- Written by Frank Gardner
- Verified by BBC
Ukraine’s generals said they had “broken through” Russia’s first line of defense in the south.
We have assessed how much progress Ukrainian forces have actually made, and what signs there are of further breakthroughs along the front line.
Ukraine began its major counter-offensive in early June to expel Russian forces from the territory they had seized. It attacked at three points along a front line more than 600 miles (965 km) long.
The area to the south-east of Zaporizhia is the most strategically important area.
If the attack in this direction towards the Sea of Azov is successful, it could cut off Russian supply lines linking the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don to the Crimean Peninsula.
No significant progress has been made on this front, except in the area around the villages of Robotin and Vrbovy in the Zaporizhzhya region, shown in purple in the map above.
If Ukraine can cut off this key supply route, Russia will find it impossible to maintain its massive garrison in Crimea, which it annexed in 2014.
Despite significant obstacles, there are now confirmed sightings of Ukrainian forces penetrating Russian defensive structures along the southern front.
We verified nine videos on social media along the front line near Verbov.
Four of the videos show Ukrainian forces breaching Russian defenses north of Verbov.
However, these show incursions, and do not indicate that Ukraine was able to control the area.
So far, only Ukrainian infantry has been able to get through, and we have not seen Ukrainian armored columns streaming through, exploiting the gap and holding ground.
What is preventing Ukraine from progressing faster?
This is what it looks like from space: lines of interlocking obstacles, trenches, bunkers, and minefields, each covered in artillery.
Vast minefields slowed the Ukrainian advance.
These minefields are densely packed, with up to five mines planted per square meter in some places.
Ukraine’s first attempt to advance through those areas in June quickly ended in failure, as its modern, Western-supplied armor was paralyzed and burned. Likewise, the Ukrainian infantry failed, suffering horrific losses.
Since then, Kiev has had to resort to clearing these mines on foot, often at night and sometimes under gunfire. Hence the slow progress so far.
These forces will be able to advance in large numbers only after a sufficiently wide path has been cleared through the minefields and after the Russian artillery has been subdued there.
What comes after Ukraine’s counterattack?
“The problem the Ukrainians have now is getting a large enough opportunity to receive more troops,” says Dr. Marina Miron of the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.
At the same time, Russia has been sending reinforcements, this battlefront is dynamic, it is moving, and Russia can still reverse the gains that Ukraine has made.
We’ve geolocated Russian drone video that supports reports that elite airborne forces, VDV, have deployed near the town of Verbov – a move intended to plug any gaps created by the Ukrainian counterattack.
“Ukrainian forces are still facing resistance from Russian forces on the battlefield,” says Katerina Stepanenko, a Russia analyst at the London-based think tank RUSI.
“Besides artillery fire, drone strikes and Russian defensive structures, Russian forces also make extensive use of electronic warfare measures aimed at disrupting Ukrainian signals and the use of drones.”
Ukraine has barely advanced more than 10% of the way to the coast, but the reality is much more nuanced than that.
Russian forces are exhausted and perhaps demoralized after three months of intense attacks, including long-range strikes targeting their supply lines.
If Ukraine could break through the remaining Russian defenses and reach the city of Tokmak, that would bring Russia’s railway and road lines to Crimea within its artillery range.
If they manage to do so, this counterattack can be judged a qualified success.
That may not end the war, which is likely to last until 2024 and perhaps longer — but it will seriously undermine Moscow’s war effort and put Ukraine in a strong position when peace talks eventually begin.
But for Kiev, the clock is ticking. The rainy season will arrive within weeks, turning roads into mud and hampering further progress.
Beyond that lies the uncertainty surrounding the US presidential election, where a Republican victory could significantly reduce US military support for Ukraine.
President Putin realizes that he must do his best until then. The Ukrainians realize that they have to make this counterattack successful.
(Additional reporting by Jake Horton, Paul Brown, Benedict Jarman, Daniele Palumbo and Olga Robinson)
Graphics by Toral Ahmadzadeh, Mark Bryson, Erwan Rivoult.
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