The Russians quadrupled the depth of their defensive minefields from 120 to 500 meters and increased the density of mines within the expanded fields.
Thus, when the Ukrainians attacked along several axes in the Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk oblasts, they were soon met with minefields much wider than they had anticipated and more than their standard demining equipment could handle.
This mismatch between the Russians’ new anti-mine doctrine and the Ukrainians’ old mine clearance doctrine helps explain why the counteroffensive is progressing much more slowly than some observers expected.
In three months of heavy fighting, the Ukrainian brigades have only advanced about 15 kilometers on each of the three main axes of Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk and have recently liberated Robotyne, a key Russian strongpoint on the road through Tokmak to occupied Melitopol. , another 80 kilometers to the south.
But there is a downside for the Russians. Expanding their minefields has depleted their mining resources faster than they originally anticipated. So, the minefields are uneven. For Ukrainians, this unevenness represents an opportunity.
Analysts Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds explained the Russians’ adaptation in their latest study for the Royal United Services Institute in London. Russian commanders modified their defensive doctrine shortly after Ukrainian forces attacked Novodarivka and Rivnopil in Zaporizhzhia, near the border with Donetsk.
The Ukrainians eventually liberated both cities, although at great cost, and today, a mix of army and territorial brigades hold the ground around them, reinforcing the western flank of the Ukrainian Marine Corps’ largest offensive effort along the river valley: Mokri Yaly, the proverbial gateway to Russian-occupied Mariupol.
The main lesson the Russians drew from the fighting at Novodarivka and Rivnopil was that a sufficient number of mines could slow down any Ukrainian assault by overwhelming the Ukrainian clearance efforts. “The goal, therefore, has been to increase the depth of minefields to 500 meters, well beyond any rapid breaking capacity,” Watling and Reynolds wrote.
The effect was immediate. When the Ukrainian army attacked south of Mala Tokmachka, 65 km west of Rivnopil, on June 8, a combined force of the 47th and 33rd brigades was trapped in a minefield that it could not clear on the march.
Stuck and under fire, the Ukrainians abandoned two dozen of their best vehicles, including German-made Leopard 2A6 tanks, Finnish Leopard 2R minehunters, and aging American M-2 combat vehicles. Weeks passed before the Ukrainians found a way around the minefield and turned around to clear the mines and recover the abandoned vehicles.
In the second month of the counter-offensive, the 47th Brigade and supporting units turned south towards Robotyne. They had no choice. “Anti-tank ditches and mine obstacles are spread across the fields,” explained Ukrainian soldier Olexandr Solon’ko. “From normal TM mines [anti-tank mines and POM [antipersonnel mines] to more sophisticated ones, all on the lookout for infantry.”
“You have to overcome all this to move forward.”
The more distant Russian minefields were not only deeper but also denser. “Other common adaptations have included placing two anti-tank mines together – one on top of the other – to compensate for the lower density by ensuring that vehicles are immobilized by a single mine hit, even when the vehicles are equipped with dozers,” they wrote. Watling and Reynolds.
But the reinforcement of the first line of mines came at a cost to the second and third lines that make up the three layers of the Surovikin Defensive Line. “Russian logistics systems were organized to equip brigades with enough mines to meet doctrinal templates,” RUSI analysts noted. “The increase in the depth of the fields means that Russian forces have not had enough mines to systematically comply with this provision with a mine density consistent with doctrine.”
The minefields get thinner the further south you travel from the front line. Ukrainian Brigadier General Oleksandr Tarnavskiy told The Guardian that Russia spent 60% of its time and resources building the first defensive line and only 20% on the second and third. “In my opinion, the Russians believed that the Ukrainians would not break through this defensive line.”
This helps explain why the Russians are fighting so hard to keep the Ukrainians on the other side of the front line of minefields, even deploying the last of their operational reserves – in the form of the 76th Air Assault Division of the Guard- in Tokmak, just south of Robotyne, in recent weeks.
Once the Ukrainians break through the outermost mines, the defenses could weaken, and their advance could be easier, if not really easy.
The Ukrainian assault has accelerated in recent weeks. After liberating Robotyne at the end of August, the Ukrainians quickly descended on the first Russian fortifications southeast of the city.