September 3, 2023

Institute for the Study of War: Ukraine has ’successfully broken through’ the most difficult Russian defenses in Robotyne

Institute for the Study of War

Ukrainian military officers offered notably frank and direct commentary about the prospects of further Ukrainian advances in western Zaporizhia Oblast and indicated that the series of prepared Russian defensive positions immediately ahead and further south of the Ukrainian advance may be less challenging to Ukrainian forces. Ukrainian Tavriisk Group of Forces Commander Brigadier General Oleksandr Tarnavskyi, who commands the Ukrainian grouping in southern Ukraine, discussed Ukraine’s counteroffensive in an interview with The Guardian on September 2. Tarnavskyi stated that Ukrainian forces have decisively breached Russian forces’ “first line of defense” and that he expects faster Ukrainian gains as Ukrainian forces press on a weaker “second line” of defense. Ukrainian forces have advanced up to the next series of prepared Russian defensive positions in certain areas in the Robotyne area in western Zaporizhia Oblast, although many Russian sources assert that these positions are the first, not the second, defensive layer in a multi-echeloned Russian defense in southern Ukraine. Ukrainian officials and Russian milbloggers are using different terminology to describe the same positions. Russian sources characterize the first series of positions that Ukrainian forces have previously breached as a forward line without giving it an ordinal number, and the series Ukrainian forces are currently approaching as the first main line of defenses — while Ukrainian forces characterize these positions as Russia’s second line of defenses.

Tarnavskyi stated that Russian forces devoted 60 percent of their time and resources into building the series of defensive positions that Ukrainian forces have now breached and only 20 percent each to the two subsequent defensive layers further south. This breached series of Russian defensive positions consists of a system of interconnected Russian trenches and dugouts guarded by anti-tank ditches and dense minefields, and Tarnavskyi’s reporting supports ISW’s previous observation that Russian forces may have not extended similarly challenging preparations throughout subsequent series of defensive layers, particularly regarding the density of minefields. Russian defensive positions are not uniform in strength across the frontline in western Zaporizhia Oblast, and Tarnavskyi’s description of weaker Russian defensive positions may refer only to the immediate Robotyne area. Tarnavskyi also commented on the weight of Ukrainian efforts elsewhere in southern Ukraine and suggested that the Ukrainian advance in western Zaporizhia Oblast is an operational priority.

Ukrainian military officials particularly noted that advancing Ukrainian forces can operate more freely in areas with sparser Russian minefields. Ukrainian Tavriisk Group of Forces Spokesperson Oleksandr Shtupun stated on September 3 that minefields near the next series of Russian defensive positions are less dense than the initial defensive layer that Ukrainian forces advanced through. Shtupun and Tarnavskyi both stated that Ukrainian forces are deploying more vehicles in these areas and maneuvering more equipment and troops towards the next Russian defensive layer, but they acknowledged that minefields will still present a significant threat. Tarnavskyi stated that Ukrainian forces spent more time on mine clearing than they expected to at the beginning of the counteroffensive and that consistent Russian artillery and aviation fire forced Ukrainian infantry to conduct mine clearing only at night. Shtupun added that heavy minefields forced Ukrainian breaching operations onto narrow paths — the exact intent of minefields under Russian defensive doctrine. Ukrainian forces may now be better positioned to maneuver more freely in the tactical rear of the breached Russian defensive layer. Tarnavskyi’s description of the Russian minefields may pertain only to the immediate Robotyne area, and Ukrainian forces may encounter heavily dense minefields at certain sections of subsequent series of Russian defensive positions. Although Ukrainian forces certainly face further hard fighting regardless, Tarnavskyi characterized Ukrainian forces as having successfully broken through the most difficult Russian defenses.

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukrainian military officers offered notably frank and direct commentary about the prospects of further Ukrainian advances in western Zaporizhia Oblast and indicated that the series of prepared Russian defensive positions immediately ahead and further south of the Ukrainian advance may be less challenging to Ukrainian forces.
  • Ukrainian military officials particularly noted that advancing Ukrainian forces can operate more freely in areas with sparser Russian minefields.
  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations and advanced near Bakhmut and in western Zaporizhia Oblast on September 3.
  • Several Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces continue to operate on the left (east) bank of the Dnipro River in occupied Kherson Oblast.
  • Russian forces conducted a series of drone strikes targeting Ukrainian port infrastructure in Odesa Oblast on September 3.
  • The Russian military appears to be recruiting personnel at scale through ongoing crypto-mobilization efforts, although the quality and allocation of these new servicemembers remain unclear.
  • Russian forces conducted offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line, in western Donetsk, in the western Donetsk–eastern Zaporizhia border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast and advanced in some areas on September 3.
  • Russian law enforcement is patrolling and guarding polling stations in occupied Ukraine to prevent citizens from expressing opposition to the elections and recording the voting process.
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