As the long-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive kicked off across southern Ukraine in early June, Russian commanders made an important adjustment to their defensive doctrine—one that had an immediate and profound effect on the Ukrainians’ operations.
The Russians quadrupled the depth of their defensive minefields, from 120 meters to 500 meters—and also increased the density of mines within the expanded fields.
So as the Ukrainians attacked along several axes in Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk Oblasts, they soon rolled into minefields that were far wider than they may have anticipated—and wider than their standard mineclearing equipment could handle. A UR-77 explosive line-charge typically clears a lane around 100 meters long.
This mismatch, between the Russians’ new mine doctrine and the Ukrainians’ old mineclearing doctrine, helps to explain why the counteroffensive is making gains, but far more slowly than some observers expected.
In three months of hard fighting, Ukrainian brigades have advanced only around 10 miles along three main axes in Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk—most recently liberating Robotyne, a key Russian strongpoint on the road through Tokmak toward occupied Melitopol, another 50 miles to the south.
But there’s a downside for the Russians. In expanding their minefields, they’ve depleted their minelaying resources faster than they might originally have anticipated. So the minefields are uneven. For the Ukrainians, this unevenness represents an opportunity.
Analysts Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds explained the Russians’ minelaying adaptation in their latest study for the Royal United Services Institute in London. Russian commanders tweaked their defensive doctrine soon after Ukrainian forces attacked toward Novodarivka and Rivnopil, in Zaporizhzhia near the border with Donetsk.
The Ukrainians eventually liberated both towns, albeit at great cost, and today a mix of army and territorial brigades holds the ground around them, bolstering the western flank of the greater offensive effort by the Ukrainian marine corps along the Mokri Yaly River Valley—the proverbial gateway to Russian-occupied Mariupol.
The main lesson the Russians took away from the Novodarivka and Rivnopil fights was that enough mines could slow any Ukrainian assault by overwhelming the Ukrainians’ mineclearing efforts. “The aim, therefore, has been to increase the depth of minefields to up to 500 meters, well beyond any rapid breaching capability,” Watling and Reynolds wrote.
The effect was immediate. When the Ukrainian army attacked south of Mala Tokmachka, 40 miles west of Rivnopil, on June 8, a combined force from the 47th and 33rd Brigades got caught in a minefield they could not breach while on the move.
Stuck and under fire, the Ukrainians ultimately abandoned two dozen of their best vehicles, including German-made Leopard 2A6 tanks, Leopard 2R mineclearers from Finland and ex-American M-2 fighting vehicles. It was weeks before the Ukrainians found a way around the minefield and circled back around to clear the mines and recover the abandoned vehicles.
Pivoting south toward Robotyne in the second month of the counteroffensive, the 47th Brigade and supporting units slowed down—a lot. They had no choice. “Anti-tank ditches and mine obstacles stretch across the fields,” Ukrainian soldier Olexandr Solon’ko explained. “From regular TM [anti-tank mines] and POM [anti-personnel] mines to more sophisticated ones, all lying in wait for the infantry.”
“All of this must be navigated to make progress forward.”
Not only were the outermost Russian minefields deeper, they were denser, too. “Other common adaptations have included the laying of two anti-tank mines together—one atop the other—compensating for reduced density by ensuring that vehicles are immobilized by single mine-strikes, even when vehicles are equipped with dozer blades,” Watling and Reynolds wrote.
But reinforcing the first line of mines came at a cost to the second and third lines that comprise the three layers of the defensive Surovikin Line. “The Russian logistics systems were organized to equip brigades with sufficient mines to comply with doctrinal templates,” the RUSI analysts noted. “The increased depth of the fields means that Russian forces have had insufficient mines to consistently meet this laydown with a density of mines consistent with doctrine.”
All that is to say, the minefields get thinner the farther south you travel from the front line. Ukrainian brigadier general Oleksandr Tarnavskiy told The Guardian Russia devoted 60 percent of its time and resources building the first defensive line and only 20 percent each to the second and third lines. “In my opinion, the Russians believed the Ukrainians would not get through this line of defense.”
Which helps to explain why the Russians are fighting so hard to keep the Ukrainians on the far side of the first line of minefields, even deploying the last of their operational reserves—in the form of the 76th Guards Air Assault Division—to Tokmak, just south of Robotyne, in the last few weeks.
Once the Ukrainians get through the outermost mines, the defenses could get thinner—and their forward progress might get easier, if not actually easy.
Note that the Ukrainian assault indeed has accelerated in recent weeks. After liberating Robotyne in late August, the Ukrainians quickly lunged across the first Russian fortifications southeast of the town.