(Bloomberg) -- Ukrainian forces pierced the first line of Russian fortifications in the nation’s southeast and are fighting to widen the breach, the nation’s defense chief said, in a bid for a potential breakthrough.
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Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said that Ukrainian soldiers, on foot and mostly at night, had made slow progress in clearing heavily mined areas to create approach corridors for a larger force that has now fought through the first main line of Russian trenches, bunkers and tanks traps.
“We broke the first line and now we are expanding our foothold,” Reznikov told reporters Monday in Kyiv.
The Ukrainian counteroffensive launched in June has been bogged down by Russian forces dug in along a vast frontline stretching from the Donbas region in Ukraine’s east through the south to the mouth of the Dnipro river. The slow-going has worried Ukraine’s allies, who say a long fight risks giving Russian President Vladimir Putin the upper hand in a war of attrition.
Reznikov referred to fighting near Robotyne, a settlement in the southern Zaporizhzhia region that Ukrainian forces captured this month. Ukrainian officials have said troops are pressing ahead to the southeast of the town, located some 115 kilometers (70 miles) north of the Sea of Azov.
Penetrating Russia’s first line of defense could potentially give Ukrainian forces an advantage, since further barriers may be less heavily protected, according to analysts from the Institute for the Study of War. Ukraine’s strategy of attacking across the broad front instead of concentrating its forces has been aimed at probing for weaknesses and forcing Russia to spend its reserves to produce gaps in their defenses.
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The de-mining has left Ukrainian forces with mostly tactical advances since June. With autumn approaching, the window for a breakthrough is closing. Cold and wet weather will likely put Ukraine’s main objective — advancing toward the Sea of Azov and cutting off Crimea — out of reach.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said it had repelled several attacks around Robotyne and to the west near Verbove.
Reznikov said Russian claims of advances in eastern Ukraine, particularly in the direction of the Ukrainian-led city of Kupyansk in the Kharkiv region, were a diversion tactic.
“They try to divert our attention and advance there, trying to force us to regroup our troops,” Reznikov said.
In the south, much depends on the stability of Russia’s defense effort, which despite a loss of manpower and equipment has defied predictions that it would crumble. The Kremlin has been able to supply its front lines with more troops, officials have said.
The next Russian lines will “very likely pose significant challenges for the Ukrainian advance,” ISW analysts said.
--With assistance from Daryna Krasnolutska.
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