Russian Trenches In Southern Ukraine Are Too Short To Stop A Ukrainian Attack

It’s been three weeks since Ukrainian brigades forced Russian troops across the wide Dnipro River in southern Ukraine, liberating Kherson city and bending the arc of Russia’s nine-month-old wider war on Ukraine.

The fighting in the south has slowed since then. But the calm belies the coming escalation. The Russians are digging in. And the Ukrainians are probing for weaknesses in Russia’s new defensive lines.

The weak spots already are evident. “The Russian field fortifications in eastern Kherson are … optimized to defend against drives along the roads and would be very vulnerable to envelopments across the open countryside,” the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for the Study of War noted in a detailed study of Russian defenses in southern Ukraine.

That’s a foreboding sign for the depleted Russian field armies in the south. Trenches and tank-traps are sprouting up across eastern Kherson Oblast on the Dnipro’s left bank. But the fortifications don’t form long, unbroken lines. Instead, they simply straddle the main roads running south from the Dnipro toward the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula.

Ukrainian mechanized forces already are adept at crossing rough terrain. That’s how they advanced across northern Kherson starting in September. Yes, Ukraine is cold and muddy right now—less than ideal conditions for a cross-country march. But the ground will get firmer as the temperature continues dropping over the coming weeks. There’s no reason to expect that, once the Ukrainians cross the Dnipro, they won’t again take to the open fields.

Tactically, the Ukrainians could bypass the stiffest Russian positions by going off-road. Operationally, there also are opportunities for the Ukrainians to avoid the densest Russian fortifications.

Scouring satellite imagery, ISW’s analysts identified a lot of new Russian earthworks at the eastern edge of the Kinburn Peninsula, a sandy finger of land curling across the mouth of the Dnipro from the river’s left bank.

Those earthworks make sense. Ukrainian commandos likely have been on the Kinburn Peninsula for at least a couple of weeks now. The new Russian fortifications could complicate a Ukrainian attempt to roll east from Kinburn in order to create a lodgment on Dnipro’s left bank.

But Russian fortifications are much thinner on the opposite side of Kherson Oblast at the border with Zaporizhzhia Oblast. Analysts long have been anticipating a Ukrainian offensive in Zaporizhzhia—one that could turn right and get behind the first line of Russian troops on the Dnipro’s left bank.

The lack of major defenses on the Zaporizhzhia side of Kherson could indicate Russian planners are downplaying the risk of a Ukrainian attack along this axis. Of course, it also is possible the Russians are planning for a mobile defense. Falling back from fort to fort, staying just ahead of the Ukrainians and bleeding them for each mile they advance. If this mobile defense sounds familiar, it’s because that’s how the Ukrainian armed forces have defeated more than a few Russian attacks.

“The Russian military is setting conditions for a protracted defense in eastern Kherson Oblast,” ISW noted. But this protracted defense might not prevent the establishment of at least one “solid Ukrainian lodgment” on the left bank of the Dnipro River.

So even if the Ukrainians fail to gain a lot of ground in their first attack, they could fall back to their lodgment, reconsolidate and try again. The disposition of Russian forces south of the Dnipro speaks to the Kremlin’s expectations. As the first full winter of the wider war sets in, Russian commanders expect to remain on the defensive. And they might also expect to trade space for time.

The open question is what the Kremlin hopes to buy with that time. It’s possible the Russian army is planning another round of forced mobilization of potentially hundreds of thousands of men. “If Russian forces expect Ukrainian forces to take months to break through their defenses in this [southern] region, they could reasonably expect additional mobilized forces or partially-trained conscripts to arrive in time to stop and possibly reverse the Ukrainian counteroffensive,” ISW explained.

But that expectation hinges on a huge assumption—that future conscripts will be better than current conscripts.

The 300,000 men the Kremlin drafted back in September, and speeded to the front without much training, didn’t prevent Ukrainian forces from liberating huge swathes of their country starting the same month. Why would another couple hundred thousand equally unready conscripts make a difference if the Ukrainians launch an offensive across the Dnipro in December or January?

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