V), 68th Jaeger (V)
    • Since committed to combat: 4th Tank Brigade (E), 31st Mechanized (N), 23rd Mechanized (N)
    • Since added to reserve: 1st Tank Brigade (E), 25th Air Assault Brigade (E), 93rd Mechanized (V)
    • Possibly in reserve/No geolocation: 82nd Air Assault Brigade (E)

V = Veteran Brigade, E = Elite Brigade with NATO training/equipment, N = New Brigade formed out of primarily new soldiers

So since the start of the Velyka Novosilka offensive, Ukraine appears to have thrown as many as six additional brigades into that area, including four NATO-trained elite armored brigades with Leopard 2s, Challenger 2s, and other NATO equipment.

The arrival of the 93rd Mechanized Brigade is notable as well. Although not marked for receipt of the most powerful Western equipment like Bradleys, Leopards, or Challengers, the 93rd MB is well known as one of the most powerful veteran units in the Ukrainian Army. As of November 2022, it had five tank battalions equipped mostly heavily upgraded T-64 tanks and a handful of T-80s. The 93rd MB fills out with a mechanized infantry battalion. Five tank battalions and a mechanized infantry battalion make the 93rd MB a tank brigade in all but name.

The 93rd MB led the way in Ukraine's first counteroffensive operation in March 2022, when Ukrainian forces saved its second-largest city, Kharkiv, from Russian attacks. The 93rd Mechanized halting, then driving back the Russian 4th Tank army was instrumental in saving the major city.

The 93rd MB also helped set the stage for the Khakiv Counteroffensive in September 2022. Three weeks before the start of the offensive, the 93rd MB launched an attack towards Izium from the west, drawing Russian reserves from rearward areas behind Izium—emptying the area for a counterattack by the 4th Tank Brigade and 25th Air Assault Brigade from the rear.

The 93rd Mechanized is the armored brigade that landed like a sledgehammer in mid-October in Bakhmut. It arrived along with the 58th MB in Bakhmut during one of Wagner’s premature victory declarations as Wagnerite forces had pushed into the city proper directly from the east. Those advances were erased by the two mechanized infantry brigades, which promptly erased virtually all those gains in a matter of days.

The 93rd Mechanized continued to hold the northern defenses around Bakhmut against Wagner attacks, but the 93rd MB was rotated out of Bakhmut in early December. The 93rd MB was replaced on the line by elements of the 120th and 241st Territorial Defense Brigades, far less experienced conscript infantry.  This immediately preceded Wagner’s successful push into Soledar.

Although this move was characterized as a rotation by the General Staff of Ukraine, it turned out to be more permanent—after nearly nine months of near-continuous fighting in the largest battles of the war, the 93rd MB suffered badly from attrition. The unit was given over six months to rest and reconstitute before arriving at Velyka Novosilka.

A captured Russian T-80BVM tank used by 93rd Mechanized Brigade of Ukrainian Army May 2022
A captured Russian T-80BVM tank used by the 93rd Mechanized Brigade of the Ukrainian Army in May 2022

Russia has matched this by increasing its force commitment to the battles, but it makes tactical sense for Ukraine to attempt to destroy Russian reserves in the unfortified battlefield south of Velyka Novosilka, rather than to face the same troops behind line after line of fortifications north of Tokmak.

According to Ukraine Control Map, Ukraine appears to have positioned but not committed the 1st Tank Brigade, 25th Air Assault Brigade, and 93rd MB all in reserve on the west side of the fighting south of Velyka Novosilka. This may represent the preparation of a “right hook” attack against the Russian positions on the Russian left flank.


Ukraine has not neglected it’s attacks north of Tokmak, however.  The initial Ukrainian assault in the area had two primary thrust, starting around June 5th with increasing intensity.  The main thrust was a larger armored thrust by Leopard 2s and Bradleys of the 33rd and 47th MB north of Robotyne.


This initial assault was a good document defeated. The main assault was reportedly trapped in a dense minefield after the engineering vehicles were disabled, leaving the stranded units vulnerable to artillery and attack helicopter strikes. They were geolocated north of Robotyne.

Russian Ka-52 “Alligator” Attack Helicopters play a particularly important role in Russian defense because the Ka-52s are the only ones capable of firing the 9A4172 Vikhr-1 anti-tank missile. Russia also makes extensive use of the Mi-28 Havoc as an attack helicopter, but it relies on the older 9M120 Ataka anti-tank missile. The Vikhr missile has a range of over 10km, while the Ataka missile is limited to 5-6km, and the Vikhr missile is more resistant to defensive countermeasures. Ka-52 helicopters can more readily outrange Ukrainian frontline air defenses like the Stinger missiles (range: 4800m).

Ukraine has made two tactical adjustments.

First, Ukraine appears to avoid at this stage high risk/high reward heavily concentrated armored attacks, preferring to gradually make its way through Russian minefields with small infantry attacks supporting combat engineers, with only platoon-sized armored support at the most.

The Ukrainian engineers’ mine-clearing weapon of choice has become the America M-58 MCLC (pronounced MIK-lik). An explosive line charge, which is a series of plastic explosives attached to a 100-yard rocket-fired line, the MCLC is designed to be fired over a minefield. The rocket shoots the line of charges in a straight 100-yard long line, placing the explosives in a straight line. The explosives are then detonated, taking all but the most advanced anti-tank mines with them.

Against far weaker opposition than around Robotyne, the 128th Mountain Brigade has continued to advance, capturing the high ground around Pyatykhatky on June 18th.


On June 19th-20th, Russia attempted to counterattack Piatykhatky, but was apparently ambushed in Sherebyanky, where the fighting appears to have moved.  These attacks to the west continue to be by a single infantry brigade that is quite widely spaced out over several km, and they seem to represent slow methodical small scale attacks.

Meanwhile, in the Robotyne area, Ukraine appears to have shifted the weight of its attack further to the east. Now the newly formed 65th MB troops have taken over the intensely defended route directly to Robotyne, against which they appear to be advancing very cautiously.

Meanwhile, the 47th/33rd MBs are more aggressively attacking further east, liberating much of Novropokrovka. They appear to be aiming to flank Robotyne from the east.


Lastly, Ukraine appears to have made some tweaks to how it is positioning its anti-air resources. While the initial attacks suffered significantly from attack helicopters, no large-scale armored losses have been reported since that time. Furthermore, Ukraine reported the downing of four Ka-52 helicopters in 3 days from June 17-19th.

A heavily damaged Ka-52 whose tail had been shot off was filmed liming back to base—only the Ka-52’s unique twin main rotor design that eliminates the need for a tail rotor prevented the helicopter from crashing.

Given Ukrainian deficiencies in SHORAD (short-range air defense) systems, it’s unclear how Ukraine has increased the air coverage of its attacks. It may be that air defense systems are being pushed forward closer to the front lines (at the risk of coming under artillery attack). It may be that the slower and more methodical advances currently being attempted are more easily covered by air defense. In any case, the uptick in Russian helicopter losses seems to indicate a tactical adjustment to deal with this increased threat.

In any case, Ukraine appears to be adapting its tactics in response to challenges on the battlefield. It also appears to remain cautious. Ukraine has an estimated nine to twelve NATO-trained and equipped heavy armored brigades. It has committed to combat only three of those brigades, with two to three more in reserve in the Velyka Novosilka area. That’s around half or less of Ukraine’s most powerful armored units, or less than half with several additional veteran armored units (like the 3rd Tank Brigade or the 93rd Mechanized) available as well.

Ukraine appears to currently be content to slowly draw Russian reserve forces forwards, engaging the Russians predominantly with its elite light infantry units (Marines, Mountain Brigades), and keeping its heavy armored units close, but not into the fighting.


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