‘Expanding our foothold’: Ukraine says it has pierced Russian defences

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Kyiv: Ukrainian forces pierced the first line of Russian fortifications in the nation’s southeast and are fighting to widen the breach, the nation’s defence chief said, in a bid for a potential breakthrough.

Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov said that Ukrainian soldiers, on foot and mostly at night, had made slow progress in clearing heavily mined areas to create approach corridors for a larger force that has now fought through the first main line of Russian trenches, bunkers and tanks traps.

A Ukrainian soldier watches a Grad multiple launch rocket system firing shells with flyers near Bakhmut, Donetsk region.Credit: AP

“We broke the first line and now we are expanding our foothold,” Reznikov told reporters on Monday in Kyiv.

The Ukrainian counteroffensive launched in June has been bogged down by Russian forces dug in along a vast frontline stretching from the Donbas region in Ukraine’s east through the south to the mouth of the Dnipro river. The slow-going has worried Ukraine’s allies, who say a long fight risks giving Russian President Vladimir Putin the upper hand in a war of attrition.

Reznikov referred to fighting near Robotyne, a settlement in the southern Zaporizhzhia region that Ukrainian forces captured this month. Ukrainian officials have said troops are pressing ahead to the southeast of the town, located some 115 kilometres north of the Sea of Azov.

Penetrating Russia’s first line of defence could potentially give Ukrainian forces an advantage, since further barriers may be less heavily protected, according to analysts from the Institute for the Study of War. Ukraine’s strategy of attacking across the broad front instead of concentrating its forces has been aimed at probing for weaknesses and forcing Russia to spend its reserves to produce gaps in their defences.

The de-mining has left Ukrainian forces with mostly tactical advances since June. With autumn approaching, the window for a breakthrough is closing. Cold and wet weather will likely put Ukraine’s main objective, advancing toward the Sea of Azov and cutting off Crimea, out of reach.

Russia’s Defence Ministry said it had repelled several attacks around Robotyne and to the west near Verbove.

Reznikov said Russian claims of advances in eastern Ukraine, particularly in the direction of the Ukrainian-led city of Kupyansk in the Kharkiv region, were a diversion tactic.

“They try to divert our attention and advance there, trying to force us to regroup our troops,” Reznikov said.

In the south, much depends on the stability of Russia’s defence effort, which despite a loss of manpower and equipment has defied predictions that it would crumble. The Kremlin has been able to supply its front lines with more troops, officials have said.

The next Russian lines will “very likely pose significant challenges for the Ukrainian advance,” ISW analysts said.

Ukraine believes its fighters have broken through the most difficult line of Russian defences in the south and that they will now start advancing more quickly, a commander who led troops into Robotyne told Reuters last week.

Separately, Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov said on Monday any suggestion of differences with Washington over Ukraine’s military strategy were “mistaken and invented”.

He told a news conference that Ukrainian commander-in-chief Valery Zalunzhniy was meeting “systematically” with senior officials from allied countries supplying Ukraine with weaponry.

“Everything is going according to the plan, which was discussed with our partners in advance when our brigades were being formed, when they were equipped…,” Reznikov said.

Media have reported on a meeting this month of senior NATO military chiefs and Ukraine’s top general on resetting Ukraine’s military strategy.

The New York Times last week quoted US and other Western officials as saying that the offensive had made limited progress because Ukraine had too many troops in the wrong places.

A military spokesman told Ukrainian television Kyiv’s forces were continuing to fortify their positions in Robotyne.

“Stabilisation measures, demining and preparations for further actions are under way,” Oleksandr Shtupun said.

Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar told Ukrainian television earlier that Kyiv’s troops, who began their counteroffensive in early June, were now moving southeast of Robotyne and south of nearby Mala Tokmachka.

Maliar described the battlefield situation in the east as “very hot” in the past week. She said Russian troops were gathering new forces there and regrouping, and Moscow was aiming to deploy its best troops there.

Ukrainian forces had continued to advance south of Bakhmut, she said, referring to the shattered eastern city captured by Moscow’s troops in May after months of fierce fighting.

Bloomberg, Reuters

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