- By Frank Gardner
- BBC check
Ukraine’s generals say they have “broken through” Russia’s first line of defense in the south.
We have assessed how far Ukrainian forces have actually progressed and what signs there are of further advances along the front line.
Ukraine began its major counteroffensive in early June to expel Russian forces from the lands they had seized. He attacked at three points along the more than 965 kilometers (600 mi) front line.
The area located southeast of the city of Zaporizhzhia is by far the most strategically important.
Attacking in this direction toward the Sea of Azov, if successful, could cut off Russia’s supply lines connecting the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don to Crimea.
There hasn’t been much progress on this front, except in the area around the villages of Robotyne and Verbove in the Zaporizhzhia region, as seen highlighted in purple on the map above.
If Ukraine can cut off this main supply route, Russia will find it almost impossible to maintain its huge garrison in Crimea, which it annexed in 2014.
Despite significant obstacles, there are now confirmed sightings of Ukrainian troops breaching Russia’s defensive structures along the southern front.
We have verified nine social media videos along the front line near Verbove.
Four of the videos show Ukrainian forces breaching Russian defenses north of Verbove.
However, these show incursions, not that Ukraine has managed to take control of the area.
So far only the Ukrainian infantry has managed to get through, and we are not seeing Ukrainian armored columns breaking through, exploiting the gap and holding the ground they have taken.
What prevents Ukraine from moving forward faster?
This is what they look like from space: lines of interlocking obstacles, trenches, bunkers and minefields, each covered by artillery.
Vast minefields have slowed the Ukrainian advance.
These minefields are heavily populated, in some places up to five mines per square meter are laid.
Ukraine’s first attempt to break through them in June quickly ended in failure, with its modern Western-supplied armor destroyed and burned. The Ukrainian infantry also emerged victorious and suffered terrible casualties.
Since then, kyiv has had to resort to clearing these mines on foot, often at night and sometimes under fire. Hence the slow progress to date.
These will only be able to advance in numbers once a sufficiently wide path has been cleared through the minefields and when the Russian artillery has been subdued.
What’s next for Ukraine’s counteroffensive?
“The problem the Ukrainians have now,” says Dr Marina Miron of the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, “is getting an opening large enough to allow more troops in.”
Meanwhile, Russia has been sending reinforcements, and this battlefront is dynamic, advancing, and Russia could yet reverse Ukraine’s advances.
We have geolocated Russian drone video that supports reports that its elite airborne forces, the VDV, have been deployed near the town of Verbove, a move intended to plug any gaps created by Ukraine’s counteroffensive.
“Ukrainian forces continue to face resistance from Russian forces on the battlefield,” says Kateryna Stepanenko, a Russia analyst at the London-based think tank RUSI.
“In addition to artillery fire, drone strikes and Russian defensive structures, Russian forces are also extensively using electronic warfare measures that aim to thwart Ukrainian signals and the use of drones.”
Ukraine has barely moved more than 10% of the way to the coast, but the reality is much more nuanced.
Russian forces are exhausted and possibly demoralized after enduring three months of intense attacks, including long-range attacks on their supply lines.
If Ukraine can break through the remaining Russian defenses and reach the city of Tokmak, then Russia’s rail and road supply routes to Crimea would be within range of its artillery.
If they can do so, then this counteroffensive can be considered a qualified success.
It may not end the war, which will likely drag on well into 2024 and perhaps longer, but it would severely undermine Moscow’s war effort and put Ukraine in a strong position for when peace talks finally begin.
But for kyiv, the clock is ticking. The rainy season will arrive in a few weeks, leaving roads muddy and hampering further progress.
Beyond that is the uncertainty of the US presidential election, where a Republican victory could dramatically reduce US military support for Ukraine.
President Putin knows he has to hold out until then. The Ukrainians know they have to make this counteroffensive successful.
Reporting by Jake Horton, Paul Brown, Benedict Garman, Daniele Palumbo, Olga Robinson.
Graphics by Tural Ahmedzade, Mark Bryson, Erwan Rivault.