Sep 6, 2023
For many observers, Ukraine’s long-anticipated southern counteroffensive began with cataclysm on June 8, when a battlegroup from the Ukrainian army’s 33rd and 47th Mechanized Brigades assaulted Russian positions south of Mala Tokmachka in Zaporizhzhia Oblast—and promptly got stuck in a dense minefield.
The Ukrainians ultimately retreated from the minefield, leaving behind more than two dozen of their best vehicles, including German-made Leopard 2A6 tanks and ex-American M-2 fighting vehicles.
Reeling from the losses, Ukrainian forces switched up their tactics. Instead of deploying large formations of armored vehicles in direct assaults on Russian fortifications in the hope of achieving major breakthroughs, the Ukrainians slowed down, dismounted from their vehicles and pressed their attacks only where they could flank the Russians.
But the Mala Tokmachka debacle wasn’t the only, or even the first, operation where Ukrainian commanders learned this hard lesson. A smaller assault by army and territorial brigades on Russian positions in Novodarivka, in Zaporizhzhia 40 miles east of Mala Tokmachka, ended no less disastrously—and compelled the brigades to shift to more deliberate, and much slower, flanking efforts.
All across the front in the first week of the counteroffensive, the Ukrainians learned the same thing: direct assaults on Russian defenses were too costly. If the counteroffensive were going to succeed, it would succeed slowly—and on foot.
This is a major conclusion of an important new study from analysts Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds from the Royal United Services Institute in London. After the failure of the initial assaults, “the emphasis for Ukrainian troops moved to taking ground while conserving equipment and personnel,” Watling and Reynolds wrote.
The decision to attack the Russian garrison in Novodarivka came late on June 3, following weeks of escalating artillery and drone attacks on Russian positions across southern Ukraine. Four Ukrainian brigades—the army’s 23rd and 32nd Mechanized and a pair of territorial brigades—staged for the assault.
Novodarivka was the Ukrainians’ first objective; the second, Rivnopil, lay just two miles to the east across the border with Donetsk Oblast.
Early on June 4, Ukrainian engineers fired a pair of UR-77 explosive line-charges, blasting a 100-yard lane through the minefield north of Novodarivka. The mech brigades’ T-64BV tanks led columns of MaxxPro mine-resistant ambush-protected armored trucks down the lane toward the settlement.
“Unfortunately, the MRAPs struggled in the boggy ground, especially in the wake of the tanks,” Watling and Reynolds wrote. “Several of the MRAPs bogged in, while the cleared lane was insufficiently wide for other vehicles to pass. It was at this point, with the column fully committed to the breach, that a pair of Russian tanks unmasked and began to engage the column.”
Several Ukrainian vehicles took hits—and the assault collapsed. The surviving infantry bailed out of their MaxxPros. Some retreated north; others scurried south toward Novodarivka. Desperate to support the soldiers heading south, Ukrainian commanders ordered a second breach of the minefield. But the result was the same. “Two more Russian tanks emerged, moving at pace toward the column and firing.”
By now it was clear to the Ukrainians that a frontal assault was suicide. But with a platoon-size force—several dozen soldiers, all survivors of the initial two breaches—isolated on the northern edge of Novodarivka, commanders were confronted with an impossible choice: abandon the survivors, or risk a third assault.
They chose the latter—and got lucky. “One group in platoon strength worked its way along the breach, using the immobilized vehicles as cover, while fires suppressed the Russian positions,” Watling and Reynolds wrote. “Another platoon situated to the west noted that a fold of dead ground had become viable as the repositioning of Russian forces in the village removed it from view, while dense foliage prevented overhead observation by [drones].”
The westernmost platoon worked its way along this blind zone and infiltrated Novodarivka from the west, surprising the Russians on their flank. “After some fierce fighting, the Russian troops withdrew eastward to prevent their positions from becoming isolated.” The Ukrainians had liberated Novodarivka, but at a high cost: a couple of dozen damaged or destroyed vehicle and multiple human casualties.
The brigades’ orders were to continue toward Rivnopil, but their commanders knew they couldn’t afford to expend another two dozen vehicles. “Such a loss rate was not sustainable,” the RUSI analysts explained. After all, a Ukrainian brigade typically deploys just 120 tanks, fighting vehicles and armored trucks.
Fortunately for the Ukrainians, the third and final push into Novodarivka—the flanking maneuver—pointed the way. For this operation, the battered mechanized brigades mostly sat out the attack, and the territorials took the lead.
Pivoting toward Rivnopil, the Ukrainians only pretended to mount a frontal assault. A pair of tanks, borrowed from the mech brigades, opened fire. This drew the Russians’ attention to territorial infantry force staging to the east of the tanks. “The Russian unit began to reposition to prepare for this attack and attempted to win the firefight to the east,” Watling and Reynolds wrote.
It was a feint. And when the Russians shifted to meet it, the real territorial assault force, lying low to the southwest, made its move. “A platoon of assault troops, having infiltrated forward along the western flank of the position, then advanced rapidly, reaching the defensive positions that had been thinned out in anticipation of the assault to the east.”
“Disorientated and fearing encirclement, the Russian troops began to withdraw.” The Ukrainians took five prisoners.
The fighting around Rivnopil would continue for two more weeks, as expertly-placed Russian anti-tank missiles impeded the Ukrainian advance. But the Ukrainians had the momentum—and had worked out tactics for getting around the stiffest Russian defenses: feint with supporting fires, then flank.
This same tactic, adopted by Ukrainian brigades all along the southern front, has paid dividends. It’s how the 33rd and 47th Mechanized Brigades ultimately advanced the seven miles to Robotyne, a key strongpoint on the road to Russian-occupied Melitopol. It’s how the 82nd Air Assault Brigade and 46th Air Mobile Brigade exploited the liberation of Robotyne in order to march on nearby Verbove.
And it probably is how the Ukrainian armed forces will continue to advance as their counteroffensive grinds into its fourth month. The flanking infantry attacks aren’t fast. And even when they succeed, they don’t result in dramatic armored breakthroughs.
But they work, and they save valuable equipment and irreplaceable Ukrainian lives.