In a clandestine maneuver that has sent ripples through the intricacies of conflict in Eastern Europe, Ukrainian troops, presumed to be part of a reconnaissance unit, seemingly breached the outermost anti-tank trench forming the formidable Surovikin Line. Situated in the heart of Russian-occupied southern Ukraine, this development, which unfolded northwest of the occupied town of Verbove in Zaporizhzhia Oblast, suggests that Ukraine’s long-anticipated southern counteroffensive is undergoing a pronounced escalation.
While the precise details of this incursion remain shrouded in the fog of war, it is conceivable that the Ukrainian incursion encountered resistance, potentially from Russian forces employing anti-personnel grenades, prompting a tactical retreat. Nevertheless, this audacious probing by Ukrainian forces is emblematic of the resurgence of their resolve, occurring three months following the commencement of the initial Ukrainian offensives along two pivotal axes in the Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk Oblasts.
Remarkably, Ukrainian forces have achieved significant milestones in recent weeks. They have successfully liberated two pivotal towns, Robotyne and Urozhaine. The former, located a mere mile west of Verbove, and the latter, positioned as a formidable Russian stronghold in the Mokri Yaly River Valley, represent significant territorial gains for Ukraine, underscoring their determination.
This palpable Ukrainian resurgence has not gone unnoticed by Russian commanders, who find themselves on the precipice of uncertainty. In response, a week ago, the Kremlin sanctioned the redeployment of the 76th Guards Air Assault Division, their last major operational reserve, from the eastern front to the southern theater. Elements of this potent division arrived in Tokmak, situated a mere 12 miles south of Robotyne, promptly commencing an artillery barrage upon Ukrainian forces in Robotyne.
The question that lingers in the minds of analysts is how the Kremlin justified this redeployment. The 76th Guards Air Assault Division was stationed in the east for a strategic purpose. What prompted the Kremlin to believe that it could safely transfer this division, comprising three front-line regiments, each boasting a complement of thousands of paratroopers, alongside formidable T-90 and T-72 tanks, to the southern front?
Tom Cooper, a distinguished author and an authority on the Russian military, offers a compelling hypothesis. According to Cooper, the Kremlin’s confidence in the sustainability of its positions in and around Bakhmut, located in the eastern front, has burgeoned. This newfound assurance led to the decision to deploy the 76th Guards Air Assault Division to the southern front.
It’s essential to recall that, concurrently with the southern offensives, Ukrainian forces initiated an attack in the east. Spearheaded by the resolute 3rd and 5th army assault brigades, Kyiv’s forces made a pivotal incursion across the Donbas Canal, a strategic defensive line for Russian forces. Advancing several miles along Bakhmut’s periphery, these eastern offensives were not merely tactical diversions but served a vital purpose.
Cooper elucidates the connection between these seemingly disparate offensives, stating that, “The ZSU offensive in the Bakhmut area of the last few months has tied two Russian VDV divisions.” The ZSU represents Ukrainian forces, while VDV designates Russian airborne forces. With the 96th and 108th Guards Airborne Divisions ensnared in this protracted struggle, only the 76th Guards Air Assault Division could function as a rapid-response force in the east, plugging gaps in Russian defensive lines.
However, a couple of weeks ago, a perceptible slowdown was witnessed in the Ukrainian assault surrounding Bakhmut. Data from NASA’s fire-detecting satellites indicates that the intensity of hostilities around Bakhmut peaked around August 9th and subsequently diminished. This reduction in hostilities could signify a significant de-escalation in the area.
Consequently, the 96th and 108th Guards Airborne Divisions were ostensibly liberated from the shackles of Bakhmut, affording them the latitude to maneuver their own regiments without imperiling the security of the city. This rendered the 76th Guards Air Assault Division superfluous as an operational reserve in the east, paving the way for its pivotal relocation to reinforce Russian defenses in the south.
Intriguingly, this complex interplay of military maneuvers underscores the dynamic and volatile nature of the conflict along the sprawling 600-mile front line in Russia’s protracted war on Ukraine. On both sides, the equilibrium is a fragile construct, where the outcome hangs precariously on the actions of a few battle-worn brigades or regiments, with the pendulum poised to swing in favor of an eager adversary at any given moment.
As it stands, Ukraine’s forces have seized the initiative, particularly in the southern theater. However, if one subscribes to Cooper’s analysis, Russia’s eastern forces may possess a momentum of their own, capable of effecting the transfer of an entire division between regions without destabilizing entire sectors.
In the intricate theater of war, characterized by its ever-shifting dynamics, Ukraine’s recent gains in the south represent a testament to their perseverance and strategic acumen. The saga continues, with each side poised to exploit the slightest shift in the delicate balance of power in this ongoing conflict on Europe’s eastern frontier.