Although Ukrainian forces broke through the first line of Russian defenses on part of the southern front, soldiers involved in the counteroffensive have shown how difficult it is to make more than incremental advances in the face of complex and layered fortifications.
Ukrainian units say they have captured the village of Robotyne in the Zaporizhia region and are advancing on several others to bring the strategic node Tokmak within artillery range.
One soldier, a communications specialist named Oleksandr Solonko, has written extensively about the challenges posed by progress in the region, and his account is supported by others.
First, he says, topography is important: fields, villages, relatively flat land.
“Whoever you are, an assault group… an evacuation[uation mission]Whether it’s air or ground reconnaissance, your movement is visible from afar. The enemy has long been preparing to confront you,” Solonko wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
“There is a limited number of access roads and logistic routes. Everything was repeatedly shot at and shot at every day. You will almost certainly be discovered. It’s basically impossible to get the job done while remaining completely invisible to the enemy.”
And Solonko says the Russian fortifications are elaborate.
“There is in some places a whole system of trenches, dugouts and actual tunnels… automatic grenade launchers, machine guns, anti-tank missile systems.” Anti-tank ditches and minefields stretch across the fields,” he wrote. “Whatever is not dug up is dismantled. We have to go through all of this to move forward.”
In recent weeks, several reports have reported that Ukrainian engineers were making slow progress as they attempted to remove a multitude of mines, some triggered by tripwires, which the Russians were intensively laying as a first line of defence. It is unclear whether the minefields are as thick deeper in the Russian lines, where they could hamper the maneuverability of Russian forces.
“Those who have very rosy eyes and believe that it took Ukrainian forces a long time to drive the Russians out of the village of Robotyne have not seen the defense system that had to be overcome to push the Russians off the Mariupol highway and to approach them.” the village, surround it and then enter it. A tremendous amount of work has been done,” Solonko wrote.
“Our positions on the retaken territory are surrounded by mines and tripwires. Access roads are being built, pioneers are gradually clearing the area,” he added.
On Friday, a Ukrainian front-line unit officer told CNN that the open terrain was a challenge.
“Drones are in the sky 24/7, both ours and theirs. Therefore, it is impossible to hide any movement of equipment, any maneuver becomes immediately known to the enemy, and shelling begins either with artillery or drones,” he said.
The official said that unlike Bakhmut, an eastern town the Russians captured in May after months of bitter fighting, there were no basements in which to find shelter. “Here there are only open fields and bombed forest plantations, of which there is practically nothing left.”
Analysts say there are ingrained defenses ahead. Satellite imagery of the village of Solodka Balka, seven kilometers south of Robotyne, shows steel-reinforced communications trenches, vehicle shelters and dragon’s teeth aimed at impeding Ukrainian armor.
OSINT analyst Emil Kastehelmi notes that “the Russians have built 100 to 350 m long communication trenches, which helps them to reinforce or retreat from fighting positions.”
“Heavy fortifications are being built to block any possible advance on the main road towards Tokmak,” Kastehelmi said in a post on X.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said in its most recent frontline assessment, “Ukrainian forces are now within striking distance of the next set of Russian defensive positions, which appear to consist of a relatively more contiguous set of anti-tank ditches and anti-tank obstacles.” with dragon teeth, with Russian fighting positions behind these obstacles, similar to the previous layer of Russian defenses.”
“The highly interconnected systems of trenches and dugouts described by the Ukrainian soldier are the result of months of Russian preparation,” it said. “It is unclear whether Russian forces have extended this system to the subsequent series of defensive positions further south.”
Solonko also acknowledged the loss of Ukrainian armor in the region “due to enemy air superiority.”
“Guided aerial bombs are one of the greatest fears. The Russians use them extensively. I can’t judge the accuracy, but the weapon has impressive power,” he wrote in his posts on X.
According to Solonko, the Russians are using drones extensively to monitor and attack Ukrainian positions. “They identify targets and fire lancets and guided bombs in swarms,” he added.
But he also writes that vehicles donated by the US save lives: “We spoke to a soldier who twice survived a direct attack in Bradley. Even the most hopelessly damaged devices are pulled out and taken in for repairs.”
He also believes that the capture of Robotyne bodes well for the offense despite the many obstacles.
“I can understand why the Russians are so angry about the loss of the Six Streets Village. They did a great job and didn’t let the Ukrainians through. It’s easier to defend by any measure. We’re doing a great job of breaking through. And when we succeed, it means our work is doing better,” he wrote.