A Blog by Jonathan Low


Aug 24, 2023

As Ukraine Widens Breach South of Robotyne, Tokmak Is In Artillery Range

Ukrainian forces continue to build on their successes at Robotyne and Tokmak, advancing further south at the second Russian line of defense and bringing Tokmak within drone and artillery range. JL 

Kos reports in Daily Kos:

Ukraine is making headway in the Robotyne-Tokmak-Melitopol direction, the most heavily fortified stretch of Russian-held territory in the country. Ukrainian forces achieved success in Novopokropivka (13km south of Orikhiv) and Novodanylivka (5km south of Orikhiv). Ukrainian forces widened their penetration through Russia's first lines of defense, depriving Russian forces of the western flank of the Ukrainian breach and giving Ukrainian forces more maneuver space. After Ukraine consolidates the high ground around Robotyne, flattening its flanks to avoid salients, it’s literally downhill to Tokmak.

Bakhmut has long been a ginormous question mark in the story of this war. Russia captured it, mostly using Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenaries and prison labor, after a bloody nine-month campaign. It never made sense—the city (Ukraine’s 58th or 59th largest) lacked any real strategic merit. Still, Russia threw everything it could at it, and Ukraine lost thousands of their own in its defense, when there were perfectly adequate heights to the city’s west to mount a less costly defense.

Indeed, once Russia hit those heights, that was that. It could obviously be argued that Russia culminated on this advance precisely because Ukraine fiercely fought for each city block, but ultimately, it was an incredibly costly campaign for both sides, over something with no strategic value.

Anyway, that advance was done. Russia was stuck in their Bakhmut fishbowl, with Ukraine raining death from the heights on anyone that moved out in the open. It was time for Ukraine to focus on the battle that mattered—the effort to cut Russia’s “land bridge” connecting mainland Russia to the Crimean peninsula through Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia oblasts in southern Ukraine. Instead, Ukraine deployed several of its best units to begin retaking territory north and south of Bakhmut.

I’ve questioned it before, and the obvious retort is “best to try and take it back before Russia has a chance to dig in.” That makes sense, but still, who cares? Who cares if Russia digs in around Bakhmut? The city has no geographic value. It’s been leveled to the ground, so there’s no one left to save from the occupiers. It’s not in a particularly important direction. So what was with Ukraine’s obsession to keep fighting there? It was no longer about bleeding Russians on the attack. It was them doing the bleeding attempting to retake Russian positions.

Turns out, NATO generals had the same questions, and have apparently convinced Ukraine to quit that bullshit and focus on where it matters, as The New York Times reported.

The main goal of the counteroffensive is to cut off Russian supply lines in southern Ukraine by severing the so-called land bridge between Russia and the occupied Crimean Peninsula. But instead of focusing on that, Ukrainian commanders have divided troops and firepower roughly equally between the east and the south, the U.S. officials said.

As a result, more Ukrainian forces are near Bakhmut and other cities in the east than are near Melitopol and Berdiansk in the south, both far more strategically significant fronts, officials say.

American planners have advised Ukraine to concentrate on the front driving toward Melitopol, Kyiv’s top priority, and on punching through Russian minefields and other defenses, even if the Ukrainians lose more soldiers and equipment in the process.

We mocked Russia early in the war for dividing its troops across four different axes and over a dozen separate directions, and here is Ukraine doing much of the same. But that is now changing. “In a video teleconference on Aug. 10, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; his British counterpart, Adm. Sir Tony Radakin; and Gen. Christopher Cavoli, the top U.S. commander in Europe, urged Ukraine’s most senior military commander, Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, to focus on one main front,” the Times reported. “And, according to two officials briefed on the call, General Zaluzhnyi agreed.”

There is this weird sentiment that Ukraine can do no wrong, and to “trust” their decisions. They absolutely can get things wrong, and clinging to old Soviet doctrine that dictates attacking along multiple fronts is clearly wrong. Russia just proved that in this very war, just last year.

Under American war doctrine, there is always a main effort to ensure that maximum resources go to a single front, even if supporting forces are fighting in other areas to hedge against failure or spread-out enemy defenses.

But Ukraine and Russia fight under old Soviet Communist doctrine, which seeks to minimize rivalries among factions of the army by providing equal amounts of manpower and equipment across commands. Both armies have failed to prioritize their most important objectives, officials say.

Ukraine is finally making headway, and doing it in the Robotyne-Tokmak-Melitopol direction, which is literally the most heavily fortified stretch of Russian-held territory in the entire country.

Red dots/lines are major Russian defensive emplacements

As I type this, Ukraine has raised its flag in Robotyne and declared it liberated.

It’s a small village with outsized strategic importance, marking Ukraine’s conquest of Russia’s first major line of defense. There are at least three more to go, but after Ukraine consolidates the high ground around Robotyne, flattening its flanks to avoid salients and expel Russian forces from its best vantage points, it’s literally downhill the rest of the way to Tokmak. 

Robotyne area topography Aug 22.
Ukraine is consolidating its positions on the high ground around Robotyne (red on the map), and then can coast downhill the rest of the way down to Tokmak

Further tactically significant Ukrainian gains in and around Robotyne in western Zaporizhia Oblast are widening the Ukrainian breach of Russian defensive lines in the area and threatening Russian secondary lines of defense. Geolocated footage published on August 22 and 23 indicates that Ukrainian forces have advanced further in Robotyne (10km south of Orikhiv) and control most of the settlement and have made further gains west of Verbove (18km southeast of Orikhiv).[45] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces achieved unspecified success in the direction of Novopokropivka (13km south of Orikhiv) and Novodanylivka (5km south of Orikhiv).[46] Russian forces had likely hoped to use their positions in and around Robotyne as a launching point for counterattacks against the western flank of the Ukrainian advance east of the settlement, where Ukrainian forces appear to be widening their penetration through Russian first lines of defense. The Ukrainian advance through Robotyne itself and the potential liberation of the settlement will deprive Russian forces of positions near the western flank of the Ukrainian breach and therefore give Ukrainian forces more maneuver space to launch offensive operations against the Russian secondary line of defense that runs south of Robotyne to the western outskirts of Verbove. A successful deep penetration of Russian defensive lines likely requires a widening of the initial penetration to prevent Russian forces from cutting off a too-narrow thrust.

Ukrainian advances have now brought Ukrainian forces within roughly two kilometers of the secondary lines of Russian defense, a relatively more continuous set of field fortifications consisting of anti-tank ditches and dragon's teeth anti-tank obstacles. The extent of minefields in the area is unclear, although areas in front of these secondary lines of defense may be less heavily mined to give Russian forces north of the lines the ability to retreat. ISW previously assessed that these secondary lines of defense may be relatively weaker than the first Russian defensive lines in the area due to a lack of uncommitted Russian forces in the area and further lateral deployments from other sectors of the front.

If history is any guide, expect Russia to send wave after wave of hapless infantry to try and retake Robotyne. Ukraine can mow those down as it prepares to breach the next defensive line. Let’s hope the gods of war are smiling on Ukraine, and that line is weak and depleted thanks to Russia’s obsession with fighting in front of its lines, rather than protected inside them.


james henry said...

Thanks for spreading this knowledge to us.

Anonymous said...

Thanks again, James Henry

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