On September 23, the Ukrainian Armed Forces announced a breakthrough in Russian defenses around Verbove in the Zaporizhzhia region (Ukrainska Pravda, September 23). This represents a significant moment for Ukraine’s counteroffensive, which has only made incremental gains in the past few months. The slow-moving advance has run into stiff Russian resistance, especially as Ukrainian units begin to encounter Russia’s second and third defensive lines. The Russian military has effectively adapted much of its defensive posturing and electronic warfare capabilities based on lessons learned from the Ukrainian counteroffensive of September 2022 (Vm.ric.mil.ru, April 22). These changes have led to stalemates along portions of the front.
Russia was largely unprepared for the Ukrainian mechanized units equipped with modernized main battle tanks and armored vehicles. Russian units sought to disrupt the advance of tanks and mechanized units with sustained artillery fire on areas where Ukrainian groupings were concentrated. Medium-caliber multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) fired 9M27F rockets with high-explosive warheads at the mechanized echelons and 9M27K2 rockets with cluster warheads to mine the terrain remotely in front of advancing Ukrainian columns. The Tornado-S MLRS was used to disrupt the initial Ukrainian advance with strikes at a range of up to 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the front. Overall, this approach was minimally effective due to a shortage of munitions compounded by a high rate of fire (T.me/milinfolive, September 2, 2022).
Russia prepared ambushes at road junctions, bridge crossings and other areas to slow Ukrainian units. (See Figure 1.) Their distance from the front depended on the ability of Russia’s reconnaissance equipment to identify and map out the Ukrainian approach to the designated ambush points (Vm.ric.mil.ru, April 22). Russian fire concentrated on stationary armored objects using 122-millimeter and larger high fragmentation munitions. The Krasnopol-M2 guided artillery shell was used to destroy tanks, BMPs and armored personnel carriers, provided targeting coordinates could be accurately relayed from the Orlan-30 reconnaissance drones.
Figure 1. Russian Engagement With Tanks and Mechanized Units
Once Ukrainian forces broke through the Russian defensive lines, artillery barrages were fixed on separating tanks from their assigned infantry units. This approach was somewhat successful in preventing Ukraine’s further advance toward the flanks. The MLRSs firing the 9M27K2 rockets set up minefields to delay enemy reserves (the second echelons), which were then hit by barrel artillery fire (Vm.ric.mil.ru, April 22). An anti-tank reserve was then brought forward and deployed in the direction of the Ukrainian advance to take on those tanks that had been successful cut off from their supporting units.
Russia’s anti-tank reserve was deployed based on the tasks assigned to the various brigades. Those nearest the front carried out the task of destroying Ukrainian tanks and other armored vehicles that had yet to penetrate the first defensive line (2.5–3.5 kilometers from the frontlines). The next line of anti-tank groupings focused on destroying those Ukrainian tanks that had completely broken through the first line (4–5 kilometers from the front edge of the first defensive line). Subsequent deployments were assigned at a distance of 4–6 kilometers from one another and concentrated on cutting off Ukrainian advances through the second and third lines of defense (Vm.ric.mil.ru, April 22). Russia’s anti-tank forces were further supported by extensive minefields the deeper Ukrainian mechanized units pushed.
Problems with minefields have become the most acute during the current Ukrainian counteroffensive. Recent reports show that Ukraine is dealing with an 85-percent shortage in mine-clearing equipment (Euromaidan Press, July 16). This has contributed to Ukraine’s motorized and mechanized units suffering significant losses along the front. Even if the vehicles are able to overcome a minefield, the reactive mine-laying systems set anti-personnel mines in front of the advancing infantry. Russia’s renewed focus on mining its defensive positions comes as a result of one of the few successes in pushing back the Kherson operation. Ukrainian infantry and mechanized units suffered serious losses in the Pravdino and Berislav directions due to extensive minefields (T.me/ZOV_SILA_RF, September 20, 21, 2022; T.me/milinfolive, October 5, 2022).
The Russian army has learned that it is advisable to place mine barrages along roads and bridges where Ukrainian tracked and wheeled vehicles might move. Particular attention is paid to road junctions, where roadblocks are established consisting of mines, rubble and barricades of faulty equipment (Vm.ric.mil.ru, April 22). In conditions of direct contact with Ukrainian forces, mixed mine barrages are set up along the first line of defense at night under the cover of small arms fire.
The delivery of mines is carried out by Russian personnel from the entrenched defensive forces. Some units are tasked with fixing the boundaries for the mine barrages, while others directly set the mines. Last year, FAB-250s and S-300 surface-to-air missile systems were used as landmines to destroy bridges and sections of roadway. (See Figure 2.) Ukrainian columns were delayed by Uragan MLRSs with KPTM-3 cluster mines and Zemledeliye remote mine-laying systems (Defence-ua.com, March 5). Mobile mine-laying teams on armored vehicles set mines along the second and third defensive lines (T.me/milinfolive, March 1).
Figure 2. Zemledeliye Remote-Mining Delivery System
Russia has also revisited its use of drones when defending against Ukrainian advances. Two types of Lancet barrage munitions, dubbed the “X-51” and “X-52,” were used to defend against Ukraine’s armored vehicles and tanks last year. Strikes were carried out according to known coordinates or by searching for the target during patrols. Drone operators utilized the external targeting system of the ZALA reconnaissance drone when identifying targets. Overall, the Lancet drones were rather effective in carrying out their tasks (T.me/btvt2019, July 21). Russian media recently reported that production of the Lancet drones this year has increased by 50 times compared to 2022. According to those reports, as of August 2023, Russia has used over 850 Lancets during the war. Russian High Command claims that the Lancet is “invisible to radar,” virtually noiseless and “carries a warhead usually large enough to damage even heavy vehicles” (Ukrainska Pravda, August 28). Russian military leaders are counting on its increased use to overwhelm Ukrainian air defenses, opening up gaps for subsequent missile strikes.
The current Ukrainian counteroffensive will likely make steady gains in the coming weeks. As Russia continues to adapt its defensive posturing and capabilities, it will be critical for Ukraine’s military leaders to identify these changes and exploit their weaknesses. Failure to do so could result in a substantial prolonging of the “long war.”