Ukraine has launched a “major” armoured offensive that has penetrated Russia’s defences potentially heralding the start of its main offensive, several defences sources have said.
In what the Russian Defence Ministry claimed was a “massive assault”, geolocated footage and Pentagon officials confirmed Ukrainian troops advanced several kilometres around the town of Robotyne on Wednesday.
In a cryptic comment made during his nightly address, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said “very good results” had been achieved and more would be disclosed later.
Up to three battalions, the equivalent to a brigade, alongside up 100 armoured vehicles, including Leopard 2 tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, were used in the attack, launched south of the Ukraine-held town of Orikhiv in the Zaporizhzhia region.
Other estimates put the force at 40 armoured vehicles – with more accurate numbers likely to be later confirmed by satellite imagery that can identify heat emissions from tanks.
Kyiv is reportedly using experienced troops from its 10th Corps in the attack, the ultimate aim of which is to penetrate the 90 kilometres to the Sea of Azov, trapping Russian forces in the south-west Kherson region and sealing off Crimea.
A difficult issue for Moscow is that its defending troops from the 58th Combined Arms Army have been under constant attack since early last month.
The 58th’s morale has been sapped by the sacking earlier this month of its popular commander Maj Gen Ivan Popov after he complained to Moscow that his men lacked sufficient supplies and artillery cover.
The Institute for the Study of War, which monitors the conflict using open-source intelligence, suggested “Ukrainian forces may have been more successful than assessed by Russian commentators”.
Geolocating data showed the attack had advanced beyond Russian defensive fortifications “indicating that Ukrainian forces managed to penetrate and drive through tactically challenging defensive positions”.
While Moscow claimed the offensive had been largely repelled, Rybar, a pro-war Russian blogger, claimed “fierce battles are going on in this area” and Ukraine had penetrated the line in three places.
Earlier on Wednesday, western officials said that while progress had been slow, Ukraine was holding back its “second echelon” readying it for the main thrust.
“This is not over yet,” the official said in response to The National’s question on whether a breakthrough was feasible by the end of summer. “There is no reason why the Ukrainians cannot break through that first Russian main defensive line at the rate in which they continue to go.”
But the British Ministry of Defence on Thursday tweeted: “Ukrainian forces continue major offensive operations in Zaporizhzhia Oblast.”
The New York Times quoted two Pentagon officials who said the “main thrust” of the counter-offensive was now under way, with “thousands of reinforcements pouring into the grinding battle” that had been held in reserve.
Given that the Russians appear to have thrown all their forces into the front line, with very little left in reserve, the coming days will reveal whether the rear trenches have sufficient manning.
If not, then it opens up the real possibility that Ukraine could make a push on the town of Tokmak and from there to the key prize of Melitopol.
Taking that city would achieve the primary objective of cutting off Russian forces in the Kherson region but more importantly would seal off the main supply route to Crimea.
This will be a pivotal moment in the campaign that would put severe political pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin, already weakened by the fallout from the Wagner mercenary mutiny last month.
Crimea is still a popular holiday destination for Russian tourists – who currently have limited places to visit – travelling there by military-used motorways along the Sea of Azov coast, including through Melitopol.
If thousands are trapped in the annexed peninsula, alongside their military compatriots, the Russian propaganda line that the war is going well would be questioned.