Although it’s been two months since the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) launched their counteroffensive in the south of the country, only by mid-August did the operation mature into its decisive phase. Earlier, the defenders used relatively small forces in different operating areas, from the banks of the Dnipro River just south of Zaporizhzhia to Bakhmut. Now, the Ukrainian command seems to have prioritized two segments. The main thrust of the offensive now unfolding south of Orikhiv in the Zaporizhzhia region is directed towards Tokmak and, if successful, further south towards Melitopol. This operation is supported by the Ukrainian Marine Corps, deployed south of Velyka Novosilka on the Zaporizhzhia-Donetsk regional border. Predictably, the injection of major AFU reserves into action has produced a crisis of defense for the Russian side. The situation isn’t yet critical for the Russian forces: they could even take advantage of it, if they can promptly mobilize their own remaining reserves to deplete the second (and final) echelon of the Ukrainian offensive. While this is hypothetically possible, the reality is bound to be more complicated. Here’s Meduza’s complete analysis of why Kyiv’s counteroffensive hasn’t yet achieved its goals — and whether the war has reached a stalemate.
Since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Meduza has adopted a consistent antiwar position, holding Russia responsible for its military aggression. As part of this commitment, we regularly update an interactive map that documents combat operations in Ukraine and the damage inflicted by Russia’s invasion forces. Our map is based exclusively on open-source photos and videos, most of them posted by eyewitnesses on social media. We collect available evidence and determine its geolocation markers, adding only the photos and videos that clear this process. Meduza doesn’t try to track the conflict in real time; the data reflected on the map are typically at least 48 hours old.
A bird’s-eye view of combat operations
Judging by the available open-source evidence, Ukraine has by now thrown nearly all of its reserves into battle. Here’s an overview of the combat situation:
- Since June, the AFU’s Ninth Army Corps has been attacking the Russian positions in southern Ukraine. Last spring’s Pentagon leak has shown that its brigades were trained in the West, specifically for the summer offensive campaign.
- The Ninth Army Corps also remains in action now, accompanied by the AFU’s Tenth Corps, also created in 2023 and likely numerically superior to the Ninth Corps in terms of personnel.
- The combined force of these two formations has attached itself to a grouping totaling 50,000 troops, which is now advancing along a narrow, roughly 15-kilometer (or 9-mile) strip of the frontline just south of Orikhiv, stretching between the villages of Rabotyne and Verbove in the Zaporizhzhia region.
- A second large Ukrainian grouping is on the offensive 70 kilometers (or 43 miles) eastward, in the area surrounding Velyka Novosilka. (The Russian Defense Ministry often refers to this area “the Vremivka wedge.”) Since late July, several reserve brigades were deployed on this segment, where the combined AFU forces number about 30,000–35,000 troops.
The evidence in more detail
- A localized Ukrainian breakthrough took place between Rabotyne and Verbove at the end of July, when AFU troops reached the northern and eastern outskirts of Rabotyne, where the first fortified line of the Russian defense is located. In the east of the operation, Ukrainian units got almost as far as the outskirts of Verbove. Equipment losses from this offensive included an American Stryker fighting vehicle and a Polish Twardy tank (developed on the basis of the Soviet-era T-72). Equipment sightings like these are new for the Ukrainian front. Judging by the April Pentagon leak, the Strykers had been intended for the newly-formed 82nd Airborne Assault Brigade — the main force of the second echelon of the Ukrainian offensive.
- In mid-August, Volodymyr Zelensky visited the brigades headquartered in the Orikhiv area. Apart from the 65th and 47th mechanized brigades, which had entered the offensive back in June (the 47th brigade alone losing several dozen Leopard tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles), the president also met with the 116th, 117th, and 118th mechanized brigades. All of these formations belong to the AFU’s Tenth Army Corps and the second echelon of the offensive grouping. (Parts of the 116th Brigade are deployed south of the city of Zaporizhzhia.) Officers from two brigades of the Ukrainian National Guard (intended for moving into the rear of the Russian positions once the defense is ruptured) also met with the president, who said that AFU brigades are already trying to break through the Russian defenses by Rabotyne and Verbove.
- The 46th mechanized brigade, which had been recovering after a winter of heavy fighting against Wagner mercenaries by Soledar, has reappeared south of Orikhiv. Its command has also met with President Zelensky.
- The injection of new reserves in another area, by Velyka Novosilka, has permitted the AFU to take back the villages Staromaiorske and Urozhayne, also neutralizing the Russian grouping near the village of Pryyutne. Judging by social media posts and official reports from both sides of the conflict, the Ukrainian grouping in this area comprises four marine brigades, two mechanized infantry brigades, one jaeger brigade, and various reinforcement units. Brigades that took part in assault operations have already suffered heavy equipment losses.
- Some Ukrainian brigades created for the summer campaign are deployed on other fronts — by Bakhmut (where the AFU offensive went on until late July) and in the north by Kreminna and Svatove, where the Russian army is now on the offensive. This weakened the forces available for the decisive battle in the Zaporizhzhia region. AFU groupings by Bakhmut and in the north are at least as large as those engaged in the south.
The map shows the positions of the “regular” AFU units, the National Guard of Ukraine, and the Russian formations.
The “regular” AFU formations traditionally comprise brigades, including tank, mechanized, motorized infantry, assault, jaeger, marine, and airborne troops. The size of the icons corresponds to unit size on the map.
Brigades of different composition are normally assigned to operational areas without being attached to a particular corps. Open sources and leaked Pentagon documents show that, by the summer of 2023, two permanent Army Corps formations (the Ninth and the Tenth) were going to be created, comprised of eight brigades formed in 2022–2023 and trained in the West. (Some of these brigades are armed exclusively with Western-made heavy equipment.)
Several more AFU brigades formed in 2023 were not included in either the Ninth or the Tenth Army Corps, but they’ve already been seen in combat on different fronts. Four new brigades, for example, were included in a separate Marine Corps. In addition, a National Guard formation was created specifically for the offensive, consisting of six light National Guard brigades, Interior Forces, and the Border Guard of Ukraine.
About three-quarters of the newly-created brigades (joined by several older formations) are already on the offensive in southern Ukraine.
The map shows that nearly all known Ukrainian brigades were thrown into battle by mid-August, based on open-source evidence. Only a few units (including, likely, the 44th Mechanized Brigade) remain in the rear.
The brigades differ in personnel number. The largest are the mechanized and motorized infantry brigades, with about 5,000 troops in each such brigade). Tank, paratrooper, jaeger, marine, National Guard, and other types of brigades have fewer troops, the normal range being 2,500–4,000 troops. Still, it’s not uncommon for certain brigades to get additional units in wartime, almost doubling in size as a result.
The map doesn’t show the supporting units operating in each of the operational areas: artillery brigades, drone-operator detachments, separate strike and assault battalions, special operations forces detachments and battalions, separate units of foreign volunteers, or the numerous (and populous) territorial-defense brigades. Although essential to both offensive and defensive operations, they cannot engage in intensive large-scale combat operations on their own. It is the “regular” brigades that bear the brunt of the fighting, especially in offensive operations. At the same time, it’s mainly the territorial-defense brigades that protect large stretches of the front while there isn’t active combat.
The Russian forces are comprised of armies consisting of “regular” divisions (made up of motorized rifle and tank regiments), separate motorized rifle and tank brigades, as well as separate airborne and marine units (brigades and airborne divisions, comprised, in turn, of regiments) provisionally attached to the army headquarters. For simplicity’s sake, the number of personnel in a separate brigade of the Russian Armed Forces (RAF) is conventionally assumed to be 4,000 people, while a regiment is assumed to have 2,000 troops. Real personnel numbers, however, may differ significantly from these conventional values.
RAF units are described on pop-ups according to their place in the military hierarchy:
- army – division – regiment
- army – brigade
- branch of troops (Airborne Forces or Marines) – division – regiment
- branch of troops – brigade
The map doesn’t show RAF supporting units — artillery and missile brigades within armies, artillery regiments within divisions, detachments of drone operators, battalions and brigades of special-operations forces, battalions of “reservists” (the so-called BARS), or separate regiments of territorial troops formed from the newly-mobilized. “Assault-Z” detachments and battalions formed mostly from pardoned prisoners also don’t appear on the map. While these units are significant, they cannot fight independently.
The accuracy of locating AFU and RAF units can vary from highly accurate to presumptive, depending on the source.
The map doesn’t amount, then, to an estimate of the number and density of the troops in any given area, but it can be used to assess the distribution of the key combat units involved in an offensive or in active defense, as well as the reserves available to both sides.
What Ukrainian reserves are achieving in battle
Orikhiv operating area
In late July, a reinforced Ukrainian grouping deployed south of Orikhiv traversed several kilometers of “grey zone,” getting past minefields and scattered Russian army strongholds armed with anti-tank missile systems. The AFU managed to break through the minefields between Rabotyne and Verbove by the thrust of the reserve brigades recently sent back into battle.
- An important success factor for Ukraine was being able to partly suppress the Russian artillery with its own artillery fire upon the Russian rear. Shifting the frontline enabled the AFU to safeguard its supply and reinforcement routes from Russian helicopters, which had previously fired at the vehicles and armored equipment in the rear of Ukrainian positions with complete impunity, from a distance of 8–10 kilometers afforded by their guided missiles. On August 17, Russian Ka-52 assault helicopter was shot down over a Russian-controlled area near Rabotyne, just 3.5 kilometers from the front.
- After the late July and early August breakthroughs, which cost the AFU dearly in terms of equipment, the Ukrainian forces had little success. Although they gained a foothold on the northeastern outskirts of Rabotyne, they are yet to break through the first fortified line of the Russian defense, running both north and south of the village.
- The Russian command is in no hurry to move regular units to the breakthrough area. Military reports and social media posts only mention separate “territorial” regiments comprised of mobilized soldiers. If necessary, the Russian Armed Forces (RAF) may shift their positions south from Rabotyne and Verbove, to the second line of defense near the villages of Novoprokopivka and Solodka Balka.
- The Russian troops’ obvious goal is to inflict the greatest possible equipment losses to the AFU brigades on each of the defense lines, thereby reducing the Ukrainian side’s potential for offensive operations.
The so-called ‘Vremivka wedge’ and Velyka Novosilka
- The arched segment of the frontline called “the Vremivka wedge” by the Russian officials ceased to exist back in July, when the AFU troops (chiefly the marine brigades) took back the villages perched along the banks of Mokri Yaly River and reinforced the western flank of the operation by occupying the villages of Rivnopil and Levadne. From there, they reached the outskirts of Pryyutne and occupied the hills on the western bank of Mokri Yaly.
- In early August, a reinforced AFU grouping liberated two more villages on both sides of Mokri Yaly River — Staromaiorske and Urozhaine. Liberating Pryyutne and making their way further south, to the Russian defense line in Staromlynivka, appears to be their next goal.
- Videos posted online make clear that these gains had cost Ukraine several dozen pieces of equipment, which had either been damaged or destroyed outright in Staromaiorske and Urozhaine.
The slow pace of the AFU’s advances and their costliness in terms of equipment signals persistent tactical problems. In late July and early August, the Ukrainian command decided to use the reserves likely meant for a deep strike into the Russian rear, just to shift the Russian defense line by several kilometers south. But even a numerical advantage did not result in a major breakthrough for Ukraine, now left without any major reserves.
Three reasons for a lackluster offensive
- The AFU’s attempts to break through Russian positions by striking armored units without first suppressing the artillery that covers them have failed. This tactic had worked in September 2022, against weak RAF defenses by Kharkiv, but proved to be less effective on the west bank of Dnipro by Kherson. It’s performing poorly at present, too, as Ukrainian armored columns run into minefields (falling prey to Russian artillery and helicopters) or else get past the minefields in the way intended by the Russian command — by landing in a “fire bag” pummeled by the Russian artillery. This leads to heavy equipment losses with few gains to make up for it.
- Since July, the Ukrainian side has been trying a different approach. Taking advantage of Western-made systems and their greater range and accuracy, the Ukrainian artillery tries to suppress Russian howitzers and multiple rocket launchers. Dozens of effective strikes have been video-recorded and posted online. In his resignation letter to former subordinates, the ex-commander of Russia’s 58th Army Ivan Popov wrote that Russia was losing the “counter-battery battle” in southern Ukraine. Michael Kofman, a Carnegie Endowment fellow who traveled to the frontlines in July, also believes that the AFU has gained an advantage there, after being lavishly supplied with Western barrel artillery and ammunition on the eve of the offensive.
Still, suppressing the Russian artillery completely has not been possible, partly because the Russian command has lately resolved some of its earlier problems with artillery quality and accuracy. A “perpendicular solution,” for example, relies on delegating to long-range Lancet drones some of the artillery functions in fighting Ukrainian howitzers. Since the beginning of the Ukrainian offensive, the RAF published around 250 videos of Lancet strikes, more than half of them targeting artillery systems.
- As a result, Ukrainian units are once again confronted with minefields that must be traversed under enemy fire, from artillery and anti-tank missiles to helicopters, Lancet drones, and even unsophisticated DIY drones.
- The AFU’s own use of drones has decreased, compared to past months. This may be a sign that the Russian electromagnetic suppression systems are proving to be effective. Still, since the evidence mainly takes the form of complaints from Ukrainian drone operators, it’s too early to say anything conclusive about those systems.
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Michael Kofman has cautiously suggested that the battle for Bakhmut caused excessive casualties for the Ukrainian army when the AFU had another good option: to retreat to the high hills near Chasiv Yar west of Bakhmut, setting up impregnable new defense positions there. In reality, the experienced and battle-hardened Ukrainian brigades sent to Bakhmut in February and March exchanged the lives of their seasoned fighters and officers for the lives of former convicts recruited by Yevgeny Prigozhin, with little consequence for the regular Russian army.
Other U.S. military experts criticize the defense of Bakhmut in even harsher terms. Daniel Davis, a senior fellow at the Defense Priorities Foundation, writes that Kyiv’s decision to use the remaining seasoned fighters for immediate counterattack after losing the city was but one of the bad decisions made by politicians in spite of better strategic reasoning. This ultimately backfired this month in southern Ukraine.
To balance these criticisms, let’s note that, after it captured Bakhmut, Prigozhin’s Wagner Group had to leave the front altogether, having depleted itself in the “Bakhmut meat-grinder.” To defend the 50-kilometer (or 30-mile) segment of the front previously powered by mercenaries, the Russian General Staff had to cobble together a whole new grouping. This led to the suspension of combat by Marinka (since the 150th Motorized Rifle Division had to be withdrawn from there) and near Avdiivka (where the Russian forces had to part with the brigades of the former “DNR militia”). Finally, paratroopers from the 106th Airborne Division and the 31st Airborne Assault Brigade are now on the defensive near Bakhmut (instead of defending the Russian positions in southern Ukraine or conducting an offensive in the north).
The ongoing battle for Bakhmut is preventing both opponents from focusing on the southern operation. Open-source data suggests that 22 “regular” brigades of the AFU (including the National Guard and some partial brigades) are operating in southern Ukraine, against 14 brigades and 12 “regular” regiments of the Russian Armed Forces. The 13 AFU brigades in Bakhmut are fighting eight brigades and 11 regiments of the RAF. Judging by these figures alone, the almost year-long battle for Bakhmut cannot be described as strategically insignificant, compared to the operation in the south.
A strategic stalemate
In the fall of 2022, the AFU command resolved to conduct offensives on two far-out flanks: the west bank of the Dnipro River in the southwest of the front and the area of Balakliya and Izyum in the northeast. While the two operations developed differently, they had similar strategic goals:
- Liberating Kherson and expelling the Russian troops across the Dnipro (assisted by missile attacks on the crossings) was necessary to seize the initiative in the south and rule out a future offensive on Odessa and western Ukraine.
- Rupturing the poorly-prepared Russian positions by Izyum was meant to prevent a Russian offensive on the Donbas from the north. As a result, the Russian Army, tasked with seizing the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in their entirety, can only attack the Donbas “head-on,” through a system of Ukrainian fortifications that took eight years to build. When the Russian troops tried to do this last winter, their losses outweighed the gains.
The new Ukrainian offensive claims “positive” rather than merely “negative,” or preventive, goals: namely, it seeks to demolish the Russian defenses in areas where they’re likeliest to collapse. This is the only way towards liberating all of Ukraine, and this can only be done in the south of the country. Access to the Sea of Azov would let the Ukrainian army defeat the largest Russian grouping, isolate the Crimea, and open a new front near Mariupol, where no major population centers would hinder the AFU’s advance to the Russian border.
In effect, both sides are confronting the problem of having to deal with well-equipped defense lines laid out by the adversary. The RAF are faced with this problem in central Donbas, while the Ukrainian army is dealing with the result of nine months of Russian preparations for its offensive in southern Ukraine.
Neither of the sides is likely to achieve any breakthroughs in dealing with this problem, for the following reasons:
- Neither of the adversaries has concentrated sufficient forces on the critical directions of their offensives, since groupings of sufficient size can neither be effectively managed nor supplied. In addition, both sides are forced to spread their resources thin along an 800-kilometer (or almost 500-mile) frontline.
- Thanks to plentiful reconnaissance drones, each of the adversaries is fully informed about the enemy’s actions near the front and can target assault units with artillery, suicide drones, and long-range anti-tank missiles.
- Neither side has effective means of blocking the enemy from bringing supplies and reinforcements to the front. The recurrent situation is that the defending side, faced with a crisis, brings reinforcements into the area, halting the enemy offensive. This happened last summer, when the Russian forces tried to encircle Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk, during the AFU fall offensive in the Kherson region, during the Russian attacks near Vuhledar in the winter of 2023, and near Avdiivka this spring.
- Both sides are actively using all available means to strike at the adversary’s rear. But they are clearly insufficient, both quantitatively and qualitatively. After its early losses in the war, the Russian aviation is either used to strike along the frontline or to attack targets in the far rear with a limited number of cruise and ballistic missiles.
- The only cheap and widely available option for Russian strikes on the near rear is to convert conventional air-bombs into guided bombs by modifying them with a Universal Planning and Correction Module (“UMPK”). This kit, however, has multiple drawbacks, including its limited range (around 50 kilometers, or 30 miles, even at high altitudes) and its limited usefulness for moving targets like supply columns.
- Ukraine has a similar problem: nearly all of the precision weapons supplied by the West are guided by target coordinates. HIMARS missile systems had been very effective in the summer and fall of 2022, when the Russian Army supplied its troops from the major depots set up near railway stations in the Donbas and southern Ukraine. The Russian grouping on the west bank of Dnipro was also in a severe crisis because its supply was tied to four bridges within the HIMARS strike zone. But the RAF have since adapted to the situation by switching to a distributed warehousing system.
- The geography of the theater of operations in southern Ukraine makes it difficult to isolate it with long-range strikes: the AFU would need too many munitions and launch systems to keep the Russian grouping’s numerous supply lines under constant fire.
- Both adversaries are constantly improving their air-defense systems, diminishing the effectiveness of long-range weapons.
- Neither side has aircraft capable of independently scouting and hitting mobile targets in the enemy’s near and far rear, in the face of air defense countermeasures. And neither has the means to completely suppress the adversary’s air defense.
- Even the delivery of dozens of relatively modern F-16 aircraft to Ukraine will probably not change the situation, Michael Kofman believes.
A situation where both sides are fully informed about the adversary’s actions, but neither can stem the enemy supply and reinforcements, inevitably devolves into a war of attrition. Wagner Group has been relatively effective in dealing with this type of situation last winter and spring, by sheer profligacy with its assets (especially infantry, used to get close to enemy positions). By adopting similar tactics and bringing in substantial reserves, the AFU was able to get close to the main line of Russian defense in Staromlynivka, but the absence of further reserves to inject into battle has halted its progress.
Has the Ukrainian offensive failed definitively?
No, it has not. Ironically, a battle of attrition might benefit the AFU more than an unsuccessful attempt at a deep breakthrough. Despite its lack of further reserves, the AFU can still deplete the Russian defenses.
The Russian Armed Forces still have some reserves in southern Ukraine, including marines and airborne brigades and regiments. Still, these reserves are limited, and the forces currently engaged in battle have already been badly damaged:
- The Russian units involved in the defense south of Orikhiv have suffered heavy losses since early June. The 810th Marine Brigade that supports them between Rabotyne and Verbove has been fighting since July. While available reinforcements are mostly units of newly-mobilized men, the Ukrainian reserves recently brought into battle have not yet suffered major losses.
- The troops trying to hold back the AFU attacks at the base of the “Vremivka wedge” are also exhausted, and it’s not clear whether available reserves will be enough to stop the Ukrainian offensive by Staromlynivka.
Russia’s larger reserves are not in the south of the country, but in the north, in the area stretching from Kreminna to Kupyansk, where the Russian General Staff is trying to organize an offensive. Relatively small Russian formations are now advancing on the part of Kupyansk located on the eastern bank of the Oskil River. (Most of the city, though, is located on the opposite bank.) If they capture the crossings over the Oskil near Kupyansk, the Russian army may complicate supply to the entire AFU grouping on the eastern bank of the Oskil, including Kharkiv, Luhansk, and Donetsk regions, liberated last fall. This would nevertheless require getting major forces out of the Russian reserves deep in the Luhansk region and on the training grounds of Russia’s Belgorod region.
Even in the unlikely event of a completely successful Russian offensive, Ukraine would only lose some of the territory it had liberated back in October and December. The worst-case scenario for the AFU would be to withdraw behind the Oskil River in the west and over Siverskyi Donets in the south, which would stabilize the front without bringing the Russian army any closer to capturing the Donbas.
The likely outcome
The war appears to be moving towards a stalemate. The AFU is just as unlikely to rupture the Russian defense in the south as the RAF itself to make much progress in the north. In the fall and winter, Russia may once again go on the offensive, having spent a year creating new operational formations composed of volunteers (an army in the Far East and an army corps in southern Russia). If volunteer units fail, the Kremlin might call for another round of mobilization.
Ukraine, on the other hand, is bound to look for new deliveries from the U.S. and Europe. Critics of military aid to Ukraine have not yet managed to hamper this supply, but pressure for a “compromise solution” is likely to grow, making it more difficult for NATO and Ukraine’s various partners to realize the advantage in resources over Russia.
The data reflected on the map are typically at least 48 hours old. Meduza is careful in working with data, but mistakes are still possible, and perhaps even inevitable. If you spot one, please let us know by sending an email to (email protected). Thank you!