Ukraine’s Slow-Moving Counteroffensive: Gaps in Russian Defense (Part Five)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 153


*Read Part Four.

Four months in, the Ukrainian counteroffensive has been slowly, but steadily advancing along the Bakhmut, Melitopol, and Berdyansk salients. Ukrainian forces have effectively retaken the initiative at sea with innovative drone strikes on Russian positions in and around Crimea (Euromaidan Press, October 4). Russian forces gleaned a number of lessons from Ukraine’s Kharkiv counteroffensive last year and effectively adapted many of their defensive tactics in the lead-up to the current operation. As the fighting drags on, the Ukrainian side has begun to adjust its offensive tactics to the Russian changes and has had increasing success in exploiting the remaining gaps. The seizure of Russian field manuals on the battlefield has played a pivotal role in Ukraine’s understanding of Russia’s war effort (, April 22; (, accessed October 3).

Analysis of Russia’s defensive operations in September 2022 reveals that the combat order of units was based on the provisions of Soviet military thinking (, April 22). Firepower was mostly placed along the strongholds of the first line of defense to engage Ukrainian units from extended ranges. Tank units were added to the reserve forces positioned back along the second and third lines of defense. The Russian army paid close attention to the first line, ensuring that the units were thoroughly prepared and adequately equipped with heavy weaponry. These efforts were somewhat successful in retaining strategic positions along the front and in intercepting the advancing Ukrainian columns. One approach that deviated from historical Russian military doctrine involved spreading out the first-line units by increasing the gaps between strongholds and interception points (, September 25, 2022).

Tanks were used to ensure the stability of the Russian defensive lines. They were positioned at support points along the first line of defense to reduce the risk of Russian troops being hit by armor-piercing shells. Tank groups focused on destroying Ukrainian armored vehicles with frontal fire. These units were assigned specific directions for conducting counterattacks. After such attacks, ammunition and fuel were immediately replenished, and critical equipment was repaired. Some tank units were assigned positions 1 to 2 kilometers from the front line where they could engage Ukrainian units with fire from the flanks (, August 17).

The locations for tank ambushes were chosen based on the surrounding terrain. Heavily wooded areas served as effective camouflage in concealing the Russian tanks from Ukraine’s advancing armored vehicles. This practice also meant the tanks were camouflaged from air reconnaissance, which was relatively successful in avoiding detection by Ukrainian drones. In open terrain, the opening line of fire from tank guns was set at a distance of up to 2.5 kilometers from their position (, August 17). Russia’s tank strategy was somewhat effective but began to run into problems once Ukraine began to utilize more modern Western main battle tanks.

Although it enjoyed uncontested air supremacy, Russia’s air defense still struggled to push back the Ukrainian assault (, April 22). Army aviation planned to ambush Ukrainian formations as they came near road junctions and wooded areas. This was only successful, however, if the mechanized Ukrainian columns could be located and their route accurately mapped out between 60 and 90 minutes before they started their advance. Ukraine’s clever use of decoys, such as inflatable tanks and wooden High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) batteries, and its disruption of Russian targeting systems hurt the effectiveness of this approach (Ukrainska Pravda, September 5, 2022;, September 18, 2022).

Russia’s engineering of a series of barriers (e.g., mines, defunct military equipment, and roadblocks) to stop Ukraine’s advance had limited success. Specialized units of the Ukrainian Armed Forces used engineering equipment to check the terrain for mines before advancing (, April 22). They then assessed the condition of the roads along which Ukrainian mechanized columns could move. Particular attention was paid to road junctions and bridges, which were lined with a mix of mines and defective tanks and armored vehicles in an effort to funnel the Ukrainian forces to designated ambush points (see EDM, September 26). The Russian side also laid anti-tank mines in places where Ukrainian tanks and armored vehicles had to avoid obstacles. In some cases, mines were laid without obvious demarcating features. This initially forced some Ukrainian units to make last-second adjustments to the route of their advance, leaving them open to Russian artillery fire. As the counteroffensive progressed, Ukraine’s detection efforts became more effective, hurting the efficacy of the Russian approach.

While the Soviet legacy has influenced Russian defensive tactics in this war, the Russian High Command has made some adjustments to past thinking (, April 22). The specifics of Russia’s defensive positioning during the Kharkiv counteroffensive are laid out below:

  • Firing positions were moved forward from the front-line trenches at a distance of 10 to 12 meters.
  • Armored vehicles were positioned 15 to 20 meters behind the first line of trenches and covered with concrete slabs.
  • Other military vehicles were set up at 200 to 300 meters from the forward position.
  • Observer points were established on the flanks of these units.
  • The second line of trenches were dug 30 meters from the first line.
  • A control center and medical stations were established along the second line.
  • Wooden and concrete slabs provided camouflage for military equipment along the first and second lines;
  • Equipment shelters were constructed 150 to 200 meters from the first trench, and dugouts and shelters were built 30 to 40 meters from the second trench.
  • Evacuation points for the wounded were prepared 100 to 150 meters from the second trench (me/ok_spn, October 12, 2022).

The influence of late Soviet doctrines together with lessons learned from the Kherson counteroffensive allowed the Russian army to prepare more effectively in the lead-up to the current Ukrainian counteroffensive. For example, the Ukrainian military command was actively preparing to force the Russian defensive lines along the Dnipro River in the area of the Kakhovka dam. The blowing up of the dam by Russia represents a successful action from a tactical point of view in disrupting what Kyiv had originally planned as one of its main thrusts (see EDM, June 12). As a result, Ukrainian troops were forced to adapt on the fly and attack alternative Russian positions that they had little time to prepare for. Russia also feigned heavy fortifications in the Kherson direction to mislead Ukrainian units.

Russia struggles to adjust its tactics as long as Ukrainian forces maintain the initiative and keep pressure on Russian forces. If Russia is given time to adapt, then Ukrainian forces suffer higher casualties, likely prolonging the war. As the Kherson counteroffensive demonstrated, without sufficient Russian preparation, Ukraine can overrun Russian positions in a matter of weeks. Delays in the provision of adequate levels of de-mining equipment, long-range artillery, tanks, and aircraft are quite costly for Ukraine’s human and material resources (see EDM, July 26). As winter approaches, Kyiv cannot afford to be left in the lurch, lest Russia capitalize on war fatigue in the West and reverse Ukraine’s progress on the battlefield.