In the first days of the counteroffensive in early June, Ukraine launched an ill-fated assault at Novopokrovka which ended with a number of vehicles caught in an extensive minefield being hit by Russian artillery. Among the vehicles hit were the first Leopard 2 tank lost in the war and a Bradley fighting vehicle. That assault was paired with another at Robotyne, about 9 kilometers to the west. The string of losses there provided images and video that Russia would use for months. From all angles. And altitudes. Long after most of the vehicles had actually been hauled away for repairs.
Those early losses on the road to Robotyne appeared to come with very few gains. Very little ground exchanged hands, and if there were matching Russian losses, they were not obvious. The situation at Robotyne seemed, in technical terms, bad.
Meanwhile, Ukraine had extended its counteroffensive to a number of areas scattered across 150 kilometers of the Zaporizhzhia front. At some of these other locations, progress appeared to come much more quickly. Neskuchne and Novodarivka, Storozheve and Blahodatne, Makarivka and Rivnopil, Staromaiorske and Urozhaine: All of these towns were liberated by Ukraine. While progress seemed slow, that wasn’t bad work for three months of grinding it out toe-to-toe with the best defenses Russia could assemble.
So why, when it was time to double down, did Ukraine move back to Robotyne?
It’s not that the area south of Velyka Novosilka, where Ukraine made all that nice progress, was abandoned. Forces are still fighting there, and near Vuhledar, and at Pyatykhatky on the western end of the line (which Ukraine also liberated, along with Lobkove, in the first two weeks of the counteroffensive).
But when it came to sending in reserve units and concentrating force, Ukraine ultimately decided to focus on Robotyne, the scene of those early losses, rather than in any of the areas where they had liberated more ground.
So … why Robotyne?
As both Kos and RO37 have pointed out several times, Robotyne is along the clearest path to the city of Tokmak. At that location, just about every major highway and rail line in southern Ukraine meets, making Tokmak a critical distribution and transport hub. Whether they’re going east or west, just about everything Russia moves around southern Ukraine goes through this location and liberating it would easily be Ukraine’s biggest accomplishment since the liberation of Kherson.
But to get to Tokmak, Ukraine not only has to get through the multiple trenches of the so-called “Surovikin Defensive Line,” it would have to crack and additional ring of fortifications that completely encircles Tokmak like a medieval walled town.
And if all those highways and rail lines connect east to west through Tokmak, that means those transportation lines also exist to Tokmak’s east and west. So why doesn’t Ukraine just ignore Tokmak and take down Russian transportation at a location that doesn’t have a big encircling wall.
Why not somewhere easier?
The answer, according to the analysts at RUSI, may be that “easier” was something of an illusion all along. According to their latest report, those gains along the wider front were hard-fought. “Attempts at rapid breakthrough have resulted in an unsustainable rate of equipment loss. Deliberately planned tactical actions have seen Ukrainian forces take Russian positions with small numbers of casualties,” they wrote. “However, this approach is slow, with approximately 700–1,200 meters of progress every five days, allowing Russian forces to reset.
In other words, thanks to the protective nature of Western equipment and the tactics being employed by Ukraine, they are doing a good job of preserving their most valuable asset” Ukrainian soldiers.
But even if, in the best of all circumstances, soldiers who survive an encounter with a mine or drone in a Leopard tank or Bradley fighting vehicle are ready to go back to the fight within days, their equipment is not. Much of the damaged Western gear has to be laboriously retrieved from the field, and repairs may be taking place as far away as Poland or Germany.
Those areas south of Velyka Novosilka, while they may not have the clearly defined vehicle trenches and defensive pillboxes that are seen on parts of the Surovikin Line, still have a lot of treelines, small hills, and buildings, all of which provide cover for Russian forces. And at every point on the line, Russia has seeded extensive mine fields, so the idea of a “fast breakthrough” anywhere is an illusion. As that same RUSI report points out, the thing that would help Ukraine most would be a faster way to get through those fields where the danger is not only mines, but drones and artillery working on vehicles picking their way forward.
The Ukrainian General Staff said several times that the early part of the counteroffensive was a testing phase, a time for Ukraine to push Russian troops at different points of the line, feeling for a weak spot—like fishing around for a rotten tooth. If that was the case, the answer seems to have been clear enough: There are no weak spots. Or at least, there are no spots so significantly weaker than others that it makes sense to attack there, even if it means troops have to take longer routes to less valuable destinations.
So Ukraine attacked at Robotyne, where the Russian resistance was strong but the distance to the most valuable target was minimal. That attack has been costly, but it’s certainly possible to believe that it’s generated more value per equipment loss than attacks to the east or west of that location. It’s also likely that the more head-on approach of coming through Robotyne matches the advice that NATO generals have given Ukraine.
Since Ukraine doubled down at Robotyne, they have liberated that city and have moved rapidly beyond it. As RO37 reported yesterday, Ukrainian forces moved past the vehicle trench northwest of Verbove and Ukrainian forces have actually occupied the personnel trench behind it. Reports on Wednesday suggest that Ukraine may have extended that area of the captured line, or may have moved forces into the personnel trench at a second location.
Progress is being made—important progress. It’s hard to say that on the cost/benefit curve, Robotyne turned out to be the sweet spot. But maybe it was the spot that offered the greatest promise.
Ukraine continues to advance near Verbove
Geolocated images of Ukrainian forces walking around in an occupied section of the personnel trench near Verbove have been confirmed. That means that Ukraine has pushed through the minefield, cleared the vehicle trench, and moved at least some forces right into the town. In the last few hours, analysts have reported that Ukraine has expanded their area of control, At least one source indicates that Ukrainian forces have moved past that trench and reached the edges of the town.
However, the advance in the area is still coming with a cost.
The burning tank in this video appears to be a British Challenger 2. If so, this would be only the second Challenger lost in combat. Reportedly it was hit by artillery fire while clearing a path to one of those defensive trenches. It seems unlikely that this tank is repairable, though the stowage system has prevented the kind of explosion lifting the turret off so many Russian tanks.
But the most notable thing may be that Ukrainian forces are moving past that burning tank. This is clearly now in the backfield. And it’s not like there weren’t losses on the Russian side because … проклятие. Would you look at that.
All the talk about how good Ukrainian counter-battery fire has become certainly seems to have paid off here. And if that was a convoy of fuel trucks, well, no Russian vehicle drinks tonight.
Russia reportedly conducting another round of mobilization
Vladimir Putin has reportedly ordered defense minister Sergei Shoigu to launch another round of mobilization. This time the Russians are shooting for 200,000 more men. Based on past experience, it can be expected that some of those men will be hustled off to the front lines right away, while some luckier fragment is sent away for at least a few weeks of something approximating training.
In the previous round of mobilization, some of these crimps were used to construct whole new units. That seems less likely this time around, as Russia has a shortage of both forces and equipment. It seems more likely that these newcomers will be used to fill out the depleted ranks in units where a tank or armored vehicle still exists, but where seats are no longer full. Training any troops that remain in Russia will be made more difficult because at this point, not only has Russia sent training officers to the front, it has also kicked students out of its military academies early in an effort to fill depleted ranks.
So Putin will demand 200,000. Shoigu will get some fraction of that number. And some fraction of that fraction will come galumphing up to the front line in a few weeks wearing paintball masks and galoshes. If Russian logistics can supply those men with weapons, ammunition, and a helmet, they may find a place in the trenches south of Verbove in time to meet Ukraine’s next assault.
Or they may represent such a strain on Russia’s creaky logistics that they actually weigh down the Russian army’s ability to move anything else. We should know soon.
Anthony Blinken makes surprise appearance in Ukraine
Sec. of State Tony Blinken was in Ukraine on Wednesday to discuss America’s support for Ukraine, and to meet with Ukraine’s most important ambassador.
Blinken is also meeting with that other guy. The less cute one.
During his visit, Blinken announced that the United States will send a new assistance package to Ukraine valued at approximately $1 billion. Of this, $665.5 million is military assistance. The announced list of items in the package includes:
120mm depleted uranium tank ammunition for Abrams tanks.
Air defense equipment.
155mm and 105mm artillery ammunition.
3 million rounds of small arms ammunition.
Secure communications gear.
Spare parts and maintenance equipment.
You can read more great Ukraine coverage by both staff and community members here.
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.