Russia Has Deployed Its Last Reserve Division To Southern Ukraine. Did A Ukrainian Screw-Up Make That Possible?

Sep 1, 2023

The 76th Guards Air Assault Division in training.

Ukrainian troops last week apparently crossed the outermost anti-tank trench in the first line of fortifications comprising the vaunted Surovikin Line stretching across Russian-occupied southern Ukraine.

It’s possible the Ukrainians were from a small reconnaissance unit. It’s equally possible they retreated after coming under fire from Russian troops firing anti-personnel grenades.

But the Ukrainian probe, if that’s what it was, northwest of occupied Verbove in southern Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Oblast on Wednesday is further evidence that Ukraine’s long-anticipated southern counteroffensive is intensifying, three months after the initial Ukrainian assaults along two major axes in Zaporizhzhia and neighboring Donetsk Oblasts.

The Ukrainians in the past couple of weeks have liberated two key towns: Robotyne, a mile west of Verbove, as well as Urozhaine, a Russian strongpoint in the Mokri Yaly River Valley 60 miles to the east.

Russian commanders are spooked. So spooked that, a week ago, they redeployed the 76th Guards Air Assault Division—their last major operational reserve—from eastern Ukraine to the south. Elements of the powerful 76th GAAD arrived in Tokmak, 12 miles south of Robotyne, and promptly began shelling Ukrainian forces in Robotyne.

But how? The 76th GAAD was in eastern Ukraine for a reason. What changed to convince the Kremlin it safely could redeploy the division, which includes three front-line regiments each with a couple of thousand paratroopers plus T-90 and T-72 tanks?

Tom Cooper, an author and expert on the Russian military, has a theory. According to Cooper, the 76th GAAD is free to redeploy from the east to the south because the Kremlin lately has been feeling more confident about the durability of its positions in and around Bakhmut.

Recall that, at the same time Ukrainian brigades launched their counteroffensive in the south, a small Ukrainian force attacked in the east, as well. Led by a pair of aggressive army assault brigades, the 3rd and 5th, Kyiv’s eastern forces crossed the Donbas Canal, a key defensive position for the Russians, and advanced a couple of miles along Bakhmut’s flanks.

The eastern attacks served an important purpose for the southern attacks. “The ZSU offensive in the Bakhmut area of the last few months has tied two Russian VDV divisions,” Cooper wrote, using the native acronyms for Ukrainian forces (ZSU) and Russian airborne forces (VDV).

With the 96th and 108th Guards Airborne Divisions pinned in place, only the 76th GAAD could function as a “fire brigade” in the east, moving swiftly to plug gaps in Russian lines.

But then, a couple of weeks ago, the Ukrainian assault around Bakhmut slowed—seemingly a lot. Data from NASA fire-detecting satellites shows hot spots around Bakhmut peaking around Aug. 9 then subsiding, a possible indication that the fighting in the area significantly has ebbed.

After that happened, the 96th and 108th Guards Airborne Divisions apparently were free to shift their own regiments without risking Bakhmut. That rendered the 76th GAAD redundant as an operational reserve in the east—and freed up the division to shore up Russian defenses in the south.

“The Keystone Cops in Moscow found themselves free to start redeploying a third VDV division to southern Zaporizhzhia,” is how Cooper colorfully put it.

Ukraine’s eastern offensive indirectly sustained its southern offensive—by pinning down Russia’s reserves. Commanders in Kyiv obviously have understood this from the beginning. But that begs the question: why did they apparently slow the eastern offensive?

It’s possible the assault brigades leading the attack paused in order to rest, refit and make good losses from months of hard fighting. It likewise is possible the Ukrainian armed forces don’t have enough reserves of their own to replace the assault brigades on the front line, even temporarily.

The shifting balance of forces along the 600-mile front line of Russia’s 19-month-old wider war on Ukraine underscores the intensity of the fighting. Both sides always are just a few exhausted brigades or regiments from ceding momentum to an eager enemy.

Right now, Ukraine’s forces have the momentum—in the south. But if you believe Cooper, Russia’s forces might have enough momentum of their own, in the east, to move a division between regions without that move destabilizing entire sectors.

Follow me on Twitter. Check out my website or some of my other work here. Send me a secure tip

David Axe


  1. “Right now, Ukraine’s forces have the momentum—in the south. But if you believe Cooper, Russia’s forces might have enough momentum of their own, in the east, to move a division between regions without that move destabilizing entire sectors.”

    I think Cooper is giving too much credit to the cockroach generals. They’ve shifted troops before, like the Keystone Kops that he used to describe moscow, they have no ideas anymore on how to gain an advantage on the battlefield. Moving frontline troops from one area to the next due to the opponent’s actions is not a good strategy, especially when you’re supposed to be the more powerful force and want to conquer a country.
    And, AFU has indeed slowed down its advances in the Bakhmut front, but this doesn’t mean that it lacks reserves. They’ve been careful to use reserves and do so only when a situation calls for it. The slowdown could be due to any number of other reasons, some of which the article mentioned. We simply don’t know it.
    All in all, I have confidence in the AFU general staff and would never even consider the cockroach generals to do anything smart. Their only skills are meat puppets waves and massive artillery strikes. Oh, and stealing state funds when they’re not too busy committing war crimes. The only smart thing would be their defensive lines, but the one responsible for it has been extracted from the war … like a rotten tooth.
    And, the title is misleading. The article doesn’t mention any purposed screw-up by the Ukrainians.

  2. ” But if you believe Cooper, Russia’s forces might have enough momentum of their own, in the east, to move a division between regions without that move destabilizing entire sectors.”

    Ukraine might also have been waiting for the orcs to move reserves from the East, so they can retake Bakhmut. The author might be an expert on the russian military, but as many before him have proved, they have no clue how Ukraine are operating.

    • It’s obvious that the mafia army can’t do both places at once. One’s bound to be undermanned. We’ll see where that’ll be. As usual, it’ll be the AFU that decides which one.

  3. Whatever. The supperpower is facing a quagmire. Concerning RuSSia’s military might Ukrainians are proving to be a devastating ground force. Prigo knew this and wanted to prevent RuSSia’s complete humiliation. His death means Putin will be humiliated like no ruSSian dictator before him.

  4. An interesting point, this reinforcement move, but David Axe is using Tom “Sarcastosaurus” Copper’s Augzst 29 report, while the new one for September 1st is out now. And in this, Cooper notes important advances by the ZSU and the VDV unit arriving too late to strengthen the lines. So, certainly no mere walk in the park for the Ukrainian troops, but no unsurmountable barrier, neither. If they can keep their momentum, there’s exciting developments ahead in the next days. Kick the sorry russian asses back to Putinstan, heroes!

    • Even more important than mere mafia troops for the AFU are the minefields. There seem to be none or very few in this area, which will open new doors of opportunity for Ukraine. Maybe we’ll even see some Blitzkrieg tactics in the near future, like in Kharkiv from last year.

      • US made cluster bombs could help clearing minefields. Of course there still would be casualties on the ukrainian side, but i don’t see any other option to move forward at the moment.

      • Right, ofp, with high mobility, much larger gains are possible! Here’s crossing fingers that the AFU can cut deep into undefended regions now.

Enter comments here: