Six months after Ukraine launched its summer counteroffensive to take back Russian-occupied territory in the east of the country, Kyiv’s forces have made little progress in the face of entrenched Russian resistance.
Russia’s defensive line — the largest and most fortified in Europe since World War Two — ultimately held, and early prospects of a Ukrainian breakthrough that would sever the land bridge between Russia and occupied Crimea have faded.
With another winter stalemate approaching — if not a renewed Russian attack to take more of eastern Ukraine — these are some of the main factors that left Ukraine’s forces stuck at the front line.
Western military advisors, especially from the United States, recommended Ukraine launch a concentrated offensive along the axis in Zaporizhzhia. Instead, Ukraine launched offensives across multiple axes.
At the heart of the Ukrainian counteroffensive was the Zaporizhzhia front, a battleground considered by military analysts the most direct path to split the Russian-controlled territory in Ukraine. Stretching 80 km (50 miles) from Orikhiv, winding through Tokmak, and meeting at Melitopol, this route aimed to cut off crucial Russian supply lines to Crimea.
Though Kyiv kept its ultimate goals for the counteroffensive close to its chest, in August, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy laid down a marker that Ukraine’s campaign would not stop until Crimea was freed from Russian occupation.
For many Western analysts, the key to that goal was breaking through to the supply lines that connected Crimea to Russia in Zaporizhzhia. But Ukraine’s forces were ultimately split between three axes of attack, including one as far north as Bakhmut in Donetsk, where Ukraine had to reinforce its own defences after Russia went on the attack in October.
The timing of Ukraine’s counteroffensive played a crucial role by allowing Russia time to fortify the front line, particularly in Zaporizhzhia. Ukraine waited months to begin its attack while training troops, shipping in Western arms and debating strategy. Throughout that crucial window, Russia had time to dig trenches and lay mines along strategic areas of the front.
Intelligence gathered from satellite imagery, analysed by Brady Africk of the American Enterprise Institute, uncovered a robust defence strategy. Speaking to Reuters, Africk described Russia’s fortifications between the front line and Tokmak as dense and layered, featuring anti-vehicle ditches, obstacles, fighting positions, and strategically placed land mines within treelines and along key roads leading south into occupied Ukraine. Notably, the open, flat terrain in the region made it more difficult for Ukraine to move with any element of surprise.
The delay to Ukraine’s counteroffensive allowed Russia time to construct extensive fortifications and lay dense minefields, creating additional challenges for the counteroffensive, especially intense along the Zaporizhzhia axis.
According to Africk, the Ukrainian army’s modest progress reflects the substantial density of fortifications in the region and the resources at their disposal. Despite six months of intense fighting, Ukraine managed just a 7.5-kilometer advance, reaching the village of Robotyne.
Russia’s defensive line consisted of layer upon layer of static barriers designed to impede tanks, intricate networks of trenches and tunnels, and strategically camouflaged batteries, tanks, and command posts. This multifaceted defence strategy created a formidable challenge for Ukrainian forces attempting to breach the front line. All of this was backed by a constant barrage of Russian artillery.
This graphic illustrates Russia’s defensive line, consisting of layer upon layer of static barriers designed to impede tanks, intricate networks of trenches and tunnels, and strategically camouflaged batteries, tanks, and command posts.
The satellite images below vividly depict the aftermath of relentless shelling in the region. The landscape near Robotyne is pock-marked by craters.
While neither the Ukrainian nor the Russian armies have officially released casualty data, both sides have incurred significant losses in terms of manpower and resources. Russia pressed poorly trained convicts into “Storm-Z” punishment battalions to reinforce frontline troops, while Ukraine’s high-risk attacks against well-prepared defences with limited, battle-fatigued troops took a major toll on their forces and assets.
A satellite image over Robotyne reveals the territory gained during the Ukrainian counteroffensive, amounting to just 7.5 km over the course of six months.
Ahead of its troop positions along the front, Russian forces laid a formidable first line of defence: a dense layer of anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines.
Clearing paths through Russian mine fields became one of the costliest challenges of the counteroffensive, both in terms of time and men and machinery.
Ukraine employed Western mine-clearance vehicles and armoured columns of tanks and vehicles to traverse the hazardous terrain. But the army’s movements to clear paths through the mines unfolded under the watchful eye of surveillance drones operated by Russia’s new specialised drone units.
These drones meticulously observed the mine-clearance vehicles, feeding targeting information to artillery and attack helicopters. Evolving optical capabilities on the drones also meant they could see through traditional camouflage techniques such as smoke screens that would foil human observers.
As forward mine-clearing tanks and vehicles were targeted and destroyed, Ukrainian attack columns behind them got stuck in a kill zone for Russian artillery, unable to manoeuvre around destroyed vehicles without triggering yet more mines.
Ultimately, mine clearing was left to smaller, slow-moving units rather than larger attack groups to minimise their exposure to artillery.
This graphic explains how dense minefields have in effect halted the counteroffensive. Mine-clearing vehicles were detected by drones and subsequently destroyed, leaving the armored columns and ground units vulnerable.
Despite few breakthroughs along the front, Ukraine’s counteroffensive can claim some modest success.
The counteroffensive in Crimea, employing sea drones and targeted long-range missile strikes, forced Russia’s navy on the backfoot in the Black Sea, and a declassified U.S. intelligence report pointed to a cost for Russia’s armed forces of nearly 315,000 dead and wounded troops, or nearly 90% of the personnel it had when the conflict began.
Still, the ultimate aim of retaking land in occupied Ukraine failed to materialise, and Kyiv is now scrambling to secure more arms supplies from Western nations as the war drags on.
A senior military commander told Reuters that frontline troops were facing shortages of artillery shells and had scaled back some military operations because of a shortfall of foreign assistance.
This map illustrates the advancements and setbacks of the Ukrainian counteroffensive across the entire front line.