ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine - As Ukraine prepares to launch a long-trumpeted counterattack, the first obstacle its soldiers must push through isn’t Russia’s defenses. It’s their own.
Like Russia, Ukraine has laid thousands of mines along its front line. And to advance into occupied territory, its troops now need to get through these lines without tipping off the Russians, who would notice if heavy machinery were brought in or explosions were set off. This means sappers must go out to the fields and quietly remove the mines.
They do it by hand. At night.
“Everyone’s hands shake,” said the 42-year-old commander of engineers in the 1st Tank Brigade, whom The Washington Post is identifying only by his call sign, Klimat, for security reasons.
Klimat said this kind of mine-clearing work has been ongoing for weeks, but he declined to describe precise locations or methods used to deactivate the mines. Once a path has been cleared, he said, signs are set up - sometimes lighted, with the beams facing away from Russian positions - to show a path forward.
That’s just the first step. Then comes the fight against the Russians.
Precisely where it will start is impossible to know. But speculation has focused heavily on the Zaporizhzhia region because it is a strategic lifeline for Russia’s occupation. If Ukraine pushes south through the region, it might be able to cut off the “land bridge” connecting occupied Crimea with mainland Russia.
With the Kremlin hellbent on keeping the land it has stolen in Zaporizhzhia, Russian forces have ripped it apart, transforming huge expanses of once-sleepy agricultural fields into a veritable fortress with webs of trenches and other obstacles that can be seen from space.
To retake territory and oust the Russians, the Ukrainians will have to punch through these fortifications. That requires special training and equipment as well as careful reconnaissance to find a weak spot - probably one of a number of reasons the long-awaited counteroffensive has not started yet.
Serhii Matveichuk, a colonel in Ukraine’s Directorate of Engineer Troops, told The Washington Post that Russia had created a “massive system of engineering barriers” that pose a “serious obstacle to the mobility of troops.”
The objective of Russia’s enormous fortification project is to slow a potential assault and to channel any Ukrainian forces that break through into a narrow area. This would allow Russia’s reserves to regroup and give its artillery time to strike the attackers, potentially ending the counteroffensive before it really begins.
If it works, it could be a bloodbath. “It’s a lot like World War I,” said Mark Cancian, a retired Marine Corps officer and defense expert with the Center for Strategic & International Studies, comparing it to the bloody stalemate of trench warfare in that conflict over a century ago. “If the Russians fight hard, it’ll be tough to break through.”
Ukrainian officials declined to discuss the specifics of any plan to push through Russian fortifications, fearful of releasing operational information that could be used by Russia. Matveichuk and other Ukrainian officials spoke to The Post on condition that their locations not be revealed.
Ukrainian engineers and sappers are already at work, in some cases using new equipment designed to pierce these sorts of defenses, including specially modified vehicles based on the famed Leopard 2 German battle tank.
But some analysts say that while Kyiv’s Western backers have focused on missiles, armored vehicles and ammunition, they have not committed the right support to break through Russia’s defenses. Matveichuk said it was “problematic” that the Ukrainian army was short of engineering tanks and other such tools.
According to Ukrainian soldiers, Russia lays its mines in a pattern: one line of antitank mines, a line of antipersonnel lines alongside booby traps, and then another line of antitank mines. Drones can be used to spot the antitank mines, soldiers say, but antipersonnel mines are harder to find.
Once the Ukrainians are through their own lines and in potential sight of Russian forces, breaking through these minefields often requires less stealth and more speed.
In theory, artillery fire can explode mines from afar. But artillery rounds are in limited supply, and Ukrainian soldiers said it was impossible to be sure that all the mines in an area are destroyed.
Instead, modern militaries use specially designed equipment like mechanized mine clearers, engineering tanks and line charges, which are devices that use explosives connected to a line to clear a designated area of mines.
Ukraine has its own mine clearers, such as the UR-77 Meteorit, a Soviet-designed vehicle that uses the same chassis as the old 2S1 howitzer. This heavily armored vehicle uses built-in line charges to clear areas up to 300 feet ahead of it. It is also used by the Russian army.
Western nations have also sent some modern engineering tanks, including Leopard 2R mine-clearing tanks supplied by Finland, that can plow through minefields. These vehicles, developed by Germany, are based on the chassis of the famous battle tank and use heavily armored mine plows to detonate the mines in their path.
Matveichuk, in response to written questions, declined to discuss what machinery would be used in a counteroffensive because disclosures could result in “the enemy developing countermeasures.” However, he noted that heavy engineering tanks like the Leopard 2R were particularly useful as they cannot only clear mines and also push through other obstacles like fences and mounds.
But the best option for this work - the M1150 Assault Breacher Vehicle, based on the chassis of the American-made M1 Abrams battle tank - is not available to Ukraine, Matveichuk said. Washington has been urged to send them but has not done so.
“Despite the significant amount of weapons provided to Ukraine to repel the aggressor’s attack, the problematic issue is the provision of engineering units with engineering tanks” and other technologies, Matveichuk wrote.
The United States has repeatedly listed “mine clearing equipment” in its military aid for Ukraine, without providing details. Open-source weapons trackers have spotted the M58 Mine Clearing Line Charge, also known as the MICLIC, in the country.
Steve Danner, a former U.S. Army engineer who now works as an infrastructure consultant, said other equipment could be sent: He pointed to a type of U.S.-owned armored digger, the Israeli-developed IDF Caterpillar D9. They were used in Iraq but are now “just rusting away” in storage in Kuwait, he said.
“I’m really nervous that Ukraine is not equipped to deal with these extensive obstacles,” Danner said.
Ukrainian soldiers are all too aware that an offensive this year won’t be as simple as the successful counterattacks against Russian forces last fall.
“The enemy is learning from their mistakes,” said Yuri, a 29-year-old unit commander with the 1st Tank Brigade who provided only his first name for security reasons. “They’re better prepared.”
For Russia, the heavy, dirty work of fortification in Zaporizhzhia became urgent after Ukraine pushed Moscow’s troops from the northern Kharkiv region and forced them to retreat east across the Dnieper River in the southern Kherson region.
Though the trenches, ditches, minefields and fences are spread all across occupied Ukraine now, Zaporizhzhia has seen the heaviest of the work.
Brady Africk, an open source analyst who works for the American Enterprise Institute, said that the heavy fortification reflected the “relatively flat topography which provides fewer natural obstacles than are present in occupied areas of eastern Ukraine” or that the Dnieper River provides in Kherson.
The challenge for Russia is trying to guess where along the 600-mile-long front Ukraine will mount its attacks, but satellite imagery shows Russia is acutely aware that Zaporizhzhia could be a focus. Lines of fortification were built not only around Melitopol, a major city now serving as a Russian logistical hub in the south, but also along the roads to Crimea and on the peninsula itself.
If Ukrainian forces can find a path through the minefields, they will then need to use a strategy of combined arms to quickly break through.
Trenches must be taken quickly by infantry with the support of artillery, before hiding Russian soldiers can use the dugouts to fire antitank missiles, Cancian said. Ukrainian tanks could then push forward along with engineering machinery, including bridging vehicles that allow others to pass over ditches and small rivers.
These units will have to move fast. Experts said even just one small breach in the enemy’s fortifications must be exploited without hesitation. With Russian defenses stretched along the front, a fast Ukrainian attack could overwhelm them.
Nine Ukrainian brigades have been training abroad in recent months. Cancian said one or more of them will probably act as “tip of the spear” in the attack.
“Then they can get into the ‘green fields beyond,’ as they say,” said Cancian, referring to the elusive military prize in World War I trench warfare.
Experts say that Russia will have at least one line of reserves that can rush to the front to try to cut off a Ukrainian advance. They may well have more.
“There’s a lot around Melitopol,” said James Rand, an analyst with the private intelligence firm Janes. “The Russians clearly think that the Ukrainians are going to come south.”
Rand added that new weapons technology like the U.S.-provided High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, and the more recent Storm Shadow long-range missile system provided by Britain will influence where Russia positions its reserves.
“The Russians are going to have to think about what they move back,” said Rand, adding that reserves could prove to be a “big juicy target” for Storm Shadows, which have a range of up to 180 miles - putting Melitopol within reach.
If they can push through, Ukraine will have to once again lay defenses, and the sappers will be back at work, this time laying mines. Ukraine has used old Soviet-developed mines, including the TM-62 antitank mine.
“We put a blanket on the mines so they don’t get cold,” Klimat, the engineers commander, joked as he showed off the mines, which were stored in an old GMZ-3 minelayer nearby.
When they lay the mines, they will keep records, he added, in case they have to find a way through again.