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Since Ukraine began its counteroffensive in June, one of the obvious goals has been the city of Tokmak. With a pre-war population under 33,000, Tokmak is barely one-fifth the size of nearby Melitopol, and it’s even smaller when compared to coastal metropolis Mariupol. What makes such a small city such a big target can be summed up in a single word: transportation.
Tokmak is one of those places in Ukraine where multiple highways and rail lines come together. In fact, it’s a crucial transportation hub for the “land bridge” that Russia currently occupies along the southern coast of Ukraine, which is why Russia built not just one or two, but at least eight lines of defensive structures between Ukrainian positions at the start of the counteroffensive and those critical junctions in the middle of Tokmak. That includes a circle of defenses that entirely surrounds the city in case Ukraine tries to come at this location from another direction.
At first those defensive lines seemed to be extremely formidable, mostly because the first such line was preceded by a densely planted minefield that extended for kilometers. However, Ukraine has been able to punch through lines closer to Tokmak seemingly without facing anything like that initial minefield. As Ukrainian forces work their way through Verbove and Novoprokovika, it looks as if Russia may be moving to literally retrench their defenses around the obvious target of the Ukrainian advance.
Here’s a portion of the map created by online analyst @Defmon showing some of the defenses that already exist around Tokmak. Right now, Ukraine is advancing into both Verbove and Novoprokovika.
On Tuesday, Russian sources reported a large increase in Ukrainian artillery being directed into these areas and to points south along the line to Tokmak. One of those sources described the bombardment as “apocalyptic.” There has also been an increased use of precision weapons systems like HIMARS to hit concentrations of materiel and Russian troops behind the lines.
Such heavy use of artillery often precedes an attempted advance. Considering Ukraine’s recent successes in penetrating Russian lines, it would not be surprising if there were a determined effort in the next day or two to extend the liberated area—though this is far from certain. That artillery barrage is a good sign that Ukraine is preparing to move, but it’s far from a sure sign.
Even if Ukraine doesn’t follow up those shells with infantry and armor, what they’ve done already is drive 10 kilometers through Russian defenses against the most tightly packed and heavily reinforced Russian units anywhere on the front, which has to be making Tokmak, just 17 km from the current front, seem like it’s seriously under threat.
According to a Telegram post from Melitopol Mayor Ivan Federov, the “constant onslaught” of Ukrainian forces is driving Russia to bring in the concrete and rebar. Again.
“To the north of Tokmak, a new fortified district appeared on both sides of the highway leading to the recently liberated Ukrainian village of Robotyne,” writes Federov. “At the border of Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia oblasts, concrete trucks are arriving to construct more fortifications.”
It’s unclear to what extent Russia has added defenses along the highway between Tokmak and Robotyne. However, considering the level of satellite imagery available to OSINT in recent days, it’s likely we’ll get a look at anything significant very soon. And considering how Ukraine is moving, they may be getting a direct look at this area in the not too distant future.
Ukraine’s counterbattery fire continues to improve
If there is one complaint that Russian soldiers on the southern front have expressed repeatedly, it’s that there’s a profound lack of artillery support. According to online analyst @JayInKyiv, there are good reasons that this could be more than just generic grousing.
Until May, Ukraine was reporting the destruction of about 200 Russian artillery guns each month. That’s an impressive number, but it’s also also a number that could be within Russia’s rate of manufacture. Russia recently claimed that it could manufacture about 200 tanks a month, though the real value may be more like 90, with most of those being older tanks put back into service. So 200 artillery pieces seems possible.
However, since the counteroffensive began, Ukraine has been steadily improving its ability to knock out Russia’s big guns. Reports like this one from the Ukrainian General Staff on Wednesday, showing 38 artillery pieces knocked out, have become typical.
That brought Russian losses to nearly 700 guns a month for the early summer and over 800 lost in September. It’s a pretty good bet that Russia isn’t making anything close to that many replacements.
The rapid rate of artillery depletion is likely to have another effect on Russia’s ability to provide artillery cover. Fast counterbattery action, whether utilizing artillery or drones, limits the number of times a gun can fire before it needs to move to a new location. That makes it harder to hit targets and provide the sustained fire necessary to hold positions. Harried artillery is ineffective artillery.
Last Saturday, RO37 wrote about what this means in context of Russia’s doctrine:
Russia relie[s] on the quantity of shells to make up for a lack of precision strike capability. Russian artillery might not be able to narrowly hit a target with an individual shot, but if they drop enough shells in an area, the chances of hitting the targets increases.
For example, if a 12-gun Russian battery of self-propelled howitzers targets its 12-gun enemy counterpart with 600 rounds within 15-20 minutes, the odds are good that at least one of those rounds will hit something. That’s how you end up with moonscapes like this one, around Dovhen’ke.
… Precision munitions, like the 155mm Excalibur GPS guided shell, have a range of 50 km, allowing Ukrainian guns to theoretically operate deep behind friendly lines, well outside the 20-25 km range of Russian artillery. However, Ukraine is so confident in its ability to avoid Russian counter-battery fire, it operates as close as 10 km from the frontlines, allowing it to strike even deeper behind enemy lines if it so chooses.
And of course, Ukraine frequently uses GMLRS rocket artillery’s 70 km range to destroy Russian guns. Those rockets, launched from either HIMARS or M270 launchers, so badly outrange Russian weaponry that Ukraine has yet to lose a single confirmed launcher—despite being in theater since last June, over a year ago, and being one of Russia’s highest priority targets.
It is impossible for a Russian artillery gun to open fire without being in range of Ukrainian guns.
Furthermore, while Russian artillery must generally sustain a barrage for several minutes to bring sufficient weight of firepower on a target to destroy it (recall the moonscape picture shared above), Ukrainian artillery can quickly and effectively respond with small numbers of guided munitions to take out their opposing counterparts with ruthless accuracy. Not only are these strikes more precise (and require fewer shells), the engagement phase is merely the time to load and fire a single precision round—as little as 15-20 seconds.
The numbers like those above have to be on the mind of every Russian gun crew.
Russia is working on a railroad to Mariupol
Tokmak may be critical to Russian transportation across much of the south, but according to a Ukrainian official quoted by CNN, Russia is working to expand its options in the south by creating a new rail line to the occupied city of Mariupol.
There are a number of rail lines into Mariupol, but currently all of those lines run to the north. At some points, those lines are less than 10 km from the front lines. Just as with the additional fortifications at Tokmak, this construction assumes that Ukraine will make further advances, severing those northern lines.
It’s unclear how long it would take Russia to actually construct a rail line in this area.
Ukrainian reports successes south of Bakhmut
On Wednesday, Ilya Yevlash, spokesperson for the eastern group of Ukrainian forces, reported that Ukraine had “success within 24 hours near the villages of Klishchiivka, Odradivka and Shumy” south of Bakhmut.
That Ukraine would still be successfully fending off Russian attempts to retake territory around Klishchiivka is expected, as Russia has made several failed attempts over the past two weeks. But it’s the other two names on the list that bring some interest to this statement. Here’s where those locations fall on Deep State’s map of the area.
Shumy is well south of most recent action, near the occupied town of Mayorsk. There’s a major highway there running to the city of Horlivka, but there hasn’t been much action in this area. That could be changing.
Odradivka is also puzzling because it’s located over 3 km east of Klishchiivka and Andriivka. Even if Yevlash’s statement is simply an indication of direction, this could mean that Ukraine has taken steps to move away from the towns it has liberated on the west side of this area and attack across the low ground directly south of Bakhmut. It will likely be another couple of days before the meaning of this is clear.