Ukraine Military Situation: Finally Ramming Russian Forces Near Zaporizhzhia – Analysis


By Can Kasapoğlu

1. Battlefield Update

Ukraine has finally started ramming Russia’s first line of defenses near Zaporizhzhia, piercing through the outer ring of the Surovikin Defensive Line, a complex set of fortified positions named after the dismissed commander of the Russian Aerospace Forces (VDV), General Sergei Surovikin. 

This progress has been months in the making. In June 2023, Ukraine began counteroffensive actions from two main southern positions, one originating at Velyka Novosilka and another at Orikhiv. This week’s advances were made along the Orikhiv axis, with Ukrainian forces taking the town of Robotyne, and from there pushing on to Novopokrovka in the east and Verbove in the southeast, some 13 kilometers (8 miles) from Orikhiv. 

Visualized from above, Ukraine’s movements have created a bulge in Russia’s first line of defense. As Ukrainian combat formations spread eastward, they could flatten this bulge, soon enabling them to establish artillery and rocket positions and eliminate Russian resistance in the area. Ukrainian fire-support positions could then turn their barrels to Tokmak, the nerve center of Russia’s logistics operations located some 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of the Ukrainian forces’ current position. To progress in this direction, the Ukrainian military could gradually push along the southwestern axis.

Open-source intelligence suggests that Ukraine has resumed using Turkish-transferred TB-2 drones in combat action in the south. The TB-2’s reemergence could foreshadow the degradation of Russia’s electronic warfare and air defense network in the area. Additionally, our close monitoring of the conflict indicates that Ukraine has lost at least one British-transferred Challenger-2 tank near Robotyne. This suggests that the elite 82nd Air Assault Brigade has been involved in the campaign. Previous editions of Hudson Institute’s Ukraine Military Situation Report assessed the combat deployment of this brigade in the south of the theater of operations.

Since the outset of Ukraine’s counteroffensive, Russia has built its defensive combat operations around layered kill zones comprising artillery, minefields, and anti-tank guided missiles. These assets have been boosted by a complex network of trenches and fortified positions, as well as by tactical aviation assets that have taken advantage of Ukraine’s inability to win local air superiority. 

Russia is employing these same defensive operations now, depriving Ukraine of the decisive breakthrough it seeks. Over recent weeks, the Russian military has deployed detachments from the 76th Guards Air Assault Division of the airborne forces (VDV) to the south. Following the example of Ukraine’s 82nd Air Assault Brigade, Russia is also deploying its elite combat formations in the hot zone, where much now hangs in the balance. 

2. A Case for Multiple Launch Rocket Systems

With its Soviet past and NATO training, the Ukrainian Armed Forces have developed an unusual way of fighting. The Soviet Army was an artillery-first force augmented by massive armor. Its principal doctrinal approach was centered on echeloned offensives revolving around consecutive fire salvos and armored thrusts. NATO’s doctrinal standards, however, demand synchronization among fire-support units and mechanized formations. 

The contemporary Ukrainian military reflects these two approaches. At multi-brigade, division, and corps levels, it resembles the artillery-first and echeloned approach of the Soviets. Even Ukrainian press sources now admit that the country’s military has had difficulties conducting large-scale combined arms maneuver warfare at NATO standards, due to its lack of adequate air support or coordination among its fire-support and maneuver units. 

But the Ukrainian military is not a complete Soviet relic. Available evidence and relevant field reports suggest that it holds the upper hand against the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation in counter-battery operations, particularly because Ukraine has incorporated Western counter-battery radars and precision-strike assets, such as HIMARS. Small unit operations also highlight the skill of Ukraine’s combat formations and an ability to secure incremental but steady gains. 

With Ukraine’s counteroffensive progressing, a boost to its existing arsenal could provide needed firepower. The transfer of cluster munitions-tipped multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS), especially the dual-purpose improved conventional munitions (DPICM) configuration for HIMARS, would help Ukraine improve its offensive capabilities and capitalize on its successes near Robotyne. 

These munitions, designed to burst into smaller fragments at a distance from the target to provide optimal coverage, would be of great value to Ukraine. The baseline M26 variant, to take one example, carries 644 bomblets, which can cover an area of six football fields, which is a significant upgrade from the currently available 155mm-class artillery DPICM. An M26 salvo also enjoys a 32-kilometer effective range. Other variants of the baseline come with different bomblet quantities and range modifications. Most importantly, the US has vast stockpiles available, and due to standardization issues, these assets will eventually be destroyed if they are not sent to Ukraine. 

The M26 rocket baseline would be a perfect fit for Ukraine’s way of warfare. It was manufactured for the purpose of saturating large areas by dispersing submunitions. Its configuration would play well in counter-battery roles, as Russian batteries move from their firing posts or suffer from suboptimal locating. The large area cover of the M26 also proves effective in trench warfare. In the absence of synchronization between fire salvos and its principal maneuver units at scale, augmenting Ukraine’s fire-support capabilities is critically important.

The rocket variant of the DPICM might carry a higher risk of unexploded ordnance compared to the artillery version. But the Russian military has already contaminated Ukraine’s population centers with a surge of mines, explosives, and Soviet-era cluster munitions with catastrophic dud rates of up to 40 percent. In other words, Ukraine will already need a thorough unexploded ordnance cleanup effort once the dust settles. And since the Biden administration has transferred cluster munitions to Ukraine, adding more to Kyiv’s arsenal would cross no political red lines.

3. Ukraine’s Long-Range Strike Deterrent Delivers Results

This week Kyiv named a new defense minister—Rustem Umerov, a Crimean Tatar with Turkic roots. The choice of Umerov underlines Kyiv’s resolve to reclaim all of its territory, including occupied Crimea. Its recent successes with long-range strikes increase the likelihood of achieving that goal.

The defining characteristic of Ukraine’s new long-range strike operations strategy is the decision to prey on high-value targets deep in Russian territory. On August 19, Ukrainian drone warfare systems destroyed at least one Tu-22M3 tactical bomber of the Russian Aerospace Forces. The Tu-22M3 is a particularly important platform, as it often attacks Ukrainian population centers with the Kh-22 anti-ship missile, a weapon that is not only destructive but also difficult to intercept. Ukraine’s destruction of the Tu-22M3 occurred in Novgorod Oblast at the Soltsy-2 Air Base some 400 miles away from the Ukrainian border. On August 29, Ukraine also targeted the Kresty Air Base in Pskov Oblast. Imagery intelligence showed that the strike destroyed at least two Il-76 cargo aircraft.

Ukraine’s long-range strike efforts have achieved a positive asymmetric impact for Kyiv from a defense economics perspective. Vice Prime Minister for Innovation Mykhailo Fedorov, one of the architects of Ukraine’s drone warfare programs and its use of Starlink, has followed every drone strike with a tweet analyzing the cumulative unit costs of the attacked Russian assets. Ukraine has also been diversifying its long-range strike capabilities, recently modifying its Neptune anti-ship missile baseline for a land-attack role. 

In early 2023, Ukraine’s chief of defense intelligence, General Kyrylo Budanov, unveiled Kyiv’s new policy of hitting “deeper and deeper” inside Russia. With Ukraine’s improving deep-strike deterrent, the Russian Federation is likely to see the consequences of this policy in the months ahead. 

About the author: Can Kasapoğlu is a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute

Source: This article was published by the Hudson Institute

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