Last week, we discussed leaked United States intelligence assessments of the land campaign that were reported in the Washington Post. The article’s assessment of the Ukrainian offensive was grim. Stating that United States officials were concerned about the offensive’s chance of reaching the sea and claiming that Ukraine’s military leadership was not using the tactics suggested by their American and British allies. The article’s key conclusion being that Ukraine will fail to reach the Sea of Azov severing the Crimean Land Bridge. However, this week the campaign is characterised by a change in Ukraine’s tactics, the focus shifting from three axes of advance to one.
Until recently, Ukraine’s offensive has been directed on three key axes of attack;
- Attacking near Bakhmut.
- Advancing from near Orikhiv towards Tokmak; and then toward Melitopol.
- Flattening the Velyka Novosilka salient.
A wide range of other probing and shaping operations have been reported for instance;
- Before the offensive, Ukrainian sponsored anti-Putin partisans raided areas along the country’s northern border causing confusion and drawing Russian soldiers out of Ukraine to defend the border.
- During the offensive, Ukrainian forces have persistently raided along the Dnipro River, sometimes crossing and holding sections of territory to draw Russian forces away from the frontline and attrit them using artillery on the west bank of the river.
- Raids are now starting to take place on the Crimean Peninsula. Although small these operations are embarrassing for Putin and are likely to draw Russian forces away from the frontline and undermine support at home for the war. Some of these attacks have destroyed key facilities like anti-aircraft radar sites and firing positions, that Russia probably thought were safe from attack.
But, none of these activities represent Ukraine’s main effort, or the point at which Ukraine is aiming to achieve decision in this offensive. Instead, over the last twelve weeks attention has been on the areas in which a large force of armour and artillery can be used to penetrate Russian defences, most likely on one of two southern axes. An offensive in the south being able to drive a wedge to the Sea of Azov that cuts the Crimean Land Bridge. The Crimean Land Bridge is strategically important because it provides guaranteed land access to Crimea; and Crimea is important because it dominates the Black Sea. If Ukraine can reach the Sea of Azov’s coast, holding Crimea becomes very difficult for Russia because the Kerch Bridge that links the peninsular to Russia is within range of Ukrainian rocket artillery. The peninsular itself could also be subject to persistent air, sea and artillery attack.
Therefore, the Crimean Land Bridge is Putin’s ‘ace,’ if he holds it, he can hold Crimea. While he retains the Crimean Land Bridge the war can be declared a victory. At this stage, he is banking on NATO and United States support evaporating over time because he knows they have invested a great deal of money in Ukraine. An investment that needs to show a return. The return on investment may not be publicly stated but severing the Crimean Land Bridge would guarantee United States and NATO support because it demonstrates that Ukraine can win. So, if Putin can stop this happening he can still win and that is why the offensive’s slow progress is causing Western commentators to become concerned that Ukraine will not make enough ground to retain political support. The recent Washington Post article highlighted command issues that commentators have speculated about but been unable to confirm adding credence to these concerns.
And; now the campaign appears to be reaching a very important transitional phase, Russia’s frontline forces are likely to be reaching a point of exhaustion. The defenders have been ‘stretched’ and ‘starved.’ Ukraine’s shaping operations forcing Russia to move forces around, revealing artillery and reserves that can be attacked; stretching their defensive resources. Recent reports indicate that Ukraine is successfully destroying Russian artillery at a rate of at least five Russian guns for each one Ukraine loses. Meanwhile, behind the lines Ukraine has maintained a constant attack on Russia’s logistics infra-structure, bridges destroyed, ammunition dumps blown up, airfields attacked all designed to starve Russian frontline soldiers of the resources they need to fight.
The effects of this activity are being reported Russian troops posting social media videos detailing their lack of equipment and poor orders, sudden disordered withdrawals from defended areas ending in Russian troops being killed as they retreat and reports of Russian forces not being rotated out of the frontline for rest periods paint a picture of a force that is faltering.
This week Ukraine appears to be transitioning to a new operational phase. First indications are that near Bakhmut and on the Velyka Novosilka salient we can see stabilisation of the frontline. Near Bakhmut, Ukraine is settling in and focussing on holding the area to the south of the town dominated by the villages of Klishchiivka, Andrivka and Kurdyumivka all of which sit on an important ridgeline. One that if captured will provide a route to advance north-east and block the main road into Bakhmut. Ukraine needs to capture these villages but does not appear to be prioritising this activity. Likewise, on the Velyka Novosilka salient after capturing Staromaiorske then Urozhaine Ukraine is slowing down and appears to be re-constituting in this area.
The lack of action on these two axes would be worrying. But on the axis that starts near Orikhiv and is directed south, towards Melitopol there was a significant change in tempo this week. This axis was easily the most heavily defended and is the one Ukraine was making the slowest progress along. However, last week things changed. The composition of Ukrainian units operating in this area changed as units 82nd Air Assault Brigade, from the strategic reserve started to move forward and enter the battle.
The village of Robotyne fell to Ukraine this week. The village sits astride the T0408 motorway that runs north-south and provides a supply line for an advance on Tokmak, about 17km further south. Melitopol is approximately 70km south of Ukraine’s current positions. Right now, Ukraine is pushing along the T0408 towards Novoprokpivka 3km south of Robtyne, and is also enveloping the village from the east. However, the most important activity is taking place about 6km east of Robotyne, Ukraine has managed to penetrate Russia’s trench lines. We should expect to see the trench lines that stretch from that point back to Robotyne and Novoprokpivka cleared quickly opening a gap in Russia’s first line of defences. On Friday 25 August, United States Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley confirmed Ukrainian forces are fighting through these Russian defensive positions.
In this area we are starting to see a couple of important combat indicators. First, Ukraine’s tempo of operations is increasing. Last week, they covered as much ground on this axis as they have in the previous eleven weeks. Ukraine is committing higher quality forces to the battle and is increasing the concentration of forces; or putting larger forces into battle against key targets. The second indicator is the retreat of Russian forces, instead of the well-prepared and executed withdrawals that we have seen previously the withdrawing defenders are conducting less well-ordered retreats and being punished by accurate Ukrainian artillery fire. Taken together these observations could indicate a change in the campaign. We should expect to see more forward movement on this axis in coming weeks and I think that we are starting to see Ukraine commit its main effort.
The next step is likely to be widening and securing a gap in the first line of defence, probably between Robotyne, Novoprokpivka and Verbove. Advancing ‘along’ a defensive line is easier than advancing into it because after breaking through Ukrainian forces will be in the rear of the first line of trenches so able to advance attacking the trench line from three sides. So, expect this activity to be relatively rapid. After clearing a gap, Ukraine will be positioned to continue its advance south and if they are now focussing on one axis expect to see some rapid movement. It is likely that the next lines of defence are less heavily mined so that Russian troops can move easily between the lines of defence. It is also possible that subsequent lines of defence will be less heavily defended, troops from the rear having already been moved forwards to defend the first line. In fact, the Institute for the Study of War, an American ‘think tank’ assesses the situation as follows “However, the extent of the minefields in the area of this series of prepared defensive positions is unclear, although they may be less heavily mined to give Russian forces operating north of these positions the ability to retreat. ISW additionally recently assessed that this series of prepared defensive positions may be less heavily defended than the positions Ukrainian forces already penetrated to the north, although this remains unclear.”
Essentially, Ukraine may be soon be through the hard shell of the Russian defences and if the defenders have been sufficiently starved and stretched a powerful strike may bring fast results. So next week, watch carefully because it is increasingly likely that we will start to see more and quicker Ukrainian progress. Tokmak is already being shelled by Ukrainian forces; and remember that by for an autumn victory Ukraine does not need to take Melitopol. Even getting close enough so that artillery can prevent movement of supplies by land; or within about 20km of the city is a win.
Back in Russia, politics is still the focus political figure Yevgeny Prigozhin meeting an untimely end this week when his private jet was ‘accidently’ shot down near Moscow. Mainstream media and the internet is ablaze with speculation and interpretations of this incident but my assessment is simply that Prigozhin’s death should not come as a surprise to anybody and that it will have very little impact on the war. When Prigozhin launched his coup, my assessment was that its short-term impact on Putin or the war would be minimal. That Putin responded quickly, putting down the insurrection and demonstrating that he was in charge limited damage and quickly restored the status quo.
It seems that Prigozhin’s death will have little impact on Russia’s political elite. He was already an outsider, a low-class ‘wideboy’ who had no history with Putin’s ex-intelligence silovaki, and my feeling is that his extravagance and loudness would not have been appreciated. Wagner Group’s soldiers are dispersed and the military brains behind the organisation Dmitry Utkin, the original call sign ‘Wagner’ was also on the plane and died with Prigozhin, effectively cutting off the snake’s head. Wagner Group’s soldiers will quickly be either soaked up back into the Russian army or another private military company set up for those that are best employed in Africa.
Finally, there have been reports that Russia is planning an offensive in the north-east. Starting on the Svatove-Kremina line and pushing west targeting Lyman and Kupyansk. The Institute for the Study of War reporting that “Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi stated on August 25 that Russian forces are transferring elements of newly formed brigades and divisions to the Kupyansk and Lyman directions after a month of significant losses in order to resume active offensive operations in these directions” however the Institute assessed the likelihood of this movement developing into a successful offensive before winter as highly unlikely.
In summary, this week was a good week for Ukraine their forces continuing to make ground and starting to cross the first Russian defensive line. It appears that Ukraine the campaign is starting to tip in their favour, that they are prioritising one axis of advance; and that this decision will mean the rate of advance towards Melitopol will increase. Ukraine’s offensive is gaining pace and by winter could be close to Melitopol creating a very difficult situation for Putin. If when the rain comes in October and November Ukraine has cut the Crimean Land Bridge, or is even close to cutting it. Putin’s political capital will plummet because to retain Crimea Russia will need to go on the offensive against a battle-hardened Ukraine now with new F16 fighter aircraft, removing one of Russia’s key battlefield advantages its airpower. A prospect that even the most hardened Putin supporter will dread. The question is; Can the Russians hang on?
Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer and TDBs military blogger