A Blog by Jonathan Low


Aug 15, 2023

Why Ukraine Is Intentionally Ignoring Some Russian-Occupied Towns

There has been much gnashing of teeth and many expressions of frustration at the supposedly slow pace of Ukraine's counteroffensive. But the evidence suggests the Ukrainians are moving slowly on purpose at the moment, primarily because the so-called towns and villages like Klischchiivka, Robotyne and Urozhaine are uninhabited piles of rubble on low-lying ground. There is no one to liberate and no buildings to save. 

What the Ukrainians are doing, sensibly, is continuing to degrade Russian troops and capabilities so that when the time comes, a breakthrough can be mounted. JL

Mark Sumner reports in Daily Kos:

What’s happening at Robotyne and Urozhaine has nothing to do with the patches of ground that used to be Robotyne and Urozhaine. It’s about taking tactical positions that allow Ukraine to achieve three strategic goals: Minimize Ukrainian losses to sustain Ukraine’s offensive capabilities, maximize Russian losses to degrade Russia’s defensive capabilities, seek a breakthrough that allows Ukrainian forces to (take) large, occupied cities like Melitopol and Mariupol. (At Bakhmut) Ukraine has the tactical position and the forces to push down out of those hills and take the remainder of Klishchiivka. It’s just that … so what if it did? There’s no one living there to be liberated, few structures to be saved.

Ukraine is either close to capturing, or may have already captured, the towns of Robotyne and Urozhaine along the southern front. In addition, Ukrainian troops are moving both east and west of the town of Pryyutne. At any moment, there may be an official announcement that these locations have been liberated.

But they won’t be—not in any way that makes sense. There is no one living in these villages. There are few if any buildings still standing in any of these locations.

What’s happening in southern Ukraine and in the area around Bakhmut is nothing like the counteroffensives in Kharkiv and Kherson, in which Ukraine genuinely liberated hundreds of still-functional settlements from occupying Russians. What’s going on now is purely a wrestling match for tactical positions. And despite the Western gear sent to Ukraine, it’s a fight that’s largely happening on the terms that Russia has set down: artillery battles and small-unit actions.

No one is being saved in Robotyne. No one is going to line the streets to greet Ukrainian soldiers in Urozhaine. There won’t be many scenes of flags being raised over city buildings.

But that doesn’t mean this fight is for nothing. Because it’s for everything.

I’ve been gone for the past two weeks. You may not have noticed, but my aching shoulders and knees are confirmation that I did go backpacking a couple of months before my 64th birthday with equipment that was anything but “ultralight.”

Returning from the wilderness, I now find that Ukraine’s positions in both the east and south haven’t changed by more than a few hundred meters. I desperately wish it was otherwise. So do Joe Biden, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and every poor Ukrainian soldier on the front line.

This fight is not going according to anyone’s schedule.

It’s not that Ukraine can’t take more territory. But again and again, the calculation comes down to this: For the moment, there’s a lot of territory that is not worth taking.

The best example of this might be found not on the southern border, but just below Bakhmut at the town of Klishchiivka. It’s been more than a month since the Ukrainian army captured the hills west of Klishchiivka, sent forces into the southern end of that town, and forced Russian troops to withdraw from all but the northeast edge of the settlement. It seemed like a sure bet that Klishchiivka would be taken the next day. Or the next.

Klishchiivka is still sitting there with Ukraine controlling those hills, controlling the south end of the town, and Russia hanging on at the northeast edge. That’s not because Russia has waged some kind of tough defense of its positions in the town (though they have sent reinforcements to the area). Ukraine has both the tactical position and the forces in the area to push down out of those hills and take the remainder of Klishchiivka. It’s just that … so what if it did? Again, there’s no one living there to be liberated, few structures to be saved, and most importantly, Klishchiivka is on low, flat ground that creates a tough tactical position to hold without losses.

If Ukraine was prepared to move north into Bakhmut, or to drive east toward Russian defensive positions in the area, Klishchiivka would fall in a matter of hours. But they’re not ready to make those assaults. So for right now, Ukraine holds the positions of tactical importance on the west of Klishchiivka and ignores the rest.

Unlike Vladimir Putin and his demand that Wagner forces take Bakhmut no matter what, Zelenskyy seems uninterested in taking settlements to score idiot-goals. That’s been seen repeatedly in actions along the southern front, where Ukraine has moved its forces around some settlements, taken others, and even surrendered positions when it became evident that the cost of holding them was too high.

Ukraine now has a lot of Western gear, but it lacks the training and experience to carry out large-scale combined arms operations. As a result, most of what’s happening in southern Ukraine is being conducted in a way that looks more like how Russia fights than how any Western army operates: pounding it out with artillery, infantry moving in small numbers, tanks all too often operating in an unsupported manner that results in a lot of dead tanks. All of it proceeded by combat engineers clearing out minefields by hand under cover of darkness.

But none of that means that Ukraine is moving foolishly. The whole of the counteroffensive to this point has been in the form of an army getting a feel for what it can, and cannot, accomplish. These are largely inexperienced soldiers driving around in the cast-off arms created by a dozen nations over six decades. Considering that, they’re doing fantastically.

That Ukrainian army has also been getting a feel for dealing with a Russian army that was vastly reinforced by repeated rounds of conscription and bolstered by months of defensive preparations. Russia may not be the “second best army in the world,” but it is certainly one of the largest. Those hundreds of thousands of troops may be poorly trained, erratically armed, and miserably led, but that doesn’t mean they can’t kill people. Guns make it easy. Artillery makes it really easy.

So … what’s happening at Robotyne and Urozhaine has almost nothing to do with the patches of ground that used to be Robotyne and Urozhaine. It’s about taking those tactical positions that allow Ukraine to achieve three strategic goals:

  • Minimize Ukrainian losses to sustain Ukraine’s offensive capabilities.

  • Maximize Russian losses to degrade Russia’s defensive capabilities.

  • Seek a breakthrough that allows Ukrainian forces to move toward large, occupied cities like Melitopol and Mariupol.

What’s happening at the locations where Ukraine is engaged in active attacks is only important in the sense that it promotes all of these goals. Ukraine needs to do these things, and preferably all of them at once.

Ukraine has sacrificed large numbers of both men and equipment to capture Robotyne. Was it worth it? Absolutely not. Not for Robotyne.

But if in taking Robotyne, Ukraine has significantly degraded the Russian army and positioned itself to advance on the defensive lines that prevent rapid movement to the south, then sure. It probably was worth those lost tanks, lost fighting vehicles, and even the irreplaceable men and women who died to make that tiny advance.

We don’t really know if it was worth it at this point. Ukraine probably doesn’t know, either. What happens next will tell us whether the price of these advances was far too dear or a bargain.

Open image in another tab for a larger view.

As mentioned above, Ukrainian forces are currently pressing to the south on both the east and west of the village of Pryyutne. Ukraine is also known to have forces in the northern part of Urozhaine and has reportedly liberated the town.

The explosion marker represents a point where a large Russian convoy was reportedly destroyed just east of Zavitne. Assuming Ukraine continues to move largely along the highway, Zavitne will be the next point of conflict, but it is still several kilometers north of Russia’s major defensive line in the area.

Open image in another tab for a larger view.

Exactly how much of Robotyne is now controlled by Ukraine depends on the source. They’re said to have completely liberated Robotyne in some places, while others have troops still “on the outskirts.” The best evidence says that Ukraine had forces in the northern edge of Robotyne two days ago and they have since made more advances.

The Russian defensive lines are further north in the area. Ukraine has already moved past two small disconnected lines. Another of these smaller defensive lines lies between Robotyne and Novoprokopivka (which is misspelled on the map, but I will fix before the next round). The main defensive line in the area is just south of Novoprokopivka.

One of the strangest things happening in Ukraine right now has to be the gradually widening front along the Dnipro River. Even without a functional bridge or pontoon bridge, Ukraine has now been able to position troops on the east side of the river both above Oleshky and to the west of Kozachi Laheri. These positions haven’t just managed to hold in the face of Russian artillery and missile attacks, they’ve spread in a thin strip along an extended area of riverfront.

Ukraine has not been able to bring enough forces across the river to make an assault on a sizable town. Russia has not been able to generate enough force to eliminate the cross-river positions. So next time we’ll take a closer look at this area and try to determine what happens now.


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