Both the Ukrainians and the Russians have reported gains in terrain over the past few days, but they only amount to a few hundred meters. The situation can be compared to an American football game, says Colonel Reisner in a weekly interview with ntv.de. Both sides run towards each other and ram shoulder to shoulder until one breaks through. But there is also good news: Ukraine has recognized that after the “failed first phase” they have to change their tactics. She has now done so – with success, according to Reisner.
ntv.de: The situation in eastern Ukraine is currently “complicated”, says President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. what does he mean with that?
Markus Reisner: The front is almost 1200 kilometers long and there is a constant interplay of events on both sides. The Russians are defending themselves in the south and trying to put pressure on the Ukrainians in the east with small storm groups. In the north-east near Kubjansk, they also occasionally succeed in advancing to a limited extent. There, the forest area in particular favored the Russian advances. The situation is similar further south near Kreminna and north of Bakhmut, both also spatially a large forest area.
What advantage do the Russians have in the forest area over the Ukrainians?
You can move around relatively unrecognized here. Don’t forget that both sides have thousands of drones in the sky all the time. These clarify above all the movements of the respective other. In summer the forests are densely forested again and ask for protection from observation.
How about territory gains by the Ukrainians?
South of the Bakhmut they managed to advance very successfully in some areas, as well as in the places that were the starting point of the offensive in this area. These advances take place between 500 and 1000 meters.
That’s not very much, is it?
You have to imagine the terrain there like a chessboard. The lines between the individual fields are forest lines or windbreak belts. If you conquer one of these lines, then you dominate the next square. The problem was that Ukraine tried to move from one square to the next like a chess piece and suffered heavy casualties. In the meantime, Ukraine has changed its tactics. They are now trying to advance with smaller forces at the dividing lines between the fields because the terrain is more favorable there.
So instead of using tank columns, they are now advancing on foot with infantry forces?
Exactly. Instead of moving the pieces directly from one field to the next, you now try to let them advance protected in the windbreak belts. In tactics, the vehicles are used to transport the soldiers to a specific location, usually with heavy vegetation or in an urban area, such as a village that has already been liberated. From there these small groups try to advance. This is the same tactic that the Russians have been using since the summer of last year. You can’t make big breakthroughs this way, but you can work your way up bit by bit. Because when you conquer one of these lines between the battlefields, then you automatically dominate the next field. So you jump from one forest line to the next.
The Russians claim that while the Ukrainians are making gradual advances with this tactic, they are suffering heavy casualties in the process. Can you confirm?
Success is usually also reflected in the fact that pictures of captured or killed soldiers are circulating on social networks. For example, when the Ukrainians have taken a town, you see videos showing killed or captured Russian soldiers. These images are currently available on both sites. There is no clear trend that could indicate, for example, a surplus of pictures of Russian prisoners. You can only see that when there is an increase in the intensity of the fighting. At the moment, however, there is still a situation along the entire front that can be described as purgatory. It’s a constant back and forth.
How is it that Ukrainians are more successful in the south than in the east?
This can be deduced from the massing of forces. Ukraine has deployed more forces in the south, where it is trying to get the offensive going, than in the east. In addition, the forces deployed in the East, for example in the Bakhmut area, are still partially weakened by the fighting in recent months. It is also interesting that the Russian side sometimes has more forces available in the north-east than in the south. The powerful units, such as the units of the 1st Guards Tank Army, are still deployed in the north-east and not in the south, where you would expect them to be. The current situation is the result of these juxtapositions of forces. This was seen, for example, at Cherson, where the Russians managed to pull forces into the central area due to the dam blow-up and the Ukrainian advance across the Dnipro was crowned with success. The Russians again needed time to reorganize themselves and to be able to counter the advance accordingly.
According to Russian military bloggers, the bridgehead that the Ukrainians built at the Antonivka Bridge on the Dnipro is intended to make the Russian military desperate. Could the Ukrainians push further south there?
The situation for the Ukrainians has deteriorated again in the last 48 hours as the Russians managed to advance right up to the beachhead. They did this, among other things, through the use of maritime forces. That means they tried to land there with assault boats, but also fired at the bridgehead itself with Iskander missiles and bombed it with glide bombs. In doing so, they put pressure on the Ukrainians, but the bridgehead on the south bank is still in place. The problem is the difficult flood plain to cross. This means that the Ukrainians have not yet arrived on the south bank and thus on the mainland and the Russians have meanwhile worked their way into this flooded area. This is criss-crossed by many small rivers, which makes it difficult to advance further in this area because you face difficult obstacles there.
So how does the bridgehead help the Ukrainians?
The attack in the south can be interpreted primarily as an attempt by Ukraine to tie up more Russian forces here. Not so much ground forces, but mainly Russian air forces. The Russian side must now be restructured so that the bridgehead can be fought. These forces, for example combat aircraft and combat helicopters, are then missing in the battles in the central area.
But it doesn’t sound like a success for Ukraine yet.
In my view, the first phase of the Ukrainian offensive has failed. Attempts have been made to push forward like something straight out of a US Army textbook. In principle similar to the Russians at the beginning of the war, that is, with tank columns that quickly advanced. Then the Ukrainians realized that the Russians were too well prepared to achieve such a breakthrough. And they lacked the necessary support for such a mass attack. Ukraine then went on operational hiatus, consolidated and is now trying to change its tactics and combat technique. And that’s the good news, now they have. They try to attack with small assault groups. This tactic is very, very slow, but it works. Because compared to a tank column, which is relatively easy to attack in open terrain – for example with attack helicopters – they are much more difficult to hit and attack when protected by the windbreak belt. That speaks for Ukraine, which manages to achieve success. But the offensive is progressing very slowly.
And with very high losses.
That is the dilemma of this fighting technique. However, the Battle of Severodonetsk in 2022 and Bakhmut in May of this year showed that this tactic can be quite successful. It should also not be forgotten that the Russians positioned themselves very differently after their fiasco at the beginning than they did during the Kharkiv and Cherson offensives. According to estimates by the US Commander-in-Chief in Europe, General Cavoli, around 350,000 to 400,000 men are fighting on the Russian side, double the number since the beginning of the war. Of course they prepared accordingly. So now we have a situation like at an American football game. Both sides stand in a starting position, then players from both teams run towards each other and either you break through or you’re shoulder to shoulder and trying to be stronger than the other. The question is, who has the staying power?
What does Ukraine need to achieve a breakthrough?
There is still a lack of essential elements for a quick decision, such as a functioning air force or a large number of precision weapon systems. That’s why the discussion has just flared up again as to whether the USA shouldn’t deliver ATACMs, ie ground-to-ground missiles with a range of up to 300 kilometers. With this, Ukraine could increase the pressure on Russian logistics and leadership. That would be like trying to pull the rug out from under the football player who is facing you.
So we don’t need to expect a breakthrough from the Ukrainians in the next few weeks?
I do think that in the ten days leading up to the NATO summit we will see an intensification of fighting. Ukraine want to show once again that they are capable of gaining ground. That would speak for it, but does not have to be the case. It’s also possible that Ukraine will just stoically continue with their new tactics of taking one chessboard square after the other with small attacking groups. It’s a very long struggle, but Ukraine has already shown they can pull through.
Vivian Micks spoke to Markus Reisner