A Blog by Jonathan Low


Sep 1, 2023

How the Ukrainians Are About To Outflank Russia's Strongest Defense Line

Ukraine's twin attacks in the general direction of Tokmak appears to have identified a gap in the main Russian 'Surovikin' defensive line.

Assuming this is accurate and can be exploited, the Ukrainians may have found the weakness for which they have been probing, which could result in a flanking of Russian positions and a breakthrough to the south. JL  

RO 37 reports in Daily Kos:

The defensive line Ukraine is currently facing is considered to be the main line (because) it's maximally built out with dragons teeth, anti-armor ditches, bunkers, and trenches. (But) a section of the Surovikin Line that looks to be neglected and left incomplete is located from “Hill 166” east of Novoprokopivka to the edge of Verbove. Ukrainian infantry were spotted 2 km behind the Surovikin Line. The presence of Ukrainians beyond the Surovikin Line may (be) a breach, represents a significant weakening of Russian forward positions, and that Ukrainian attacks are opening up gaps in their defenses to flank Russian positions and roll up the Surovikin Line from the east to the west.

The Surovikin Line is the second of four major defense lines constructed by Russia to protect the T0408 Highway that connects Ukrainian-held territory around Orikhiv to the rail/road hub that is Tokmak.

Red dots/lines are major Russian defensive structures.

Verbove sits behind the Surovikin Line, the second and arguably most formidable defensive line constructed by the Russian army. The second and fourth defense lines have the full range of Russian defensive structures, including anti-tank ditches, mines, pre-fabricated pillboxes, and miles upon miles of trenches.

The first and third lines (and lesser and smaller unnumbered lines) may have trenches and minefields, but not the full panoply of Russian defensive structures; there is a fair amount of subjectivity as to what might be considered “a line of defense.” Different observers consider Russia to have between two and seven lines of defense.

A more granular counting of Russian defensive lines.

However you count them, the defensive line Ukraine is currently facing is widely considered to be the main defense line for two reasons.

First, it is one of two Russian defense lines that is fully and maximally built out with dragons teeth, anti-armor ditches, bunkers, and trenches. Emil Kastehlemi and the Black Bird Group have provided extensive analysis of the formidable nature of this defense line.

The Black Bird Group identified a section of the Surovikin Line that looks to have been neglected and left incomplete. It’s located from the area around what I’ve called “Hill 166” east of Novoprokopivka, then heading east to the edge of Verbove.


This area is important. The ridge between Novoprokopivka and Verbove isn’t just militarily crucial high ground—it is the last high ground between Ukrainian forces and Tokmak. It will be all downhill from there. 

Open in a new tab for a larger image.

Having captured Robotyne, Ukraine had two options for a way forward: Continue to drive down the T0408 highway to Tokmak, or try to flank the Russian position at Novoprokopika.

Red lines represent fortified Russian defensive lines: trenches, pillboxes, dragon’s teeth, anti-tank ditches, etc.
Open in a new tab for a larger image.

Two things appeared to make a frontal assault down the highway unattractive.

First, there was an intervening smaller defense line between Robotyne and Novoprokopivka that made Russia’s defenses down the highway essentially two layers deep instead of just one. Flanking Novoprokopivka from the east is easier said than done as the Russians control the dominant heights to the south, and a Ukrainian flanking force would be subjected to enfilade fire on its own flanks.

Kastehelmi and the Black Bird Group assessed that the Russian defenses south of Robotyne were aligned to defend both against attacks from the north and from the east. These fortifications were described as “formidable,” featuring covered firing positions, bunkers, vehicle shelters, and more.

Second, the Russian forces chose to concentrate twice as many of their available forces around Novoprokopika, Ilchekove, and Solodka Balka as were distributed across Hill 166 and Verbove. The 76th Guards Air Assault Division was known to have been transferred from the Kreminna area to Tokmak, and there is speculation the arriving units were intended to bolster Russia’s defenses at Hill 166 and Verbove on Russia’s right flank. Three additional regiments of Russia’s 76th GAAD would have largely closed the difference in force allocation between their left and right wings at the Surovikin Line.

Ukraine responded by positioning its two more tired brigades that had been leading the attack towards Robotyne to the west: the 47th Mechanized and 65th Mechanized Brigades.  The 47th Mechanized is one of Ukraine’s most powerful brigades, equipped with Bradley Fighting Vehicles and supported by Leopard 2 tanks of the 33rd Mechanized Brigade. The 65th Mechanized Brigade fought alongside the 47th since mid-June and had consistently been part of Ukraine’s efforts to push past the Russian minefields and extensive defenses north of Robotyne.

These two brigades had amply demonstrated their brutal effectiveness in liberating Robotyne, but after nearly 11 weeks of continuous and repeated assaults, it appears the Ukrainian general staff may be giving them a slight breather. As such, the main Ukrainian attack unfolded to the east, led by the 82nd Air Assault and 46th Airmobile Brigades. 

The 82nd Air Assault has been called “ridiculously powerful” and is sometimes referred to as the Ukrainian military's finest unit. Equipped with British Challenger 2 Main Battle Tanks, German Marder Infantry Fighting Vehicles, and American Stryker IFVs, it is one of the heaviest-equipped brigades in the Ukrainian military.  Including NCOs and tank crews handpicked from Ukraine’s 25th and 80th Airborne Brigades, the 82nd represents the cream of the crop of Ukraine’s best soldiers.

The 46th Airmobile Brigade is a comparatively lighter brigade, but it is nonetheless equipped with British Wolfhound, a 17-ton heavily armored Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected 6x6 vehicle designed for front-line tactical support and combat. These are paired with heavily upgraded T-80BV Tanks, among the best Soviet-era tanks in Ukrainian service. A gas-turbine powered variant of the T-80 tank, the T-80BV, is operated exclusively by Ukraine’s Air Assault forces and boasts incredible mobility, albeit at a 33% reduction in fuel efficiency compared to diesel versions of the T-80.

The 82nd and 46th Brigades are both fresh, with their veteran soldiers having been held out of combat for months. (The 82nd is, on paper, newly formed and includes numerous new NATO trained volunteers.) They are being committed to combat for the first time during the counteroffensive.

First, a geolocation of a Ukrainian units under attack by the Russian Bobr Drone Group on Aug. 25 indicated that Ukraine had advanced considerably to the east of Novoprokopivka. The thrust appeared to climb up a ridge directly towards the fortified heights on Hill 166. A second geolocation, also through an attack by the Bobr Drone Group, confirmed the Ukrainian advance to this area, this time on Aug. 29. This placed elements of Ukrainian forces just 1,000-1,500 meters from Hill 166.

Red lines represent fortified Russian defensive lines: trenches, pillboxes, dragon’s teeth, anti-tank ditches, etc.
Open in a new tab for a larger image.

However, Ukraine began heavily shelling the area immediately east of Hill 166, northwest of Verbove.

For the past several days, Ukraine has been reportedly shelling those Russian trenches west and southwest of Verbove intensely, including with 155 mm Cluster Munition artillery shells.

NASA satellite FIRMS data (ordinarily used to track forest fires) show intense fires and possible explosions northwest of Verbove. (Thanks to Barbecul for the tip!)

Aug. 30, 2023 FIRMS data in the Verbove area.

And it’s in this area that Ukrainian scouts were spotted approximately 2 km behind the Surovikin Line (unrolled thread here).

Reconnaissance drone footage spotted a small group of Ukrainian infantry geolocated to this location.


Before concluding that Ukraine has successfully breach Russian defenses northwest of Verbove, there are a few facts that need to be kept in mind:

  • There’s no evidence thus far that Ukrainian armored vehicles have passed the Surovikin Line.
  • It’s possible that this was a Ukrainian infantry infiltration team conducting reconnaissance.
  • By all indications, the Russians still control the heights north and south of Verbove.

While the presence of Ukrainian infantry beyond the Surovikin Line may represent a breach of the line  it may also represent a temporary gap opening up in the Russian defenses that a small group of Ukrainian infantry slipped through to conduct deep recon of the rear Russian defensive position.

This in itself would represent a significant weakening of Russian forward positions on the Surovikin Line, and be a very good sign that Ukrainian attacks on the line are opening up gaps in their defenses.

In the best-case scenario, Ukraine has opened up a 1 to 2 km-wide breach in the Russian defensive lines and occupied the low ground trenchworks northwest of Verbove. Ukrainian engineers are clearing a broader and more secure route for Ukrainian armor and supply trucks, and Ukrainian Challenger 2s, Strykers, and Marders are streaming through the gap to prepare to flank Hill 166. But again, we haven’t seen evidence of that just yet. 

If a breach has been achieved, it would appear the attack is being led by elements of the 82nd Air Assault Brigade. The attack towards Hill 166 might have been an attack intended to “fix” the units in that location, to prevent them from shifting eastward to assist a breach of defenses around Verbove. 

Furthermore, Ukraine would have been aiming to breach the Surovikin Line at the weakest possible point: the only part of the defensive line that crosses a gully in this area. On many levels, it makes a lot of sense that Ukraine would choose to attempt to breach the Surovikin Line at this location, in this sequence of offensive actions.

Even if the Ukrainian infantry unit turns out to be an infiltration mission and not representative of a breached defense line, no matter how you interpret this situation, it’s hard to consider this anything but incredibly good news for Ukraine’s Tokmak offensive.

Euromaidan Press’ latest report from Ukraine notes that local Ukrainian commanders of the 47th and 82nd Brigades claim that they have breached a 6 km-wide stretch of the first line of Russian trenches, but do not appear to have pierced the second (final) line of defenses. This claim is not visually confirmed.

Local Ukrainian commander claims a 6 km (4 mile)-wide stretch of the first defense line was breached, and Ukrainian troops are assaulting the second line on a broad front.

if Ukraine can punch through the defenses northwest of Verbove, the Ukrainian forces will have a golden opportunity to flank the primary Russian positions around Hill 166 and roll up the Surovikin Line from the east to the west.

And remember, once Ukraine forces Russia to retreat from the Surovikin Line and Hill 166, it’s downhill all the way to Tokmak.


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