Ukraine increased the range and effectiveness of its long-distance strikes in the 80th and 81st weeks of war, while evidence mounted that it had breached the Russian first line of defence in the south of the country.
Russia’s defence ministry admitted on September 12 that Ukraine had launched 10 cruise missiles and three unmanned surface vehicles against the naval port of Sevastopol in Crimea.
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“We confirm a large landing vessel and submarine were hit,” Andriy Yusov, Ukraine’s military intelligence spokesperson, told Reuters.
It is believed to be the largest attack recorded against the strategically located port.
“Sevastopol … represents both a base into which supplies can be sent by ship if necessary and also a naval base which can provide some protection to the Kerch Bridge and a base from which the Russians can present an offensive threat to Ukrainian shipping out of Odesa,” wrote strategy professor Phillips O’Brien on Substack. The Kerch Bridge is Russia’s only land connection to Crimea.
“The two work symbiotically to provide the Russians supply and control over Crimea. If one is fully put out of action, the other would be in real trouble.”
It appears that Ukraine may have been developing its own long-range cruise missile, and is using it to target Crimea.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on August 31 said a Ukrainian-produced long-range weapon successfully hit a target 700km (434 miles) away, without providing details. Geolocated footage the previous day showed an explosion near an electricity substation near Feodosia, a Russian port on the east side of Crimea. That day, the Russian defence ministry said it had intercepted a missile targeting rear positions.
A week earlier, Ukraine destroyed a Russian S-400 air defence system in Crimea. Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov later attributed the strike to an unspecified Ukrainian-made missile.
Ukraine has also developed its own long-range surface drones.
On July 17, An explosion disabled the Kerch Bridge. Russian sources blamed naval surface drones. Russia’s defence ministry claimed to have foiled another Ukrainian attack on the Kerch Bridge on the night of August 11.
Drone footage Ukraine released on August 4 showed the prow of a surface drone approaching the Olenegorsky Gornyak, a Ropucha-class Russian landing ship, before going blank at contact range. The ship had been patrolling just outside Novorossiysk – supposedly a safe port to which Russia evacuated much of its Black Sea fleet last year.
Western allies have held back on long-range munitions for fear of provoking Russia. The advantage to Ukraine of self-produced weapons is that their use is unrestricted.
Breach in Zaporizhia
Ukraine’s ground forces continued to expand and consolidate territorial gains in the south and east of the country during the first fortnight of September.
Ukrainian forces continued a flanking manoeuvre to the south the eastern city of Bakhmut, where they have been trying to capture the town of Klishchiivka. They made marginal advances on September 1, and the general staff said they had liberated 2sq km (0.7sq miles) there 10 days later.
But it was in the south that the Ukrainian counteroffensive has encountered its greatest success.
Some of the best Ukrainian formations have been opening a gap in exhaustively prepared Russian minefields and trenches in western Zaporizhia.
Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said on September 1 that Ukrainian troops had broken through the Russian “first line of defence”. The United States Defence Intelligence Agency’s head of analysis, Trent Maul, told The Economist he agreed with that assessment.
“Their breakthrough on that second defensive belt … is actually pretty considerable,” he said, adding that Ukrainian forces had a “realistic possibility” of breaking through remaining defensive layers by the end of the year.
Southern forces commander Oleksandr Tarnavskyi agreed, telling The Guardian he expected less resistance from the second and third lines of defence, because Russian forces had spent 60 percent of their time preparing the first line.
“We are now between the first and second defensive lines,” Tarnavskyi said. “In the centre of the offensive, we are now completing the destruction of enemy units that provide cover for the retreat of Russian troops behind their second defensive line.”
On August 31, Russian military reporters said Ukrainian forces had reached prepared defensive positions west of Verbove, and four days later geolocated footage showed they had passed Russian defences there.
“Ukrainian forces advanced to tree-line positions that are east of the Russian anti-tank ditches and dragon’s teeth obstacles that are a part of a tri-layered defense immediately west of Verbove,” wrote the Washington, DC-based Institute for the Study of War, a think-tank. Dragon’s teeth are concrete triangles designed to stop tanks.
Another branch of the Ukrainian counteroffensive in this area was manoeuvring between Robotyne, which Ukraine recaptured last month, and Novoprokopivka, its next target to the south. Footage released on September 5 showed Ukrainian forces overtaking Russian positions near Robotyne and the following day Russia’s occupation governor in Zaporizhia admitted Robotyne had been abandoned to pursue “more advantageous positions”.
At the same time, Ukrainian troops were seen advancing along Russian trench lines toward Verbove.
One of the biggest obstacles Ukrainian counteroffensive forces have faced is a dense network of minefields, but a report from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) said the depth of those minefields going forward is unpredictable.
Russian forces adapted to early clashes by increasing their minefield depth from the standard 120m (394 feet) to 500m (1,640 feet) – a depth unbreachable by mine-clearing equipment.
“The increased depth of the fields means that Russian forces have had insufficient mines to consistently meet this lay down with a density of mines consistent with doctrine,” wrote RUSI. “The result has been improvisation of explosive devices, the diversification of the range of mines ceded, and the decreasing regularity of minefields.”
Ukraine’s slow, deliberative approach was designed to save lives and equipment, said the RUSI report, a tactic that raised criticism from some Western observers. The success of the counteroffensive was also beginning to win converts.
“NATO needs to lead a rapid re-evaluation of its doctrine now to develop the tactics and doctrine of combined arms on a shoestring,” retired Australian Army Major-General Mick Ryan wrote in Foreign Affairs. “That means, collectively, that the states of the West have to find a way to conduct ground combat in an environment where they will be subject to frequent air attacks – something they have not had to do in generations, but that Ukraine must do now.”