September 23, 2023

Institute for the Study of War: Ukraine forces, advancing on foot, break through Russian field fortifications in Zaporizhia

Institute for the Study of War

ISW is now prepared to assess that Ukrainian forces have broken through Russian field fortifications west of Verbove in western Zaporizhia Oblast. These fortifications are not the final defensive line in Russia’s defense in depth in western Zaporizhia Oblast, but rather a specific series of the best-prepared field fortifications arrayed as part of a near-contiguous belt of an anti-vehicle ditch, dragon’s teeth, and fighting positions about 1.7 – 3.5 km west of Verbove.

Ukrainian Tavriisk Group of Forces Commander Brigadier General Oleksandr Tarnavskyi stated in an interview with CNN published on September 23 that Ukrainian forces achieved a “breakthrough” on the left flank near Verbove and that Ukrainian forces continue advancing. Combat footage posted on September 22 shows a destroyed Ukrainian Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) and BMP-2 operating slightly beyond Russia’s fighting positions trench line near Verbove, indicating continued Ukrainian progress in deploying more heavy equipment beyond Russia’s triune belt of the anti-vehicle ditch, dragon’s teeth, and fighting positions. Commercially available satellite imagery indicates that Ukrainian forces have brought heavy equipment closer to Verbove over the past 96 hours in a manner consistent with Tarnavskyi’s statement. The Wall Street Journal reported on September 21 that Ukrainian forces achieved a “limited breakthrough” west of Verbove citing an unnamed Ukrainian Air Assault Forces officer.

Ukrainian military officials stated that the Ukrainian counteroffensive would continue in the winter. Tarnavskyi told CNN that he expected a major Ukrainian breakthrough after Ukrainian forces reach Tokmak (a major Russian stronghold in western Zaporizhia) and that it is important that Ukrainian forces not lose the initiative they currently hold. Tarnavskyi also stated that Ukrainian operations will continue through the winter as Ukrainian forces are mostly advancing on foot without vehicles and that inclement weather will thus not have a major negative effect on the Ukrainian counteroffensive. Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Head Lieutenant General Kyrylo Budanov echoed a similar assessment about continued Ukrainian winter operations in an interview with The War Zone published on September 22. ISW has previously assessed that, while seasonal weather can slow ground movements and challenge logistics, it will not impose a definite end to Ukrainian counteroffensive operations. The culmination of the Ukrainian counteroffensive will likely depend rather on the Russian and Ukrainian balance of forces as well as on Western aid to Ukraine.

A senior Ukrainian official explicitly confirmed that Ukraine’s objective in Bakhmut is to fix Russian forces. Ukraine’s fixing of Russian forces in Bakhmut may be alleviating pressure on the Kupyansk frontline. Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Head Lieutenant General Kyrylo Budanov stated that Ukrainian forces achieved their objective of pinning Russian forces in Bakhmut and preventing their transfer to other areas of the theater – such as southern Ukraine – in a September 22 interview. Budanov also stated that the Russian military deployed the recently created and not fully formed 25th Combined Arms Army (CAA) of the Eastern Military District “roughly north of Bakhmut.” Budanov previously reported on August 31 that the Russian military deployed elements of the 25th CAA to replace elements of the 41st CAA (Central Military District) in the Kupyansk direction as elements of the 41st CAA began a ”slow” redeployment to southern Ukraine. The Russian deployment of elements of the 25th CAA to Bakhmut instead of Kupyansk will likely disrupt Russian efforts to fix Ukrainian forces in the Kupyansk direction, as Russian forces need these troops to continue assaults in place of the 41st CAA. Ukrainian officials and Russian sources have indicated that the tempo and the intensity of Russian offensives on the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line has significantly decreased in recent weeks as Russian forces are continuing to regroup and rotate personnel in this direction, and the redirection of the deployment of 25th CAA may have alleviated some of the pressure from this frontline. Budanov’s statement supports ISW’s recent assessment that Ukrainian counteroffensive operations on Bakhmut’s southern flank have fixed a large amount of Russian combat power in Bakhmut that would otherwise be available to reinforce Russian defenses in the south — or, in this case, to attempt to force Ukrainian forces to redeploy to defend against Russian assaults around Kupyansk.

Key Takeaways:

  • ISW is now prepared to assess that Ukrainian forces have broken through Russian field fortifications west of Verbove in western Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • Ukrainian forces have not overcome all prepared Russian defensive positions near Verbove.
  • Ukrainian forces are deepening their penetration in Zaporizhia Oblast and are assaulting Novoprokopivka – a frontline village 1.5 km immediately south of Robotyne.
  • Ukrainian military officials stated that the Ukrainian counteroffensive would continue in the winter.
  • The Ukrainian counteroffensive in western Zaporizhia Oblast has likely destroyed the Russian 810th Naval Infantry Brigade (Black Sea Fleet).
  • A senior Ukrainian official explicitly confirmed that Ukraine’s objective in Bakhmut is to fix Russian forces. Ukraine’s fixing of Russian forces in Bakhmut may be alleviating pressure on the Kupyansk frontline.
  • Ukraine’s simultaneous counteroffensives in Bakhmut and southern Ukraine are impeding Russia’s long-term force generation efforts as Russia redeploys its new reserves to defend against Ukrainian advances.
  • A Ukrainian intelligence chief stated that the September 22 Ukrainian strike on the Russian Black Sea Fleet (BSF) Command headquarters in Sevastopol injured senior Russian commanders.
  • Russian forces conducted a series of missile and drone strikes against Ukraine on the night of September 22 to 23.
  • Zaporizhia Oblast occupation governor Yevgeny Balitsky appointed former Roscosmos (Russian space agency) head and ultranationalist figure Dmitry Rogozin as a Russian Federation Council senator representing occupied Zaporizhia Oblast
  • A Russian insider source argued that the Russian military should reintroduce military officers for political affairs (zampolits) to address the Russian military’s problems with political and ideological commitment– a problem that Russian military thinkers identified in September 2018.
  • Disjointed Wagner Group contingents reportedly returning to fight in Ukraine are likely to have a marginal impact on Russian combat capabilities without bringing the full suite of effectiveness Wagner had had as a unitary organization under financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin’s and founder Dmitry Utkin’s leadership.
  • Russian forces conducted offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line, in western Donetsk Oblast, in the western Donetsk-eastern Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast but did not make any confirmed advances on September 23.
  • Russian authorities are reportedly embezzling funds from military facilities near the border of Ukraine.
  • Russian government programs continue to forcibly deport children in occupied Ukraine to Russia.
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