The anti-tank ditches near Ukraine’s occupied southeastern town of Polohy stretch for 30 km (19 miles). Behind are rows of concrete “dragon’s teeth” barricades. Further back are defensive trenches where Russia’s troops will be positioned.
The defences visible in satellite imagery taken by Capella Space are part of a vast network of Russian fortifications sweeping down from western Russia through eastern Ukraine and on to Crimea built in readiness for a major Ukrainian attack.
Thousands of Ukrainian troops have been training in the West to use different military assets on the battlefield in a combined way ahead of a counteroffensive Ukrainian officials say will come when its forces are ready.
Reuters has reviewed satellite images of thousands of defensive positions inside both Russia and along Ukrainian front lines that show it is most heavily defended in the southern Zaporizhzhia region and the gateway to the Crimean Peninsula.
Six military experts said the defences, mostly built in the wake of Ukraine’s rapid autumn advances, could make it harder for Ukraine this time and that progress would hinge on its ability to carry out complex, combined operations effectively.
“It’s not the numbers for the Ukrainians. It’s can they do this kind of warfare, combined arms operations?” said Neil Melvin, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). “The Russians have shown they can’t do it and they’ve gone back to their old Soviet method of attrition.”
A Ukrainian counteroffensive could change the dynamics of a war that has slowed into a bloody battle of attrition and military experts say the length of the front could stretch Russia’s defences.
If Kyiv can wrest back control of the south, it could regain unimpeded access to its Black Sea export routes at a time when Russia has signalled it may slam the grain corridor shut.
Ukraine may not receive another large injection of armoured hardware from the West any time soon, which is putting pressure on Kyiv to retake as much land as possible in case military support begins to wane, military experts say.
“We’ve cleaned out most of the stocks in the West,” said Melvin. “It’s going to take some years to rebuild. I think this is (Ukraine’s) big opportunity to press on.”
Ukraine’s Defence Ministry did not respond to a written response for comment about any counteroffensive.
Ukraine has vowed to take back all the territory occupied by Russia, an area roughly the size of Bulgaria, but officials are reluctant to disclose any information that could help Moscow.
The West has sent scores of modern battle tanks and infantry fighting vehicles to serve as the vanguard of an assault, along with bridging equipment and mine clearance vehicles.
That’s why Russia has been digging extensive, layered fortifications to ensure its troops will be far more entrenched than when they were chased out of Ukraine’s northeast and Kherson city, the satellite images show.
The pictures analysed by Reuters show much of the Russian construction occurred after November, when its forces pulled back from Kherson city in the south and both sides looked to consolidate positions during the winter months.
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