A critical turning point has been reached in the months-long counteroffensive in Ukraine. After weeks of difficult fighting, Ukrainian forces have slowly advanced south into the Zaporizhzhya region, seizing one village after another as Russian forces try to push them back.
The counterattack in the south is just one part of a major advance along a broad front line, stretching from Vasilievka in Zaporizhia to the city of Donetsk in the eastern Donbas region and up to Bakhmut, a city north of Donetsk, to the outskirts of Kubyansk. in northeastern Ukraine. And this does not even include strikes and raids on the Crimean Peninsula and from across the Dnipro River from the city of Kherson to the Black Sea.
There has been widespread speculation that Ukraine’s advance in the south has somehow stalled, or is limited at best. In fact, its soldiers had to fight their way across open terrain through a maze of well-placed fortified positions and trenches.
The surrounding area is littered with mines, and potential routes are likely to be covered by heavy artillery and Russian missile batteries.
Movement can be easily monitored remotely as drones tirelessly monitor the battlefield.
This tangled and carefully fortified line is what Ukrainian forces have been deliberately advancing for months.
Human losses were high on both sides, but they would have been much greater on the Ukrainian side if their leaders had rushed to do so.
And now, finally, those first lines of defense had been breached. The village of Robotin in Zaporizhya had been captured, the next hamlet, Novoprokopivka, was within Ukrainian sights, and Tokmak, one of its strategic targets, was now within reach.
Tokmak is a vital railway junction and the key to controlling the city of Melitopol, located in the neck of the Crimean peninsula. It lies less than 20 kilometers (12.4 mi) behind the front line and is surrounded by its own defensive ring. The entrances to the city are heavily fortified, and the Russians have proven adept at making Ukraine pay for every kilometer traveled.
Russian military logistics rely heavily on the railway system, but this network is increasingly under attack not only from Ukrainian artillery but also from precision strikes carried out by HIMARS missile batteries and Storm Shadow cruise missiles.
The Russian army is aware of the importance of the Tokmak and has greatly reinforced its units there. Ukrainian forces can choose to attack the city directly, with resulting heavy losses, or to circumvent it, which could lead to its encirclement and isolation. Either way, the city’s rail line will be cut off.
Ukrainian forces farther south would then be able to destroy targets around Melitopol, putting pressure on Russian forces there and threatening Russian units protecting the near bank of the Dnipro River with encirclement.
Cut off from the rest of their logistical supply chain, these units will quickly run out of ammunition and fuel, as all storage depots are systematically destroyed by precise Ukrainian long-range fire.
Ukrainian military planners were thinking more ahead and systematically targeting bridges and railway depots far from the battlefield in Crimea itself.
The Kerch Strait Bridge, linking Crimea to Russia, was attacked and severely damaged in July, and weeks later, roads and railway bridges in Chunhar, linking Crimea to the Ukrainian mainland, were severely damaged by missile strikes.
While the southern front is Ukraine’s most important, its military has been adept at keeping the Russian high command struggling to guess where the decisive offensive will come from. In the east, Ukrainian units easily retook the areas around Bahamut, which had cost the Russians dearly over the past eighteen months.
The city of Donetsk, the axis of the southern and eastern fronts, is under pressure from Ukrainian forces on both sides, while in the west, Ukraine has made gains by pushing south, seizing Staromayorsky.
Large-scale raids were carried out on the banks of the Dnipro River, and even a daring commando raid succeeded in attacking targets in Crimea on August 24, Ukraine’s Independence Day.
All of this muddies Russia’s strategic picture, allowing Ukraine to choose where and when it wants to fight and keeping Russia on the defensive.
Russian counter moves
While this pattern of tactical and strategic deception is working for Ukraine, Russia has made some strategic moves of its own. The Russian army has massed more than 100,000 soldiers behind the front line in the northeast, opposite Kobyansk in the Kharkiv region.
The Ukrainian military ordered civilians to evacuate the area ahead of the expected heavy fighting despite the refusal of many war-weary villagers. So far, the expected Russian offensive has been only piecemeal, but it is forcing Ukraine to keep significant forces in the northeast for when they are most needed elsewhere.
Russia’s ally Belarus deliberately keeps its strategic intentions unclear, forcing the Ukrainian high command to also factor in a possible attack from Belarusian territory in its calculations—calculations that help further drain Ukrainian reserves and supplies.
Not all Ukrainian attacks were successful, with many of the early armored advances being destroyed, forcing the planners to rethink their tactics.
In late August, an attempted amphibious raid on Crimea, on the heels of the successful Independence Day raid, ended in disaster as Russian jets intercepted the squadron, sinking all four boats and killing 50 of the highly trained Ukrainian special forces.
The Air Force is important
Russia’s air power outstrips that of Ukraine, and despite promises of F-16 fighter jets from its allies and donations of Soviet-legacy aircraft by former Warsaw Pact nations that are now NATO members, such as Poland and Bulgaria, Ukrainian losses have mounted.
Russian aircraft operate freely near the front line. Of all the horrors lurking there, Ukrainian infantry accounts of the fighting in the south say their greatest fear Precision-guided KAB glide bombs by the Russian Air Forcewhich can fire up to 1,500 kg (3,306 lb) of high explosive with an accuracy of 4 to 8 meters (13 to 26 ft).
The Ukrainian air force still makes Russian incursions costly, but the screens of Russian fighter jets, gunships and air defense systems guarding front line positions rule out the use of the Ukrainian air force to support the army’s ground offensives.
The Ukrainian counter-offensive operates with almost no supportive air cover, which turns conventional military thinking on its head.
It is this kind of new tactical thinking — blanket coverage of surveillance by drones on both sides and massive use of long-range precision-guided munitions, while both countries’ air forces do not take on, or are unable to take on, the strategic role favored by Western militaries — that The source of friction between the Ukrainian generals and their allies.
Frustration works both ways, as Russia and Ukraine know that this counterattack is the key to the war.
For Ukraine, time is running out because it constantly fears that goodwill will eventually fade, and with it Western military support.
For Russia, time is also a factor, as small victories are needed to boost sagging Russian morale in hopes of halting what could easily become a rout if morale collapses completely. The victories are also needed to bolster domestic support, once assured but now on shaky ground, as well as for Vladimir Putin’s presidency.
For now, the kind of massed, rapid armored strikes, backed by close Ukrainian air support, that Western military trainers envisioned are being shelved in favor of a different style of warfare, one that benefits the Ukrainian army and the lives of the soldiers fighting it. .
This slow “advance, erode, strangle and strike” methodology works well, especially on the southern front.
Among the difficult matters here is the growing possibility of a Ukrainian river attack across the Dnipro River and the fate of the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant in Innerhodar.
It appears that Ukrainian forces are now on the cusp of a breakthrough. Russia’s task is to continue building fortifications and using its dwindling reserves to bolster its defenses in the hope that Ukraine collapses before Russia does.
Both sides are seeking a decisive victory before the heavy rains of late fall and winter snows begin.