A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jun 10, 2023

Ukraine Increasing Attacks In South and Bakhmut Area

Details about the nature and direction of Ukrainian attacks are becoming clearer. As has been long predicted, the most serious attacks are towards the south, to cut the Russian land connection to occupied Crimea. There are also attacks around Bakhmut, which seem to be both opportunistic, given Russian weaknesses in the area, and to serve as a distraction away from the main focus of the counteroffensive, though that could change if it turns out Russian defenses in the eastern Donbas collapse. 

It may be a few more days before the real thrust becomes better defined. JL

Mark Sumner and Kos report in Daily Kos:

Four days after Russian sources first began reporting Ukrainian attacks along the southern front, those attacks seem to be getting more significant. Rather than small unit actions, three full brigades are engaged. Ukraine has launched attacks not just in the three areas where actions had been underway up until yesterday, but also well to the west, north of Melitopol and Tokmak.Those attacks appear to have had success in moving Russian forces back. Western gear is designed to protect crews from mines. By all indications, the crews of all these vehicles survived and the vehicles can be towed to the rear for repair, to be thrown back into the battle later.

Four days after Russian sources first began reporting Ukrainian attacks along a section of the southern front, those attacks seem to be getting ever larger and more significant. Rather than just small unit actions, it now seems as if at least three full brigades are engaged in the area around Velyka Novosilka pressing Russian forces back.For me, those images are proof that this shit is hard, not that Ukraine has somehow failed. War is dangerous business.


It now seems that Ukraine has launched attacks not just in the three areas where actions had been underway up until yesterday, but also well to the west, north of Melitopol and Tokmak.Those attacks appear to have had success in moving Russian forces back in at least two locations. As with almost everything currently underway, the information available comes largely from Russian sources. Often those sources are reporting how they have valiantly repelled Ukrainian troops and defended their positions. Only the positions that Russia is defending keep showing a tendency to drift to the south.

It wasn’t long ago that too many people chortled at how “easy” Russia’s lines would be to breach. The dragon’s teeth were cheaply made! Russian troops are demoralized and will run at first contact! It was the worst kind of triumphalism, ignoring the inherent difficulties of war, and overstating both Ukrainian capabilities and underestimating Russia’s.

Now that Ukraine’s long-awaited spring offensive has begun, we’re seeing the reality of war—brutal, deadly, bloody, and anything but easy.

After a year and a half of endless videos of burning Russian vehicles, the tables are turned. And for the first time, we’re seeing the difficult consequences of going on the offensive against prepared defensive positions. For the first time, we’re seeing videos and pictures of burning Ukrainian vehicles, trapped in minefields, showered with artillery.

And all of this is happening before Ukraine has even reached the main defensive lines.

War is difficult. And Ukraine decided to plunge head-first into the most densely defended corner of the Ukrainian front.

Of course, there’s a reason this is the most densely defended corner of the map. While Ukraine would benefit from liberating territory in other areas, getting to either Melitopol or Berdyansk is the most direct route toward actually ending the war. Russia knows this and has prepared accordingly, with multiple layers of defenses. This Twitter thread explains in great detail what that looks like. 

Russian defensive lines around Tokmak

Each of the color bands in that image is a defensive line. Ukraine would have to bust through all of them to get to Tokmak.

There are several distinct layers or defensive zones. Zone 1: first 3-4km from the RuFLOT [Forward Line of Own Troops] is the forward security zone consisting of individual squad or platoon outposts and individual company strongpoints.

Zone 2: first defensive line, 2-3km deep. Company trenches and strongpoints arranged along key terrain features in continuous line. This zone has seen recent additions and is constantly being improved. Villages of Kopani and Robotyne form the linchpins of this position.

Zone 3: 4-5km deep zone with reserve- and possible decoy positions. This zone is also where majority of the local Russian artillery and mechanized reserves will be maneuvering behind the first defense line. Multiple shelter areas for vehicles and equipment observed.

Zone 4: Prepared main defensive line. Massive multilayered trench lines with anti-tank ditches and dragons’ teeth obstacles. Extensive minefields are likely. These fortifications form nearly uniformly continuous defensive belt across the front. Built 3-4km deep.

Zone 5: Reserve and fallback positions behind the main defensive line (zone 3). Zone 6: Town of Tokmak and the surrounding AT-ditch and strongpoints form the last fallback and reserve position on this sector, prepared for all-around defense.

Note that Ukraine has to punch through three lines before they even get to the main defensive line! Each one is kilometers deep, all heavily mined, with artillery dialed into the relevant coordinates. Russian positions are all on higher terrain, meaning Ukraine has to attack uphill to secure those defensive emplacements (trenches, bunkers, and hidden ambush points).

The fog of war is thick, but there are suggestions that Ukraine is somewhere near Robotyne, which is the first substantive defensive line after the observational posts that Russia acknowledges have been overrun. Yet Ukraine still has to punch through those Zone 2 and 3 defenses before it even gets to Russia’s main prepared defensive lines, where the first dragon’s teeth show up.

So everyone confidently predicting Ukraine would slice through Russia’s cheaply made dragon’s teeth and untrained mobilized mobiks, well, they’re is still a ways from even getting there … and they’re already taking heavy casualties. Mines and artillery don’t suffer from poor morale.

Now go back to that picture at the top of the disabled Leopard and M2 Bradleys …

They’re not destroyed. They’re disabled. They hit mines. That means they’re temporarily out of commission, but not out of the war.

That’s the thing about Western gear: It’s designed to protect their crews from mine hits. By all indications, the crews of all these vehicles survived—critically important given the time and investment in getting these troops up to speed. They’re not easily replaced. And the vehicles can be towed to the rear for repair, to be thrown back into the battle later. This Leopard? It suffered a blown track and some side panels blown off its hinges. This one will be back in action soon. (Ukrainian sources claim it already is, which is plausible.)

Incidentally, this is another reason why I got excited when Western arms packages included tank recovery vehicles—they are critical in rescuing damaged equipment. You don’t want Ukrainian tractors venturing out into those minefields And it’s why logistics and maintenance are doubly critical—it gives this valuable equipment multiple lives.

Unfortunately, not all vehicles have been this lucky. Another Leopard was filmed burning, hit by either artillery or anti-tank guided missiles. But generally, most of the losses seen are from mines—many of them recoverable, and even those that aren’t, like the MRAP infantry vehicle seen in the tweet below, the crews were likely saved. They are literally called “mine-resistant ambush protection” vehicles, designed to survive the IEDs that were prevalent during our wars against ISIS and the Taliban.


The current visually confirmed tally is two Leopard 2A6es damaged and one destroyed, around 10 M2 Bradleys—all damaged—and a small handful of MRAPs and armored personnel carriers. Ukraine has literally thousands of Western MRAPs in its arsenal right now. But even those Leopard and M2 Bradley losses, assuming they can’t be salvaged, would still represent only 2% of their supplies. And while we don’t know the full extent of their losses (Ukraine is tight-lipped and certainly won’t release this footage, and Russian sources both have terrible quality drone footage, or outright lie), it’s clear that this was never going to be bloodless or easy.

If you’re wondering why these incapacitated and/or destroyed Ukrainian vehicles are all bunched up, it’s because that’s what happens during a minefield breach.

These vehicles must travel on mine-cleared lanes, which then makes it easy for artillery to zero in on their location. Also, as I’ve written ad infinitum, combined arms warfare is hard, and the best, most highly trained armies in the world struggle to pull it off. Ukraine has been drilling on it for just a handful of months. And all the “Ukraine can do it!” rah-rah talk can’t overcome the laws of warfare. Heck, the best wartime officers will tell the story about how their mistakes cost people's lives, but that’s how they learn. Ukraine is doing something it has never done before, and they were struggling to do combined arms in the smallest unit operations. Doing it at the brigade level, with dozens of vehicles, is another level of difficulty.

All that said, Ukraine is advancing. Russian war propagandist War Gonzo was near-hysterics after last night’s battles:

Urgent Situation in Zaporozhye at 6:30 Moscow time 4

As we wrote earlier, the enemy again stepped up offensive operations by nightfall.

Fighting continued throughout the night, as a result of which the enemy, with massive support from artillery and armored vehicles, managed to occupy several positions of our troops in the Orekhov-Tokmak direction.

The situation is really serious. Neo-Nazis by their actions are trying to create a threat of encirclement of some of our advanced groups in one of the directions. The activity of the battles is extremely high.

Recall that during yesterday's run-up, the enemy was also able to cling to our advanced positions, but could not gain a foothold on them.

I’m at a loss to explain War Gonzo’s talk of “a threat of encirclement,” as that would require a pincer maneuver that we haven’t seen happen. Perhaps he means that by pushing past defensive positions—a standard Soviet doctrine that Ukraine used to great effect during the Kharkiv offensive—that Ukraine would essentially cut off the roads supplying the bypassed positions. In the morning, War Gonzo triumphantly declared that the Ukrainian advance had been pushed back, but … sure. We can all roll our eyes.

Ukrainian media outlet Volyamedia has some exciting claims

The Armed Forces of Ukraine liberated more than 15 settlements and advanced 5-17 km deep into the front in the Zaporozhye direction [...]

The most dangerous for the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation remains the south-eastern direction (near Ugledar), where the Armed Forces of Ukraine have achieved the greatest success so far. Heavy fighting is going on along the entire line, the Russian command has already activated up to 70% of the reserves in the south.

This tracks with common claims, even among American officials, of Ukrainian gains of 5-15 kms along the front. And here is where things get curious. Those vehicle kills above? All of them are from a single engagement across a front line in which Ukraine is moving in multiple directions—and not in the Vuhledar direction in the block quote above. 

Russian sources are posting those images and video over and over again—it’s been a long time since they’ve had anything to celebrate, and disabled Western kit is exciting for them—but it paints a small picture of the overall counteroffensive. If Ukraine suffered similar losses elsewhere, Russia would post that, not keep recycling the same battle kills, from different angles, attempting to paint a picture of overwhelming Ukrainian losses.

Thirty-four armored vehicles is massive, but 38 artillery and MLRS systems destroyed is next-level. Counter-battery is working aggressively to identify and eliminate Russia’s biggest defensive advantage. The more Ukraine can attrit Russian artillery and stop its supply of shells, the more effective this counteroffensive will be. If these numbers are anywhere close to being true, Ukraine is making serious headway.

Mark Sumner’s update yesterday is still an accurate source for where Ukraine is attacking. With Ukraine’s information blackout, we don’t know how far they’ve advanced. We’ll have to keep waiting on further information. The only place Ukraine has claimed progress is the area around Bakhmut, where Ukraine claims another kilometer in gains. That might refer to Berhivka, north of Yahidne/Bakhmut, which multiple Ukrainian and Russian sources claim has been liberated.

There are now numerous claims that Berhivka has been liberated

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the CEO of the mercenary Wagner group, must be beside himself, given the hundreds of his troops that likely died taking Berhivka several months ago, just to see it gifted back to the Ukrainians as soon as Russian troops were put in charge of its defense. He himself announced that Ukraine had taken part of the town several days ago.

The Ukrainian goal is clear: a pincer maneuver from the north and south that would force Russia’s Bakhmut garrison to retreat or risk getting cut off. Even without full encirclement, this is a reverse of what Ukraine faced a couple of months ago—with Russians encircling their defenders in town, being shelled from three sides. Now, Ukraine gets to return the favor.

I do wonder why Ukraine is pushing in this direction. Bakhmut has nothing left worth retaking, and the push in Zaporizhzhia is incredibly difficult and will likely need an all-hands-on-deck effort (assuming it isn’t a diversion from a bigger attack somewhere else on the map). Perhaps there’s a big enough chunk of the Russian army garrisoned there that’s worth destroying. Maybe it’s a blocking action, keeping Russian forces from being redeployed to the main active front. Maybe it’s preparation for something else in  Ukraine’s plans.

Either way, Ukraine doesn’t seem to have much committed there—I’ve seen mostly a single brigade, the Azov one, in action. So perhaps Ukraine sees it as a minimal investment to keep Russia on the defensive.


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