After months of grueling advances through minefields, small villages and open steppes, Ukrainian forces are making some progress along two major lines of attack, according to analysts, Ukrainian officials and Russian military bloggers.
The advances, while small in terms of territory taken, are compelling Moscow to redeploy forces, military analysts say. The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, called the advances “tactically significant,” adding that the situation would create new challenges for Russian forces spread across the vast front line.
Britain’s military intelligence agency said on Saturday that Russian redeployments could create opportunities that Ukraine would likely try to exploit.
The Ukrainian advances are along two main lines of attack heading south: one through the eastern village of Staromaiorske toward the Russian-occupied city of Berdiansk, a port city on the Sea of Azov; and another, farther west, toward the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol, a vital transportation hub near the coast less than 60 miles south.
Ukrainian forces are now about 10 to 12 miles further south along both lines than when they started a counteroffensive push in early June.
Military analysts caution that many factors that will determine how the fighting plays out over coming months and are hard to analyze given the limited information put out by both armies. But Britain’s military intelligence agency noted on Saturday that Russia’s forces had faced “particularly intense attrition and heavy combat on the front line.”
As Russia races to prevent a Ukrainian breakthrough, the move “will likely further weaken Russian defensive lines in aggregate,” the I.S.W. wrote, creating “opportunities for any Ukrainian breakthrough to be potentially decisive.”
Still, analysts cautioned that even if Ukraine’s forces manage to break through Russia’s first line of defenses, Moscow has had many months to prepare the most formidable fortified defensive positions since World War II — a series of trenches, tank-traps, vast minefields, machine gun nests, and Russian attack helicopters and air support.
At the same time, Russian forces are continuing to mount their own offensive operations in northeastern Ukraine around the city of Kupiansk. By forcing Ukraine to defend there, military analysts say, Russia is likely trying to draw Ukrainian forces from other areas where they are on the offensive.
Ukraine is hoping that pressure along the front, along with deep strikes aimed at command posts, ammunition depots and supply lines, will ultimately overcome the Russian defenses. The Russian defenses are designed to be elastic, according to military analysts, absorbing Ukrainian blows and counter attacking when they can.
The British analysis noted that as Russia redeploys forces to defend against Ukraine’s two main lines of attack, its defenses further south in the Kherson region along the Dnipro River will likely be weakened. Ukraine holds the west bank of the river and has increasingly harassed Russian forces on the other side.
Ukrainian forces recently launched an assault across the Dnipro around the town of Kozachi Laheri, Western analysts said, but they said it was too soon to know whether Kyiv would be able to maintain an enduring presence on the eastern bank. Ukraine’s military has not confirmed such an operation.
“The enemy continues to hold a small bridgehead west of Kozachi Laheri,” Rybar, an influential Russian military blogger, reported on Saturday, though he offered no details.
In one of the two main lines of attack, Ukraine has consolidated gains around the ruined village of Staromaiorske, which it recaptured in late July, and appears to be pushing farther south to the Russian stronghold of Urozhaine, according to the Ukrainian military and military analysts.
Hanna Malyar, a Ukrainian deputy defense minister, said on Friday that her country’s forces had achieved “partial successes” in the direction of Urozhaine and south and southeast of Staromaiorske.
The Russian Vostok Battalion, a military outfit fighting in the area, reported on Friday that “artillery from both sides plowed up the neighborhood of Urozhaine so much that some positions were abandoned by us, but the enemy did not dare to claim them either.”
More fighting was reported on Saturday morning by Russian military bloggers as the city remained fiercely contested.
Along the line of attack in the direction of Melitopol, Ukrainian forces reported hard-fought battles but steady progress around the village of Robotyne.
The I.S.W. said of that fight, “The Ukrainian forces’ ability to advance to the outskirts of Robotyne — which Russian forces have dedicated significant effort, time and resources to defend — remains significant even if Ukrainian gains are limited at this time.”
Valerii Shershen, a representative of the Ukrainian forces fighting in the area, said this past week that Russia was calling up reinforcements from its second lines of defense, including marines, paratroopers and special forces, to stop the Ukrainian advance.
While Ukraine is making gains, he said the advance was being slowed because of the dense minefields and large number of obstacles.
Russian aircraft, he said, are constantly strafing Ukrainian lines, hitting them more than a dozen times in a single day this past week.