DNIPRO, Ukraine – Ukrainian forces and their armored vehicles punched through Russia’s main defensive line on the war’s southern front and are operating on the other side, a local commander said Saturday, in a modest but crucial gain for Kyiv as it seeks a major breakthrough in its grueling counteroffensive.
A Ukrainian air assault unit commander fighting in the southeastern Zaporizhzhia region said that over the past week, the armored vehicles pushed through the so-called “Surovikin line” near Verbove, a small village located several miles from Robotyne, which Ukrainian forces liberated last month. Russia still has substantial defenses built south of the line, such as those surrounding Tokmak, about 25 miles southwest of Verbove.
The commander also said that sending through the vehicles, including German Marders and American Strykers, has come at a high cost. “A lot of equipment was lost there,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to do so publicly.
The Surovikin line – named for the former head of Russian forces in Ukraine, Gen. Sergey Surovikin, whom President Vladimir Putin fired at the beginning of this year – consists of three defensive belts, with a final line of trenches and “dragon’s teeth,” concrete pyramid-shaped obstacles intended to slow down vehicles and channel them into kill zones.
The commander said that Ukrainian infantry passed the final line “two to three weeks ago,” but the vehicles have only recently been able to move through. He said that “the front line has also moved further back behind the dragon’s teeth,” but this has taken place “more slowly.”
“You just have to understand that there is a saturation of antitank mines and a saturation of enemy forces, it’s just colossal,” the air assault forces commander said. “In the direction of Robotyne and Verbove, there’s a constant incoming traffic of assault troops.”
Analysts at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said in a report on Thursday that geolocated photos indicated that “armored vehicles are operating beyond the final line of the Russian defensive layer,” but they were “not yet prepared to assess that Ukrainian forces have broken fully through” Russian defenses.
“It is unclear if Ukrainian forces retain these positions, however,” ISW wrote. “This is the first observed instance of Ukrainian forces operating armored vehicles beyond the Russian tri-layer defense.”
But Ukrainian forces’ “ability to bring armored vehicles to and through the most formidable Russian defenses” and “operate these vehicles near prepared Russian defensive positions” were “important signs of progress in the Ukrainian counteroffensive,” ISW wrote.
Since launching their counteroffensive in June, Ukrainian forces have made only incremental progress against Russia’s well-fortified defenses, which include areas saturated with tank and antipersonnel mines between three and 10 miles deep.
The slow pace of the assault, which aims to drive Russian forces from Ukraine entirely, has led Western officials to conclude that the counteroffensive will most likely not achieve its short-term goals – such as reaching the city of Melitopol near the Azov Sea – before winter starts.
Open-source images shared on social media, but that were not verified by The Washington Post, showed armored vehicles beyond the defensive line. They included images of U.S.-supplied Strykers, an eight-wheeled assault vehicle that can ferry 11 soldiers to the battlefield but has limited protection against tanks and anti-armor rockets.
Footage also showed other Western-made mine-resistant vehicles, which offer protection for soldiers on their way to the fight, and Marders, a German-manufactured assault vehicle, which uses a 20 mm cannon gun to target enemy forces and protect vulnerable allied vehicles.
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Stern reported from Kyiv. Anastacia Galouchka in Kyiv contributed to this report.