Analysis By Sandeep Mukherjee
Last month, I analyzed the factors guiding the long-overdue offensive in Ukraine. Then came the Ukrainian probes, followed by an “offensive”!
After months of waiting and speculations about where, when, and in what form the Ukrainians put up with a somewhat predictable show, the very obvious feints came towards Belgorod staged by “Russian rebels” with Ukrainian support and some jitter parties operating towards Bryansk.
These were expected to rattle the Russian command into moving precious reserves away from Southern Ukraine, where the expected Ukrainian offensive would come.
Then the Ukrainians probed the Russian front in the south for weaknesses to locate the right spot for their “schwerpunkt” – where the spearhead of their offensive would be directed. By June 7 and 8, they appeared to have been directing their focus on the Orikhiv – TokMak – Melitopol axis, finally.
The idea was to break through the Russian defenses opposite Orikhiv, reach the road junction and logistics hub at TokMak, and then envelop Melitopol. This would give Ukraine coveted access to the Sea of Azov after a year, then directly threaten the Russian hold on Crimea, the ultimate prize.
So how did this “offensive” fare? We saw a few brigades (not more than 3 to 4) at a time going opposite Orikhiv, penetrating the Russian forward lines and occupying a few settlements and hamlets.
One must note that Russia has organized defenses in depth in the Zaporizhzhia sector. The first tier is about 127 km long (aerial distance), stretching from the Dnieper to Novopetrykivka in Donetsk. This line is covered by long-range artillery positions in depth, lying along the second line of defense, around 30 km behind the first line.
This second line starts southwest of Novopetrykivka, near Bilmak, on Highway H08 to Mariupol. This is meant to block any outflanking movement from the northeast if Ukrainian forces penetrate Russian defenses in Donetsk.
This line stretches almost 117 km (aerial distance) west, ending close to the Dnieper. In addition, Russia has organized heavily fortified fortresses/towns. These are meant to hold out and face siege if Ukrainian forces break through.
The above perspective will allow readers to understand the shallowness of the Ukrainian ingress which nibbled at the outposts in the area of its “schwerpunkt.” And even this shallow penetration was mainly undone within a day through local counterattacks.
That trend has been maintained in subsequent operations. The recent action around Robotyne, in the main line of the attack, had a similar outcome, even with three Ukrainian brigades (47, 65, and “Spartan”) hammering away. Reports of destroyed Ukrainian Bradleys, Leopards, and Hummers (supplied by NATO) are coming daily. Even Ukrainian commanders are downplaying the previous hype around the efficacy of NATO equipment.
To the west and east of Orikhiv, flanking attacks were attempted by Ukraine—a village or two occupied, which became hotly contested, pyrrhic victories. For instance, the much talked about Piyatikhatky village became a killing ground enfiladed by enemy artillery as soon as one side occupied it! In its latest attempt at forcing the line here (two units of 128 Mountain Brigade), Ukraine is supposed to have suffered extraordinary infantry losses.
The reader may like to check out the relative locations of these hot spots vis a vis the 1st line of Russian defense. This will give you some idea about the lack of progress in Ukrainian operations.
While the half-hearted attacks continued in the Zaporizhzhia sector, Ukraine kept the pot boiling in other parts of the southern theater. For instance, in the Vremivka ledge, where Russian positions protruded into the Ukrainian line, Ukraine brought in units from five brigades to pinch this salient. And in the process, it changed hands a few times.
However, the meaningful threat that Ukraine has been able to pose is in the Bakhmut sector, which everyone had claimed to be a sideshow! The critical location of this sector makes it so crucial for the Russians to defend and the Ukrainians to breach.
The tactically pivotal Klischiivka hamlet lies south of Bakhmut, sitting near all-weather motorable roads to the south. Small knolls (heights) to the west and northwest command these roads. Both sides are claiming control of these heights.
As of now, the north-western knoll is changing hands hourly. The Ukrainian 3 Assault Brigade – Azov, is contesting the heights to the west. If Ukraine can take physical control of these and hold them for a week, then the Russian occupation of Bakhmut will be threatened. Already Ukrainian forces have pushed the action further south, near the hamlets of Ozaryanovka and Kurdyumovka.
If Bakhmut is invested in a broad sweep from the south, a hole will be torn in the eastern flank of the southern theater. That will open the route for Ukrainian forces to penetrate deep into the connecting routes from mainland Russia to south Ukraine. In such a scenario, Russia will be forced to relocate its reserves to contain this threat.
Russia’s elite airborne troops are pushing hard at the Ukrainian assault groups around these heights. The redeployment of substantial reserves here may weaken Russian positions in the vital approaches to the Azov coast. As of today, this is the most important threat to the Russian position in southern Ukraine.
The danger to the Russian situation if its forces are trapped in Bakhmut, and a hole opens up in the front. The layout of Klischiivka and the “heights” around it; the threat to Russian supply lines to Bakhmut Red arrows – Ukrainian attacks to the west and southwest of Bakhmut, attempting a deep envelopment. Broken red arrows show possible Ukrainian intentions that they can “turn” the Russian defenses.
The Russians know this and have reserves waiting, yet they are not committed to taking care of serious Ukrainian breakthroughs.
Reportedly the Russians have 300,000 men in the southern theater. And here comes the interesting bit – while the Ukrainians threaten the Bakhmut sector, the Russians are planning their surprises at Krasny Liman and at Avdeevka, whose connection and lifeline to the rear are poised to be cut off, in the area depicted with the cross in the below image.
As The Offensive Stalls
Readers may have concluded that the costly and much-talked “offensive” has stalled! Ukraine reportedly allotted twelve brigade groups in the southern theater for this “offensive.” Seven more brigades and some independent units are deployed in static positions in the line, along with territorial formations and militias.
Nine of these assault brigades have been trained and equipped by NATO. Ukraine and its backers keep claiming that the cream of this force has not yet been committed. That may have been true in the first couple of weeks into the offensive. But no more.
We see more and more Ukrainian formations entering the battle, stretching the action from end to end. While the critical battles rage south of Bakhmut, Ukrainian company-sized incursions have happened at the far end of the line, south of Kherson. Across the damaged
Antonovsky Bridge, a low-key battle, is underway in the small islets where Ukraine has established a bridgehead.
F16s are far away yet. The new Russian formations are being readied from the 117,000 contractual soldiers who signed up this year and are about ready for deployment. Ukrainian manpower losses have been substantial. Unless the new “cluster bombs” can do something drastic, Ukraine is now fighting its last battles in this “offensive.”
And then? No, Russia isn’t up to Blitzkriegs anymore. It will continue grinding down the Ukrainians and playing safe with numbers. Russia will wait for a proper Ukrainian collapse in one or more sectors.
Then, and only then, will Russia make a decisive move with mechanized formations. Till then, the front will settle down to localized battles and sensational battle accounts!
- By Sandeep Mukherjee
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