In describing the difference between Russian and Western doctrinal views on the role of artillery, the Royal United Services Institute puts it succinctly:
‘Russian forces manoeuvre to fire, Western forces fire to manoeuvre’ is a neat encapsulation of Russian doctrine compared with the West. Put simply, Russia uses artillery as its primary form of lethality in the deep and close battles.
You could replace the word “Russian” with “Ukrainian” and it would neatly express the switch in tactics.
Following the initial failure of an armored breach attempt in early June, Ukraine switched from NATO-style concentrated armored assaults to Soviet style small-unit infantry tactics to traverse the heavily mined areas north of Robotyne in southern Ukraine, in the direction of the strategic city of Tokmak.
Specifically, Ukraine has avoided large mechanized unit maneuvers involving dozens of vehicles and tanks. Instead, they’ve been mostly using infantry platoons (three squads of nine to 10 soldiers and their armored vehicles) supported by two tanks. Assaults are conducted sequentially. They start with an artillery barrage, then tank/armored vehicles further soften up the target, and finally infantry advance to take the position.
This permits, for example, Western tanks with superior optics like Challenger 2s to act like “snipers” in battle, supporting infantry from afar while maintaining concealment. This keeps them safer from Russian anti-tank defenses than they would be if they advanced alongside their infantry.
That’s why tank-on-tank battles have been so rare. Both sides have used their tanks primarily as fire support, as opposed to directly using them to assault enemy positions. Subsequently, most tank kills are credited to artillery or drones.
Given the limited company-level coordination training Ukrainian troops have received, many analysts argue that these tactics play to Ukraine’s strengths. The small size of the units deployed has slowed Ukraine’s advancements, but has also limited Ukrainian losses. And thanks to its well-trained artillery corps and Ukrainian advantages in counterbattery radar, precision munitions, long-range optics, and ammunition availability, Ukraine now has a significant advantage in artillery firepower, attriting both Russia’s combat and logistical capabilities. (Ukrainian kills four artillery guns for each one it loses.)
The stakes of the battle of tokmak
After penetrating Russia’s first defensive lines around Robotyne, Ukraine’s advances have gained speed. Yet the tactics remain the same: Ukraine continues to advance one platoon assault at a time, and one tree line or neighborhood at a time.
The most dramatic gains, currently, are north of Tokmak, near the town of Verbove.
Having liberated Robotyne on Aug. 27, Ukraine is now attempting to breach Russia’s second main line of defense.
Russia’s first two lines of defense are likely to be among the most formidable, as they were built into a pair of ridges that control the high ground in the area. The T0408 Highway does not pass within 20 kilometers of any other elevated ridges on the way to Tokmak. The elevation changes for the area west of Ocheretuvate are so gradual (sub-1% grade) as to not confer any military advantage.
Rather than make the main effort straight down the T-0408 highway south of Robotyne, Ukraine launched major assaults toward both Hill 166 and west of Verbove. The area west of Verbove appears to be Ukraine’s primary effort to breach the defensive line.
ukraine’s assault on the surovikin line
On Aug. 30, Ukrainian forces breached the first of two portions of the Surovikin Line that link Verbove to Solodka Balka. The defenses are named after Russian Gen. Sergey Surovikin, who ordered them built after withdrawing Russian forces from Kherson last year. He is now under house arrest for being too close to Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, whom Vladimir Putin just had assassinated.
Russia launched a series of failed counterattacks in the subsequent days, attempting to drive the Ukrainian advance back outside the outer defense line. These counterattacks failed.
Meanwhile, Ukraine began probing for weaknesses in Russia’s main trench line while unleashing a ferocious artillery barrage across the line.
In the subsequent days, it became increasingly clear that Ukraine’s focus on destroying air defense and radar units began to show an effect.
In boxing, body blows are akin to saving money in the bank. A strong shot to the head might knock out the opponent in one flashy blow, something a body blow would rarely do. However, repeated blows to the body gradually tire and slow the opponent. By the time the effects of the body blows are obvious to outside observers, it’s often too late for the weakened boxer to recover.
Like body blows, Ukraine’s systematic hits against Russia’s air defenses didn’t seem to be having much of an effect. But it is now apparent that so many air defense systems have been destroyed that fatal gaps are opening up.
Take this video, for example.
Everyone loved watching Ukraine successfully disable four Russian supply trucks with conventional and DPICM (cluster) artillery shells.
What most missed, however, was that the attack occurred 6 to 7 kilometers behind the front line south of Verbove—under observation by a Ukrainian reconnaissance drone the whole time.
These drones can provide Ukrainian artillery units with adjustments to their firing angles and ranges, helping “walk” shells onto their intended targets—dramatically increasing Ukraine’s artillery effectiveness. Seeing them operate that deep behind enemy lines means that Russia’s air defense systems and EW (electronic warfare/jamming) units are too weakened to keep such drones away.
Combined with the reemergence of the Bayraktar TB2 drones in a direct combat role, which are otherwise highly vulnerable against well-prepared Russian integrated air defense systems, Ukraine has new and better tools to more effectively strike Russian targets.
Ukraine leveraged all of these tools and tactics to produce a highly significant result on Sept. 4, and overrun a portion of the Surovikin line west of Verbove.
The geolocation was provided thanks to the Russian Bobr Drone Group, which has consistently released video, like this one yesterday, showing Ukrainian forces far beyond their last assumed positions (which, of course, isn’t helpful to Russia, but they don’t realize that).
Multiple conservative (as in cautious, not political) Open Source Intelligence sources including Emil Kastehelmi/Black Bird Group, Def Mon, @Geolocated, OSINT Technical, and Deep State assessed that Ukraine had breached Russia’s second defensive line while defending west of Verbove, representing a breakthrough of the Surovikin Line.
As of yet, it may be too much to call this a full breach of the Surovikin Line, as only light infantry squads were spotted past the trenches and dragon’s teeth. Ukraine would need to clear a path through the minefields, bulldoze a path through the obstacles, and bridge the anti-tank ditch to bring armored vehicles past the line to call it a full breach.
However, Ukraine couldn’t establish forward positions past those trenches without first securing the trenches. Furthermore, we have video and satellite confirmation that Russian artillery was shelling its own trenches, and even more video showing Infantry of the Ukrainian 82nd Brigade occupying a portion of those trenches, indicating with near certainty that Ukraine has already overrun the trench system in that area.
Ukraine even made advances directly south of Robotyne, driving the Russians out of a portion of trenches approaching Novoprokopivka (see the map above).
All of these developments create a picture of Russian positions being gradually overwhelmed by Ukrainian firepower.
the picture in the near future
Ukraine continues to mount Soviet-style assaults using artillery to soften up a defensive position, tanks to further degrade the position from afar, and then platoon-sized infantry assaults to finally capture it.
Aggressive Ukrainian targeting of Russian electronic warfare and radar assets, including counterbattery radars, anti-air batteries, and anti-drone jammers has left Russia with decisive weaknesses in the critical drone war.
General Ivan Popov, former commander of the 58th Combined Arms Army opposite Ukraine in the Tokmak theater, was dismissed for harshly criticizing Russian theater commander Valery Gerasimov for high casualties and lack of artillery support.
Analysts like Michael Kofman and Rob Lee at War on the Rocks assess that Russia spent the majority of its reserve combat power hurling largely unsuccessful counterattacks at Ukrainian gains in front of Russia’s main defense lines.
It’s unclear if Russia remains strong enough to hold its main defense lines. Breaching the main Surovikin Line less than two weeks after breaching the first line around Robotyne suggests that Ukrainian attrition has severely degraded Russia’s ability to resist.
Russia is now resorting to desperate measures to try and hold the line.
For example, Russia activated the all-new 25th Combined Arms Army, which wasn’t supposed to be ready until early 2024, and sent it to the northern front around Kreminna in order to free up the veteran elements of the 41st Combined Arms Army to be transferred to Tokmak. The 25th wasn’t scheduled to be fully staffed up until October, and even that was lagging as the all-volunteer unit struggled to fill its slots despite huge increases in financial incentives. That means the 25th CAA is almost certainly significantly understaffed, with most soldiers having received little to no military training.
Ukraine may thus be able to transfer some of its powerful mechanized forces from the north to the southern front, as the 25th CAA represents little to no threat.
It appears that a severely degraded Russia has fewer and fewer good options for even attempting to maintain the status quo. A full breakthrough hangs in the balance.
It’s the Ukraine Update episode! Kerry interviews Markos to talk about what is happening in Ukraine, what needs to be done, and why the fate of Ukraine is tied to democracy’s fate in 2024.