Ukrainian forces appear to have captured a Russian stronghold on the southern front in the 78th week of the war – a possible indication that after months of painstaking assaults, they have broken through the hard shell of some of Russia’s front-line defences.
Geolocated footage appeared to show Ukrainian forces in the centre of Robotyne, a town in the western part of Zaporizhia, on August 20 and 21.
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The following day, the 47th Mechanised Brigade published footage of its soldiers evacuating civilians from Robotyne accompanied by journalists.
Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said the civilians were at risk from Russian shelling, as fighting continued.
Ukraine also said its forces had broken through some Russian defences in nearby Mala Tokmachka.
The advances came on the heels of the recapture of Urozhaine, a village in Donetsk near the eastern edge of Zaporizhia, on August 12, and its neighbour Staromaiorske on July 27.
The Washington-based think tank, the Institute for the Study of War, said these advances in Robotyne and Mala Tokmachka were “tactically significant”, because they “may allow Ukrainian forces to begin operating in less heavily mined areas of the Russian line of defence that are likely more conducive to more rapid Ukrainian gains”.
CBS News reported on August 18 that Ukrainian forces had cleared a Russian minefield north of Mala Tokmachka.
Not all assessments of the war were optimistic for Ukraine.
The US intelligence community did not believe Ukraine could achieve its counteroffensive’s main objective of recapturing the southern city of Melitopol, the Washington Post reported, citing unnamed officials.
Melitopol’s capture would cut the Russian front in two. The Donbas would be unable to supply Crimea, and vice versa.
But the officials also predicted that Ukrainian forces would come within “several miles” of Melitopol before the counteroffensive was over.
That would be a significant victory for Ukraine, said St Andrews University strategy professor Phillips O’Brien, given that Ukraine is still fighting for Robotyne, 75km (46.6 miles) away from Melitopol.
“A Ukrainian advance to within a few miles of Melitopol would bring the critical road and rail connections on which Russia relies to supply its forces within range of Ukrainian artillery systems, severely compromising Russia’s ability to continue to use them for that purpose,” wrote the Institute for the Study of War, saying there were ways other than the recapture of Melitopol to sever the Russian land bridge.
The eastern front
There appeared to be some Ukrainian success in the eastern town of Bakhmut as well.
Maliar said troops had advanced three square kilometres in the southern Bakhmut area in a week, bringing the total reclaimed area there to 43 square kilometres since the counteroffensive began on June 4.
“If you look at the map, it looks more like a horseshoe now,” Maliar said, as Ukrainian troops slowly flanked the captured city.
Russian forces did mount an assault of their own on August 20 and appeared to regain some of their lost territory on the south flank.
But Maliar said the Russian position was untenable.
“The Defense Forces of Ukraine have occupied the dominant heights there and are harassing the enemy. Now the enemy is trapped there – it cannot get out of there, it cannot fully advance there,” Maliar was reported as having said.
Russian claims of success against Kupiansk, in Ukraine’e east, turned out to be a canard. Kharkiv region’s occupation head Vitaly Ganchev circulated footage purporting to show Russian forces in Synkivka. Russian military reporters who had repeated the claim later dialled it back, denouncing the footage as fake.
Low Russian morale
The story may have been an attempt to boost flagging Russian morale. Vostok Battalion commander Alexander Khodakovsky became the latest Russian commander to express unhappiness with the prosecution of the war on August 17, suggesting a military victory was not possible, and floating the idea of a truce.
Vostok was the battalion that lost control of Urozhaine.
Major General Ivan Popov had also expressed unhappiness with Russian management in early July and was dismissed for it. He commanded the 58th Combined Arms Army, which was then losing ground near Robotyne.
And the infamous Yevgeny Prigozhin, financier of the Wagner mercenary group, reported killed on August 23, had suggested freezing the war as early as April.
There were other signs of low Russian morale.
Ukrainian military intelligence said the crew of a Russian Mi-8 helicopter landed their craft at a Ukrainian airfield and surrendered on August 23.
“Work is now under way with the crew,” said spokesman Andriy Yusov.
Russia was in for some bad news off the battlefield as well.
Russian central bank data revealed an 85 percent drop in the country’s current account surplus from January to July, compared with the same period last year, suggesting that a Western ban on oil and other exports was biting.
Russia’s surplus for the first seven months of 2023 was $25bn. Last year, it was $165bn. Energy export revenues alone tumbled by 41 percent.
Two weeks ago, Reuters news agency reported that Russia had doubled its defence spending to $100bn this year, representing a third of the budget.
Taken together, the two reports suggested that Russian state finances were becoming strained.