After months of inching through minefields, villages and open steppes in grueling combat, Ukrainian forces are making somewhat bigger advances along two major lines of attack, according to analysts, Ukrainian officials and Russian military bloggers.
The amount of territory seized, 10 to 12 miles on both vectors of attack, while relatively small, is important in that it is compelling Moscow to divert forces from other parts of the front line, military analysts say. The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, called the advances “tactically significant,” saying Moscow’s redeployment would most “likely further weaken Russian defensive lines in aggregate,” creating “opportunities for any Ukrainian breakthrough to be potentially decisive.”
The Ukrainian military launched the counteroffensive this summer amid high hopes of duplicating its stunning sweep through the Kharkiv region in September. But those hopes were dashed amid heavy losses, causing commanders to change strategy from head-on assaults to a war of attrition, content to make steady, little gains while conserving resources and degrading those of the Russians.
And even as Ukrainian soldiers battle in trenches and on the field, the campaign to sever Russian supply lines continues, with Ukrainian missiles and drones targeting sites far from the front lines.
Explosions again echoed on Saturday as the Russian military said it had shot down two Ukrainian missiles targeting the Kerch Strait Bridge, a vital Russian link to the occupied Crimean Peninsula that Kyiv has vowed to keep attacking until it is unusable.
Video broadcast on Russian and Ukrainian state news media showed smoke billowing over the span, though the Russians said that was just a smoke screen intended to protect the bridge.
The Russian Ministry of Defense said that the Ukrainian forces attacked the bridge with two S-200 surface-to-air missiles. Sergei Aksyonov, the top Russian-installed official in Crimea, said the bridge was not damaged. The Russian accounts could not be independently verified, and Ukrainian officials did not immediately comment.
In the ground war, the Ukrainians are advancing south along two principal lines of attack: through the eastern village of Staromaiorske toward the Russian-occupied city of Berdiansk, a port on the Sea of Azov; and farther west toward the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol, a vital transportation hub near the coast.
Ukrainian forces have progressed about 10 to 12 miles along both lines from their starting places at the onset of the counteroffensive in early June. Kyiv’s goal is to reach the Sea of Azov and drive a wedge into the so-called land bridge between Russia and Crimea, which is vital to the Russian military’s supply routes to the west.
Military analysts caution that the Ukrainian forces still face a long, slow and bloody slog ahead against Russian troops positioned behind well-designed and fortified defenses. They cite a host of factors, like supplies of ammunition and other matériel as well as troop morale, that will determine how the fighting plays out over the coming months. But it is hard to analyze those elements, they say, given the disinformation and limited real information issued by both armies.
Even if Ukraine’s forces manage to break through Russia’s first line of defense, analysts note, Moscow has had many months to prepare the most formidable fortified defensive positions since World War II — a series of trenches, tank traps, vast minefields, machine-gun nests, attack helicopters and other air support. Ukraine has struggled, even with Western weapons, to overcome those obstacles, particularly the minefields.
Still, Britain’s military intelligence agency said on Saturday that Russia’s forces had faced “particularly intense attrition and heavy combat on the front line.”
At the same time, Russian forces are mounting their own offensive operations in northeastern Ukraine around the city of Kupiansk. By forcing Ukraine to defend there, military analysts say, Russia is most likely trying to draw Ukrainian forces from other areas where they are on the offensive.
Serhiy Cherevaty, a spokesman for Ukrainian forces fighting in the east, said on Saturday that Russian forces were still on the attack around Kupiansk, trying to hit Ukrainian positions eight times and striking “328 times with all types and calibers of artillery” over the past day.
Ukraine is hoping that pressure along the front, along with deep strikes aimed at command posts, ammunition depots and supply lines, will ultimately overcome the Russian defenses. However, those defenses are intended to be elastic, military analysts say, enabling the Russian forces to absorb Ukrainian blows and counterattack when they can.
The British military intelligence analysis noted that as Russia redeploys forces to counter Ukraine’s advances, its defenses farther south in the Kherson region along the Dnipro River are likely to be weakened.
Ukrainian forces, which hold the territory west of the Dnipro River, recently launched an assault on the town of Kozachi Laheri on the Russian-controlled eastern bank, Western analysts said. But it was too soon to tell whether the troops would be able to maintain an enduring presence there. Ukraine’s military has not confirmed the operation.
“The enemy continues to hold a small bridgehead west of Kozachi Laheri,” Rybar, an influential Russian military blogger, reported on Saturday, though he offered no details.
In one of the two main lines of attack, the one aimed at the coastal port of Berdiansk, Ukraine has consolidated gains around the ruined village of Staromaiorske, which it recaptured in late July, and appears to be pushing toward the Russian stronghold of Urozhaine, according to the Ukrainian military and military analysts.
Ukraine has devoted thousands of soldiers, including some of its most experienced and battle-hardened marines, and armor to the campaign drive south down the Mokri Yaly River Valley.
If they can manage to push through or around Urozhaine, that will put them within 50 miles of the two major port cities of Berdiansk and Mariupol on the Sea of Azov. And with each mile they advance, the Ukrainian forces put more pressure on the Russian supply lines.
Hanna Malyar, a Ukrainian deputy defense minister, said on Friday that her country’s forces had achieved “partial successes” in the direction of Urozhaine and south and southeast of Staromaiorske.
The Russian Vostok Battalion, a military outfit fighting in the area, reported on Friday that “artillery from both sides plowed up the neighborhood of Urozhaine so much that some positions were abandoned by us, but the enemy did not dare to claim them either.”
More fighting was reported on Saturday morning by Russian military bloggers as the city remained fiercely contested.
Along the line of attack in the direction of Melitopol, Ukrainian forces reported hard-fought battles but steady progress around the village of Robotyne.
The I.S.W. said of that fight: “The Ukrainian forces’ ability to advance to the outskirts of Robotyne — which Russian forces have dedicated significant effort, time and resources to defend — remains significant even if Ukrainian gains are limited at this time.”
Valerii Shershen, a representative of the Ukrainian forces fighting in the area, said this past week that Russia was calling up reinforcements from its second lines of defense, including marines, paratroopers and special forces, to stop the Ukrainian advance.
While Ukraine is making gains, he said the advance was being slowed because of the dense minefields and large number of obstacles.
Russian aircraft, he said, are constantly strafing Ukrainian lines, hitting them more than a dozen times in a single day this past week.