Ukrainian forces, moving slowly forward after breaching Russia’s initial defensive lines in the occupied south, have turned their attention to breaking through another heavily defended part of the territory.
In recent days, military analysts say, the Ukrainian Army has struggled to breach Russian positions near a village called Verbove, about six miles east of the village of Robotyne, which was retaken by its fighters last week.
The Black Bird Group, a volunteer organization that analyzes satellite imagery and social media content from the battlefield, said Monday that the Ukrainian soldiers escaped the obstacles to reach the fighting positions of the Russian infantry outside Verbove.
But analysts say it does not necessarily mean that they have secured the territory, in an offensive that has met fierce resistance and progressed in small steps and at a high cost in casualties and equipment.
For their part, Ukrainian military officials refrained from making any claims.
Oleksandr Shtupun, spokesman for the Ukrainian Army in the south, told national television that the Russian trenches and dugouts currently encountered by Kyiv forces near Verbove “are not as strong” as the first line of defense. But he said Russian mines would complicate the push forward into Ukraine, and military analysts suggested Moscow might be bolstering its defenses outside Robotyne with more troops.
Ukrainian forces enjoyed surprising successes earlier in the war by holding Kyiv, the capital, and repelling Russian forces at the end of March last year. Later, in September, they drove the Russian soldiers out of the vast lands they seized in the northeast of the country and then in the south two months later.
But this counter-offensive, which began almost three months ago, is another matter. With the attack so long in coming, the Russian forces had plenty of time to dig in, build barriers and lay mines, and make many parts of the landscape deadly with one false move.
The Ukrainian military aims to retake land in the south and east of the country. In the south, its goal is to reach the Sea of Azov and push a wedge through the territory occupied by Russia, and its main effort so far is in the direction of the city of Melitopol.
The recapture of Robotyne last week marked a key moment in Ukraine’s efforts to cut supply lines to Moscow in its occupation of Crimea, but Kyiv’s forces still have a long way to go. Now, their push from Robotyne east to Verbove is aimed at expanding the breach in the Russian defense layers, the two military analysts, Michael Kofman and Rob Lee, wrote in a paper published on Monday.
Expanding that breach, they say, is critical because “a narrow advance could leave its forces vulnerable to flanking attacks.” A wider gap would also allow Ukrainian forces to bring more equipment and personnel to support their advance south.
A strategic target in this push appears to be the city of Tokmak, a road-and-rail hub about 15 miles south of Robotyne. To reach that city, the Ukrainian forces had to completely break through the defenses around Verbove and then break through additional layers.
That suggests a slow and tedious battle that could last months, with the possibility of heavy casualties on both sides.
On Tuesday, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, said he had visited the front lines again – the latest in a series of trips apparently aimed at boosting the morale of troops waged a bloody and slow war.
Mr. Zelensky said he had visited combat brigades fighting near the devastated eastern city of Bakhmut, which Russian forces captured in the spring after nearly a year of war. Ukrainian fighters have since managed to recover some lands around it.
His office said the Ukrainian leader discussed “problematic issues and needs of the units,” including the provision of artillery shells and air-defense missiles.
Late Monday, in his nightly video address, Mr. Zelensky said, “It is extremely important to support our fighters, to talk to brigade and battalion commanders,” and reported that he visited 11 brigades in Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions that day.
The topic of ammunition also came up during his visits to troops in Donetsk on Monday, according to Mr. Zelensky office. It said that the commanders discussed the growing need for drones and “anti-drone weapons, insufficient management of units and a shortage of certain types of ammunition.”