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Ukraine's counteroffensive breakthrough: What does it mean?

Stephanie Höppner
September 5, 2023

For weeks, Ukraine's long-awaited counteroffensive at the southern front seemed stuck. Now, troops have managed to break through Russia's first line of defense. Experts believe this is a dangerous time for Russia.

Two fighters sitting in a tank driving along a dusty country road
Breakthrough along the southern front lines: Ukrainian forces near the village of Robotyne on August 25, 2023.Image: VIACHESLAV RATYNSKYI/REUTERS

For a long time, the Ukrainian counteroffensive seemed stuck in the mud, with front lines barely moving. But now, Ukraine has achieved a breakthrough along the crucial southern front near Zaporizhzhia. As Ukraine's Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar reported, Ukrainian armed forces were able to break through Russian forces' first line of defense, and are now continuing the counteroffensive in the vicinity of Melitopol.

"Our armed forces achieved success near Novodanylivka and Novoprokopivka," Malyar said. Both are villages in the Zaporizhzhia oblast. In addition, Kyiv is said to have reclaimed the three square kilometers (1.9 square miles) near the eastern Ukrainian city Bakhmut, which has seen heavy fighting.

Ukraine's counteroffensive began in June 2023. Kyiv's aim is to liberate its territories in the Zaporizhzhia, Dontesk, Luhansk, and Kherson regions, parts of which have been occupied by Russian forces. Ukraine is also looking to regain the Crimean peninsula, located between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, which Moscow illegally annexed in 2014.

Brigadier General Oleksandr Tarnavskyi, commander in the Zaporizhzhia region, told the British Sunday newspaper The Observer that troops were currently located between the first and second lines of Russian defenses in the south of Ukraine. In the past days, there had been reports of Ukrainian armed forces making  progress near the village of Robotyne. At the moment, Russian troops are trying to win back lost territories with a series of counteroffensives.

Ukraine announces full recapture of Robotyne

Why was the breakthrough so difficult?

Initially, a breakthrough had been expected much sooner. But the Ukrainian counteroffensive was long hampered by a huge minefield, which made it more difficult for troops to advance, or to evacuate the wounded, as Tarnavskyi explained.

Relief forces also reportedly sustained heavy fire when crossing the minefield. Australian military analyst Allan Orr believes that NATO did not sufficiently equip and train Ukrainian forces, as he told US weekly news magazine Newsweek.

Why was the breakthrough successful despite difficulties?

This could in part be due to the state of the Russian forces. Russian battalion commander Alexander Khodakovsky said that his troops were suffering "extreme physical and psychological stress" while defending southeastern regions. Referencing Khodakovsky's statement, Sunday's report by the US think tank Institute for the Study of War (ISW) has therefore concluded that the situation has worsened fur Russia. 

The ISW report went on to state that Russian soldiers were under constant Ukrainian artillery fire, and that Khodakovsky was unsure "whether distressed and exhausted Russian forces will be able to defend against a future Ukrainian offensive in this sector of the front."

What is to be made of the breakthrough?

Experts believe the breakthrough is indeed a positive step for Ukrainian forces. According to Tarnavskyi, Russian forces have dedicated about 60% of their time and resources to the first line of defense.

A man inspects a mine clearing device in Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia region
A volunteer inspects a mine clearing device in Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia region. Mines had played a particular role in slowing Ukraine's counteroffensive.Image: VIACHESLAV RATYNSKYI/REUTERS

Conversely, only about 20% of available resources are dedicated to the second and third lines of defense. This is why the ISW has also estimated that Ukrainian forces are making advancements, while Russian troops are in increasingly dire circumstances.

Military expert Marcus Keupp told the German daily news show ZDFheute that current movements weren't about making a spectacularly military breakthrough like in the movies, but about finding a gap in Russian defenses.

This gap would have to be "around five to 10 kilometers wide, in order [for Ukrainian troops] to push heavy equipment, or reserves, through." Keupp believes Ukrainian forces are in thr process of finding this gap. "So, this is a very dangerous moment for Russian forces."

What's next?

Tarnavskyi said that Ukrainian forces were pushing ahead towards the Russian-occupied cities of Tokmak and Melitopol near the Sea of Azov. There are no reports yet on how large the recaptured territory there is. Ukraine's goal is to continue on to the Sea of Azov, 90 kilometers further south, to separate Russian troops.

Keupp told ZDFheute the city of Tokmak was of crucial importance because several important highways and one vital railroad track ran through the area. That meant that Russian logistics could be cut off "very efficiently" from that location, Keupp said. This made Tokmak  "a sort of guard post" for the territory stretching towards the Black Sea.

If Ukraine reaches the coast of the Black Sea and is able to fire upon Crimea, Keupp believes the war would be strategically lost for Russia.

In a podcast by German weekly stern, security expert Christian Mölling said that Ukraine had about two months left before adverse weather made larger movements impossible. But a lot would be gained, he said, if Ukraine managed to place a wedge further south "so that the entire land mass stretching to the Sea of Azov can be held under artillery fire." This would slow down supplies to Russian troops.

This article was written in German, with support from various news agencies.