Ukrainian officials continue to sound optimistic that the second line of Russian defensive fortifications on the southern front may be easier to penetrate than the first, as Kyiv’s troops try to push through a web of dense minefields in a grinding counteroffensive.
Geolocated video in recent days indicates Ukrainian units have made limited progress beyond the village of Robotyne, as they seek to expand the territory in the southeastern Zaporizhzia region they reclaimed in August.
Ukraine’s military appears to have targeted its operations toward the strategic town of Tokmak – just south of Robotyne – a logistic hub that Russian forces use for resupply, and where fuel and ammunition depots are located.
Last week, Ukrainian forces said they had penetrated the first line of Russian strongholds in Zaporizhzhia.
However, the surrounding occupied area is encircled by complex lines of Russian defenses including minefields, anti-tank barriers and deep-set trenches, posing acute challenges for Ukrainian troops trying to regain the territory.
In attempting to breach the second line of Russian defenses, Ukrainian units “will benefit from the fact that the network of trenches, dugouts, and overlaps there is not as strong as on the first line,” Oleksandr Shtupun, spokesman for Ukrainian forces in the south, told Ukrainian television on Monday.
But Shtupun conceded that the second line “is quite powerful.”
“I don’t know why everyone thinks it is weaker. Indeed, the density of minefields there is lower, but their number is also quite large. The only thing that can play into our hands is that the trenches, dugouts, and overlaps are not as strong.”
The Ukrainian military said on Wednesday that it repelled a counterattack by Russian forces near Robotyne.
The General Staff said its units had been successful in consolidating their positions, inflicting artillery fire on identified enemy targets and conducting counter-battery operations.
Ukrainian forces are making progress in a square-shaped pocket of territory to the south and east of Robotyne, toward Tokmak, according to independent analysts. But both sides reported intense artillery fire and widespread destruction of settlements in the area.
Russian forces deployed artillery and air strikes against Ukrainian forces to the west of Robotyne. There is also heavy fighting to the west of the nearby village of Verbove as Ukrainian forces probe Russian trenches, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank. Russian forces have reportedly reinforced their defenses in the area with an injection of fresh troops.
Both sides have said the village of Robotyne has been reduced to ruins.
The Russian-appointed governor of occupied areas of Zaporizhzhia, Yevgeniy Balitskiy, said on Wednesday that the village “almost no longer exists.”
He acknowledged that the Russian army had retreated from the village, but said it was a tactical move to higher ground.
“This settlement, which remains only on the map, we do not control as of today,” he added.
“The enemy is in the crater, at the bottom. So, if we talk in terms of combat operations, we are satisfied with our position today.”
Ukrainian counteroffensive efforts have yielded limited gains so far, raising eyebrows among Western allies who have donated billions of dollars’ worth of military aid.
On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Kyiv, where he is expected to discuss the operation with senior officials including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
CNN’s Andrew Carey and Kylie Atwood contributed reporting.