September 21, 2023

Institute for the Study of War: Ukrainian armored vehicles now operating beyond Russian defense lines in Zaporizhia

Institute for the Study of War

Ukrainian armored vehicles are operating beyond the final line of the Russian defensive layer that Ukrainian forces in western Zaporizhia Oblast are currently penetrating, although ISW is not yet prepared to assess that Ukrainian forces have broken fully through this Russian defensive layer. Geolocated footage posted on September 21 indicates that Ukrainian armored vehicles advanced south of the Russian anti-tank ditches and dragon’s teeth obstacles that are part of a tri-layered defense and engaged in limited combat immediately west of Verbove (18km southeast of Orikhiv). It is unclear if Ukrainian forces retain these positions, however. This is the first observed instance of Ukrainian forces operating armored vehicles beyond the Russian tri-layer defense. The presence of Ukrainian armored vehicles beyond the final line of the current Russian defensive layer indicates that the Ukrainians have secured their breach of the first two lines of this layer sufficiently to operate vehicles through the breach. Ukrainian forces have likely suppressed Russian artillery and other anti-tank systems in the area enough to bring their vehicles forward. The Ukrainian ability to bring armored vehicles to and through the most formidable Russian defenses intended to stop them and to operate these vehicles near prepared Russian defensive positions are important signs of progress in the Ukrainian counteroffensive. Additional geolocated footage published on September 20 and 21 indicates that Ukrainian forces also advanced west and southwest of Verbove.

Ukrainian forces conducted a series of drone and missile strikes targeting the Russian airfield near occupied Saky, Crimea, and may have damaged Russian aircraft. The Department of Strategic Communications of the Ukrainian Armed Forces stated that Ukrainian forces launched a combined attack on the Russian airfield near Saky (60km north of Sevastopol). Suspilne Crimea reported that sources in the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) stated that the SBU and the Ukrainian Navy launched drones to overwhelm Russian air defense systems near the airfield and then conducted strikes with Neptune missiles. Twelve Russian combat aircraft including Su-24 and Su-30 fighter-bombers, were reportedly present at the time of the strikes, and Suspilne’s SBU sources stated that strikes caused unspecified serious damage at the airfield. ISW has yet to observe footage detailing the consequences of the Ukrainian strike, however. Russian sources, including the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD), claimed that Russian air defenses downed up to 19 Ukrainian drones over the Black Sea and Crimea on the night of September 20 to 21 but did not acknowledge any Ukrainian missile strikes. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet manages the Saky airfield, which is the latest Black Sea Fleet target that Ukrainian forces have struck.

The Kremlin continues to seek to intensify divisions between Ukraine and its Central European partners following Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative. The export of Ukrainian grain along European land routes has emerged as an area of tension between Ukraine and its European partners since Russia’s withdrawal from the initiative in July and its attacks on Ukrainian port infrastructure since then, and ISW has previously assessed that Russian strikes on Ukrainian port and grain infrastructure are part of a Russian campaign to damage Ukrainian relations with its Western neighbors. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morwiecki announced on September 20 that Poland would focus on building up its own weapons arsenals and would no longer transfer weapons to Ukraine. The Polish and Ukrainian Ministers of Agrarian Policy agreed on September 21 to work together to find a solution regarding the export of Ukrainian agricultural products in the coming days, however.

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukrainian armored vehicles are operating beyond the final line of the Russian defensive layer that Ukrainian forces in western Zaporizhia Oblast are currently penetrating, although ISW is not yet prepared to assess that Ukrainian forces have broken fully through this Russian defensive layer.
  • Russian forces currently defending in western Zaporizhia Oblast have been unable to prevent Ukrainian forces from making gradual but steady advances since mid-August.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted a series of drone and missile strikes targeting the Russian airfield near occupied Saky, Crimea, and may have damaged Russian aircraft.
  • Satellite imagery confirms that Ukrainian forces also struck the 744th Communications Center of the Command of the Black Sea Fleet in occupied Crimea on September 20 as part of an apparent Ukrainian effort to target Black Sea Fleet facilities.
  • Russian forces conducted a notably large series of missile strikes against Ukraine on the night of September 20 to 21, likely to correspond with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit to the United States.
  • The Kremlin continues to seek to intensify divisions between Ukraine and its Central European partners following Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative.
  • The Russian State Duma will reportedly propose a bill allowing the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia) to include volunteer formations amid continued rumors about the Wagner Group operating alongside Rosgvardia.
  • The Kremlin is reportedly pushing propaganda narratives that highlight Russian artillery and aviation while downplaying the efforts of Russian forces conducting ground operations, likely in order to avoid discussion of Russian personnel losses and poor counterbattery capabilities.
  • The Kremlin is likely aiming to blame Armenian leadership and the West for Azerbaijan’s recent military operation into Nagorno-Karabakh.
  • Russian forces conducted offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line, in the western Donetsk-eastern Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast but did not advance.
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