Surprisingly weak Ukrainian defenses help Russia advance

Surprisingly weak Ukrainian defenses help Russia advance

Rudimentary Ukrainian trench lines outside Avdiivka, in territory claimed by Russia.

Satellite image from Planet Labs, February 26

From The New York Times

Outside the eastern Ukrainian city of Avdiivka, Russian forces continue to make small but rapid progress, partly due to dwindling Ukrainian ammunition and waning Western aid.

But there is another reason why Kremlin troops are advancing in the area: poor Ukrainian defenses.

Sparse, rudimentary trench lines populate the area west of Avdiivka that Ukraine is trying to defend, according to a review of images by Planet Labs, a commercial satellite company. These trench lines lack many additional fortifications that could help slow Russian tanks and defend key roads and terrain.

Avdiivka has been the scene of a bitter clash over the past nine months, becoming one of the bloodiest battles of the war. When Russia captured the city on February 17, its first major gain since last May, the Ukrainian army claimed it had secured defensive lines outside the city.

But Russian troops have captured three villages west of Avdiivka within a week and are fighting for at least one more.

Sources: satellite image from Planet Labs; Russian-controlled territory (as of February 29, 2024) by the Institute for the Study of War with the American Enterprise Institute's Critical Threats Project.

From The New York Times

Satellite images at the scale shown here are widely available. U.S. officials said privately that it was concerning that Ukraine did not reinforce its defenses early or well enough and that it could now face the consequences of Russian units slowly but steadily advancing beyond Avdiivka.

British military intelligence said on Thursday that Russian forces had already advanced about four miles from the center of Avdiivka in the last two weeks, a small but unusually rapid advance compared to previous offensive operations.

The Ukrainian commanders had sufficient time to prepare the defenses outside Avdiivka. The area has been under attack since 2014 and Ukraine has had only tenuous control over it since Russia launched its full-scale invasion two years ago.

But Ukrainian defenses outside Avdiivka feature rudimentary earthen fortifications, often with a communication trench for infantry troops to reach firing positions closest to the enemy, but little else.

Stronger Russian defense

The lack of robust Ukrainian fortifications in the region is particularly glaring when compared to the formidable Russian defenses that thwarted Kiev's advance last summer during the Ukrainian counteroffensive, which ultimately failed.

The Russian fortifications outside the southern village of Verbowe, which Ukraine failed to recapture in the fall, show a completely different picture.

Sources: satellite image from Planet Labs; Russian-controlled territory (as of February 29, 2024) by the Institute for the Study of War with the American Enterprise Institute's Critical Threats Project; Russian fortifications based on data from Brady Africk.

From The New York Times

Unlike the poorly fortified villages that Russian forces plan to capture outside Avdiivka, Verbove has a concentric ring of fortifications. It begins with a trench wide enough to trap advancing tanks and armored vehicles, followed by a network of concrete obstacles, the dragon's teeth, also used to stop vehicles, and finally a wide trench for infantry.

Satellite images from February show the complex Russian defenses west of Verbowe, with thousands of shell craters visible in the surrounding fields.

Satellite image from Planet Labs, February 25

From The New York Times

“A very expensive option”

There are many possible reasons for Ukraine's apparent lack of defense assets.

Ukrainian officials may have focused too much on offensive operations last year to provide the necessary resources to build numerous trenches and anti-tank barriers that Russian engineers have been building in the south of the country since late 2022, U.S. officials and military experts said.

“Who cared and who considered it as an option – because it is a very expensive option – building defense lines? Nobody,” said Serhiy Hrabskyi, a retired colonel in the Ukrainian army, pointing out that Ukraine had few resources at the time.

There may also have been a psychological element at play, the U.S. officials said. If Ukrainian troops were to heavily mine certain areas to thwart Russian advances, it would be a tacit admission that they would be unlikely to conduct offensive operations in the same area at a later date. They would effectively assign this area to the Russian military, the officials said.

While Moscow began building defense lines in the south more than half a year before Kiev's counteroffensive, Ukraine appeared to have begun plans for new fortifications only three months ago, when government officials announced the creation of a working group to coordinate efforts between civilian and military Authorities announced.

Responsibility for building the first line of defense lies with military units stationed in the region, the officials said, while the next lines of defense will be built by civilian authorities with the help of private contractors. Denys Shmyhal, the Ukrainian prime minister, said that around 30 billion Ukrainian hryvnias, about $800 million, had been allocated for fortifications this year.

The areas in the eastern Donetsk region, where Avdiivka is located, will be given “maximum attention,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said during a visit near the front line in late November, citing the “need to stimulate and accelerate the construction of structures.”

But Pasi Paroinen, an analyst at the Black bird groupwhich analyzes satellite images and social media content from the battlefield, said that “nothing significant has happened” since Mr. Zelensky’s visit.

Outside Avdiivka, Mr. Paroinen added, “new positions are being prepared, but they do not yet represent a particularly formidable defensive line” and are not comparable in size to the Russian fortifications to the south.

Ukrainian authorities said they lacked staff to carry out the construction work. In mid-January, local officials in the western Ivano-Frankivsk region said they were looking for 300 workers willing to help build fortifications in the Donetsk region, more than 500 miles to the east.

“We have a shortage of technical units. And even the units we have lack equipment,” Mr. Hrabskyi said. By comparison, he and Mr. Paroinen said, Russia had far more equipment, materials and experienced personnel when building its defense lines.

The lack of strong defensive lines outside Avdiivka has been denounced by several Ukrainian journalists in recent days, marking a rare public criticism of the military.

Delays in the construction of the fortifications mean that Ukrainian troops may now have to reinforce their defensive lines while under fire from the Russian army, making the task exponentially more difficult.

Mr. Hrabskyi said Russia is currently preventing Ukrainian troops from strengthening their defenses by bombing them relentlessly, including with powerful glide bombs that carry hundreds of tons of explosives that can penetrate even well-prepared fortifications.

“The quality of these defense lines cannot be good enough to withstand the massive bulldozing tactics of the Russian armed forces,” Hrabskyi said.

Oleksandra Mykolyshyn contributed reporting.