The Prevail Partners Newsroom is supporting the Ukrainian Armed Forces media campaign asking for silence regarding the counteroffensive. In the spirit of this, whilst tactical and operational military updates will be given for both Ukraine and Russia, no predictive assessment will be published on upcoming Ukrainian counteroffensive activity.       

Tactical Military

  • During this reporting period the main axis for the Ukrainian counteroffensive continues to take place in the vicinity of Verbove, western Zaporizhzhia Oblast. Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) launched a series of attacks east from the village of Robotyne, which they have recently liberated, and according to Ukrainian Intelligence have reportedly penetrated through the first Russian defensive line in the village of Verbove.
  • The other significant axis along which Ukrainian forces are conducting counteroffensive operations is around the flanks of Bakhmut. The main objective for the UAF here is likely to fix Russian forces in the area in order to thwart them from being deployed to other areas of the battlefield – highly likely the southern Forward Line of Enemy Troops (FLET) in Zaporizhzhia Oblast.

Footage of Ukrainian forces destroying Russian defensive locations around Verbove, western Zaporizhzhia. Source: @NOELreports

So What?

  • The ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive operations around Robotyne, specifically in the directions of Verbove and Tokmak, are significant as they have resulted in the breakthrough of the “Surovikin Line” – a formidable 81-mile trench and obstacle network. A recently uploaded video, purportedly from Russian sources, has provided compelling evidence of this notable breakthrough. This line, which has served as a significant defensive barrier, has been a focal point in the conflict, making any penetration of it a highly significant development after overcoming months of obstacles such as anti-tank trenches, minefields, and dragon's teeth. Corroborating satellite imagery, and the recently uploaded video, display Ukrainian infantry successfully disembarking beyond the Surovikin Line, driving the enemy back and exploiting the gap they created. Additionally, the breakthrough has, likely, penetrated through multiple Russian defensive systems at convergence points, where multiple Russian defensive lines stack up. These breakthroughs may not, at first, appear extensive as UAF haven’t pushed deep into Russian occupied territory towards the Sea of Azov. However, it’s crucial to note that the Russian’s have unlikely fortified their positions beyond the initial three defensive lines near Tokmak with the same level of trench networks, defensive structures and minefields. Therefore, the subsequent defensive lines constructed during the last autumn and summer seasons are likely to be considerably more vulnerable to collapse. These fortifications were likely constructed under challenging conditions, with limited resources, as supply routes have been subjected to continuous drone, artillery and cruise missile attacks from Ukrainian forces. Furthermore, Russian military personnel are currently stretched thin and preoccupied, with an emphasis on holding the line rather than using the defensive depth they have spent so long constructing. These defensive positions are unlikely to be optimally situated and will face heightened tactical pressures, especially as Ukrainian forces gain control over areas that were previously considered rear positions and out of Ukrainian artillery fire. The advancements towards Verbove have also allowed Ukrainian forces to cut off a crucial ground line of communication (GLOC) between the settlements of Novoprokopivka and Verbove. Therefore, Russian forces are unable to redeploy their forces as quickly between the two directions, allowing UAF personnel to launch swift attacks southwards into the settlement of Novoprokopivka (located 2km south of Robotyne). Recent examples have shown the VDV being the primary counter-attacking forces against Ukrainian assaults, however these personnel and equipment are likely to be degraded and demoralised due to their high operational tempo and likely lack of rest and reconstitution. Combat footage has shown Russian forces being pushed back from the defensive positions within the settlement and yet, even though Russian forces likely no longer maintain a permanent presence in the village, Ukrainian forces have not yet established full control over the area. However, geolocated footage suggests that Ukrainian forces control the elevated ground within the settlement allowing for the UAF to establish fire control over the area. In order to facilitate further advancement of the Ukrainian assault in this direction, Ukrainian forces conducted extensive HIMARS strikes on Russian bases and command centres in Tokmak. Consequently, the capture of Verbove and the probable advancement toward Tokmak, along with the collapse of the third line of defence in that area, will provide access to the P37 highway leading to Berdyansk and the T0401 highway heading towards Melitopol. Capturing these highways would allow Ukraine to sever Russia’s land bridge between the occupied regions of Crimea and the Donbas.

Ukrainian forces repel Russian troops in the vicinity of Verbove. Source: @PStyle0ne1

  • Ukraine's overall strategy, both in defending and subsequently launching counteroffensive operations in the Bakhmut region, has been met with a lot of criticism. The Ukrainian brigades currently deployed in the Bakhmut region boast a high level of experience, leading to discussions about the possibility of reallocating them to the Zaporizhzhia area, where NATO-supplied armour is in use. However, it's crucial to recognise the potentially significant operational impact of counteroffensive operations in Bakhmut. Ukraine's defensive and counteroffensive actions in the Bakhmut area have demonstrated sound operational planning and fixed a significant number of Russian units in the area. These efforts have effectively tied down a significant portion of Russian combat capabilities that might otherwise have been deployed to bolster Russian defences along the southern front in Ukraine. The battle-hardened Ukrainian troops have been highly successful in forcing Russian forces, predominantly VDV units, to the Bakhmut area in order not to cede further territory. This notable achievement on Ukraine's part has played a crucial role in preventing Russia from establishing a substantial and mobile VDV operational reserve (or allowing them rest), which could have been employed to thwart the primary Ukrainian counteroffensive effort in Zaporizhzhia Oblast. Continued, large-scale Ukrainian counteroffensive operations in the vicinity of Bakhmut are imperative to maintain the fixation of Russian forces in that area.

Ukrainian troops in action around the flanks of Bakhmut. Source: @KrzysztofJano15

Operational / Strategic Military

  • On 20 September, Ukrainian forces carried out an attack on the 744th Communications Centre of the Command of the Black Sea Fleet (BSF), located in the occupied region of Crimea. Satellite imagery reveals that the Ukrainian strikes resulted in significant damage to the command centre. The strike also underlines a broader strategy being carried out by Ukrainian forces that includes targeting infrastructure associated with the Black Sea Fleet (BSF).
  • On 22 September, Ukrainian forces executed another drone and cruise missile strike on occupied Crimea, causing significant damage to the Russian BSF Command Headquarters in Sevastopol. The Ukrainian Armed Forces Centre for Strategic Communications (StratCom) confirmed the successful strike on the BSF Command Headquarters. Russian sources reported that Ukrainian forces used Storm Shadow cruise missiles for this attack, and social media footage shows substantial damage to the building. The Russian Ministry of Defence (RuMoD) acknowledged that the strike damaged the headquarters but stated that Russian air defences managed to shoot down five Ukrainian missiles. Ukrainian forces have revealed they have intentions to strike more Russian military targets in Crimea. The Russian information space has been heavily focused on this Ukrainian strike, revealing concerns about the spread of information regarding the consequences of the attack. Some Russian milbloggers criticised Russian authorities and the military for not retaliating more significantly.

Video of a Ukrainian missile striking the Russian Black Sea Fleet Headquarters. Source: @Gerashchenko_en

So What?

  • It is crucial to emphasise that the BSF not only commands naval vessels but also oversees air and ground units deployed in occupied Crimea and along the front lines in Ukraine, predominantly along the southern FLET. The 810 Naval Infantry Brigade of the Black Sea Fleet was currently actively engaged in critical defensive operations in the western part of Zaporizhzhia Oblast. However, Ukrainian forces rendered the unit combat-ineffective, due to incurring substantial losses, and it had to be replaced by Russian airborne units. Furthermore, the Black Sea Fleet's control of the Saky airfield extends its influence to encompass land-based aircraft, further enhancing its operational capabilities. However, the effectiveness of the BSF in defending against Ukrainian strikes will likely be coming in to question as Ukrainian forces also launched a successful attack on Saky airfield, damaging a number of Russian aircraft. Furthermore, the BSF plays a pivotal role in supporting Russian logistics, facilitating the transportation of personnel and supplies from Krasnodar Krai and occupied Crimea to the Russian military contingent on the southern front. This role becomes even more crucial in light of Ukrainian attacks that have disrupted Russian GLOCs in the region. Russian forces frequently employ drones and launch ground-based and naval missiles from within the Black Sea Fleet's Area of Operations (AO), therefore, Ukrainian attacks directed at the Black Sea Fleet are likely to yield consequences that extend beyond simply diminishing Russian naval capabilities.
  • Satellite footage illustrates that the northern and western buildings were directly hit. This strike is highly likely the culmination of weeks of shaping activity, intelligence collection and preparation from the UAF. We have seen multiple strikes and Special Operations Forces (SOF) raids aimed at destroying and disrupting radars and air defence systems in Crimea which has led to this point. Ukrainian officials have even stated that they specifically targeted a meeting of high importance that was taking place at the time that included many Russian generals and high-ranking officials. The Head of Ukrainian Military Intelligence stated that the strike killed 34 Russian military personnel and injured 105 people. Most notably, the commander of BSF, Admiral Sokolov, has been confirmed dead. Additionally, the head of the command centre, Lieutenant-General Oleg Tsekov is reportedly in a coma and the commander of Russian forces within Zaporizhzhia has been severely injured.

Political

  • Ukraine and the United States have entered into a memorandum of understanding (MoU) that outlines a commitment for Kyiv to receive up to $522 million in order to bolster its defences around the Ukrainian energy system. According to a statement released by the US embassy in Ukraine, an initial $422 million dollar package will be delivered regarding support for new energy, with an additional $100 million contingent upon the successful execution of specific measures.
  • One of Ukraine’s most steadfast allies, Poland, has stated that it will end its munitions supplies to Ukraine and will instead focus on its own defence by procuring more modern weapons. The comments come amid simmering tensions over Poland’s intentions to ban Ukrainian grain imports. However, following the initial furore over Poland’s comments, the Polish Prime Minister assured Ukraine that it would uphold its current weapons supplies agreements but would not supply new weapons that his country purchases.
  • Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, visited US President, Joe Biden, in Washington, USA, in a bid to secure further funding for Kyiv’s counteroffensive operations against Russia and to shore up support from its biggest financial backer.

Zelensky and Biden meet in the Oval Office. Source: @Maks_NAFO_FELLA

  • One of the key objectives of the MoU is to support Ukraine in the restoration of vital infrastructure, particularly in the aftermath repeated and enduring strikes against the Ukrainian energy system that were extensively targeted last winter by Russian forces and resulted in millions of people being left without electricity. While Ukraine has undertaken extensive repair efforts since then, officials have raised concerns about potential new attacks over the coming winter. Russia continues to carry out targeted and large-scale attacks on facilities that generate, transmit and distribute electricity, and as winter approaches, these strikes are likely to increase in both intensity and frequency. Therefore, facilities which generate and transmit electricity are highly likely to be high up on the Russian Federation Armed Forces (RFAF) High Payoff Targets List (HPTL) for long range strikes. Additionally, the MoU aims to assist Ukraine in advancing energy sector reforms and facilitating its transition, post-conflict with Russia, towards a low-carbon, competitive energy economy that is closely integrated with the European Union.
  • The initial comments made by Poland regarding its plans to stop sending weapons to Ukraine will likely have been initially met with pleasure among the Russian government. In the past couple of months, The Kremlin has likely taken advantage of growing tensions between Ukraine and Central European allies, notably Poland, Hungary and Slovakia following their announcements that they would continue to ban Ukrainian grain imports, and that Ukraine will, reciprocally, sue them. However, the comments made by the Polish Prime Minister in which he reiterates the strength of Poland’s relationship with Ukraine will likely have impeded Russia’s plan to increase faltering relations between Ukraine and its partners. Nevertheless, any perceived decrease in support for Ukraine will play into the hands of Russia, especially as the war drags on and western allies start to feel the effects of war fatigue amid domestic election cycles and economic struggles.
  • Following, Zelensky’s visit to the US, the Department of Defence announced that it would provide a further $325 million assistance package. The package will include additional air defence, ammunition for HIMARS precision rocket launchers, anti-tank weapons, and artillery rounds, as well as including 155 millimetre rounds that contain cluster munitions. President Joe Biden also reiterated that the US would maintain its strong support for Ukraine’s war against Russia, which is coming under increased scrutiny particularly from the Republican opposition. In addition to the $325 million assistance package, the US plans to provide Ukraine with the long awaited ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile System) long-range missiles. However, it should be noted that it is likely that the ATACMS will be armed with cluster bomblets instead of unitary warheads. These missiles, which have a range of up to 190 miles, will provide Ukraine with enhanced capability to target Russian logistics facilities deep within Russian-controlled territory, impeding their logistical supply chain and aiding the Ukrainian counteroffensive. It is however highly likely that the US will forbid Ukraine from using the new munitions to conduct strikes deep into the Russian Federation, in line with previous restrictions on use of donated weapon systems.

US will reportedly supply Ukraine with ATACMS. Source: @KyivIndependent

What next?

As we edge closer to the wetter, colder Winter months, Prevail analysts look forward to monitoring Ukrainian efforts to consolidate and exploit their territorial gains, particularly in the Verbove and Tokmak areas. Ukraine will highly likely capitalise on its $325 million assistance package from the US, including the use of ATACMS long range missiles, to deploy cluster bomblets deep into Russian territory and enable both further exploitation of the Surovikin line, and disruption to Russia’s ability to command and control Crimea and the Black Sea. Russia will highly likely continue to issue threats and seek to save face, but as previously reported, their options are increasingly limited; despite establishing domestic production of Geran (Shahed) drones, Russia have struggled to stockpile adequate numbers of cruise missiles for their planned Winter bombardment on Ukrainian energy infrastructure.

As Ukraine continue their multi-faceted approach of offensives on multiple fronts, covert strikes on radars and Russian air defence, as well as SOF activities both in Africa and Russia itself, pressure is likely being placed on Putin to present tangible victories to his populace. As Russia attempts to buttress the rouble with policy changes to the export of oil, the long-term consequences of a closed stock market, loss of foreign business assets, and decreasing dependence internationally on Russian oil will almost certainly continue to pose severe economic challenges for the nation.