A hundred meters a day

By THOMAS GUTSCHKER, graphics: JENS GIESEL · the 19 of september, 2023

Ukrainian soldiers on Saturday on the front line near Andriyevka in the Donetsk region Photo: AP

Kiev's armed forces have continued to hit the initiative and Russia in Crimea hard. But progress is slow. The Ukrainians are having a hard time with coordinated advances.


b the country must prepare for a long battle, the head of Ukraine's military intelligence was recently asked at a strategy forum in Kiev. "If you talk about half a year, seven months or up to a year, and you think it's a long time," Kyrylo Budanov replied, "then of course that's true." With which he wanted to express the opposite: It wasn't really for long. At the same time, however, it was also an admission. Those responsible in Kiev are well aware that their counteroffensive is progressing only slowly – slower than he would like, Budanov admitted. They expect as little as the American government to achieve a quick success before the end of this year.

At the beginning of June, the Ukrainian Armed Forces began their offensive in the south of the country, on two axes. After tough fighting, they made their first breakthrough at Robotyne at the end of July. Since then, it has become clear that this is the main focus of the initiative. The units first try to advance to Tokmak, a central logistics hub of the Russians, in order to get from there to Melitopol, thus cutting the Russian land bridge to Crimea. This would put the occupiers in Crimea in a precarious position – and could force Russian President Vladimir Putin to the negotiating table, according to the calculation. In three and a half months, however, the Ukrainians have only advanced ten kilometers on this axis. By the end of August, they had liberated Robotyne, a village that once had 500 inhabitants. They are still 25 kilometers away from Tokmak and 85 kilometers from Melitopol.

After all, at the beginning of the month, they managed to overcome the first Russian line of defense between Robotyne and Verbowe to the east. This is a well-fortified and hardened system of minefields, concrete barriers, anti-tank and trenches as well as infantry positions, some of which are connected by underground tunnels. It was created last year under the then commander of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine, General Sergei Surovikin. It later fell out of favor, but the barrier belt still bears his name: Surovik Line. In fact, there are as many as three lines, with the first being the most developed. The other two lines are fallback positions. However, they too are usually located on elevated terrain, which allows the defenders to better control the battlefield. The city of Tokmak is once again secured with its own belt all around.

Satellite image from August 22, 2023
Graphic: Giesel / Sources: ISW (areas), Planet Labs PBC (satellite image), Brady Africk (Russian defenses)

Satellite image from August 22, 2023
Graphic: Giesel / Sources: ISW (areas), Planet Labs PBC (satellite image), Brady Africk (Russian defenses)

The biggest obstacle to the advancing Ukrainian troops is the extensive minefields that the Russians have laid. Actually, their military doctrine provides for fields that are 120 meters deep. However, this makes it possible to build breaches with special systems, which Ukraine also possesses. They fire explosive mine-clearing cords that detonate the mines on an alley about six meters wide. In order to arm themselves against this, the Russians have laid their fields up to 500 meters deep. Up to three anti-tank mines can be located on one square meter, in some places on top of each other. This creates such a high explosion pressure that clearing blades on tanks are blown away. The Ukrainian pioneers therefore have no choice but to clear narrow alleys by hand, and they themselves repeatedly come under fire. This explains why, on average, they only progress about a hundred meters a day, as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently said.

After all, they are making progress. "In most sections, the initiative has been with Ukraine since May," explains a senior NATO official who cannot be identified. Russia reacts to Ukrainian movements instead of determining the battlefield itself. "Even if it is only progressing in small steps, it is progressing continuously." This should not be underestimated, because it also affects the morale of the soldiers. This is better for the Ukrainians than for the Russians, especially since their commanders repeatedly send poorly trained and understaffed units into risky missions because they are under high political pressure.

Scars of war

Satellite images of the front line at Robotyne in August 2022 and August 2023

Graphic: Giesel / Satellite images: Copernicus Sentinel

On the southern front, the Ukrainians have earned a superiority in artillery. This is the consequence of superior Western technology. When the Russians fire their guns, radars detect the trajectory of the projectiles. Computers calculate not only where they hit, but also where they were shot down. Often, the counter-battery fire then sets in so quickly and precisely that the Russian guns can no longer be brought to safety. In addition, the Russians can fire fewer shells on the southern front because their logistics chains have become longer and more complicated due to targeted attacks. The cluster munitions supplied by America, which were supposed to compensate for the Ukrainians' deficits in heavy shells, are also having an effect. This allows the advancing units to better suppress enemy fire.

But they are always only small units, a platoon with up to forty soldiers or a company, three to four times as strong. "This is progressing slowly and cannot generate momentum on its own," writes military analyst Michael Kofman in a recent study after a lengthy visit to the front, "but usually Ukrainian units are better at hand-to-hand combat than Russian ones." The Ukrainians, on the other hand, have a hard time with larger coordinated advances by a battalion (up to 800 soldiers) or even a brigade (up to 3000 soldiers), which Kofman also attributes to a lack of training and experience. The formations that carry the offensive in the south were trained in the west and partly equipped with Western tanks, but the soldiers had no combat experience beforehand. On the other hand, Kiev has deployed its most experienced troops near Bakhmut in the east. In this way, it was able to repel the Russian offensive there in winter and gain time for the newly formed units. But now this is also a disadvantage in the south.

In the first phase of the offensive, the Ukrainians had deployed five of the nine brigades trained in the west in the south, they form the 9th Army Corps. Meanwhile, the 10th Corps has also intervened in the fighting with the remaining units. These include those equipped with German Marder infantry fighting vehicles and British Challenger main battle tanks. The Russians, in turn, were forced to withdraw some of their best formations from the Bakhmut area and move them to the south for reinforcements. This has stabilized the lines there for the time being. In the northeast, near Kupyansk and Lyman, they have also pulled together forces. However, the NATO official does not expect an imminent major offensive here, as the Russians lack the clout to do so. Rather, their goal is to reconquer the area east of the Oskil River in order to create a natural buffer zone.

Beyond the front line, the Ukrainians have recently succeeded in striking important strikes against Russian targets on the occupied Crimean peninsula. At the end of August, they first knocked out a long-range maritime surveillance radar, a coastal defense system Bastion and an S-400 air defense system. At the beginning of September, special forces recaptured two gas production platforms off the coast on which the occupiers had installed surveillance technology. This allowed Ukrainian warplanes to launch anti-radar missiles and cruise missiles of the types "Storm Shadow" and "Neptune" from closer proximity to Crimea. In these complex attacks last week, an amphibious landing ship and a submarine were destroyed, which were in dry dock in the port of Sevastopol for maintenance. It was one of four submarines of the Black Sea Fleet capable of launching cruise missiles.

A day later, two more S-400 systems were hit in the west of Crimea. Thus, Russia is now largely "blind" in this direction of operation. It can also no longer consider Sevastopol a safe haven. Moscow therefore withdrew several large ships from there to the Russian coast. As a result, it should no longer be possible for the navy to enforce its embargo on Ukrainian grain transports. However, Kiev has so far failed to cut off the railway connection across the Kerch Bridge. It is through it that most supplies are transported to the Crimean peninsula.

All in all, the fighting still bears all the signs of a war of attrition. In line with estimates from Washington and London, the NATO official says that Russian losses were approaching the mark of 300,000 men, including more than 1800 officers. This includes dead and injured, regular soldiers and militias. In contrast, Ukrainian losses are "significantly lower"; they are probably between 50 and 100 soldiers a day. Although Russia has the much greater mobilization potential, Putin has so far shied away from a larger mobilization. Moscow's courtship of North Korea also shows that Russian ammunition stocks are finite. This probably also applies to modern guided missiles, of which only a few have been shot down recently. In the war of attrition, the side that manages its skills better and can replace losses more quickly has an advantage.

The Ukrainians still have time until the end of October before the rain makes the ground muddy. This restricts the ability of the troops to move. However, the soils in the south are sandier than in the east, so water seeps away faster. The head of the secret service, Budanov, has already announced that they will not bow to the weather: "The offensive will continue in all sections."