On Friday, the Ukrainian military revealed that the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) had finally broken through the first line of Russia’s vaunted main line of defense in the Zaporezhia region. Many hope the breakthrough will facilitate a more rapid breach deeper into Russia’s defense.
A careful analysis of the tactical situation, however, reveals the situation for the UAF remains tenuous.
Ukraine Scores a Win
The specific area of the penetration of the first belt of Russia’s main defensive system is just east of the village of Robotyne, which Ukraine recently captured, and about three kilometers west of the village of Verbova. The first problem for Ukraine is the amount of time it has taken to arrive at the first line and the resources it took to achieve it.
The UAF launched their offensive on June 5, and it took nearly three months to arrive at the first major line of defense. Ukraine suffered significant casualties in personnel and equipment over the first three months of this operation, especially in Western-provided armor. The last time the West promised large numbers of tanks and armored personnel carriers was late last year. It is unclear how Ukraine can replace these current losses and still maintain the momentum to keep pressure on Russian lines.
Second, the path Ukraine has clawed out to reach the breach near Verbova makes the UAF vulnerable to flank attacks, as Russian forces still control a long ridgeline of elevated terrain overlooking the western heights above Robotyne, as well as a line to the east of Ukraine’s current direction of attack.
At present, Russia is able to keep persistent artillery and drone strikes focused on the main road from the Ukrainian rear that is necessary to move new troops and supplies into the breach, and wounded soldiers out.
If the UAF attempts to continue penetrating beyond this breach in Russia’s line, it will risk creating the conditions for a cauldron in which they could become vulnerable to Russian attack on three sides – or in a worst case scenario – have mobile Russian reserves cut the neck of the cauldron and trap the entire Ukrainian battle group, cut off from all support. To prevent that outcome, the UAF will have to expand the flanks of their penetration and wrest control of the high ground from Russia to the West.
At the moment, Russia is preventing Ukraine from consolidating its control over Robotyne owing to that high ground to the west, but also because of a series of trenchlines and defensive strong points to the south of the village. The Russians also hold the village of Novoprokorivka, about 1,500 meters to the south. Ukraine must capture Novoprokorivka to enable it to continue exploitation of the breach in the main line of defense.
If Ukraine is able to secure its flanks and neutralize its current vulnearability, the next target beyond the breach would be the village of Verbova. It is about six kilometers from Robotyne, and Ukraine has thus far cut that distance in half. Ukraine has indeed reached the first line, but thus far only a few infantry squads have infiltrated past the line. To open the gates for substantive Ukraine forces, they will have to fully penetrate and then expand the hole in the line.
Ukraine will have to move armored forces past the line of dragon’s teeth, then traversing the approximate 1,000m to the first large line of a tank ditch, and then defeat the forward strongpoints of Russia’s defense of Verbova. The gap between the dragon’s teeth and the tank ditch are littered with hundreds of meters of anti-tank and anti-personnel minefields.
The Russians are aware of what Ukraine will try to do, and are using artillery and anti-tank missile crews to fire on the UAF formations, complicating any attempt to clear the minefields. Before Ukraine can make a concerted push to take Verbova, they must eliminate Russian positions on both flanks while simultaneously clearing the three levels of obstacles (dragon’s teeth, tank ditch, and minefield).
Ukraine had a similar problem getting to and then through Robotyne, so they have the capacity and knowledge of how to navigate these difficulties. The unknown issue, however, is knowing how many resources they lost while chewing through the first 10km of Russia’s defense. That attack began on June 5, and took the better part of three months and untold number of armored vehicles and likely thousands of killed and wounded infantrymen to buy those gains.
But What About the Weather in Ukraine?
A recent Ukrainian video shows what appears to be a full battalion of fresh German armor is ready to engage the Russians, indicating the UAF still has the ability to throw a major punch. Whether that will be enough to take Verbova or not remains to be seen, or whether they can take the next 10km in anything less than three months is unknown. To succeed in that task will require not merely more tanks and troops, but also the cooperation of the weather – which may be a bigger roadblock than the Russians.
The rainy season begins in this part of Ukraine as soon as the latter half of September. But October and November are likely to be very damp and muddy. Most of the fields through which Ukrainian armor must pass to push through the Russian defenses require them to traverse large expanses of open fields. Those fields, however, will become mud bogs in weeks. If armored vehicles get stuck in the mud, they will not be able to maintain the momentum necessary to bring mass to a given part of the line at a time of Ukraine’s choosing, and will be easy targets for Russian artillery and FPV drones.
In all probability, Ukraine will spend the last weeks before the onset of the rainy season to solidify its gains, expand its control over the western heights of Robotyne, and if possible, complete the capture of Verbova. That will be a tall order, but one that is possible. By any measure, breaching Russia’s first main line of defense has been a hard-fought and meaningful accomplishment for the UAF.
There remains, however, still about 25km of additional belts of Russian defenses and strong points to even reach Tokmak, and another 75 road kilometers to reach the strategic objective of Melitipol. Once the Ukrainian offensive reaches culmination, likely within weeks, Russia will begin the process of expanding and improving the remainder of the defensive lines south of Verbova, making it even harder to penetrate once Ukraine has built up new offensive capacity, possibly as late as Spring 2024.
Ukraine has won the battle to penetrate Russia’s first main defensive belt. It is unclear whether they have sufficient capacity to continue pushing through additional belts before being slowed down or stopped by weather. One thing, however, is quite certain: the war is far from over and the cost in men and material to continue fighting will keep piling up.
Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis.
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