Pentagon now saying this is, indeed, the big show.
Ukrainian officials have told U.S. officials that the enlarged Ukrainian force would try to advance south through Russia’s minefields and other fortifications toward the city of Tokmak, and, if successful, on to Melitopol, near the coast.
That is indeed the most heavily fortified part of Russia’s defenses, because everyone knows it’s the most strategically important. This part is way optimistic:
The new operation, if successful, could take one to three weeks, Ukrainian officials have told officials in Washington.
If Ukrainian forces are in Tokmak in three weeks, it’s a much different war.
Wouldn’t it be funny if just days after The Wall Street Journal declared Ukraine’s counteroffensive “stalled,” it would start making serious progress against those entrenched Russian defenses?
If Russian Telegram sources are to be believed, that’s exactly what is finally happening.
Russian Telegram sources such as Rybar have been screaming about imminent Ukrainian advances for several weeks now, with little battlefield progress to justify the hysteria. It’s often advantageous for Russian sources to claim Ukrainian advances, as they can then spin yarns about heroic Russian defenders holding the line and victoriously counterattacking to retake lost positions.
Yet this may be one of those “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” situations, as we are finally seeing evidence of such gains. Now to be clear, as I write this, the evidence is circumstantial. Nothing is confirmed until we have video of Ukrainian troops waving their blue and yellow flag in formerly occupied territory, with the front line so distant that no gunfire or artillery can be heard in the background. None of that has happened. But … something is definitely underway.
Consider everything you read below in the context of this very short, very simple statement released by Ukraine’s General Staff: “Ukrainian Defence forces have success at Staromayorske and north-east Robotyne, advancing north and south to Bakhmut.”
Russian sources seem to confirm that assessment. Let’s start with Rybar, the top Russian war blogger. Rybar claims that Ukraine launched major assaults toward both Robotyne and Lobkove, the center and left arrows in the map below, respectively. The yellow lines are Russia’s main defensive lines.
Rybar claimed Ukraine launched an attack with 80 armored vehicles, 20 of which were destroyed. But of course, we have no video of this supposed massive advance. And the destroyed vehicles? We saw a handful of them, but don’t be surprised to learn that most of those were the same old ones they keep recycling. There were a handful of new ones, to be sure.
And those new ones? They suggest that Ukraine hasn’t just penetrated deeper into Russian lines around Robotyne, but the lack of on-the-ground pictures or images (which Russians love to publish) means that they have been pushed out of this location. I’d wager Ukraine has moved beyond this location.
Ukraine now appears to have a solid presence on three sides of Robotyne. The Russian position appears to be untenable. As I mentioned a few days ago, Robotyne matters because it puts Tokmak—a key Russian logistics node—in range of tube artillery. While it is already in range of GMLRS rocket artillery, those munitions are limited and expensive. It’s the difference between being able to hit Russian supplies with $100K+ GMLRS rockets and $8,000 extended-range artillery shells.
In the direction of that third arrow all the way to the right, toward Staromlynivka, Ukraine has entered the northern part of Staromayorske. Remember, Ukraine’s general staff claimed, “Ukrainian Defence forces have success at Staromayorske,” and there is evidence of the truth of that matter. Ukrainian sources released drone video of Russians fleeing that town:
One Russian war blogger on Telegram writes, “As we have previously reported, the enemy is determined to capture Staromaiorske at any cost and create conditions for surrounding Urozhainoye. Communication is being jammed along the entire sector, and some positions have been unresponsive for over an hour, making it quite challenging to understand the situation. For now, the enemy manages to pose difficulties for us, though not without significant losses on their part.” Funny how no one can communicate with Russian defenders on that line, yet somehow they know that Ukraine has suffered “significant losses.”
What’s more, satellite imagery shows heavy Russian shelling west of the settlement, which indicates the presence of Ukrainian troops, as Russia doesn’t typically waste scarce artillery shells on empty ground.
This location puts Ukrainian forces about 8 kilometers from Russia’s one and only major defensive line, hugging the southern border of Staromlynivka.
This approach is particularly interesting given the lack of a backup defensive line. If Ukraine breaches the lines south of Staromlynivka, it’s a clear 120 kilometers all the way down to Mariupol. Ukraine could push south and split the Russian front in two, or sweep westward and work to envelop Russian defenses to the west, blocking the approach to the strategic crown jewel of Ukraine: Russian-occupied Melitopol.
Look at this map again, it’s an empty backfield once you get past that single defensive line at the Staromlynivka approach:
What’s more, Russia can’t flood reserves to shore up the defense around Staromlynivka, lest it thin out defenses under pressure around Robotyne and Lobkove.
There’s one more important piece of anecdotal evidence that something big is happening. Rybar’s reporting claims that Ukraine is rotating its advancing units. As war analyst Rob Lee notes, “It is possible Ukraine's reserve 10th Corps is starting to take over (or commit more of its forces) for 9th Corps, which was responsible for the beginning of the counteroffensive in Orikhiv.”
Each corps is around five brigades, which would mean Ukraine appears to be committing the second half (or so) of its newly formed storm brigades. This isn’t a “reserve” force, but a second echelon. The first was tasked with clearing a path to the main defensive lines, and the second echelon is now able to move up through cleared minefields and forward defenses to take on the main line. That would allow 9th Corps to rotate back, rest, rearm, reconstitute, and prepare for any breaches 10th Corps might punch through.
Ukraine continues to advance both north and south of Bakhmut, liberating the town of Andriivka, and entering Klishiivka just to its north.
Those newly recaptured positions north and south of Bakhmut are on high ground, providing fire coverage of any Russian forces hapless enough to be stuck in that rubble. Ukraine doesn’t seem to have much committed here—the Azov guys mostly—and they’re advancing via small-unit tactics, tree line to tree line.
Everything I ever wrote about Bakhmut’s strategic irrelevancy still applies here. So why is Ukraine expending precious resources trying to recapture the ruins of Bakhmut? Part of it is Russia’s lack of a serious defensive network. It allows a single Ukrainian brigade to steadily chip away at those Russian gains without expending too much energy or resources. But again, why? Who cares if Russia sits in that rubble, if Ukraine managed to punch through those southern lines and made a run toward Mariupol or Melitopol?
My brother has a decent theory. Let’s zoom out on the map:
Purple is pre-February 2022 Russian-occupied territory. Red is what Russia still occupies.
North of that purple, that is mostly empty agricultural steppe; think of the Dakotas. Russia has a single defensive line and if Ukraine wanted to, it could punch through to Starobilsk and that entire swath of red is liberated. It was Ukraine’s lowest-risk, lowest-reward counteroffensive option, and it clearly decided it wasn’t worth the effort. Regardless, Russia holds it tentatively.
Southwest of that purple territory: That’s the direction of Ukraine’s main advance, pushing toward Mariupol and Melitopol.
The slice of red I circled above? That’s the Bakhmut-Popasna chunk that Russia spent a year and a half capturing. The towns are 30 kilometers apart, around 20 miles. For all its mightiest efforts, Russia has struggled to breach Ukrainian defenses west of its pre-2022 positions.
So here’s my brother’s theory: There is a potential scenario in which both Russia and Ukraine are spent, and negotiations indeed happen. In that scenario, the most likely outcome in any frozen conflict is that Russia keeps its eastern Ukraine holdings, and either cedes the rest of its newly captured territory or it is wrestled away militarily by Ukraine.
If that were to happen, it is drastically unlikely that Russia surrenders any of the territory buffering its original holdings, which would include that Bakhmut-Popasna chunk of land. Therefore, while Ukraine’s main effort is directed at Russia’s land bridge between the Russian mainland and Crimea, that Mariupol-Melitopol, it behooves Ukraine to recapture anything in the east that is within easy reach, just in case they have to cede any of that territory in future negotiations.
Is that the reason why? Or is Ukraine merely giving Russia a big fuck you, threatening its only propaganda victory of the past year? Beats me, but either theory makes political sense, even if militarily it does not.
Finally, Russia is pushing hard up north.
Russia caught Ukraine sleeping and has pushed around 5 kilometers on a front around 9 kilometers wide. Ukraine is reportedly moving reserves in to halt the advance.