Ukraine at D+556: Breakthroughs and the potential for mobile action.
N2K logoSep 3, 2023

Ukraine claims to have breached the main Russian defense lines in Zaporizhzhia. Russia works to control the wartime narrative for a domestic audience.

Ukraine at D+556: Breakthroughs and the potential for mobile action.

Reports continued through Saturday of a Ukrainian breakthrough near Zaporizhzhia, where Russia's first line of defense is said to have been penetrated. The New York Times describes it as a village-by-village campaign conducted by small assault units.

In an interview with the Observer, Brigadier General Oleksandr Tarnavskiy said, “We are now between the first and second defensive lines. 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.” Ukrainian forces are expanding their breakthrough. The second and third prepared defensive lines are generally assessed as being far less well-prepared, less formidable, than the now-breached first line.

More significantly, Russian forces will no longer be able to wage the static, positional defense behind obstacles they've preferred since the failure of the Russian offensive to knock Ukraine out of the war. The Russian army now must maneuver, and it's shown scant aptitude for mobile action so far during the special military operation. “The enemy is pulling up reserves, not only from Ukraine but also from Russia. But sooner or later, the Russians will run out of all the best soldiers. This will give us an impetus to attack more and faster,” General Tarnavskiy said. “Everything is ahead of us.”

Ukrainian claims of an advance toward Melitopol are confirmed, in part, from Russian sources. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) reported Saturday evening that "Russian milbloggers who have recently maintained that Russian forces hold positions in the southern part of Robotyne claimed that Russian forces withdrew from the southern outskirts of the settlement to unspecified positions further south." Ukrainian artillery continues to enjoy success in the counterfire and interdiction roles, especially in the southern zone. Russian fires in that sector have seen negligible results (although they seem to be having more effect in the north, around Kharkiv, where Russian attacks seek to divert Ukrainian forces from their offensive in the south). "Russian sources have repeatedly expressed concerns since mid-July over the lack of Russian counterbattery artillery capabilities, particularly in southern Ukraine."

Internal Russian disagreements: military and academic.

The ISW also reported two instances of internal discord in Russia. The first is military, and indicates morale and command problems in the Russian army ranks. "Select Russian sources claimed that Russian officers of the 58th Combined Arms Army (CAA) defending in Zaporizhia Oblast contacted former 58th CAA commander Major General Ivan Popov due to the worsening situation at the Russian frontline. Russian milbloggers claimed that Popov has maintained contact with his former subordinates in western Zaporizhia Oblast, and a Russian insider source claimed that these officers turned to Popov for help instead of their new commander." General Popov was relieved of command of the 58th Combined Arms Army in July, when he sought to "bypass Chief of the Russian General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov and bring his complaints about poor counterbattery capabilities, heavy losses, and a lack of rotations directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin."

General Popov wasn't alone in seeing these as issues for the Russian forces. He set an example of military indiscretion that soldiers will find admirable when they perceive their incompetence in their leaders. The ISW adds, "Russian sources claimed that Popov encouraged his former subordinates to report the truth about the front to the higher Russian command, possibly encouraging them to replicate his insubordination. Popov’s contact with his former subordinates, if true, suggests that Popov’s replacement has not won the trust of his subordinates either because he is less competent or because he is less forthright with senior Russian leadership about continuing challenges facing the Russian defense in western Zaporizhia."

The other species of discord comes from hard-war ultras, who have protested an August 29th essay by the Director of the Institute for the Study of the USA and Canada, a think tank with deep roots in the Cold War Soviet Union. The Director, Valery Garbuzov, criticized "Russian ruling elites" for creating "utopian myths" about impending Russian hegemony, a “crisis of capitalism,” and Russia’s leadership of a global anti-Western coalition. Mr. Garbuzov is correct in pointing out that none of these three things is actually happening, but the ultras don't want to hear it. The ISW describes their criticisms as "largely coherent," and notes that some of the influential milbloggers see la trahison des clercs: they think the Telegram social media platform is doing the work the academicians should have taken up, but have shirked.

Looking abroad for recruits.

In Sunday morning's situation report, the UK's Ministry of Defence looked at Russian efforts to recruit soldiers from the near abroad. "As of late June 2023 Russia has been appealing to citizens of neighbouring countries with recruiting adverts for individuals to fight in Ukraine. Online adverts have been observed in Armenia and Kazakhstan offering 495,000 roubles ($1,973 USD) in initial payments and salaries from 190,000 roubles ($1,973 US). There have been recruitment efforts in Kazakhstan's northern Qostanai region, appealing to the Russian ethnic population. Since at least May 2023, Russia has approached central Asian migrants to fight in Ukraine with promises of fast-track citizenship and salaries of up to $4,160 USD. Uzbek migrant builders in Mariupol have reportedly had their passports confiscated upon arrival and been coerced to join the Russian military. There are at least six million migrants from Central Asia in Russia, which the Kremlin likely sees as potential recruits. Russia likely wishes to avoid further unpopular domestic mobilisation measures in the run up to the 2024 Presidential elections. Exploiting foreign nationals allows the Kremlin to acquire additional personnel for its war effort in the face of mounting casualties."

Multinational training program instructs Ukrainian recruits.

Ten nations have joined the UK-led program to train Ukrainian soldiers. In addition to the United Kingdom, the participating countries are Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Lithuania, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden.