Ukrainian gains north of Tokmak may be prompting changes to the strategic calculus on both sides of the Russo-Ukrainian War.
Western advisors recommended that Ukraine shift forces from the Bakhmut Front to the Southern Front on an August 10th meeting between Western military officers and General Zaluzhnyi—to which General Zaluzhnyi agreed. Ukraine currently has around 14 armored brigades deployed on the Southern Front in two battlefields, 12 deployed around Bakhmut, and three in its operational reserves.
It appears highly likely that Ukraine will switch to more of a defensive stance around Bakhmut in the future, and bring some of the forces down to the Southern Front.
Furthermore, Russian pressure on Lyman may be subsiding. Russia reportedly gathered around 100,000 troops, or around half the front line forces available to Russia in the entire Ukrainian theater to the Northern Front in Luhansk Oblast. The largest of the attacks appear to have been the Russian attack from the city of Kreminna aimed towards the strategic rail hub at Lyman, which Ukraine liberated during the Kherson Counteroffensive last September.
Mick Ryan commented that General Gerasimov, Russia’s current supreme commander in Ukraine, took an active defense strategy, aimed at simultaneously mounting a significant defense while attempting to make real territorial gains in the North.
As Russia concentrated forces in the north, particularly around Kreminna, Ukraine rushed many units to block this advance. The famed 25th Air Assault Brigade, the 95th Air Assault, the 42nd, 63rd, 67th Mechanized Brigades and numerous TDF brigades were deployed in the area west of Kreminna
Some early advances were made in late June, prompting some pro-Russian bloggers to claim Russia had or was about to recapture Lyman, but Russian progress has been virtually non-existent since early July. Daily progress has amounted to a matter of a few meters.
Ukraine officially liberated Robotyne on August 23rd and over a course of a few weeks from early to mid August, proceeded to deploy 4 new armored brigades. This included the elite 82nd Air Assault brigade equipped with Challenger 2s along with Marder and Stryker AFVs. I assessed this represented the deployment of Ukraine’s de facto main forces on the Tokmak axis, with only three armored brigades remaining in reserve.
Ukraine pressed deep into the flanks of Russia’s positions east of Novoprokopivka, placing Ukrainian troops just 1000~1500m from the Surovikin line that crosses the hills due south of Ukraine’s furthest advance.
Russia appears to have responded to this developments by stripping its offensive forces around Kreminna to rush reinforcements to the Tokmak direction.
Rob Lee on the app formerly known as Twitter commented that captured unit patches from the Tokmak direction indicated Russia likely moved multiple regiments of the Russian 76th Air Assault Division from Kreminna to defend Tokmak.
This was because the captured patches were uploaded to facebook by the account associated with the 73rd Maritime Special Operations Center (Ukrainian Special Forces), which has been geolocated to the Tokmak direction offensive as recently as a few days ago.
The 76th Air Assault Division is a VDV (Airborne Paratroopers) unit, and one of Russia’s last relatively intact elite paratrooper units.
While the arrival of fresh VDV units from the Kreminna direction no doubt signal a serious fight ahead for Ukraine in its attempts to breakthrough in the Tokmak direction, it also represents an opportunity. With pressure on Lyman subsiding with the leaving of some of Russia’s best units, Ukraine could begin stripping its defenses in this area of its best soldiers to send south as well.
Between Bakhmut and the Kreminna directions, Ukraine may be able to bring multiple brigades south, perhaps five to seven brigades, possibly even more. Given that there are only seven mechanized brigades committed to the Tokmak direction presently, this would represent a substantial infusion of new forces to the Southern offensive.
The question is where they should be headed. While the possible number of plans are bewilderingly numerous, here are three possible (and fairly obvious) ways to make use of new armored brigades arriving from the Norther and Eastern Fronts.
The options I see are:
- Widen the current Robotyne/Tokmak axis of attack with a new major offensive towards Verbove.
- Rotate the troops around Velyka Novosilka and press towards the line of defense
- Launch an attack from Vuhledar towards Olhynka to cut the East/West railline and disrupt the flow of supplies to the Velyka Novosilka direction.
widen the robotyne/Tokmak offensive by attacking verbove
One thing that became very apparent during Ukraine’s attack towards Tokmak through Robotyne was that Russia placed an absolutely mind-blowingly large minefield as its first line of defense in the Tokmak direction. Ukrainian sources were horrified at both the extreme density of the minefield, and the fact it stretched not for a few hundred meters as would be typical, but for several thousand meters at many points.
It took Ukraine almost eleven weeks to fully breach this first line of defense.
Hypothetically, a Ukrainian attack towards Polohy (to the east), or resuming Ukraine’s early thrust towards Vasylivka (to the west) would complement Ukraine’s attack towards Tokmak.
However, as is apparent from above, an attack towards Polohy or Vasylivka would require Ukraine to penetrate Russia’s incredibly formidable first and main line of defense once more, along with it’s minefields.
To say this does not appeal to me is an understatement. It’s possible, if not likely that the defenses further east are less developed that this immediate area, but Russia seemingly anticipated that Ukraine’s main effort would be in this general area. Further, Vasylivka and Polohy are on primary railroutes that connect Russian and Ukrainian controlled territory, and as key railhubs are particularly obvious areas of attack. If anything, both are probably even more heavily fortified than the Robotyne direction.
However, if Ukraine continues to penetrate deeper into Russia defenses in this direction, Ukraine will begin to form a long and narrow salient, and that may leave it vulnerable to counterattacks aimed at the flanks or rear of its advance.
Throwing additional brigades in the same direction of the advance would overly concentrate Ukraine’s forces and may be counter productive.
So one option would be to open a new thrust aimed at widening Ukraine’s advance.
Attacking towards Verbove would allow Ukraine to circle around the first line of defense then take it from behind.
Subsequently, Ukraine could follow the roads towards Tarasivka, then advance southwest towards Tokmak to create additional threats to flank Russian defenses along Ukraine’s current directions of advance.
This would help to support and complement Ukraine’s current attack towards Tokmak, further stressing Russian local defensive resources without crowding the current vectors of advance.
I believe this is the most likely use of Ukraine’s additional resources.
Supercharge the Velyka Novosilka axis of advance
One alternative use of new armored brigades available in the south would be to strengthen the advance from Velyka Novosilka instead. While the advance towards Tokmak has picked up the pace in the past couple of weeks with the addition of fresh reserves, the Velyka Novosilka direction has somewhat stalled since capturing Urozhaine about 10 days ago.
The 35th and 36th Marines have taken the lead in this axis of advance, but they have been spearheading the attack for nearly three straight months without rest, and may be in need of rotation from the front line.
Furthermore, even if Ukraine is able to capture its main goal of securing Staromlynivka, a powerful Russian defense line awaits. Marine brigades are light troops with few tanks or Infantry Fighting Vehicles suited for assaulting fortified positions.
One solution to both of these problems would be to rotate in some powerful mechanized infantry or assault brigades in the place of the 35th and 36th Marine Brigades.
This may add fresh momentum to Ukraine’s advance in this sector that has somewhat stalled for the past two weeks. It wiil help preserve and restore the elite 35th and 36th Marine brigades who will have time to work in replacement troops and equipment, while driving downs towards Staromlynivka.
Beyond Staromlynivka are now 2 Russian fortified defense lines.
This secondary defense line has made it harder for Ukraine to turn a breakthrough south of Staromlynivka into a decisive event, and to link the two thrusts towards Tokmak and south of Velyka Novosilka into one wider assault (such as encircling Polohy).
It’s unclear if the second defense line is ready. For example, satellite imagery can detect the digging of trenches or building of fortifications. It cannot detect minefields, and Russian trenchworks unsupported by minefields are considerably less formidable.
Nonetheless, the construction of a new extensive trenchline may make a breakout in this direction more difficult, and may make expanding Ukraine’s successes around Robotyne more attractive.
New Vuhledar Offensive
While Ukraine has already launched some attacks south from Vuhledar towards Pavlivka, it has not been in any kind of significant strength. Adding multiple brigades from the North and East could turn this area into a new threatening area of attack for Ukraine.
The big objective would be to take the rail line east of Olhynka.
Ukraine’s current 2 offensives at Velyka Novosilka and Tokmak both would advance towards Russia’s East/West railway.
Vuhledar actually represents the closest position Ukraine has to the rail line, being a mere 18km away. Capturing this rail line would sever the primary flow of supplies or reinforcements from Russia and the Eastern Front to the Velyka Novosilka direction.
The Russian Army currently defending this area with two brigades, one of which is the 155th Naval Infantry. The 155th Naval infantry was utterly devastated in the attacks on Vuhledar from February to May 2023. It has not been reconstituted according to UK intelligence, nor has the unit received a significant infusion of new men or materiel.
Due to the precarious nature of the defensive position, Russia moved the 14th Spetsnaz Brigade into Pavlivka in late July to strengthen the position, but it effectively represents the lone unit of strength in this sector.
Ukraine presently has only the 72nd Mechanized in this sector, but if several fresh armored brigades can be brought to this sector, it may not take much to push just 18km to sever the railway.
This may represent a highly disruptive attack to Russian defenses to the west of this position, particularly the defense against the thurst from Velyka Novosilka.
Unfortunately, no railhead exists in either the Velyka Novosilka direction or the Vuhledar direction for Ukraine to use, making logistical support more difficult. It may be difficult for Ukraine to sustain a simultaneous major assault in the Olynka direction as well as the Velyka Novosilka direction, thus I assess this avenue of assault to be the least likely of the three presented options.
It’s never easy to predict how Ukraine will run its operations, but given the present logistical constraints, avoidance of major Russian defenses positions, and exploiting earlier successes, I believe the most effective use of additional forces in the south would be for Ukraine to use it to broaden the Robotyne salient. An attack northeast from Verbove would open up a new road supply route that could run east of Ukraine’s current advance.
The threat would be serious enough to draw Russian resources away from the main defense of Ukraine’s direct advance towards Tokmak. Simultaneously, Ukraine could use the attack to threaten to flank Russian defenses, making the main attack directly towards Tokmak more potent.
Ukraine would benefit greatly from an infusion of additional armored brigades from the Luhansk and Bakhmut.