Ukraine is beginning to advance on multiple fronts, with gains reported on the Tokmak, Velyka Novosilka, Kherson, and Donetsk in recent days, while Ukraine continues to press the flanks around Bakhmut. Meanwhile, Russia reportedly is trying to launch its own attacks around Donetsk but has little to show for it.
Mark Sumner conducted an excellent overview of the fronts last night covering Ukrainian progress, so we will do a bit more of a deep dive focusing primarily on Ukraine’s attacks toward Robotyne, one of the prongs of the Tokmak front, aka the Tavria front.
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On the Tokmak front, there are primarily two attacks: in the west, a smaller attack being driven by the elite light infantry of the 128th Mountain Assault Brigade toward Vasylivka. To the east, what was originally an assault led by the 33rd/47th Mechanized Brigades toward Robotyne, which infamously lost Leopard 2 tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles in the first week of the counteroffensive.
(All fortification maps modified from Brady Africk’s work.)
On the west (the Ukrainian right), the 128th MAB has made slow but steady progress, but the biggest fighting in this sector has been Ukraine’s push toward Robotyne to the east.
Robotyne’s importance is because it lies on the most direct route and the main highway that connects Ukrainian-held territory to the city of Tokmak.
Tokmak’s importance is due to its strategic location, making it the gateway for any southwestern advance by Ukrainian forces. If Ukraine wants to liberate the major city of Melitopol, or to advance onto Crimea, capturing Tokmak first is a must.
This is because Tokmak lies at a strategic junction of five major highways, on top of the main east-west railway that allows Russian movement of troops and material between the southern and eastern fronts, and a key position north of the Molochna River. (The Russian-held railways are in orange.)
Bypassing Tokmak is not a good option. Even if Ukraine broke through Russian defenses around Vasylivka, Tokmak is only 30 kilometers (20 miles) away. A Russian counterattack to sever the lines of supply of Ukrainian troops on a southwestern advance would be too great. At a minimum, Ukraine must surround and isolate, and preferably capture, Tokmak before it can move on.
Measured strictly in distance, Ukraine does not need to advance very far to capture Tokmak—only about a 30 km advance from the initial front lines would do it. However, these 30 km are defended by at least four lines of fortifications that Russian forces have built up. Breaching or finding a way past each layer of defense will be necessary if Ukraine hopes to liberate its southern territories.
For these reasons, Robotyne effectively represents a central piece of the first main line of Russian defenses in this area.
a methodical approach
After the first week of heavy armor losses in an exceptionally dense minefield northeast of Robotyne, Ukraine is taking a methodical approach. Russian sources continue to circulate the armor losses from the first week of the fighting, indicating there are no additional “flashy” losses to report.
Since the second week or so of the counteroffensive, Ukraine has been leaning on the newly formed 65th Mechanized Battalion. Their missions have been to conduct the most dangerous task of cutting a swath through the minefields in front of Robotyne. This adjustment has likely allowed Ukraine to pull the Leopard 2s and Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles further back in a supporting role in the main advance on Robotyne. The NATO-trained heavy armor brigades of the 33rd and 47th Mechanized Brigades with these advanced armored vehicles are well suited for this type of role.
According to Poulet Volant and Ukraine Control Map, the two national guard units of the National Guard Spartan Storm Brigade and the National Guard 11th Operational Brigade have moved up as well. These units deployed to the east of the 65th MB and may be taking on leading the attacks in those areas in the place of the elite NATO-armed 33rd MB/47th MB.
This matches reports from the Tokmak area that Ukraine has shifted to small-scale light infantry attacks to take on the task of slowly clearing minefields.
On June 22 there were reports that the 65th MB broke through a defense line, and Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed that Ukrainian troops were already in northern Robotyne. This appears to have been false, or a misunderstanding.
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Based on recent reports from the pro-Russian sources that Ukrainian troops are approximate “1.5km” from Robotyne, in retrospect you can better understand the June 22 reports by Russian mili-blogger RVvoenkory and Rybar of a Ukrainian breakthrough.
To the west of the T0408 highway that the 65th MB is attacking, there is a lighter line of Russian trench works about 2.5 km north of the Russian main defenses around Robotyne.
It seems likely that Prigozhin, Rybar, etc. were discussing the 65th MB breaking through this initial line of defenses north of Robotyne. Some Russian bloggers may have mistakenly reported this to mean the 65th MB was in northern Robotyne. This erroneous information was picked up by Prigozhin, amplifying the misinformation.
So I assess that the Russian reports of a breakthrough by the 65th MB on June 22 are likely to have been true. The defense line discussed just was not the main defense line at Robotyne, but the smaller line of defenses about 2 km north.
Stepping back, here is my best guess as to Ukraine’s approach in this sector. The initial push to capture Robotyne was an attempt at a classic NATO-style breach action, aiming to use engineering vehicles to clear a path through the minefields and lead an assault column straight for Robotyne. The goal was to punch through the first main Russian defense line in one go.
NATO doctrine generally calls for air power to suppress and destroy enemy artillery and air assets before and during striking. But Ukraine’s air forces do not have that type of capability. Ukraine tried to make up for this with counterbattery fire from HIMARS. While HIMARS has been effective at destroying Russian artillery over time, this suppressive effort was insufficient in the initial stages.
Ukraine came under heavy attack by both artillery and attack helicopters in particular and was defeated. Reportedly, they were particularly caught off guard by the density of the minefield they encountered that forced assault columns to move far slower than planned.
So Ukraine has shifted gears in this sector. First, Ukraine now appears to be avoiding the area of the densest minefield and shifted the main attack to the west, lead by the newly formed Soviet arms-equipped 65h MB. Their dangerous role is to push down the main highway, gradually creating a road through the minefields.
small scale attacks versus large scale
To the east, Ukraine is taking the same approach with National Guard troops of the 3rd Spartan and 11th Op. Brigades. These are light infantry units with less training than elite regular army armored units. But with four months of solid combat training, Ukrainian National Guards receive more than two to three times the training that Russian conscripts receive.
This bringing forward of National Guard light infantry units matches reports that Ukraine’s attacks are being lead by small-scale infantry squad tactics that protect engineering vehicles rather than any large-scale combined arms heavy armored assault.
These light infantry attacks are inevitably slower, but can be heavily supported by long-range fire from the 33rd/47th MB’s Western armor—Bradleys’ TOW missiles and the Leopard 2 tank’s main gun are particularly effective at long-range engagements. Their night-fighting optics in particular allow them to outrange virtually all Russian armored units. Thus, during night attacks, Western armor can set up some distance behind the attacking light infantry and still provide powerful fire support.
The armored units switching to a supporting role would explain not only the light casualties to armored units, but the existence of new “Bradley destroys Russian armor” videos that continue to be put on social media.
Now only 1.5 km from the Russian main lines (per Pro-Russian blogger Rybar), it appears the 65th MB is now well within the tank-gun range of the first lines of Russian defense. Western armor can strike from ranges of well over 3 km, while Ukrainian Soviet-era tanks are often effective from around 2,500 meters to 3,000 meters. As Ukrainian sappers (combat engineers) continue to broaden safe areas by de-mining behind the dug-in forward elements of the Ukrainian vanguard, Ukraine should be able to bring greater supporting firepower to the Russian main trench line.
Furthermore, by approaching closer to the Russian front lines, it becomes more and more practical for Ukrainian spotter drones to survive attempts to provide fire-adjustment information for Ukrainian artillery on Russian trench positions. Russian anti-drone weaponry will have a more and more difficult time preventing drone reconnaissance with drones having less ground to cover under attacks by Russian anti-drone weapons.
Ukrainian artillery units demonstrated how deadly they can be when reconnaissance drones can deploy nearby the targets to provide artillery fire adjustments (artillery spotting). Ukrainian artillery showed terrifying accuracy in their attacks north of Bakhmut, landing shells directly into Russian trenches. If Ukraine can bring this level of accurate firepower down on Russian trench positions around Robotyne, Russian losses ahead of the Ukrainian main assault will rapidly multiply.
Ukraine may be nearing the point where it can make a real attempt to breach the first main Russian defense lines, this time with far more supporting firepower, far less ground to cover, and a much-weakened Russian position.
Despite these gains, there is still considerable consternation from even some pro-Ukrainian analysts that greater territorial progress has not been made after three weeks of fighting. Partially, most of these are localized tactical successes and do not yet represent a major strategic breakthrough of the main Russian defensive lines.
These gains do represent the fact that Ukraine has the tactical initiative across every theater of the conflict. Australian retired Major Gen. Mick Ryan pointed out that Russians have tried to wrest the initiative, particularly in the east, around Bakhmut, Donetsk, Avdiivka, and Siverskyi Donets. Despite a commitment of precious Russian offensive force, thus far gains have been marginal at best.
Two overwhelmingly important factors are currently at play to explain Ukraine’s slow advance. The biggest reason for slower progress is that Ukraine has adopted a low-risk attritional strategy of first grinding down Russian military resources. The initial aim appears to be the reduction of Russian reserves and artillery forces while gaining a pathway to the main lines of Russian defense and committing as few heavy brigades as possible.
Based on the Pentagon-leaked documents, Ukraine has a total of at least nine new NATO-trained and equipped elite heavy armored brigades. We know the names of eight of them: 7th, 21st, 32nd, 33rd, 37th, 82nd, 117th, and 118th Brigades.
We know that an unnamed Swedish Brigade equipped with Leopard 2s, Archer Self-Propelled Guns, and Combat Vehicle 90 Infantry Fighting Vehicles finished training and has returned to Ukraine. It is unknown if this brigade is included among the eight listed above.
The elite troops of the 1st and 4th Tank, 47th Assault, and 25th Air Assault brigades all have heavy armored formations and NATO training. The veteran light infantry of the 35th and 37th Marines, 68th Jaeger, and the 128th Mountain Assault Brigade have also already been committed to the fighting and NATO equipment.
A new mechanized formation with Soviet equipment, the 65th Mechanized, has also been committed to the fighting. The 23rd Mechanized, a Soviet-equipped veteran formation, has also been committed. The veteran 3rd Tank Brigade has been spotted in the southern theater but has not yet been committed to the fighting.
That totals 20-21 Regular Army Ukrainian Brigades that have been set aside for this offensive. “Twenty brigades” set aside for the offensive matches an often quoted number of Ukrainian brigades available for the offensive in April and May 2023, shortly before the beginning of the summer counteroffensive.
There are also eight new National Guard Operational Brigades raised for the offensive, also known as “storm brigades.” These are primarily light infantry formations, and receive slightly less training through a 16-week training program, as opposed to a minimum 24-week training program for the regular army. Nonetheless, they are better trained than Russian conscripts, who only receive a four- to eight-week training program; in some cases it’s as little as a single day. So far, the 3rd Operational Brigade “Spartan” has been committed to the fighting, along with the National Guard 10th Operational Brigade.
total ukrainian forces
In total, Ukrainian offensive forces include:
- Ukrainian Regular Army (20-21 brigades)
- New Elite Armored Brigades (NATO Trained/Equipped): x9
- Swedish-Trained Brigade (may be separate or included among nine elite armored brigades)
- NATO-Equipped Veteran Armored Brigades x4
- Soviet-Equipped Armored Brigades x3
- Elite Light Infantry Brigades x4
- Ukrainian National Guard (nine brigades)
- Storm Brigades x8
- 10th Operational Brigade
- Total: 29-30 brigades, each with 2,000-5,000 troops.
So what forces have Ukraine committed to the front lines in the offensive as of June 26?
- Tokmak Direction (six brigades)
- Elite Heavy Brigades: 47th Mechanized, 33rd Mechanized
- Heavy Brigade: 65th Mechanized
- Light Elite: 128th Mountain Assault
- Light National Guard: 3rd Spartan, 10th Operational Bge
- Velyka Novosilka Direction (six brigades)
- Elite Heavy Brigades: 4th Tank, 32nd Mechanized
- Heavy Brigade: 23rd Mechanized
- Light Brigades: 35th Marines, 37th Marines, 68th Jaeger
That’s a commitment of a total of 12 brigades out of a probable 29 brigades. Six armored brigades out of a likely 16. So it’s probably fair to say Ukraine has committed just 30%-40% of its total combat power, with an emphasis on committing its light elite brigades to the fighting.
In other words, when Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi told The Guardian in an interview that Ukraine's “main force was yet to be committed” and that Ukraine was fighting with only a fraction of its offensive combat power, there was a good reason to believe he’s telling the truth.
So why would Ukraine choose to fight this way? There are two factors at play: Russia’s fortified defensive position, and the issue of “force density.”
First, Ukraine has effectively launched three separate attacks of varying sizes on Russian positions.
The military principle of “force density” holds that there is a maximal amount of troops you can squeeze into a given area without increased concentration becoming counterproductive. This maximal density has steadily decreased over time through improvements in firepower. In 1800, you could squeeze upward of 100,000 men over 5 to 6 km of the front. Today, armies rarely concentrate more than a few thousand soldiers in such a tight space.
So when planning the assault, Ukraine needs to be selective about the number of points at which it attempts to breach Russia’s defenses, as this will dictate the number of troops they can commit in the early stages of the assault. In theory, Ukraine could line up all 29 or 30 of its brigades up and down Russia’s line and attack at once, trying to breach Russia’s defenses at 29 or more different points. This would be extremely wasteful and doomed to failure. Russian defense lines comprise myriad defensive obstacles: mines, barbed wire, tank obstacles, and anti-tank ditches.
Breaking through these defenses requires Ukrainian troops to suffer losses as they make their way through under withering Russian artillery fire and helicopter attacks. However, you don’t need more than one breach in a defensive line. Once attacking troops are on either side of the line, they can fan out, attacking enemy positions from behind and from the flanks, making them defensively untenable.
If the attacker penetrates a defensive line, the defender only has two options: Send in the reserves to try to push the attacker back from the breached line of defenses, or retreat their remaining troops on that line back to the next line of resistance.
So Ukraine must balance the benefits of increased pressure on Russia by attempting a breach through multiple points, and the costs of troops and material in breaking through a position on the Russian line. Ukraine appears to be pressing toward Russia’s main defensive lines in the aforementioned two, possibly three locations, but doing so primarily with light infantry brigades. Light infantry relies on armored personnel carriers to move them to and from the fighting but lacks a heavy contingent of armored tanks or infantry fighting vehicles.
Light infantry are effective in fighting for open ground, reconnaissance, and on the defensive, but they are less effective as units break through a heavily fortified defensive line. This is likely why Ukraine is relying on light infantry brigades to grind down Russian reserves.
And there is reason to believe Russian operational reserves are quite limited. The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense publishes regular defense intelligence updates, and one particular item caught my eye on May 20, 2023.
A few weeks before the start of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, Ukraine began a series of local counterattacks in Bakhmut that threatened the flanks of the Russian positions north and south of the city. Losing ground, Russia rushed reinforcements to Bakhmut.
The report notes that Russia “redeployed up to several battalions to reinforce the Bakhmut sector.” Furthermore, it notes “Russia likely maintain[s] relatively few uncommitted combat units in Ukraine, the redeployment represents a notable commitment by Russian command.”
If one were to assume that “notable commitment” meant 15%-20% of Russian reserves, based on the knowledge that Russia deployed five to six battalions to Bakhmut, Russia had a probable 30-40 battalions of operational reserves in the entire Ukrainian theater of operations as of May 20. A Russian battalion is generally around 600-800 troops, so this would represent around 20,000-35,000 troops.
A Russian brigade is generally around six to eight battalions, so this would represent just five to seven Russian brigades in reserve. This was before Russia began needing to pour its reserves into the front lines of the fighting, and inclusive of the five to six battalions deployed to Bakhmut in May.
While Ukraine began the offensive with around 29-30 brigades to commit to the offensive, Russia could bring just four to six brigades to reinforce a given area (with one brigade not committed to Bakhmut).
It is likely that Russia has already committed most of its operational reserves.
For example, in Velyka Novosilka, Poulet Volant has the following Russian units attributed to the Russians in this sector as of June 8, early in the offensive:
- 71st, 394th Motor Rifle Regiment
- 60th Motor Rifle Brigade
- 37th Guards Motor Rifle Brigade
- Total: two regiments, two brigades (approximately 18-20 battalions)
On June 26, the same region has (additions in bold):
- 71st, 394th Motor Rifle Regiment
- 60th Motor Rifle Brigade
- 37th Guards Motor Rifle Brigade
- 336th Guards Naval Infantry Brigade
- 40th Separate Marines Brigade
- 5th Separate Motor Rifle Battalion
- Total: One battalion, two regiments, four brigades (+13 to about 15 battalions to 31-35 battalions)
It is apparent that Russia has nearly doubled its force commitment to this area.
A commitment of 15 battalions to this region may have represented the expenditure of as much as half of Russian available reserves—and that doesn’t count the five to six battalions Russia deployed to Bakhmut when the May 20 report was released. That would represent the commitment of 20 out of an estimated 30-40 Russian reserve battalions.
In this context, consider the U.K. intelligence report from June 26:
“Little evidence that Russia maintains any significant ground forces operational level reserves which could be used to reinforce.”
If one were to assume U.K. intelligence to be reasonably accurate (as Western intelligence has repeatedly proven throughout the war since the early stages), if Ukraine can trade some of its light infantry brigades one for one with Russian front-line units to grind them down, Russian units will begin to lose any ability to reinforce front-line positions. This is made worse by the fact Russia has gone on the offensive on the Eastern Front in mid-June 2023, requiring greater commitments of men and material on the Eastern front. These Russian attacks may draw Ukrainian reserves to these sectors, but they likely have already drawn on Russian reserves as well.
Thus far, Russia has been able to continually reinforce its front lines as Ukrainian attacks have pressed front-line positions in front of Russia’s main defenses. To outside observers, this may appear to be much like a stalemate with slow progress.
Russia may have been counting on replenishing its operational reserves by converting Wagner troops to contract soldiers. On June 26, Putin has reportedly announced that he will permit Wagner soldiers to go to Belarus, sign a contract with the Ministry of Defense, or be discharged. It’s unclear how safe it would be for Russia to force tens of thousands of Wagner soldiers that participated in a mutiny to be folded into the Russian army. Soldiers that choose to join may be more reliable—but it seems more than likely that many, if not most Wagner soldiers, would prefer alternatives.
In any case, Ukraine has a much larger well-trained and equipped reserve of forces to commit to the offensive. Russia has maintained an illusion of stalemate by continually feeding drips of reserves into the front lines but has likely exhausted most of those reserves. A bigger shift is likely coming in the next weeks.
what maple syrup has to do with it
To illustrate this issue, consider Canada’s Global Strategic Maple Syrup Reserve. In 2012, a team of thieves lead by a Canadian man named Richard Vallières conducted an audacious heist that stole millions of dollars of goods. The stolen goods: maple syrup. The victim? Canada’s Global Strategic Maple Syrup Reserve. The thieves were caught, and the story of the heist itself is fascinating. But when I learned about this story, I also found the entire concept of the Strategic Maple Syrup Reserve as fascinating as the heist itself.
Canada controls 77% of the world’s maple syrup supply, enough that it can control global pricing. It has been described as “the OPEC of maple syrup.” Canada stores maple syrup in the reserve in years of abundance, in part to restrict supply and drive up global prices. In lean years, it can release syrup reserves, which prevents a shortage and keeps prices at levels that benefit Canadian producers.
You may be wondering what any of this has to do with the Russo-Ukrainian War. It’s because what happens during a global maple syrup shortage and Canadian Strategic Maple Syrup Reserves is a pretty good analogy for the concept of a military strategic reserve.
Global annual consumption of maple syrup is around 68,000 tons. If production falls short of that total, Canada can release reserves to prevent a shortage from happening. But what if production keeps falling short, year after year?
To the average person, it may not appear that anything much is changing. But Canada is maintaining the status quo only by releasing reserves year after year. At some point, when the strategic reserve runs dry, the full force of the shortage will become apparent and it will appear to all as if a sudden massive shortage has befallen global markets.
Military reserves are very similar. If one or both sides of a conflict are constantly feeding reserves into a battle at an unsustainable rate, what may appear to be an unchanging status quo can actually be the rapid deterioration of the combat forces of one side.
A historical example of precisely such a battle would be the Battle of Normandy in 1944. Australian retired Maj. Gen. Mick Ryan wrote a piece in The Economist urging patience and compared the Ukrainian counteroffensive to the Battle of Normandy, noting how the Allies took nearly three months to break through the numerous lines of German defenses.
Allied forces landed on Normandy on June 6, 1944. Many people are familiar with the initial struggles during the Omaha Beach landings, but overall the landing operations were successful beyond Eisenhower’s expectations. Eisenhower defined “success” in the landing operations as establishing beachheads and a defensible position while suffering below 30% casualties during planning. The Allies suffered only around 10,000 casualties out of 133,000 Allied troops, or just 7.5%.
What followed, however, was a grinding and difficult battle to achieve “breakout,” far more time-consuming and costly than anything Allied planners expected.
The problem was the Norman hedgerows. Viewed from aerial photography, Allied generals assumed that the hedgerows in this region would be the same as the hedgerows commonly seen in England, with bushes trimmed to around 1 m (3 feet) tall that can be easily crossed on foot.
It turned out the Norman hedgerows were something entirely different. Known locally as bocage, these were hedges that were built on steep dirt embankments that were themselves 1-2 m tall, and 4-5 m tall thick hedges that towered over them. They proved very difficult to traverse.
German defenders turned the bocage into an ad hoc network of field defenses. The bocage funneled Allied troops into chokepoints where Allied troops contended with German strongpoints defended with mines, artillery, and machine guns.
Allied progress was slow. It took near a month (July 1) to secure the key port of Cherbourg, a little more than 30 km from Utah Beach. After securing Omaha Beach on June 6-7, Allied forces did not secure the key crossroads at St. Lo, just 35 km away, until July 19.
Allied losses were horrific. Between June 6 to Aug. 30, 1944, the U.S. Army alone suffered over 124,000 casualties. Allied losses topped 220,000. By late July, there were suggestions in the U.S. and the U.K. that the offensive had devolved into a hopeless stalemate—the Battle of the Somme all over again. But the Allies kept feeding brigade after brigade, division after division into the offensive to keep it going.
What such critics did not understand was that the Allies were inflicting horrific losses on the German army, losses the German army could not replenish. Germany slowed the Allied advance by relying upon the defensive terrain and by feeding reserves constantly to the front.
When the German reserves were exhausted, there was nothing that could stop the Allied advance. Germany reached the breaking point in early August 1944. The Allies broke out from Normandy, encircling numerous Germans in the Falaise Pocket and advancing into central and southern France. Paris was liberated by Aug. 19, and by late August, Allied forces had reached the French-German border. All talk of a stalemate had been forgotten.
what ukraine and the battle of normandy share
The current state of the Ukrainian counteroffensive has similarities to the Battle of Normandy. Ukraine faces intense resistance from Russian forces in entrenched positions. Russia is mobilizing its reserve forces to maintain forward defensive positions to keep the status quo.
The Ukrainian army has a massive armored reserve thanks to over 3,000 armored fighting vehicles Ukraine has received from its Western allies that vastly outstrip Russian production potential or reserves. Even if Russia can convert most Wagnerite troops into its reserves, Wagner is not known for its armored warfare.
Despite Russian commitments to reserve forces, Ukraine is making slow but certain progress toward its initial operational objectives. Russia is losing ground.
Ukraine’s tactic appears to be to rely on its light infantry in broad front attacks and to save as much of its armored resources as possible and drain Russian operational reserves. Depending on how many Wagner soldiers Russia can utilize as part of an emergency operational reserve, Russia already looks increasingly close to a breaking point.
Ukraine is making gains around both north of Robotyne and is approaching the thinly defended main defense line south of Velyka Novosilka. Major commitments of Ukrainian armored forces may be soon to come to break through these defenses. As Russian artillery losses and the exhaustion of reserves degrade the Russian ability to resist, progress can be expected to get faster and faster.
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