*This story first appeared in the New York Times on 28th of June 2023. We have improvised the story by adding our additional analysis and inputs to it.
Ukraine hasn't advanced much towards one of its major lines of assault in southern Ukraine after three weeks. Russia has a valuable friend in the harsh southern terrain.
There is minimal protection for Ukrainian infantry, tanks, and armoured vehicles in wide-open areas.
The Russian soldiers are hidden and protected from aircraft surveillance by the trees that surround the boundaries of those areas. Beyond the natural barriers, kilometres of Russian defences, including trenches, tank traps, and minefields, only let the forces of Ukraine to advance marginally at most.
Urban warfare will present its own difficulties if Ukraine can reach the city of Tokmak, about 15 kilometres from the battle lines. Tall structures and little side alleys guarantee lethal close-quarters combat.
Although few anticipated Ukraine's counteroffensive to go fast, other lines of assault encounter comparable challenges. Understanding the terrain will be necessary to change the tide.
Many military analysts think that the southern attack might decide whether or not the conflict continues. A large portion of Ukraine is covered in woods and undulating steppe, but the south is very flat, making it riskier for advancing soldiers.
Even though it is evident from open source sources that Ukrainian vehicles, notably freshly delivered western tanks and armoured personnel carriers, are being damaged and destroyed, Ukrainian officials have said the counteroffensive is progressing according to plan. Although Kievan formations have taken control of a number of minor settlements, the number of wounded is rising.
There are probably various causes for the sluggish speed. Defence is a skill that Russian soldiers have demonstrated, and Moscow's forces have developed their strategies since the beginning of the conflict.
Many military analysts believe that whether or not the fight continues may depend on the southern offensive. While much of Ukraine is covered in steppe and woodlands, the south of the country is incredibly flat, making it dangerous for forces moving forward.
Ukrainian officials have claimed that the counteroffensive is going according to plan, despite the fact that it is obvious from open source sources that Ukrainian vehicles, particularly recently delivered western tanks and armoured personnel carriers, are being damaged and destroyed. The number of injured is growing despite the fact that Kievan formations have gained control of a number of small communities.
There are possibly a number of reasons for the slow pace. Russian military have proven their ability to defend, and since the start of the fight, Moscow's forces have perfected their tactics.
For a defensive army, flat, broad fields like those that dot southern Ukraine make for the best terrain.
Advanceing Ukrainian army may be partially hidden from Russian forces stationed in nearby forest lines by crops like wheat, maize and sunflowers. They won't be much help in stopping bullets and rifle fire.
Tanks and armoured personnel carriers, ponderous vehicles with the heavy weaponry required to oust Russian forces from their fortifications, will also need to be used to back Ukrainian troops. These cars are not only simple to see, but also simple to hear.
Armoured vehicles and soldiers will have to cross heavily mined Russian-mined roads in order for Ukraine to regain territory. Any possibility of success will need the removal of the deadly explosives from open fields and side roads.
Mine-clearing tools, such as explosive charges that may open a route across a minefield, have been given by the West. The endeavour is challenging even with this gear. Early footage of the attack showed Ukrainian armoured vehicles being wrecked and mine-clearing bulldozers stuck in mud. Even when mines have been removed, according to Ukrainian forces, Russians quickly replenish them.
The Ukrainians and their engineers will come under heavy artillery, tank, and, in some cases, helicopter fire as they work to remove mines so that their compatriots may advance.
Russians are adept at benefit of patchy trees to conceal their positions of protection.Ukraine's citizens must go forward through exposed open vacancies in fields.
In the southern Ukraine, the field borders with trees serve as excellent natural defences. The greenery is fully developed in the summer, hiding Russian defences from view from the air.
The Russians can cloak their soldiers, anti-tank missile crews, and tanks under thick cover. Artillery and air defences can also be positioned farther away from the front lines among the vegetation. A Ukrainian advance can be stopped or delayed by this combination, hence artillery fire directed at these defensive sites must be used before any offensive.
It has been standard procedure to shell these locations throughout the conflict solely to remove vegetation and reveal the bunkers and trenches beneath.
Additionally, tree lines aid in obstructing the view of air defences. In order to avoid being hit by short-range anti-aircraft missiles, well-trained Russian helicopter pilots can glide low over trees before rising to fire on Ukrainian soldiers.
Russians have excavated and installed several different avenues of resistance protecting their status and keeping the advance of Ukraine.
Russian soldiers have had plenty of time to build a substantial network of fortifications since they have had more than a year to get ready for a Ukrainian onslaught in the south. Ukrainian soldiers have observed that Russian trenches are typically well-constructed and deep, shielding the men within from artillery fire.
Both sides frequently cover the tops of their trenches with tree branches and logs to prevent approaching formations from spotting them until it's too late.
Trenches have the disadvantage of being low-lying, which is disadvantageous for defensive forces. They can be easily flanked or bypassed if the fortifications next to them are not properly coordinated.
Just such is demonstrated in a recent video produced by a Ukrainian special operations unit: A small team of troops enters a Russian trench with terrible results and promptly kills everybody inside who is not paying attention.
Russian positions can be hidden by structures during urban fighting, providing them a defensive edge.
Small rural towns and villages are scattered across the fields and forest lines, serving as another man-made barrier that will hinder any assault. Along significant terrain, such as rivers, woods, or what little high land is present in southern Ukraine, settlements are frequently constructed.
Russian soldiers had access to crucial observation spots thanks to two- and three-story structures. Vehicles can be protected from artillery fire by buildings. Rural roads can be mined, covered with equipment, and targeted by anti-tank missile squads as natural choke points.
Small villages in eastern Ukraine were nearly entirely devastated in prior wars as both sides tried to leave the defending army with little protection. As structures are frequently booby-trapped by retreating troops, clearing communities of enemy personnel is also a time-consuming and hazardous undertaking.
At this point in the battle, Ukraine has been successful in retaking a number of settlements. However, it's uncertain if Ukrainian forces will have enough equipment to get past Russian defences around bigger villages like Tokmak. Before the conflict, there were roughly 30,000 people living in the city.
For its counteroffensive, Ukraine spent months gathering potent Western weapons and preparing tens of thousands of soldiers. However, Russia also had the opportunity to set up a comprehensive network of defensive fortifications, considerably enhancing its capacity to hold its ground.
In comparison to the overarching military goal of breaking the Russian-controlled land bridge between western Russia and Russian-occupied Crimea, Ukraine's progress to date has been limited.
Ukrainian officials are attempting to temper expectations of rapid territory gains, despite the fact that military specialists caution that it is too early to draw judgements about the counteroffensive's prospects.
In a BBC interview, President Volodymyr Zelensky remarked, "We would definitely like to make bigger steps." However, he emphasised that he was still confident and made the argument that expecting victory right away was unreasonable.
Military analysts predict that the counteroffensive will continue for several more weeks, if not months. It would be interesting to watch if Ukraine can overcome its various challenges and make further advancements in the south given that it still has soldiers in reserve.