For weeks, Ukrainian forces have been probing Russian defenses in the southeast, looking for an opening to push their armored vehicles behind the main Russian line. But artillery fire and Russian counterattacks had been too intense to allow Ukrainian armor to pass.
This week, though, Ukrainian armored vehicles advanced past Russia’s main anti-tank defenses at one location on the frontline, according to reconnaissance video and commanders, showing slight progress in Kyiv’s halting counteroffensive.
Lt. Ashot Arutiunian, the commander of a drone reconnaissance unit operating in the area, said the vehicles had broken through near Verbove, a village in the Zaporizhzhia region. The vehicles, however, are confined to slender routes through minefields and have little room to maneuver, he said.
Earlier this summer, Ukrainian tanks had broken through a less formidable layer of defenses, and infantry had pierced a second line, seen as Russia’s main anti-tank barrier.
The breach, a swath of farm fields and tree thickets a mile or so wide, is a crucible of concentrated Russian and Ukrainian artillery fire, littered with blown-up vehicles and dotted with craters. It sits near Robotyne, a village that Ukrainian forces captured several weeks ago.
The recent breakthrough, shown in unverified videos published Thursday, suggested that weeks of bloody infantry fighting had secured the breach sufficiently to move heavy weaponry forward. That would be a positive step for Ukraine in its campaign to drive Russian forces from the south. More Russian minefields and anti-tank barriers remain ahead.
The breach of defenses in the Zaporizhzhia region was first reported on Thursday by The Wall Street Journal.
It is unclear whether the Ukrainian vehicles that breached the defenses can gain control of their new positions securely enough to be based behind Russian lines. Doing so might allow them to push deeper or turn to attacking the Russians on the rear-facing edge of their trenches, which are more lightly defended.
“They are beyond the dragon’s teeth,” Lt. Arutiunian said of Ukrainian armored vehicles, using the nickname for a type of triangular, concrete anti-tank barrier the Russians deployed in southern Ukraine. “It is beautiful, it is important. But more important is whether we are able to dig into these positions.”
Soldiers can clear paths through the dragon’s teeth obstacles by moving them, but this is difficult to do while under fire and if the area is mined. It is unclear exactly how the Ukrainians broke through.
A Ukrainian military intelligence officer, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to comment publicly, confirmed that Ukrainian vehicles had crossed the dragon’s teeth barrier near Verbove but he played down the significance.
“It’s too early for conclusions,” on where the advance with heavy weapons might lead, he said. “The breakthrough for now is small. There is still a lot of work,” he added, noting that the Russians have moved reinforcements to the area.
One video — verified by the Institute for the Study of War, an American analytical group providing updates on the fighting — showed tracked vehicles driving in a field amid explosions in an area past the Russian line.
The Ukrainian Army has not commented specifically on any advance by armored vehicles. In a battlefield update Friday, the general staff headquarters reported an unspecified advance using phrasing that differed little from previous days. It did not provide details, saying forces were “inflicting significant losses in manpower and equipment on the occupying troops, exhausting the enemy and forcing them to withdraw.”
The Ukrainian infantry had already pierced the Russian defenses in the area where the tracked vehicles were filmed and said to be operating.The breakthrough came at a site known as the Surovikin Line, named after the former Russian commanding general in Ukraine, Sergey Surovikin.
Though Russian forces have multiple layers of defense, the line that passes near Verbove is a significant barrier to tanks. Ukraine’s military has said the Russian defenses ahead are less formidable
Over the summer Ukraine had pivoted from the tactic of leading with armored vehicles — including tanks and personnel carriers donated by Western allies — to sending infantry first to clear minefields and trenches.
After two and half months of fighting that President Volodymyr Zelensky has described as going more slowly than hoped, Ukraine has whittled away at Russian defensive lines in two areas in southern Ukraine. In both, troops pushed forward about a dozen miles. One of these bulges, in the Zaporizhzhia region where the armored vehicles crossed the main anti-tank defensive line, is now widely seen as Ukraine’s main direction of attack.
The Ukrainian military has been cautious about claiming advances prematurely given that the fighting typically sways back and forth for days before one side secures an area. Throughout, the Russians have held a key advantage — being able to maneuver amid their own mines, while Ukraine must clear routes.
Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine.