By Howard Altman
Sept 8, 2023
Ukraine continues to expand the salient it has created in Zaporizhzhia Oblast, pushing closer toward the small town of Verbove, the Institute for the Study of War says in its latest assessment.
“Geolocated footage posted Sept. 7 shows that Ukrainian forces have advanced northwest of Verbove and appear to be expanding their salient to the north of the settlement,” ISW reported.
The movement more than three months into the counteroffensive is significant in that it shows Ukrainian troops have crossed at least the first of three Russian defensive lines and are at or near the second line.
“The Ukrainians are gradually gaining ground and it proves the importance of our support and also our ability and willingness to continue the support, because this is heavy fighting, difficult fighting, but they have been able to breach the defensive lines of the Russian forces and they are moving forward,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday.
Though the counteroffensive’s progress has been heavily criticized in the West and even noted by Ukrainian officials, the ISW assessment also lines up with a more optimistic view painted recently by a U.S. intelligence official.
In a rare on-the-record statement, a U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) official says Ukraine’s “breakthrough on that second defensive belt” near Robotyne in Zaporizhzhia Oblast “is actually pretty considerable.”
“Had we had this conversation two weeks ago, I would have been slightly more pessimistic,” Trent Maul, the DIA’s director of analysis, told The Economist in an exclusive story published Wednesday.
As The Economist explains, Maul’s agency is tasked with trying to answer questions like: Can Ukraine breach the second defensive line and the third one behind it before artillery ammunition becomes harder to find and winter weather sets in making any progress more difficult?
To answer that, the DIA will look for signs that Russia can keep providing its front-line units with artillery and maintain leadership at the unit level.
Past analyses, he admitted, have not been spot on.
Maul conceded that American and Ukrainian officials failed to appreciate the depth of Russia’s defenses and how difficult it would be for Ukraine to “smash through” them with armor. Despite
a report by the Guardian newspaper that 80% of Russia’s effort went into building its first and second lines, Maul warned that the bulk of Russia’s reinforcements remain at the third.
The DIA will also be monitoring Ukraine’s ammunition stockpiles as well as the weather, which will become wetter in the autumn, adding thick, oozing mud to any maneuver calculus.
Maul offered The Economist a less gloomy take on Ukraine’s chances of success than some unnamed Biden administration officials, one of whom estimated that Ukraine has about six to seven weeks of combat left before its counteroffensive culminates.
Ukraine’s recent successes are “significant” and give its forces a “realistic possibility” of breaking the remaining Russian lines by the end of the year, the publication reported, adding that Maul’s comment was intel-speak for 40-50% probability.
Still, Maul did offer a caveat.
Limited ammunition and worsening weather will make this “very difficult.”
For its part, the Russian Defense Ministry hasn’t outright denied that Ukraine has advanced to its defensive lines. Instead, it claimed on its Telegram channel Thursday that “units of the Russian grouping of troops, aviation and artillery have repelled 14 [Armed Forces of Ukraine] attacks close to Verbove and Robotyne.”
The coming weeks will show the level of progress Ukraine is really making in its drive toward cities like Tokmak and Melitopol as it seeks to either reach Crimea or cut off the so-called land bridge through Zaporizhzhia Oblast.
But as Maul, the DIA official told The Economist , attention is already turning to next year.
Even without a breakthrough this year, the DIA is moderately confident that if Ukraine can widen the salient around Robotyne, hold its positions and keep ammo flowing in, it will be well placed for a fresh push in 2024, he said.