Russia has rushed its hardened airborne troops to defend a breach by Ukrainian forces in a key area of the front line, it can be disclosed.
The Kremlin is understood to be worried that Kyiv’s counter-offensive in the western Zaporizhzhia region could threaten the entire line and has rapidly redeployed elements of the 76th Guards Air Assault Division, Russia’s leading combat soldiers.
But with no strategic reserves, the paratroopers’ movement from the north-eastern and western sectors to the southern front might leave the line severely weakened.
Troop shortages were also the reason why Russia has “highly likely” called off its annual Zapad military exercise next month, Britain’s Ministry of Defence said on Monday.
“Russia has likely cancelled Zapad 23 because too few troops and equipment are available,” the MoD wrote on X, formerly Twitter. The ministry said Russia’s “under-performance in Ukraine” highlighted how such major exercises had limited training value and were “largely for show”.
The 76th division’s move has been forced on commanders after a significant effort by Ukraine since early June to take the heavily defended village of Robotyne that has now opened up a salient.
Kyiv’s forces are now about 2km from the 'Surovikin' defensive line of dragons’ teeth, large tank ditches and major trench system.
A Ukraine reserve officer, who posts online as Tatarigami, said the 76th division was “on paper part of Russia’s strategic reserves”, which meant their deployment was “underscoring the seriousness of the move”.
While their presence will strengthen the Robotyne line, he warned “their failure will critically impair combat-ready reserves for rapid deployment” elsewhere on the line.
Ukrainian troops are now closing in on the key town of Tokmak, 20km away, that stands in the way of their advance to Melitopol and the Azov coast – and their key aim of cutting Russia’s force in half, including in the annexed Crimea peninsula.
Ukraine needs to get within artillery or rocket range – about 30km – of the main T14 motorway to potentially shut down the key land bridge that connects Russia to Kherson region and Crimea.
Tokmak lies slightly more than 40km from Melitopol, which would be a reason why Moscow has ordered its VDV paratroopers to prevent a breakthrough.
“Lateral redeployments … suggest that Russian forces may be using relatively elite units to reinforce critical sectors of the front,” the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) reported.
While Russia faces a breakout in the Robotyne area, Ukraine is also making progress in eastern Zaporizhzhia on a line of attack that threatens the port of Berdyansk, as well as some gains around the besieged totemic city of Bakhmut.
The counter-offensive may well be approaching its critical phase as it remains unclear how strong or well-manned the second and third line of Russian defences might be.
Ukraine faced an unprecedented mass of landmines in the first defensive line but it is unknown whether Russian has been able to seed rear areas on a such a scale.
The ISW said Russia had committed “a considerable amount of materiel, effort and manpower” to hold its first defensive line but it was open to question whether the second or third line would hold “if they cannot commit the same level of resources and personnel to these next layers of defence”.
While the direct route to Tokmak in the village of Novoprokopivka has been heavily defended with extensive and well-protected trenches, recent satellite imagery of the areas on its flanks indicate less well-prepared defences.
A pro-Ukrainian military blogger has suggested Ukraine's advances around Robotyne might mean they can bypass the heavy defences of Novoprokopivka.
“If this happens, Russians must abandon their trenches around the village [of Novoprokopivka],” WarMonitor wrote on X. “The possible beginning of a domino effect north of #Tokmak.”
Emil Kastehelmi, an open-source intelligence analyst, also argued that it was clear Ukraine forces were bypassing the heavily fortified Novoprokopivka.
But he warned if Ukraine’s flanking attack did not succeed, “the spearhead will also slow down, giving the Russians time to prepare defences in depth”.
The tough task Ukrainian troops face was disclosed by a rare frontline report from an unnamed soldier who discussed the network of trenches, including tunnels, that allowed the Russians to observe nearly all movement, then strike from strong positions.
At times, anti-tank operators mounted secret cameras well ahead of their lines to bring accurate fire on to armoured vehicles, he reported. The only areas without mines were “unexcavated” tracks that led to the trenches.
While the 76th division has a strong fighting reputation, taking part in the early assaults against Kyiv, some elements also participated in the Bucha massacre last year, in which soldiers allegedly tortured and murdered Ukrainian civilians.