Institute for the Study of War:   Ukrainian troops advance in western Zaporizhia in a new counteroffensive operation

Institute for the Study of War

Ukrainian forces launched a significant mechanized counteroffensive operation in western Zaporizhia Oblast on July 26 and appear to have broken through certain pre-prepared Russian defensive positions south of Orikhiv. Russian sources, including the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and several prominent milbloggers, claimed that Ukrainian forces launched an intense frontal assault towards Robotyne (10km south of Orikhiv) and broke through Russian defensive positions northeast of the settlement. Geolocated footage indicates that Ukrainian forces likely advanced to within 2.5km directly east of Robotyne during the attack before Russian forces employed standard doctrinal elastic defense tactics and pushed Ukrainian troops back somewhat, although not all the way back to their starting positions.

Russian sources provided a wide range of diverging claims as to the scale of both the attack and resulting Ukrainian losses, indicating that the actual results and Ukrainian losses remain unclear. The Russian MoD claimed that up to three battalions engaged in a “massive assault” near Orikhiv, but ISW has not yet observed visual evidence to suggest that such a large number of personnel (a full brigade) were involved in the attack. One prominent Russian milblogger claimed that Ukrainian forces used over 80 armored vehicles, and other milbloggers more conservatively claimed that the number was closer to between 30 and 40. Various Russian milbloggers additionally made disparate claims about how many armored vehicles Russian forces destroyed. ISW has also not yet observed a large number of heat anomalies from NASA’s FIRMS / VIIRs sensors in this area of the frontline of the sort that have historically accompanied large, mechanized pushes. The disagreement amongst several prominent Russian sources, who have generally tended to offer more mutually consistent claims about the size of and losses resulting from previous Ukrainian attacks, indicates that the situation remains less than clear and that Ukrainian forces may have been more successful than assessed by Russian commentators.

The battlefield geometry around Robotyne, as well as the force composition of the Russian elements defending there, offer important color to speculation surrounding the Ukrainian attack and gains. Geolocated footage from July 27 shows two Ukrainian Bradley infantry fighting vehicles and a T-72 tank either disabled or abandoned about 2.5km due east of Robotyne, which is a point that is about 2.5km south of the current frontline. This geolocated point is beyond the forward-most pre-prepared Russian defensive fortifications in this area, indicating that Ukrainian forces managed to penetrate and drive through tactically challenging defensive positions. This kind of penetration battle will be one of the most difficult things for Ukrainian forces to accomplish in pursuit of deeper penetrations, as ISW has previously assessed. The defensive lines that run further south of Robotyne are likely less well-manned than these forward-most positions, considering that Russian forces have likely had to commit a significant portion of available forces to man the first line of defensive positions that are north and east of Robotyne.

Ukrainians appear to have rotated fresh forces into this area for the operation whereas Russian forces remain pinned to the line apparently without rotation, relief, or significant reinforcement in this sector. Russian milbloggers and unnamed Pentagon officials additionally noted that the Ukrainian units that participated in the July 26 attack are reserves that belong to older and more established Ukrainian brigades. These reports indicate that Ukraine may now be employing fresh and generally more experienced units in the battle, whereas the same Russian 58th Combined Arms Army elements (particularly the 71st Motorized Rifle Regiment of the 42nd Motorized Rifle Division) have been engaged in defensive operations in this very area continually since the beginning of the Ukrainian counteroffensive in early June without relief. The introduction of fresh Ukrainian reserves to the effort, together with the geometry of Russian defensive lines and the likely degraded overall state of Russian forces in this area, may allow Ukraine to begin pursuing more successful advances south of Orikhiv in the coming weeks.

Key Takeaways: 

  • Ukrainian forces launched a significant mechanized counteroffensive operation in western Zaporizhia Oblast on July 26 and appear to have broken through certain pre-prepared Russian defensive positions south of Orikhiv.
  • Russian sources provided a wide range of diverging claims as to the scale of both the attack and resulting Ukrainian losses, indicating that the actual results and Ukrainian losses remain unclear.
  •  The battlefield geometry around Robotyne, as well as the force composition of the Russian elements defending there, offer important color to speculation surrounding the Ukrainian attack and gains.
  • Western and Ukrainian officials suggested that the attacks towards Robotyne mark an inflection in Ukraine’s counteroffensive effort. Today’s actions around Robotyne are likely the start of any “main thrust” Ukrainian forces might be launching, if US officials are correct, rather than the sum of such a thrust.
  • Russian forces conducted a large-scale missile strike largely aimed at rear areas in Ukraine on the night of July 26.
  • The Russian Black Sea Fleet is increasing military posturing in the Black Sea, likely in an attempt to set conditions to forcibly stop and search civilian vessels and exert increased control in the area.
  • The US Department of Defense (DoD) announced on July 26 that it authorized another presidential drawdown to provide an additional $400 million of security assistance to Ukraine.
  • Russia continues to find ways to remind Armenia and Azerbaijan that Moscow’s military and diplomatic presence in the South Caucasus is necessary. The Russian government may have intended for the Russia-Armenia-Azerbaijan trilateral meeting to reduce possible Iranian efforts to supplant Russian influence with Armenia by providing Shahed drones to Yerevan.
  • A prominent Kremlin-linked milblogger expressed his incredulity that the US has not provided Ukraine F-16 fighters yet and did not assess Russian deterrence or escalation cycle dynamics to be a factor.
  • Russian forces conducted offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, in Bakhmut, along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line, in western Donetsk Oblast, and in western Zaporzhia Oblast on July 26 and have made advances in certain areas.
  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations along at least three sectors of the front on July 26 and have advanced in certain areas.
  • Ukrainian military sources reported that Russian forces have begun using Russian-produced Shahed drones against Ukraine.
  • Russian occupation authorities continue to pursue infrastructure projects in occupied areas to facilitate the economic integration of occupied Ukraine into the Russian system.
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