Jun 16, 2023
Ukrainian troops are taking control of the darkness along the southern front in Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk Oblasts. As Ukraine’s 2023 counteroffensive grinds toward its third week, more and more Ukrainian assaults are launching at night.
The Ukrainians’ shift to after-dark operations wasn’t possible until recently. Those hundreds of modern tanks and fighting vehicles that Kyiv has gotten from its foreign allies. Their greatest advantage over contemporary Russian vehicles might be their optics, including thermal night-vision gear that can spot enemy forces from thousands of yards away, even in total darkness.
“Imported equipment has excellent night optics,” one Russian milblogger noted. “They can go and conduct surveillance, and aim and control the accuracy of the fire. Therefore, the enemy chooses the night.” The Ukrainian counteroffensive kicked off on the night of June 4. Within a few days, Russian observers noted a pattern. “The [Ukrainians] carry out active operations of an offensive nature at night,” another milblogger wrote.
The same blogger proposed that Ukrainian forces were shifting to nighttime operations in order to hide from Russian helicopters, warplanes and drones—but also to leverage their superior optics.
One blogger described an after-dark Ukrainian assault in Zaporizhzhia on June 10. “After a powerful fire preparation using artillery and Grad [rockets], the [Ukrainians] launched signal flares and powerful illuminators into the sky in order to reveal our positions.”
“After that, the enemy threw armored groups with manpower into the attack from several directions.” Russian mines and artillery blunted the assault, the blogger claimed.
It’s not an unbelievable claim. Photos and videos from the southern front underscore the extreme danger mines and artillery pose to attacking Ukrainian forces. An attempt by the Ukrainian army’s 33rd Mechanized and 47th Assault Brigades to cross a Russian minefield just south of Mala Tokmachka, 40 miles west of Neskuchne, ended in disaster on June 8.
But the Mala Tokmachka debacle merely slowed the Ukrainian counteroffensive—or at best redirected it. Ukrainian forces are attacking along several axes in Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk, and making progress along many of them. Especially along the Mokri Yaly River, 40 miles east of Mala Tokmachka.
The Ukrainians’ nighttime advantage helps to explain their progress. Even at night, “everything is clear as day,” one Russian blogger wrote.
The best optics might belong to Leopard 2 tanks operated by the 33rd Mechanized Brigade and 4th Tank Brigade. The brigades have lost four or five Leopards out of the nearly 100 of the German-made tanks Ukraine’s allies have pledged to the war effort.
But those losses belie the Leopard’s effectiveness—especially in a long-range shooting match. And especially in the dark. “There are many foreign tanks,” according to one of the bloggers. “They shoot very accurately, especially at night. On the Leopards, the [thermal imagers] are fucking worth it.”