The 76th Guards Air Assault Division in training before the Ukraine War.
Photo by the Russian Defense Ministry
The Kremlin is sending reinforcements to Zaporizhia Oblast in southern Ukraine. It is a desperate attempt to prevent a major Ukrainian breakthrough along a critical axis.
Reinforcements come from the 76th Guards Air Assault Division, which is “arguably Russia’s best division and relatively fresh”. accordingly Rob Lee, an analyst at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. Most recently, the division attacked around Kreminna earlier this year, where the Russians are still conducting a limited offensive.
The Russians’ redeployment of the 76th GAAD testifies to the growing momentum of the Ukrainian counteroffensive in 2023, which began with simultaneous tank attacks along multiple axes in southern and eastern Ukraine.
Just in the last few weeks, the Ukrainian army and independent air raid forces have liberated Robotyne in Zaporizhia, while the Ukrainian marine corps has driven out Russian troops from Urozhaine, 60 miles east of Robotyne in the Mokri Yaly river valley.
The two Ukrainian victories bring Kiev forces a few miles closer to their two main objectives in southern Ukraine. The Ukrainians The aim is to liberate the cities of Melitopol and Mariupol from their Russian occupiers. The Russians The aim is to continue to keep the cities under control in order to secure the supply routes overland to the Russian-occupied Crimea.
The outcome could depend on which side makes best use of their reserves. To achieve the breakthrough around Robotyne, the Ukrainian Southern Command deployed one of its few reserve formations: the 82nd Air Assault Brigade. Now the Kremlin is using one of them own few reserve formations.
A Ukrainian reserve officer tweeting under the pseudonym @Tatarigami_UA was among the first to notice the transfer of the 76th GAAD from the Kreminna sector in northeastern Ukraine to the Robotyne-Tokmak-Melitopol axis.
“According to Russian military doctrine, at least on paper, the 76th Division is part of its strategic reserves, underscoring the seriousness of the move,” @Tatarigami_UA wrote on Saturday.
The reason the officer emphasized was that the 76th GAAD was a reserve unit on paper is that the division, which oversees three infantry regiments of a few thousand soldiers each, was on the front lines for much of Russia’s 19-month major war against Ukraine.
The division fought for Kiev in the early weeks of the larger war and reportedly took part in the spring 2022 massacre of Ukrainian civilians in Bucha. After withdrawing from north-central Ukraine, the division moved east with its T-90s and T-90s. 72 tanks and BMP-2 and BMD fighting vehicles.
Six months later, in August 2022, the 76th GAAD temporarily moved battalions to southern Ukraine’s Kherson Oblast in a desperate attempt to halt Ukraine’s 2022 counteroffensive.
The 76th GAAD failed to stop the Ukrainians liberating much of southern Ukraine north of the Dnipro River last fall. But it did Make the Ukrainians pay for every mile they advance. In late October, gunners from the 76th Division annihilated a column of the Ukrainian 35th Naval Brigade outside Kostromka, 20 miles north of the Dnipro.
The Kremlin is going all out with the commitment of the 76th GAAD to stop a Ukrainian attack in southern Ukraine for the second time in a year. “On the one hand, this strengthens Russia’s operational capabilities,” wrote @Tatarigami_UA. “On the other hand, their failure will critically impact combat-ready reserves for rapid deployment.”
Any future attempt to bolster Russian defenses in a sector could come at the expense of Russian defenses another Sector, accordingly The Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C. “A lack of significant operational reserves would force the Russian command to undertake further lateral redeployments and make decisions about which sectors of the front line to prioritize.”
The implication is obvious. If the Ukrainians can maintain their momentum in the south, they could present the Russians with a difficult choice: stay in the south or keep in the east. You probably wouldn’t be able to do both.
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