The jury is still out on Ukraine’s massive campaign to the south
“WHe will NOT be able to draw major decisions yet,” said a senior Ukrainian military official. Although Ukrainian forces broke through heavily defended Russian lines on July 26 in the southern Zaporizhia region (see map ) and has since made modest progress in two areas, he said, it was too early to claim more than modest success. “It can’t change the big picture right now,” he said.
His warning seems reasonable. The idea that the Russian lines would collapse at first did not stop a wholesale backlash of the kind that occurred last September when Ukrainian forces entered through Kharkiv region, it was never true. “It’s fifty-fifty,” said the officer. “Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we have to take our units back.” After having six or seven months to prepare their lines for the Ukrainian counter-offensive, the Russians have to build great walls.
Mick Ryan, a retired Australian army general, says the Russian barrier design is “much more complex, and more lethal, than anything experienced by any military in recent 80 years”. Tens of kilometers deep, it is designed to break up or reduce even the most capable military teams and cut them off from their logistical support. What the Ukrainians are trying to do on the southern front is to drive south to the city of Melitopol and the port of Berdiansk, aiming to cut the Russian occupation forces in two and bridge to cut the territory of Russia with the Crimea – very hard.
Ukrainian forces are facing a deadly combination: millions of mines, FPV drones that transmit live images back to their operators, the Lancet loitering weapon, the touching and disabling of Ukrainian drones, long-range rockets and attack helicopters, all woven together by a dense network of sensors and data connections. Even when mines are cleared, aircraft or artillery quickly reseed the areas with scattered ammunition.
Breaking through well-prepared defenses, Mr. Ryan says, requires combined arms operational skills of the highest order. That’s something the Ukrainians haven’t shown to the extent yet, says Michael Kofman, a military analyst who visited the front line earlier in July. Furthermore, the techniques and technology for breaching defenses have barely evolved in 30 years. Even the best trained NATO armies enjoying air superiority may find it difficult to overcome these obstacles. “We have to break this combination,” says the Ukrainian military source.
On the other hand, it is clear that the Russian workforce behind these lines is greatly stretched by the Ukrainian rebirth strategy. Russian units, according to the source, are “getting smaller… companies that used to be 150 men are now only 20-30 and battalions of 500-600 are now 200 or 250. ” If the breaches in the line achieved by the Ukrainians are carried further, the Russians may have difficulty finding reinforcements.
Both sides are constantly searching for weaknesses on the 1,000km long front. The Ukrainians are making potentially significant advances around the ruins of the town of Bakhmut into the Klishchiivka region, where the Russian residents have not had time to build strong defenses. For their part, the Russians still have hopes of regaining the Ukrainian territory they have annexed but do not control in the Kherson, Donetsk and Luhansk regions. They have found Ukrainian weak points in the north and east.
Russia is shelling from across the border the northeastern town of Vovchansk, forcing the remaining residents to evacuate. On the eastern front the fortunes have been mixed. For months the Ukrainians aimed to capture Russian-held Kreminna, but in recent weeks they have been forced back from their advanced positions in a nearby pine forest. Between Lyman and Kupiansk, Ukraine lost three villages last week and the village of Borova is now in Russian sights. If it falls the Russians will have made great progress towards the river Oskil. It is also reported that the situation of the Ukrainians in the town of Avdiivka, 10 kilometers north of Donetsk, is in danger.
At the same time, Russia hit Odessa and its ports with missiles for five consecutive days, hitting a cathedral in the city on July 23. Ukraine is striking back: on July 28, it seems to have struck the interior ministry building in the city of Donetsk. An explosion in the Russian town of Taganrog, 110km from the nearest Ukrainian front line, was dismissed by Vasily Golubev, the regional governor, as debris from a downed Ukrainian missile. Another was reported killed near the city of Azov, even deeper inside Russia. Several Russian Telegram channels reported heavy Ukrainian shelling of nearby Donetsk and Makiivka in occupied Ukraine.
For now the frontline is a bloody game, with both sides making small advances and retreating. Despite the lack of major successes, Ukraine’s confidence seems to be holding up. The soldiers understand that they are in a long, hard pit, but Western officers who know the situation report that they are still very motivated.
Near the town of Kupiansk, Pavlo was one of four soldiers who put large salamis, bottles of cola and other items into the back of their car. Although they had been under constant artillery attack, Pavlo said, “we kill more of them because our artillery is more accurate. “Allies had already begun using cluster munitions recently provided by America, he said, but “we still don’t know the outcome. “
In Lyman a bushy bearded commander going by the call sign “Pokémon” said his men were preparing their defense. This was a good thing, he explained: Russian troops would move forward, exposing themselves and allowing the Ukrainians to hit them with artillery and drive them back. He seemed discouraged by the slow progress. Victory, he said, would come to whichever side was best “in the work of deception”. Several Ukrainian missiles were flying overhead towards the Russian position. “We just want to break these fuckers!” Pokémon shouted. “Everybody’s in a good mood!” ■
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