In Focus

Ukraine will need to be cunning – and patient – in its push to break through Russia’s defensive lines

Any kind of gains Kyiv makes in pushing back the forces of Vladimir Putin is a positive, writes Askold Krushelnycky in Ukraine. But it is brutal work

Monday 04 September 2023 19:03 BST
Ukrainian troops on the frontline near Zaporizhzhia
Ukrainian troops on the frontline near Zaporizhzhia (Reuters)

The advance of Kyiv's troops against Vladimir Putin's forces on Ukraine’s bloody frontlines will be welcomed by Western allies, after weeks of having to scrap for every inch gained.

The suggestion of some in Ukraine’s military that units have punched through a section of Russia’s first defensive line in the southern region of Zaporizhzhia, as part of the longer-term aim of reaching the Azov Sea to sever the land bridge from Russia to southeastern Ukraine, may therefore be greeted with cautious optimism. It is not like there haven’t been other suggestions of progress in the region in recent days, not least from White House officials.

But there is a reason why the Ukrainian government has been cautious about claiming any major successes from the outset of its campaign in June, with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky having previously warned that the campaign would not play out like a fast-paced Hollywood movie. Instead, he said, it would involve a slow, steady slog with many casualties for his forces.

It is not calling the gains a turning point. However, Kyiv says the Russian withdrawal from Robotyne and Ukrainian assaults against Kremlin fortifications around Verbove to the east have opened a possible path to the Azov coast.

The first line in what is a three-deep set-up of Russian defences consists of densely-sown minefields and concrete “dragons teeth” tank obstacles. Russian artillery has zeroed in on every grid map square of territory Ukrainian forces have to traverse before reaching elaborate trench and tunnel systems protecting Moscow’s soldiers.

The minefields have taken an enormous toll when it comes to dead and wounded Ukrainian military. But Ukraine’s military commanders were never going to adopt the suicidal “human wave” tactics used by the enemy that sent tens of thousands of Russians to their deaths. Ukraine has used special armoured vehicles that can withstand blasts to clear paths through the minefields. But much of the deadly work has been carried out by small teams of sappers, often working at night, that have had to painstakingly detect, dig out and then disable a variety of mines – some designed to be triggered by a human’s weight, others by vehicles.

However, after breaking through the first line of defences, Ukrainian forces still have two more systems to overcome. There have been suggestions that these second and third echelons may have weaker physical defences and are manned by ill-trained conscripts or reservists. But nobody can be certain of that.

Some Western analysts believe that Moscow’s troops are spread thinly along the 600-mile front, suffer from low morale and that the second and third defensive lines will be easier to overcome. But one thing that has been abundantly clear for months is that neither Ukraine nor Russia will find it a simple task to advance.

Moscow has had plenty of time to prepare for the offensive as Kyiv, for months, pleaded and waited for its allies to supply modern powerful Western weapons. These include tanks, other armoured vehicles, artillery and precision missile systems to strike targets far behind Russian lines.

Ukraine complained it had been drip-fed the modern weaponry it needed which, if it had been provided sooner, may have enabled Kyiv’s forces to replicate their dramatic gains of last autumn against Russian occupation forces in Ukraine’s northeastern Kharkiv region. An offensive that sent parts of the Kremlin’s army into panicked retreat and liberated a huge swathe of territory.

Ukraine says that it has not yet thrown into the fight the large number of modern weapons supplied by its friends or thousands of freshly-trained recruits – many of them schooled in tactics and operating their new equipment in allied countries, including Britain. But with winter rapidly approaching, swift gains appear remote. But Kyiv will fight for any last inch.

Ukraine has already demonstrated it can strike Russia’s main alternative for supplies to Russian-annexed Crimea, the Kerch Bridge, with air and sea drones and missiles. The bridge links Crimea to Russia, across the Kerch Strait which sits between the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. Kyiv can also hit the road routes out of the peninsula to the Kremlin’s forces east of the Dnipro River.

Ukraine and Russia have been trading drone attacks – with Kyiv increasingly seeking to strike inside Russia (even if it does not directly claim such attacks). Russia hit a Ukrainian port across the Danube River on Monday, with Kyiv claiming drones had detonated on the territory of Nato-member Romania. Bucharest denied this.

But it is on the ground where territory has to be claimed. And, although the biggest improvements in recent days for Ukraine have been in the Southern area around the village of Robotyne in the Zaporizhzhia region, intense fighting continues elsewhere. That includes around the eastern city of Bakhmut – the site of some of the fiercest fighting of the war – and further to the north, around the towns of Lyman, Siversk, Kupyansk.

If Ukraine’s commanders spot an opportunity in any of those places, they are likely to swiftly shift and concentrate yet uncommitted resources to those areas. Ukraine is not too far off from reaching shelling range of Moscow’s vital coastal route and disrupting it.

Actually reaching the Sea of Azov would be an unqualified victory for Ukrainian forces. But we are a long way from that. Kyiv will need to be cunning, but most of all patient if Ukraine wants to even get close to making that a reality.

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