The jury is still out on Ukraine’s big push south
Read more of our recent coverage of the Ukraine war WE CANT DRAW big conclusions yet, said the senior Ukrainian military officer. Although Ukrainian forces had broken through heavily defended Russian lines on July 26th in the southern Zaporizhia sector (see map) and had since made modest advances in two areas, he said, it was too early to claim more than modest success. It cant change the big picture for the moment, he added. His caution looks justified. The idea that at the first breach the Russian lines would crumble, setting off a wholesale retreat of the kind that happened last September when Ukrainian forces stormed through the Kharkiv region, was never realistic. It is fifty-fifty, the officer said. Sometimes we have successes and sometimes we have had to take our units back. Having had six or seven months to prepare their lines for the Ukrainian counter-offensive, the Russians have constructed formidable barriers. Mick Ryan, a retired Australian army general, describes the Russian obstacle design as being much more complex, and deadly, than anything experienced by any military in nearly 80 years. Tens of kilometres deep, it is intended to break up or slow down even the most competent combined-arms teams and separate them from their logistical support. What the Ukrainians are trying to do on the southern frontto drive south to the occupied city of Melitopol and the port of Berdiansk, aiming to cut the Russian occupation forces in two and sever Russias land bridge with Crimeais incredibly hard. Ukrainian forces are facing a lethal combination: millions of mines, FPV drones that transmit live pictures back to their operators, Lancet loitering munitions, the jamming and disabling of Ukrainian drones, long-range rockets and attack helicopters, all knit together by a dense network of sensors and data links. Even when mines are cleared, aircraft or artillery quickly re-seed the fields with scatterable munitions. Breaking through such well-prepared defences, says Mr Ryan, requires combined-arms operational skills of the highest order. That is something the Ukrainians have not yet demonstrated at scale, says Michael Kofman, a military analyst who visited the front line earlier in July. Moreover, the techniques and the technology for breaching defences have barely evolved in 30 years. Even the best-trained NATO armies enjoying air superiority might struggle to overcome such obstacles. We need to break this combination, says the Ukrainian military source. On the other hand, the Russian manpower behind these lines has clearly been severely stretched by Ukraines strategy of attrition. Russian units, says the source, are becoming 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 that the Ukrainians have achieved can be carried farther, the Russians may have difficulty finding reinforcements. Both sides are constantly probing for weaknesses along the 1,000km-long front. The Ukrainians are making potentially important advances around the ruined city of Bakhmut into the Klishchiivka area, where the Russian occupiers have not had time to build strong defences. For their part, the Russians still have hopes of regaining 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 the east. Russia is shelling from across the border the north-eastern town of Vovchansk, forcing the evacuation of its remaining residents. On the eastern front the fortunes have been mixed. For months the Ukrainians aimed to capture Russian-held Kreminna, but in the past few weeks they have been driven back from their forward positions in a nearby pine forest. Between Lyman and Kupiansk, Ukraine lost three small villages last week and the little town of Borova is now in Russian sights. If it falls the Russians will have made considerable progress towards the Oskil river. The Ukrainians situation in the town of Avdiivka, 10km north of Donetsk, is also reported to be perilous. Meanwhile, Russia struck Odessa and its ports with missiles for five consecutive days, hitting a cathedral in the city on July 23rd. Ukraine is striking back: on July 28th it appears to have hit the building of the interior ministry in the occupied city of Donetsk. An explosion in the Russian town of Taganrog, 110km from the nearest Ukrainian front line, was attributed by Vasily Golubev, the regional governor, to debris from a Ukrainian missile that was shot down. Another was reported shot down near the city of Azov, even deeper inside Russia. Several Russian Telegram channels reported heavy Ukrainian shelling of Donetsk and neighbouring Makiivka in occupied Ukraine. For now the front line is a bloody shoving match, with both sides making small advances and retreats. Despite the lack of major successes, Ukrainian morale seems to be holding up. The troops realise that they are in for a long, hard slog, but Western officials familiar with the situation report that they remain highly motivated. Near the town of Kupiansk, Pavlo was one of four soldiers heaving giant salamis, bottles of cola and other supplies 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 precise. Friends had already begun using cluster munitions recently supplied by America, he said, but we dont know the result yet. In Lyman a bushy-bearded commander going by the call sign Pokemon said his men were preparing their defences. This was a good thing, he explained: Russian troops will move forward, exposing themselves and allowing the Ukrainians to hit them with artillery and force them back. He seemed undiscouraged by the slow progress. Victory, he said, would come to whichever side was better in deception operations. Several Ukrainian missiles streaked overhead towards the Russian positions. We just want to smash those fuckers! Pokemon shouted. Everyone is in a good mood! Stay on top of our defence and international security coverage with The War Room, our weekly subscriber-only newsletter.