Ukrainian forces are continuing their major offensive operation along the southern frontline in the hopes of achieving a breakthrough. Last week Ukrainian forces managed to capture Robotyne, a bastion of Russian defensive positions protecting the approaches to the primary Russian lines of defence. Battles are now raging along this primary line, with Ukrainian forces trying to cut a path to Tokmak – which can be identified as a priority target of the Ukrainian offensive. Tokmak is a key Russian held city, acting as a stronghold, but more importantly a garrison and supply hub for a significant part of the southern front. Should the Ukrainian forces reach Tokmak before the onset of Autumn and the heavy rainfalls they would be able to significantly hinder Russian logistics along the southern front, which could lead to a deterioration of Russian forces in the area setting the stage for further Ukrainian offensive operations – most probably in Winter 2023/2024.
However, there are still many challenges that the Ukrainian armed forces have to overcome before the road to Tokmak is open. The most direct way to Tokmak leads through several smaller villages and settlements with two of them being significant obstacles. Novoprokopivka the first settlement, located roughly 1,5 kilometres south of Robotyne and lying directly on the road to Tokmak is the first obstacle to the Ukrainian advance. According to ISW the approach to the village is protected by Russian defensive positions most probably including trenches, prepared fighting positions and possibly minefields.i The settlement itself has also most probably, as it was the case with Robotyne, been transformed to act as a part of the defence line. Behind Novoprokopivka is the settlement of Solodka Balka. This village has been entirely incorporated into the Russian primary line of defence. It is protected be extensive defensive positions, and with the recent reports of extensive reinforcements efforts conducted by the Russian forces, it will most probably be garrisoned by a significant number of troops, including the more elite and better equipped soldiers of the VDV (Vozdushno-desantnye voyska – Russian Airborne Forces) from the 7th Guards Airborne Division and the 76th VDV Division. The 76th Division was previously stationed in the Kreminna area, where they were used as the premiere (sometimes described as the only effective) fighting force. These two settlements and their garrisons thus pose a significant obstacle to the Ukrainian advance. Which is why Ukrainian forces are now attempting to bypass them, and threaten their more exposed eastern flank. Instead of advancing frontally on Novoprokopivka Ukrainian troops have begun making headway roughly 1,5-2 kilometres to the east of the settlement, choosing to forge a way through the less reinforced fields. Should the Ukrainians continue making progress in this direction it would threaten the flank of the Russian positions placing them in a similar position to Robotyne just before it was taken. The Ukrainians might be aiming to repeat this process several times clearing all the settlements blocking their way to Tokmak in a similar fashion. This would certainly negate some of the Russian advantages, obviously Ukrainian forces would still suffer casualties especially when assaulting across the open plains cut by treelines – each most probably reinforced and transformed by Russians into defensive positions.
This approach however has a key issue, which the Ukrainians are trying currently to resolve, that is the safety of the flanks of the advancing forces. The further the Ukrainians go the more their flanks are endangered by Russian forces and reserves in adjacent positions. The western flank of the Ukrainian advance (that is from the direction of Novoprokopivka) is covered by Ukrainian units exerting frontal pressure from Robotyne. The eastern flank however is a bit more open to attack from the Russians stationed in the settlement of Verbove. Verbove itself is covered from the north, east, and south which makes pressuring it impossible. In order to overcome this Ukrainian forces have launched a direct assault on the village from the direction of their main advance, either hoping to tie up Russian forces long enough to grant the main advance enough time to breakthrough, or simply to capture Verbove which would entirely eliminate the immediate threat. Though this second option would risk entangling Ukrainian troops in further fighting to the east. The wedge currently being driven into the Russian lines by the Ukrainians could result in significant gains and an advance on Tokmak, however Ukrainians have to continuously contend not only with direct frontal engagements with the Russian defensive lines but also the threat of a potential (and actually possible) Russian flanking manoeuvre which would break through Ukrainian flanks, encircling the main advance forces and cutting them off from Ukrainian lines, reinforcements, and supplies.
Russia short on manpower?
The Ukrainian offensive in the Robotyne-Tokmak direction has resulted so far in significant casualties for both sides of the war. However, it seems that it might have significantly affected Russian junior officer cadres. These officers directly responsible for the carrying out of frontal engagements are a key component of every army and it seems that the Russians are having trouble finding enough of them. According to the UK Ministry of Defence the Russian Ministry of Defence has significantly increased junior officer pay to attract more volunteers to fill up these roles. According to the British reports Russian lieutenants’ pay rose from 81,200 rubles (851 US Dollars) per month in February 2022 to 200,000 rubles (2,096 US Dollars) per month currently.ii Though it seems that junior officers are not the only shortage, as soldiers are lost at a much higher rate Russia may be preparing to launch further recruitment. According to the Ukrainian Presidential Representative in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, Russia plans to mobilise and conscript up to 40,000 men in occupied Crimea.iii While this could be indicative of significant Russian losses in Ukraine, it also suggests that Russia is not willing to back out of the war, and is prepared to launch another wave of mobilisation, which might threaten the success of the Ukrainian offensive and foreshadow major Russian operations in the next window of opportunity – most probably Winter 2023/2024.
As the Ukrainians continue their advance towards Tokmak they have to face many challenges and obstacles created by the Russian armed forces. The offensive is balancing on meticulous planning, effective cooperation, and bravery of the Ukrainian soldiers. The road to Tokmak will be very hard, but not impossible and should the Ukrainians succeed they would have dealt the Russians a massive blow and create important opportunities for the liberation of their country.
Author: Sebastian Czub, analyst at Casimir Pulaski Foundation