One of the most striking things about the Ukrainian counter-offensive that explains much about the slow rate of territorial progression is barely talked about in the mainstream press.
Ukraine started the offensive with a NATO-style armored push, led by armored engineering vehicles like the Leopard 2R, followed by dozens of Leopard 2 tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles.
Ukraine has switched to the Soviet style of leading the offensive with small groups of combat engineers, on foot, backed up by infantry, long-range tank fire, and massive barrages of artillery.
There are sound tactical reasons for this switch, and reason to believe that Ukraine will switch gears back to the NATO style when they feel they are ready.
The battle for Robotyne represents Ukraine’s first major objective in it’s offensives towards the strategically important rail hub of Tokmak.
Ukraine is aiming to push just under 30km (18 miles) down the T0408 highway to secure the critical rail hub—but the city is arguably the best defended city in Russian occupied Ukraine, with four belts of defenses aimed at defending Tokmak and its rear supply lines
Robotyne is the key first step towards breaching the first line of defense en route toward Tokmak.
Ukraine’s first push towards Robotyne on June 7th kicked off with a NATO-style breach assault, led by reportedly four armored engineering vehicles (three Leopard 2Rs and one Wisent 1 MC), numerous Leopard 2A6s, and at least two dozen Bradley Fighting Vehicles. This represented a heavy concentration of Ukraine’s best-armored engineering vehicles, most advanced tanks, and infantry fighting vehicles.
The result was a disaster.
Ukraine lost two Leopard 2Rs, at least four Leopard 2A6s, and at least 17 Bradleys. A combination of mines being missed due to the extraordinary density of the minefield, Russian helicopter attacks, and heavy artillery barrages stopped the assault in its early stages, resulting in heavy losses.
Ukrainian engineers estimate that north of Robotyne, the Russians have placed an estimated 1500 mines per square kilometer.
Ukraine rapidly shifted gears after the failure of the first assault, shifting to what could be described as Soviet-style assault tactics—leading with dismounted assault engineers.
Since that failed initial assault, Ukrainian forces have made steady, albeit slow progress toward the main defensive lines around Robotyne, and are now threatening the flanks of the defensive positions around the city.
(Maps aggregated from Brady Africk’s fortification maps, Poulet Volant, Andrew Perpetua, and Ukraine Control Map)
The Economist had a stellar article explaining current Ukrainian tactics in this area.
The article describes interviews of a 35-year-old Ukrainian combat engineer with the callsign “Tsar” who was fighting north of Robotyne before being injured in action on June 27th. Tsar was part of a five-man combat engineering unit that conducted front-line demining operations towards Robotyne.
Tsar describes how his unit would creep forwards in the darkness in the early hours with night vision equipment before sunrise to begin mine removal operations. They rely on handheld demining equipment and the relative difficulty of discovering dismounted engineering troops to covertly conduct their work.
Tsar’s unit came under mortar attack, but mortar attacks are relatively predictable when the danger becomes too great and it’s time to retreat. However, the Russian artillery opened up with cluster munitions on their position, and Tsar’s unit had to beat a hasty retreat. An exploding cluster munition left Tsar with soft tissue injuries on his buttocks, but his squadmate Dima Shulgin standing just two feet away was killed in action.
Russian cluster munitions have proved to be the greatest threat against dismounted Ukrainian engineers. One man in Tsar’s unit has grown to feel such stress from the Russian reconnaissance drones that presage a Russian bombardment that any buzzing noise will cause him to break out into hives.
Yet, the Ukrainian combat engineers press on, meter after meter, slowly demining areas to clear routes for Ukrainian armored vehicles to push forwards—classic Soviet assault tactics.
Soviet demining tactics contrast with NATO demining tactics in their emphasis on stealth and a broad front approach to gradually remove chunks of minefields using dismounted infantry preceding an assault. It accepts certain numbers of engineering unit casualties while preserving precious armored combat engineering vehicles for a final push.
By contrast, NATO tactics generally call for heavily armored columns of engineering vehicles conducting mounted demining operations along narrow routes they carve out as they make all-out pushes towards enemy positions, intending to protect the engineering vehicle with armor and firepower.
The Ukrainian General Staff attempted a NATO-style assault and determined that, at this stage, such tactics were impractical. Their judgment appears extremely sound.
NATO tactics are based on certain assumptions about battlefield conditions—namely, NATO-style shaping operations that set conditions for the assault. NATO Allied Armies can generally presume that they will hold air superiority, protecting their forces against enemy helicopter assault. They can rely on air bombardment and cruise missile attacks to heavily suppress and degrade enemy artillery positions before the main assault.
For example, before the Gulf War’s main assault, the Coalition air forces conducted a nearly 40-day-long air campaign that systematically degraded Iraqi resistance and prepared positions, demoralizing and weakening enemy positions. Coalition air forces stood by waiting to decimate any surviving Iraqi artillery batteries that opened up on Coalition advances during the main assault.
This meant that when Coalition forces began their main assaults they could count on ample air protection, their helicopter support weakened to non-existent enemy artillery batteries, and a demoralized enemy. A major advantage is firepower. Under those conditions, a heavily armored assault force intending to punch through enemy lines in a rapidly advancing assault is practical and likely ideal for minimizing casualties.
By contrast, Soviet assault tactics do not assume air superiority. Rather, Soviet doctrine assumed that NATO forces would have air superiority, with their advantages reduced by Soviet SAM (surface-to-air missile) batteries, but Soviet air forces would not be available to cripple NATO rear support resources.
Thus, Soviet doctrine called for slower-developing assaults led by dismounted engineers gradually making their way forwards through enemy minefields under the cover of intense artillery support. Counterbattery fire from Soviet artillery would degrade the ability of enemy forces to resist, thus by the time the main Soviet assault would move forwards, multiple paths through enemy minefields would be cleared, and the enemy artillery arm would be significantly weakened.
This was costlier in terms of engineer losses, but a more realistic approach in the face of strong enemy artillery opposition.
Despite Ukrainian efforts to degrade Russian artillery positions using HIMARS and GPS-guided Excalibur artillery rounds, it is clear that Russian artillery remained too powerful to attempt a NATO-style attack, at least at the beginning of the assault.
Tatarigami_UA, the Ukrainian officer who posts frequently on Twitter, describes the complexity of Russian mining tactics as well as emphasizes how modern drone technology has made minefields even deadlier.
In the past, a defender could only observe small sections of a minefield at any given time, allowing the attacker more lead time in making progress into enemy minefields before an assault column would be discovered and come under fire.
Today, with modern reconnaissance drone technology, it becomes much more difficult for any armored vehicles to avoid detection as they begin work on any part of the enemy minefield, making even circuitous routes of advance far more dangerous.
Ukraine has countered these advantages Russia enjoys in firepower and observation by reliance on smaller teams of dismounted engineering teams that are harder to detect, backed by massive counterbattery assets.
Thus, a switch to Soviet tactics represents a tactically sound move, reflecting the realities of the Ukrainian offensive position.
Does this mean that Ukraine is consigned to these slow Soviet-style tactics to advance for the foreseeable future? Not necessarily.
The problem for Ukraine was that Russian firepower has not been sufficiently degraded to such an extent that a rapid NATO-style advance is possible. If Russia’s artillery assets are degraded to the point that Russian resistance at the point of attack becomes light, the minefields will pose far less of a threat to Ukrainian armored assault columns.
Ukraine has been making steady progress on these grounds. In one month, Ukraine reported the destruction of nearly 700 Russian artillery systems and rocket artillery.
During the counteroffensive, Oryx recorded four Russian artillery losses for every Ukrainian artillery loss. Ukraine’s technological advantages in counterbattery radar, precision munitions, and training advantages permitting superior coordination have resulted in far superior counterbattery fire for Ukrainian forces.
The dire state of Russia’s artillery arm was publicly confirmed by Russian military leadership.
Ukraine faces the 58th Combined Arms Army north of Tokmak and in the vicinity of Robotyne, one of Russia’s most powerful military formations. Major-General Ivan Popov was the commander of the 58th CAA.
Late in the evening of July 12th local time, General Popov released a four-minute long audio message via Telegram, railing against what he called the treacherous military leadership of Russia causing mass casualties among his men. General Popov describes a lack of reconnaissance resources and an inability to conduct counter-battery fire, resulting in mass casualties, particularly among Russian artillery units.
The Institute for the Study of War suggests that General Popov’s complaints may reflect a lack of operational reserves. Among different branches of Russia’s military, artillery is among the tasks that require the most extensive training and would be most difficult to replenish, thus heavy casualties among Russia’s artillery arm may prove devastating to Russia’s artillery forces over time.
General Popov was removed from command of the 58th CAA in response to his public comments. General Popov was among the rising stars of the Russian Army, addressing the graduating class of cadets for Russia’s military academy in 2021 before President Putin. Russian military blogger Rybar noted that “Popov enjoys colossal support from the personnel: the fighters on the front line were greatly demoralized by the news about the dismissal of the ‘simple’ and ‘clear’ honest General Popov.”
To add to the general confusion of Russia’s command structure in Zaporizhzhia, General Popov’s direct superior Lieutenant General Oleg Tsokov (commander of the Southern Military District) was killed in action due to a Storm Shadow missile attack on Berdyansk on July 11th.
Ukraine continues to conduct shaping operations in Zaporizhzhia, aiming to paralyze the Russian forces through degrading their combat reserves, eliminating artillery resources and crews, destruction of ammunition stockpiles, and gradual broad-front reductions on minefields to create multiple avenues of advance on Russian front line positions.
All without having committed its main armored forces to the attack.
Additionally, the Guardian reports that cluster munitions have arrived in Ukraine. Ukrainian artillery can now respond in kind to Russian artillery cluster munition attacks.