Even as Ukrainian forces have breached the first line of Russian defenses on part of the southern front, soldiers taking part in the counteroffensive have revealed just how difficult it is to make more than incremental gains in the face of complex and multi-layered fortifications.
Ukrainian units say they have take the village of Robotyne in Zaporizhzhia region, and are moving towards several others in a bid to bring the strategic hub of Tokmak within range of artillery.
One soldier, a communications specialist named Oleksandr Solonko, has written in detail about the challenges of making progress in the area, and his account is supported by others.
First, he says, the topography is important: fields, villages, relatively flat land.
“Whoever you are, an assault group…an evac[uation mission], an airborne or ground reconnaissance, your movement is visible from afar. The enemy has been preparing to meet you for a long time,” Solonko wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
“There are a limited number of access roads and logistics routes. Everything has been shot at and shelled repeatedly every day. You are almost certainly being spotted. It is basically impossible to do the job while remaining completely invisible to the enemy.”
And Solonko says that Russian fortifications are elaborate.
“There is an entire system of trenches, dugouts, actual tunnels in some places … automatic grenade launchers, machine guns, anti-tank missile systems. Anti-tank ditches and minefields stretch across the fields,” he wrote. “What is not dug up is mined. We need to go through all this to move forward.”
In recent weeks, multiple accounts have told of Ukrainian sappers making slow progress as they try to remove a wide variety of mines, some set off by tripwires, that are intensively laid as a first line of defense by the Russians. It’s unclear whether minefields are as thick deeper into Russian lines, where they might interfere with Russian forces’ own ability to maneuver.
“Those who are very rosy-eyed and believe that the Ukrainian Armed Forces took a long time to knock the Russians out of Robotyne village have not seen the system of defenses that had to be overcome to push the Russians away from the Mariupol highway and approach the village, surround it and then enter. A tremendous amount of work has been done,” Solonko wrote.
“Our positions on the retaken territory are surrounded by mines and tripwires. Paths are being made to enter, sappers are gradually clearing the territory,” he added.
On Friday a Ukrainian officer with a front line unit told CNN that the open terrain was a challenge.
“Drones are hanging in the sky around the clock, both ours and theirs. So it is impossible to hide any movement of equipment, any maneuver immediately becomes known to the enemy and shelling begins either with artillery or drones,” he said.
The officer said that unlike in Bakhmut, an eastern city captured by the Russians in May after months of grueling fighting, there were no basements in which to shelter. “Here there are just open fields and bombed out forest plantations, of which there is practically nothing left.”
Analysts say there are deeply entrenched defenses further ahead. Satellite imagery of the village of Solodka Balka, seven kilometers south of Robotyne, show steel-reinforced communications trenches, vehicle shelters and dragons’ teeth aimed at obstructing Ukrainian armor.
OSINT analyst Emil Kastehelmi notes that “the Russians have built 100-350m long communication trenches, which helps them both reinforce or retreat from the fighting positions.”
“Heavy fortifications are built in order to block any potential advance on the main road towards Tokmak,” Kastehelmi said Sunday in a post on X.
In its latest front line assessment, the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said: “Ukrainian forces are now within striking distance of the next series of Russian defensive positions, which appears to be comprised of a relatively more contiguous array of anti-tank ditches and dragon’s teeth anti-tank obstacles, with Russian fighting positions behind these obstacles similar to the previous layer of Russian defenses.”
“The highly interconnected systems of trenches and dugouts that the Ukrainian soldier described is the result of months of Russian preparation,” it said. “It is unclear if Russian forces extended that system throughout subsequent series of defensive positions further south.”
Solonko also acknowledged the loss of Ukrainian armor in the region “because of the enemy’s superiority in the air.”
“Guided aerial bombs are one of the biggest fears. The Russians use them on a massive scale. I can’t judge the accuracy, but the weapon is formidable in power,” he wrote in his posts on X.
The Russians are extensively using drones for surveillance and targeting Ukrainian positions, according to Solonko. “They identify targets and launch Lancets in swarms as well as guided bombs,” he added.
But he also writes that US-donated vehicles are saving lives: “We talked to a soldier who survived a direct attack twice in Bradley. Even the most hopelessly damaged equipment is pulled out and taken for repair.”
He also believes that the capture of Robotyne augurs well for the offensive, despite the many obstacles.
“I can understand why the Russians are so angry because of the loss of the village of 6 streets. They did a great job of not letting the Ukrainians through. It is easier to defend by all standards. We are doing a great job to break through. And when we succeed, it means our work is going better,” he wrote.