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The area around Robotyne, in southeastern Ukraine, has been the centre of a fierce two-month battle. Ukrainian publication Livy Bereg breaks down how Ukrainian forces were able to exploit gaps in Russian defenses and push the counteroffensive forward.
Updated September 22, 2023 at 6:35 p.m.
ROBOTYNE — Since the fall of 2022, Russian forces have been building a series of formidable defensive lines in Ukrainian territory, from Vasylivka in the Zaporizhzhia region to the front in Vremivka in the Donetsk region.
These defenses combined high-density minefields, redoubts (fortified structures like wooden bunkers, concrete fortifications and buried granite blocks), as well as anti-tank ditches and pillboxes. Such an extensive and intricate defensive network had not been seen in Europe since World War II.
Spanning 130 kilometers (81 miles), this formidable barrier earned the name "Surovikin Line," after the former commander of Russia's aerospace forces. The region around Robotyne became the epicenter of a fierce two-month battle, garnering significant attention due to its pivotal position on the front, since the launch of Ukraine's counteroffensive late last spring.
Despite the formidable defense, the Russian forces eventually crumbled. After two months of intense fighting, the Russia retreated this week to the south of Robotyne and began constructing new defenses along the nearby forested areas and the outskirts of Novoprokopivka in the Zaporizhia region.
At the same time, the Armed Forces of Ukraine exploited the breakthrough by capturing Vervovoy, expanding their breach to the east rather than just to the south. Their next target was the critical Ocheretuvate defense node.
The Russians lacked motivated infantry to support their extensive network of defensive structures.
East of the village, Ukrainian Defense Forces managed to break through the "Surovikin Line" set up by Russian forces. This highlighted a key weakness in the Moscow's war – the lack of motivated infantry support for their extensive network of defensive structures.
The Russians had relied on artillery bombardment, drones and anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) launches to keep Ukrainian forces at bay. These tactics proved effective while fighting from the heights around Robotyne.
But eventually, the 82nd Ukrainian brigade surrounded the village using Strykers — wheeled U.S.-built infantry fighting vehicles — and the 47th brigade took on the Russian forces in frontal assaults — and the Russians began to crumble.
One significant factor contributing to the Russian retreat was the lack of infantry support for their elaborate defensive infrastructure. While they used ATGM teams, drone operators, and concealed artillery positions effectively, they could not maintain a continuous line of motivated infantry along the entire Surovikin Line. This vulnerability allowed Ukrainian forces to exploit the gaps in the defense.
To address these gaps, the Russians resorted to Ka-52 attack aircraft, Su-25 attack aircraft and other measures in a desperate attempt to bolster their defense. But without support of motivated infantry, this ultimately proved unsustainable.
The Surovikin line in southern Ukraine
The extended duration of the Ukrainian counteroffensive led to questions about its pace, with some Western observers expressing impatience. But the density of the conflict, akin to World War II, and the small size of the battlefield complicated matters.
Both sides deployed fewer than 100,000 troops in a limited area, making it a challenging engagement, even without the extensive minefields and concrete fortifications.
The defending Russian units posed a formidable challenge. Moscow's special forces also functioned as line infantry, demonstrating a willingness to use battle-hardened specialists to hold off the counteroffensive.
While Robotyne itself lacked significant fortifications, the surrounding high grounds were fortified with concrete-filled underground positions and pillboxes, making it a tough nut to crack. The battle exacted a heavy toll in terms of casualties.
The defending Russian units posed a formidable challenge
Despite these defenses, the Ukrainian forces managed to advance with the aid of Western gear, equipped with anti-mine protection and additional armor. The offensive succeeded in capturing key positions and expanding the bridgehead around Robotyne.
The ongoing pressure along the road near Novopokrovka and the widening of the bridgehead south of the village continued to isolate Russian defenses. Skilled use of excavating machines to create passages, coupled with effective air defense management and artillery fire, contributed to the Ukrainian advance. Counter-battery fire neutralized enemy artillery positions, while key enemy personnel and infrastructure suffered losses.
Still, it was evident that the Russian defense would not collapse entirely, as they withdrew to newly engineered positions and deployed reserves, including rifle battalions, as well as artillery and drones.
Kyiv's forces gain territory, but at a steep price
General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine
Despite these challenges, the offensive continued, and the strategic initiative largely favored the Ukrainian forces. The situation remained dynamic, with heavy battles continuing in the south. The proximity to key strategic objectives, such as the land route to Crimea and Melitopol, highlights the significance of these ongoing operations.
The complex terrain and logistical considerations made this a critical theater in the conflict, demanding persistence and adaptability from Ukrainian forces.
The conflict in the Zaporizhzhia region, characterized by intricate defenses and fierce battles, demonstrates the determination and resilience of both sides. While the Ukrainian counteroffensive made progress, the formidable Russian defenses showed that the conflict was far from over.
The Surovikin line is a Russian system of defensive fortifications that spans 130 kilometers (81 miles), and runs through Russian-occupied territory in southern and eastern Ukraine. It was constructed in reaction to Ukraine’s late summer counteroffensive of 2022.
The Surovikin line is named after Russian Army General Sergei Surovikin, who oversaw the construction of the defensive barriers. Surovikin was a celebrated general, known among supporters as ‘General Armageddon’, and was Russia’s overall theater commander in the fall of 2022. He was replaced in January and was then detained after the Wagner group’s mutiny of late June due to his ties to the military organization.
There has been some debate about the starting date of the Ukrainian counteroffensive to retake territory in southern and eastern Ukraine. Yet most agree that the major operation was officially launched in June 2023. Some military sources have argued that the effort may have actually started in early 2023, and even the final weeks of 2022. For example, in the late summer of 2022 Ukraine launched the Kherson and Kharkiv counter offensives, retaking 500 settlements and 12,000 km2 (4633 square miles) in the process. In 2023, planning for a major counteroffensive began in January and was supposed to take place in Spring, but it was ultimately delayed. Ukraine launched its counteroffensive in early June, which had the long term goal of breaching the Russian frontlines and reconquering .