A critical juncture has been reached in Ukraine’s months-long counteroffensive. After weeks of difficult battles, Ukrainian forces have slowly edged south in the Zaporizhia region, taking hamlet after hamlet as Russian forces try to keep them at bay.
The counteroffensive in the south is just one part of a significant push along a vast front line, stretching from Vasilivka in Zaporizhia to the city of Donetsk in the eastern region of Donbas and up to Bakhmut, a city north of Donetsk to the outskirts of Kupiansk in northeastern Ukraine. This does not even include the strikes and raids on Crimea and from across the Dnipro River from the city of Kherson to the Black Sea.
There has been widespread speculation that somehow Ukraine’s advance in the south has stalled or at the very best been limited. In reality, its soldiers have had to make their way across open ground through a maze of well-placed fortified positions and trenches.
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The surrounding area is heavily mined and likely approaches are covered by Russian heavy artillery and missile batteries.
Movement can be easily spotted in the distance as drones tirelessly monitor the battlefield.
This interlocked, carefully prepared fortified line is what Ukrainian forces have been deliberately advancing through for months.
Casualties have been high on both sides but would have been far greater on the Ukrainian side if its commanders had rushed it.
Now, finally, these first defensive lines have been breached. The Zaporizhia village of Robotyne has been taken, and the next hamlet, Novoprokopivka, is in Ukraine’s sights with Tokmak, one of its strategic objectives, now within reach.
Tokmak is a vital railway junction and the key to taking the city of Melitopol at the neck of the Crimean Peninsula. It is less than 20km (12.4 miles) behind the front line and surrounded by its own defensive ring. Approaches to the town are heavily fortified, the Russians proving adept at making Ukraine pay for every kilometre taken.
Russian military logistics depends heavily on the rail system, but this network is under increasing attacks not just from Ukrainian artillery but also from precision strike by HIMARS rocket batteries and Storm Shadow cruise missiles.
The Russian military realises Tokmak’s importance and has heavily reinforced its units there. Ukrainian forces can choose to directly assault the town, with its implication of high casualties, or go around it, which would result in it being surrounded and cut off. Either way, the town’s rail line would be cut.
Ukrainian forces this far south will then be able to destroy targets round Melitopol, putting pressure on Russian troops there and threatening Russian units protecting the near bank of the Dnipro with encirclement.Cut off from the rest of their logistics supply chain, these units would quickly run out of ammunition and fuel as all storage dumps are being systematically destroyed by Ukrainian long-range precision fire.
Ukrainian military planners have been thinking further ahead and methodically targeting bridges and railway depots much farther away from the battlefield in Crimea itself.
The Kerch Strait Bridge, which connects Crimea with Russia, was attacked and damaged in July, and weeks later, the road and rail bridges at Chonhar, joining Crimea to the Ukrainian mainland, were badly damaged by missile strikes.
While the southern front is the most important for Ukraine, its military has been adept at keeping Russian high command struggling to guess where the decisive assault will come from. In the east, Ukrainian units easily retook the areas round Bahmut, which cost the Russians so dearly over the previous 18 months.
Extensive raids have been conducted on the near bank of the Dnipro, and even a daring commando raid successfully attacked targets in Crimea on August 24, Ukraine’s Independence Day.
All this serves to muddy Russia’s strategic picture, allowing Ukraine to pick where and when it wants to fight and keeping Russia on the defensive.
While this pattern of tactical and strategic deception is working for Ukraine, Russia has made some strategic moves of its own. Russia’s military has massed more than 100,000 troops behind the front line in the northeast, opposite Kupiansk in the Kharkiv region.
The Ukrainian military ordered civilians to evacuate the area ahead of expected heavy fighting although many war-weary villagers refused. So far, the expected Russian assault has been only piecemeal, but it forces Ukraine to keep large forces in the northeast when they are badly needed elsewhere.
Russia’s ally Belarus keeps its strategic intentions deliberately unclear, also forcing Ukrainian high command to factor in a possible attack from Belarusian soil into its calculations – calculations that help further drain Ukrainian reserves and supplies.
Not all Ukrainian attacks have been successful with several early armoured advances being destroyed, forcing its planners to rethink their tactics.
In late August, an attempted amphibious raid on Crimea, following on the success of the Independence Day raid, ended in disaster as Russian aircraft intercepted the squadron, sinking all four boats and killing 50 highly trained Ukrainian special forces.
Air forces matter
Russia’s air force dwarfs that of Ukraine, and despite promises of F-16 fighter jets from its allies and donations of Soviet-legacy aircraft by former Warsaw Pact countries that are now NATO members, like Poland and Bulgaria, Ukrainian losses have mounted.
Russian aircraft operate freely near the front line. Ukrainian infantry accounts of the fighting in the south say, of all the horrors that lurk there, their greatest fear is Russian air force precision-guided KAB glide bombs, which can deliver up to 1,500kg (3,306lb) of high explosives with an accuracy of 4 to 8 metres (13 to 26ft).
Ukraine’s air force still makes Russian incursions a costly affair, but screens of Russian fighter aircraft, helicopter gunships and air defence systems guarding front-line positions rule out the use of Ukraine’s air force to support the army’s ground attacks.
The Ukrainian counteroffensive operates with almost no supporting air cover, turning conventional military thinking on its head.
It is this kind of new tactical thinking – total drone surveillance coverage by both sides and extensive use of long-range, precision-guided munitions while both air forces are not taking, or are unable to take, the strategic role favoured by Western militaries – that has been the source of friction between Ukrainian generals and their allies.
The frustration cuts both ways as Russia and Ukraine know this counteroffensive is key to the war.
For Ukraine, time is running out as it constantly fears the eventual fading of goodwill, and with it, Western military support.
For Russia, time is also a factor, as even small victories are needed to boost plummeting Russian morale in the hopes of stemming what could easily become a rout if morale collapses altogether. Victories are also needed to boost domestic support, once guaranteed but now on shaky ground, along with support for the presidency of Vladimir Putin.
For now, the kind of massed, fast-paced, armoured thrusts backed by Ukrainian close air support that Western military trainers had envisaged are being shelved for a different style of warfare, one that benefits the Ukrainian military and the lives of the soldiers fighting it.
This slower “advance, wear down, strangle and strike” methodology is working well, especially on the southern front.
The wild cards here are the increasing possibility of a Ukrainian riverine assault across the Dnipro and the fate of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant at Enerhodar.
Ukraine’s forces seem like they are now on the cusp of a breakthrough. Russia’s task is to keep building fortifications and using its dwindling reserves to bolster its defences in the hopes that Ukraine wears down before Russia does.
Both sides are pushing for a decisive win before the onset of heavy rains in late autumn and the snows of winter.
Alex Gatopoulos is Al Jazeera English’s Defence Editor.