The offensive stalls
It seems that Ukrainian offensive operations in the Robotyne-Tokmak direction have stalled, with no significant operations or advances achieved by the Ukrainian forces. The fighting in the area has now transitioned into attrition warfare, with both sides facing each other from prepared fighting positions and fortifications. This change in the pace and nature of operations comes after the Russians hastily reinforced their troops in the area with additional forces, including the elite 76th Guards Air Assault Division. The Russian forces bolstered by the new arrivals have launched a series of counterattacks aiming to break the Ukrainian advance and regain lost ground. It seems that these counter strike operations were at least partially successful as afterwards the Ukrainian advance in the area stalled and Russian troops even managed to regain some positions in the Robotyne-Novoprokopivka area. Since the Russian offensive operations the frontlines in the Robotyne-Tokmak direction have become set, with both sides engaging in fighting more akin to attritional trench warfare, similar to the fighting that took place after the Ukrainian offensive in autumn last year.
This shift suggests two possible scenarios. Either the Ukrainian forces have suffered significant casualties and equipment losses making them unable to continue operations in the same way as they did for the last three months. This would force them to change their approach to positional and attritional warfare, hoping on the one hand to stabilise and secure the gains achieved so far, while at the same time trying to degrade Russian forces in the area to an extent that would allow for further more decisive operations later on. This would allow the Ukrainians to conserve their forces, while at the same time pooling reinforcements needed to achieve further breakthroughs – here namely the formations based on the Leopard 1 and Abrams tanks that should soon be ready for deployment.i The issue faced in this scenario by the Ukrainian forces is also the coming of autumn itself, that could bring with it heavy rainfall that would turn the entire battlefield into a mud, making any major operations, especially one reliant on smooth and large-scale movements of troops and heavy vehicles extremely difficult.
Scenario two bases on mostly similar assumption – Ukrainian forces suffered heavy casualties and are currently unable to breach Russian defences. In this case however, the shift to attritional and positional warfare is made in order to simply maintain the gains achieved by the offensive with no immediate plans for further operations. This approach would serve to stabilise the frontlines and deny Russian forces the chance to push back the deteriorated Ukrainian troops. This scenario would most probably envision a restart to offensive operation in the next period suitable for larger operations – meaning winter 2023/2024. This time schedule would also allow Ukrainian forces to accumulate more forces than in the short term, allowing for more significant operations.
Another approach – direction Bakhmut
While the offensive operations in the direction of Tokmak seem to have stalled, Ukrainian forces in the Bakhmut area are achieving noticeable gains. For weeks Ukrainian forces have been trying to seize the villages of Klishchiivka and Andriivka, which are protecting Bakhmut’s southern flank as well as key supply lines to the city. This week Ukrainian troops achieved success in the area forcing the Russian forces further back. As of now reports from the area paint a mixed picture. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar stated on September 14th the settlement of Andriivka has been fully liberated and is under control of Ukrainian forces. This statement has since been withdrawn, however suggesting that the situation may be still developing.ii The 3rd Azov Assault Brigade, the primary force fighting in Adriivka reported that the Russian 72nd Motor Rifle Brigade defending the village has been encircled and destroyed, though this information has not been confirmed by other sources.iii However, unofficial Russian sources are currently reporting on a critical situation in the area. If successful, the capture of Andriivka by Ukrainian forces could create opportunities for further Ukrainian operations in the area, and with a noticeable part of Russian reserves committed to the Robotyne-Tokmak direction, Ukrainians could achieve significant gains.
Crimea and the Black Sea
This week Ukrainian forces have amplified their operations in the Black Sea and the Crimean Peninsula. Special forces operatives have successfully captured several oil rigs located in the Black Sea, which were used by Russian forces for reconnaissance, espionage and control. These platforms can now be used by Ukrainian forces to aid in the attacks on the Russian Black Sea fleet, either in the form of reconnaissance or as weapon stations.iv Furthermore, the Ukrainians have also launched a major attack on the Russian military shipyard in Sevastopol. The attack resulted in the two Russian vessels, placed in dry docks for maintenance, being hit by missile strikes. The two ships hit were identified as „Minsk” Ropucha-class large landing ship and the „Rostov-on-Don” Kilo-class attack submarine.v According to the available imagery “Minsk” was struck directly in the centre of the midship, leading to a severe fire. The Rostov-on-Don” was struck in the bow, and while details are scarce it seems that the damage was catastrophic. Ukrainian sources claim both vessels to be beyond repair, while official Russian communiques state that they will be repaired and returned to service.
While these operations are significantly on their lonesome, they might suggest that Ukraine is already preparing for the continuation of the war in winter. Last winter Russia heavily used its assets in Crimea and the Black Sea Fleet to bombard Ukrainian cities and strike critical infrastructure, especially the country’s electric grid. While Ukraine managed to pull through, many key pieces of infrastructure were lost. A second such winter, filled with missile strikes and bombardment targeting already weakened infrastructure could significantly influence Ukrainian ability to fight Russia. Thus, the Ukrainian operations in the Black Sea and Crimea might be pre-emptive strikes aimed to limit Russian strike capabilities from this direction. The capture of the oil rigs significantly increased the range of Ukrainian early warning systems, while at the same time providing platforms for engaging Russian vessels at longer ranges. On the other hand the struck „Rostov-on-Don” could carry Kalibr cruise missiles, and its elimination decreases Russian ability to strike Ukrainian critical infrastructure. Thus, it is possible that Ukrainian operations in the Black Sea and Crime were aimed to cripple Russian strike capabilities prior to the onset of winter and beginning of the new Russian bombardment campaign.
As the Ukrainian offensive in the direction of Tokmak stalls Ukrainian forces are exploring other avenues of approach. In the Robotyne-Tokmak direction Ukrainian troops transitioned to positional warfare either as a result of significant casualties or in an effort to stabilise gains and prepare approaches for further operations in the next period suitable for larger operations. At the same time Ukraine is looking for other avenues to pressure Russian forces – achieving key gains in the Bakhmut direction, potentially capturing the village of Andriivka, which would allow for further breakthrough in the Bakhmut area. Ukrainian forces have also intensified a campaign against Russian assets in the Black Sea and Crime aiming to cripple their capabilities before the coming of winter. These new developments suggest that Ukraine is now preparing for a long haul – with a war of attrition set to continue through autumn and winter.
Author: Sebastian Czub, analyst at Casimir Pulaski Foundation