In the past few days, Ukraine’s offensive around Robotyne has picked up the pace, quickly pressing Russia out of all but the southernmost edge of the village.
While the ultimate goal is to reach Melitopol, the more immediate strategic prize is the city of Tokmak. I previously wrote about its critical importance, noting, “Tokmak’s importance, as is so often the case, lies in logistics, logistics, and logistics.”
Tokmak’s logistical value cannot be overstated.
Mapping Tokmak against the current front line, you can see that Tokmak lies at the center of 5 major roads. These roads connect the 2 major cities of the area (Berdyansk and Melitopol) while connecting to the 2 defensive hub cities at the front. Vasylivka to the northwest, and Polohy to the Northeast.
This actually greatly undersells Tokmak’s importance.
If Ukraine captures or surrounds Tokmak [...] Russia could no longer get supplies or reinforcements from the East to support Melitopol, at least without making a 100km overland trek by truck. And we all probably remember how that went the last time the Russians tried that.
Knowing its value, Tokmak is arguably the most heavily defended city in Russian-occupied Ukraine. Depending on how you count them, it has between two and as many as seven lines of defense. I personally count four primary lines of defense, of which Robotyne is the central hub for the first main line of defense:
Robotyne is also critical because it represents Ukraine’s push onto the main heights between itself and Tokmak. Read here why that is important.
(Unit positions and Ukrainian advances aggregated from Poulet Volant, Andrew Perpetua, and Ukraine Control Maps.)
Ukrainian Bradleys of the 47th Mechanized Brigade have been geolocated fighting near the southern portion of the village.
Shockingly, photos and video emerged showing elderly civilian residents of Robotyne remained in the village. They emerged from the decimated ruins to seek rescue from advancing Ukrainian units.
Ukrainian intelligence officer Tatarigami_UA assesses that Russian forces conducted a successful tactical withdrawal from Robotyne and Ukrainian attempts to encircle or destroy the Russian garrison in the town were not successful. Nonetheless, Tatarigami_UA considers Ukrainian advances at Robotyne significant: Russia had committed significant forces in an attempt to hold Robotyne and nonetheless failed to do so.
These events follow Ukraine’s decision to gradually but dramatically escalate the force commitment in the Tokmak direction over the prior three weeks.
On June 6, Ukraine originally committed two brigades to lead the offensive in the Tokmak direction: the 33rd and 47th Mechanized Brigades. The 47th Mechanized primarily led the attack with its Bradley Fighting Vehicles, while the 33rd Mechanized supported the 47th Mechanized with its powerful Leopard 2 tanks.
Ukraine quickly followed by adding the 65th Mechanized, an armored mechanized brigade equipped with Soviet-era armored vehicles like upgraded T-72s and BMP1 Infantry Fighting Vehicles by June 16.
These three brigades pushed in the Tokmak direction for weeks with only territorial defense brigades like the 3rd Operational Brigade “Spartan” being added to help defend gained ground. After initial setbacks in the first weeks of the assault, Ukraine switched to small-scale infantry attacks aimed at clearing the minefields blocking the advance in front of Russia’s first defensive lines.
Progress was slow, but Ukraine finally managed to breach a portion of the first main line of defense in late July.
Sometime around July 26, Ukraine committed the 118th Mechanized Brigade to this direction. Some Pentagon officials suggested that Ukrainian had committed its main force and its “big push” had begun. Instead, it became clear within days that Ukraine had only committed a single additional mechanized brigade (the aforementioned 118th Mechanized), and some backtracking ensued.
Interestingly, events in the subsequent three weeks suggest this assessment was likely not in error but merely premature. The 118th Mechanized was the first of four additional armored brigades Ukraine has now committed to this axis of advance, more than doubling Ukraine’s commitment from three brigades to seven.
Among those newly committed brigades, Ukraine has thrown the elite 82nd Air Assault Brigade to this battle, which is equipped with some of the best Western NATO equipment including Challenger 2 tanks, Marder IFVs, and Stryker IFVs. The 116th Mechanized and the 46th Airmobile Brigades have also been geolocated to this area in the past week.
What emerges is a picture of a massive and concentrated accumulation of force.
Ukraine’s commitment of seven armored brigades to this axis of advance is particularly significant given that it’s estimated that Ukraine now only has only five brigades in reserve, two of which are light infantry brigades from the Territorial Defense Forces.
It’s clear that Ukraine has been forced to commit much of its reserves. I believe that Ukraine’s remaining uncommitted armored brigades are:
- 1st Tank Brigade.
- 115th Mechanized Brigade.
- 117th Mechanized Brigade.
The 1st Tank Brigade is one of the most powerful and finest armored formations in the Ukrainian army. The unit famously held off a Russian force literally 10 times its size during the critical Battle of Chernihiv in the defense of Kyiv during the first months of the war.
The 115th Mechanized Brigade stands in sharp contrast. Newly formed the summer of 2022, it performed poorly during the Battle of Severodonetsk and retreated without authorization. It likely underwent extensive retraining and retrofitting. The 117th Mechanized is a newly formed NATO-trained unit equipped with upgraded Soviet-era equipment. It has yet to see combat.
In addition to committing more reserves to the southern front, Ukraine’s available reserves have been further depleted handling Russia’s major offensive in the northeast.
Russia is making twin thrusts at the strategic cities of Kupyansk and Lyman, both liberated by Ukraine during Ukraine’s Kharkiv counteroffensive last September. Losing Kupyansk alongside a successful Russian crossing of the Oskil River could imperil Kharkiv again. Lyman is the logistical gateway for a Russian attack on Ukraine’s rear positions on the Eastern Front, such as Bakhmut. It also imperils the twin key cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, which are a key rail logistical hub both for supplying the Eastern Front,and for Russia’s ability to threaten central Ukraine.
Loss of either position would be disastrous, so Ukraine’s General Staff has committed significant forces in their defense.
Defending Kupyansk from the northeast, Ukraine has deployed the 41st Mechanized and the 14th Mechanized Brigades. From the southeast comes the 32nd Mechanized Brigade.
Defending Lyman from Russia’s advance out of Kreminna, Ukraine has deployed the 21st “Swedish” Brigade (named after its all-Swedish equipment), the 25th Air Assault, 67th Mechanized, 63rd Mechanized, and 95th Air Assault Brigades.
Ukraine also dispatched the powerful 92nd Mechanized Brigade to the attack south of Bakhmut.
Ukrainian has severely depleted its reserve forces, but Russia doesn’t seem to be in any better shape.
Gen. Ivan Popov, commander of the 58th Combined Arms Army opposite Ukrainian forces around Robotyne, was dismissed on July 13th, reportedly after criticizing the Ministry of Defense for failure to provide replacement artillery or reinforcements after heavy losses. Popov released a fiercely critical public statement on Telegram following his dismissal, accusing the army leadership of treason. Southern front Russian commanders have continued to speak out about the lack of reserves or reinforcements.
The British Ministry of Defense’s intelligence reports assess that Russians lack any remaining substantial operational reserves they can commit to the southern front.
Furthermore, Russian logistics to the Zaporizhzhia front have turned into a quagmire.
Ukraine has launched successful attacks on the Kerch Bridge (between Russia and Crimea) and the Chonhar road and rail bridges between the Crimean peninsula and the mainland. Ukrainian partisan attacks on Crimean and Zaporizhzhian rail infrastructure have severely disrupted Russian logistical strength.
ISW’s Aug. 21 update relays comments from Ukrainian-Crimean partisan movement “Atesh,” stating:
Crimean railway stations such as the Simferopol-Hruzove train station are holding many trains carrying fuel and lubricants likely intended for Russian military equipment operating in Ukraine. “Atesh” noted that these trains are not scheduled to depart in the near future due to logistics problems outside of Crimea.
All signs point to a golden opportunity for Ukraine: Territorial advances, taking the high ground overlooking Tokmak, the major commitment of its reserves, and Russia’s logistical weakness and lack of reserves.
The coming several weeks may represent a now or never chance for Ukraine to deal a decisive blow to the Russian defenses.