Ukrainian defence lines and what happens when they are breached

Jan 14, 2023
Ukrainian soldiers

Soledar has fallen to Russian troops. Bakhmut (Artymovsk) will follow soon.

This constitutes the breach of Ukraine’s second defence line within the Donetzk and Lysichansk oblasts. I will discuss those lines with the maps below.

The first map shows the range of land taken by Russian forces by April 1 2022 (Kiev region not shown).

Russia had invaded with a small force of some 100,000 soldiers supported by some 50,000 soldiers of the Donetzk/Luhansk Republics. The opposing forces were 250,000 regular Ukrainian army troops which quickly grew to 450,000 and then 650,000 by mobilisation of reserve forces plus the Territorial Defence Forces. During the first weeks the Russian forces had taken a huge amount of land that they barely had the numbers to hold.

At that point Russia was still hoping that the negotiations held at that time with Ukraine in Turkey would have a positive outcome. As a confidence measure it had already started to pull back from around Kiev. However, after phone calls from and a visit by the British prime minister Boris Johnson the Ukrainian government ended the negotiations by suddenly adding demands the Russia would never agree to. The troops from Kiev were pulled back anyway and moved to the east of Ukraine where they started an attack on the first defence line (yellow) of the Ukrainian forces.

April 1 2022

This first defence line, like later ones, ran along railway and road communication routes that connect major cities. In the map above the cities that constituted the first defence line were, north to south, Siverodonetsk, Lysichansk, Popasna, Svitlodarsk.

By July 1 2022 the first Ukrainian defence line was breached and defeated by Russian forces. The Ukrainian troops moved back to their second defence line. However, the defeat of the first defence line had taken its toll of the small Russian Special Military Operation force.

July 1 2022

The second Ukrainian defense line, north to south, ran from Siversk to Soledar, Bakhmut, New York agglomeration and then along the old ceasefire line of the Donetzk Republic.

The Russian forces tried to avoid a costly direct attack on the second Ukrainian defence line. It launched an operation to breach into the Donetzk oblast behind the second Ukrainian defence line from the north (now gray area). The battles for Izium and Lyman were fought for that purpose. However, the wooden area north of the Siversky Donets river that runs east to west as well as the river itself proved to be difficult to cross. Several attempts to move significant forces across it failed.

At the end of August 2022 the exhausted Russian forces had switched to a defensive posture and into an ‘economy of force’ mode. Troops that were holding the Kharkiv area north of the Donetzk oblast were reduced. The other forces were moved to the eastern front to strengthen the Russian lines on that front.

Meanwhile Ukraine was openly discussing and preparing for an attack on the Kherson region north of the Dnieper river with the final aim of crossing the river to then move towards Crimea. Russia responded by further reducing the troop numbers in the northern Kharkiv region to a few thousand men and by using the others to further strengthen its positions in the south around Kherson.

During the fall the Ukrainian attacks on the Kherson region all failed with high losses. However U.S. intelligence advised the Ukrainian command that the Kharkiv region, while still held by Russian forces, was practically empty. The command switched the active front towards the north and successfully moved into the Kharkiv region while Russian troops still positioned there moved further east.

This was a quite fast operation that looked very successful. But the speed also meant that the heavy Ukrainian artillery cover was thin to not existent. This while the retreating Russian forces used their own artillery to attack Ukrainian front formations in pre-planned fire missions. After proceeding fast over some 70 kilometers from west to east the Ukrainian attack force had taken high losses and ran out of steam. It came up to a new Russian defence line (red) covered by two rivers that proved difficult to cross. The Kharkiv front has since stabilised.

Jan 1 2023

The Ukrainian ‘victory’ in the Kharkiv region gave the Russian government the necessary public backing for the mobilisation of additional forces. 300,000 reservists were called up. Some 70,000 additional men joined as volunteers. The Wagner private military company increased its force size to some 50,000 men. Over the last three month of 2022 all those forces were supplied with the necessary equipment and went through refresher training.

Meanwhile a new Russian commander, General Sergey Surovkin, took over. He warned immediately that he would have to take some difficult decisions. This was related to the situation in the Kherson region north of the Dnieper. Constant attacks on the river crossings with U.S. supplied missiles made the logistic situation very difficult. The command decided to pull back behind the river. This operation was remarkably successful. Ten thousands of civilians plus some 25,000 soldiers with all their equipment were removed from the area with only few if any losses.

By the end of the year the shortening of the front lines and the introduction of fresh forces had allowed the Russian forces to regain the initiative. They launched intense attacks on Ukraine’s second defence line. With the successful taking of Soledar that line has now been breached. This makes the situation of Siversk, north of Soledar, and of Bakhmut, south of it, much more difficult. No Ukrainian troops or materials can now be moved on the roads and railways that were part of the line. The breach of the line will allow Russian troops to move west of it to the north and the south to then create cauldrons for the other positions within that same line. ‘Rolling up a defence line’ is a description of that process.

The now heavily reduced Ukrainian forces will likely have to give up on holding the second defence line to then create a third one to the west of it.

The third Ukrainian defence line will run from Sloviansk in the north through Kramatorsk, Druzhkivka, Kostantinovka to the New York agglomeration. I expect the complete defeat and cleanup of the second Ukrainian defence line by the end of March. The third Ukrainian defence line will probably fall by the mid of the year. Whatever is left of the Ukrainian forces will then try to hold a fourth defence line along the string of smaller towns west of it.

This will be the last Ukrainian line in the Donetsk oblast. It likely to fall before by the end of September.

The Russian moves against the third and fourth Ukrainian defence lines will likely be supported by a move from the south that will liberate the rest of the Zaporiziha and Donetsk oblast.

Aside from those operations the Russian command has sufficient number of troops available to run another major attack. This could come from the north into the Kharkiv regain behind the Ukrainian troops currently attacking the Russian lines further east.

The Russian forces in Ukraine were tasked with liberating the oblast that Russia had recognised as independent states (Donetzk and Luhansk) as well as those that had additionally voted to become part of Russia (Zaporiziha and Kherson).

With the breaking up of all four Ukrainian defence lines in Donetzk oblast that task will be fulfilled. This with the exception of the part of the Kherson region north of the Dnieper river which will require a separate operation on its own. The Russian command may want to wait for this until more Ukrainian forces have been destroyed while holding their defence lines.

Another task given to the Special Military operation was to ‘demilitarise’ and ‘denazify’ Ukraine. The Ukrainian tactic of holding fixed lines anchored on major cities at any price has come at a significant cost. Russian artillery is superior to the Ukrainian by a factor of ten. The Russian forces use it to destroy Ukrainian troops holding the lines while taking only few losses on their own side.

Today’s Wall Street Journal finally noted that this Ukrainian battle tactic is not a winning one:

Western—and some Ukrainian—officials, soldiers and analysts increasingly worry that Kyiv has allowed itself to be sucked into the battle for Bakhmut on Russian terms, losing the forces it needs for a planned spring offensive as it stubbornly clings to a town of limited strategic relevance. Some of them say that it would make sense to retreat to a new defensive line on the heights west of Bakhmut while such a pullback can still be organised in a coordinated fashion, preserving the Ukrainian military’s combat strength.

“It’s not me, it’s King Leonidas who figured out that you should fight the enemy on the terrain that is advantageous to you,” said one Ukrainian commander in Bakhmut, referring to the ruler of Sparta who battled the Persian Empire at Thermopylae. “So far, the exchange rate of trading our lives for theirs favours the Russians. If this goes on like this, we could run out.”

The Ukrainian soldier is right. However, a different form of fighting the war would be a mobile delay and retreat action from which local counter offensives would be launched. This requires a lot of equipment, battle tanks and infantry fighting vehicles, that the Ukraine no longer has. It also requires troops and larger formations trained for that type of fight. Some 60 year old mailman drafted during Ukraine’s 9th mobilisation wave will not be able to learn this during his two weeks training course.

Had the professional Ukrainian army that exited before the war been allowed to give up on cities and had it used a mobile combined arms tactic of delay-retreat-counterattack it probably would have been more successful. But that army has by now been destroy with Russian artillery because Kiev insisted on holding cities and lines at any price.

The U.S. will only now start to train Ukrainian troops in combined arms and joint maneuvering. It will be too little too late to make any difference.


First published in The Moon of Alabama January 11, 2023

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