A Hard-Won Victory That Ukraine Stands to Lose

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Written By Pinang Driod

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In a trench war, depth matters, and on a hilltop outside Orikhiv, 35 miles southeast of Zaporizhzhia, the Russians were dug in more than six feet deep. They’d fashioned a sunken city, a maze of crossed trails extending nearly a mile and commanding an unobstructed view five miles in all directions.

From that hilltop, known to the Ukrainian military as Position X, the Russians controlled the vital road south. If the Russians were to push forward, to take Orikhiv and move toward Zaporizhzhia, they would advance from that position. If Ukraine’s counteroffensive were to progress in the southeast, with the goal of eventually retaking Melitopol and choking Russian land access to Crimea, it would have to start by gaining Position X.

Last June, Ukrainian forces overcame Russia’s established position on their fifth attempt, after several months and many casualties. Taking Position X was a high point in a tough counteroffensive campaign and a demonstration of Ukrainian capacity. With enough weaponry, Ukrainian persistence, ingenuity, and courage can prevail over numerically superior and better-equipped Russian forces—especially in close combat, where Ukrainians have an overpowering motivational advantage and Russians tend to flee.

But the cost and difficulty of the battle also illustrated just how monumental a task Ukraine set itself with its counteroffensive. The Russians dug in at Position X commanded the high ground and held every advantage in terms of weapons and manpower. The Ukrainians defeated them with clever and flexible tactics, as well as sacrifice, endurance, and luck. But the factors that made this victory so hard-won will make it as hard or harder to repeat.

After taking Position X over the summer, Ukrainian troops were able to advance down the southern road and recapture the village of Robotyne. But now the flow of armaments from the West has slowed and Ukrainian lines are stretched. Russian troops have recently regained several hundred yards in bitter fighting there and threaten to retake Robotyne. We visited Position X with Ukrainian troops in November 2023 and spoke with commanders about their victory there and the battlefield beyond.

“I understand that our Western partners were expecting a different counteroffensive,” a deputy battalion commander with the 65th Mechanized Brigade, whose call sign is Poltava, told us. “They said it would be fast, and all the rest. But this is not that war.”

Russia’s forward outpost at Position X was built to last. Prepared with the assistance of Wagner forces, its earthworks included protected gunner posts, large munitions stores, and regular blindages—sections covered with beams, dirt, and sandbags for cover. More than a dozen mini-dormitories with tree-trunk roofs, boarded walls, and bunk beds could accommodate 100 Russian soldiers at a time and were wired for lighting with generators. The Russians had arranged the trenchworks in the shape of an X, which allowed them to meet any advance with a hail of fire from two angles, from covered machine-gun positions every 10 to 20 yards. The entire area was also heavily mined.

Ukraine’s 65th Mechanized Brigade therefore made its initial foray last March with hardened vehicles: Vietnam-era armored personnel carriers (APCs) from the Netherlands, which maneuver slowly, have poor communications, and need frequent repair. The APCs also belch and churn at an infernal volume, announcing their approach from more than five miles away. On one of the first Ukrainian attempts, in March, an APC took three direct hits from a bazooka to no effect. But a fourth pierced the hull.

“We had two 200s [deaths] in the car, a commander and a gunner. Three people who disembarked were immediately hit with machine guns and grenades,” a soldier named Renat, also with the 65th, told us. “It is bitter, sad, but this is the experience.”

Tanks aren’t as noisy—but Russian forces are well stocked with anti-tank weapons, and they hit at least one Ukrainian tank in the spring. The Ukrainians prize their T-72 tanks from Poland, and as the campaign progressed, they decided not to use these for frontline engagement, but to keep them farther back, for mobile artillery support.

Diptych: Ukrainian soldier in Russain trench and left behind Russian artillery
Left: A sergeant with Ukraine’s 65th Mechanized Brigade investigates deep, obscured trenches captured from the Russians. Right: As they fled Position X, Russian forces left behind boxes of bullets, explosive devices, and artillery and drone shells scattered throughout the extensive trenchworks.(Courtesy of Anthony Borden)

According to Poltava, Ukrainian commanders calculate that to beat the Russians in any particular battle, they should have “a [numerical] advantage—two, three times; that is the minimum. We didn’t have such an advantage here, so we tried to take these positions with armored combat vehicles. But the experience showed that the use of equipment is impossible here, because on all sides the opponent uses anti-tank weapons, artillery, even aviation.”

In fact, in addition to all of the traditional advantages that Russia possessed at Position X—higher ground, more soldiers and munitions, broad minefields, air support—it also had something more. “Drones, drones, drones. This is a war of drones,” Leonid, a soldier with the brigade, told us. “In the first year, there were not so many drones. Now you can’t imagine. Even if just a group of soldiers come out, in one kilometer they will be hit by artillery.”

Ukrainian soldiers told us of the Russians unleashing dozens of drones at once, sometimes up to 100. They said that many of the downed drones they recovered were cheap but deadly, with Asian-produced electronics and 3-D-printed structures. Even the small ones can drop bombs on sight. Ukrainian forces use electronic-jamming guns to disable enemy drones, making them crash, but these are cumbersome and require careful targeting.

‘‘Anti-drone devices help, but it is impossible for us now to cover such a large front,” Poltava said. “We need to install anti-drone stations, so you are not just running there with a gun but can cover a radius of five or 10 kilometers [three to six miles] to provide protection for people on combat missions.”

In the face of all of these disadvantages, by early summer, the Ukrainians had shifted tactics. Instead of advancing in armored vehicles, small units would approach by foot—much as they were doing across the front line, in an effort to reduce exposure and probe for defensive weaknesses. And rather than firing up noisy APCs, they changed to lighter, quieter vehicles—in some cases using private cars provided by volunteers.

The point, Poltava told us, was to be mobile. “You can drive up with a car quickly … bring ammunition, food, and other things, and leave just as fast.”

The Ukrainians’ initial target was a disabled Russian APC at the base of the X, which the Russians had converted into the cover for a massive steel-protected blindage. On the crest of the rise, with a dugout underneath, it overlooked the important southerly road.

To approach it, the Ukrainians started to establish and equip a bridgehead at a location they called the Corner, a few hundred yards from the Russians. They dug a shallow trench, less than three feet deep, and created a few blindages for cover, maintaining a small unit there at all times, regularly under fire.

“It’s very heavy when you’re sitting in a trench, and everybody is shooting at you,” Poltava said. “We began to move forward, taking up this position slowly, but there were a lot of wounded.”

With this revised approach, the Ukrainians attacked. Drivers would race in and drop soldiers about two miles from the Corner, and then head back immediately to avoid detection. Soldiers would make their way to the staging point, loaded with up to 90 pounds of supplies, ammunition, and communications equipment.

The Ukrainians approached Position X in this manner twice, supporting its soldiers with artillery fire. But from their dug-in position, the Russians overwhelmed the Ukrainians with firepower. And without APCs, the Ukrainians had to carry their casualties off the battlefield, a risky and laborious task under fire. One Ukrainian commander lost a leg to a land mine and had to be carried more than a mile on a stretcher. Other evacuations took several hours.

“Blood, corpses, stench—you can’t describe it in words. I won’t tell you the percentage, but there were losses,” Leonid, the soldier, told us. The majority were wounded but many were dead, mostly from artillery fire.

The Ukrainians made a fourth attempt to gain the position on the afternoon of June 7. By nightfall, exhausted and battered, they once again withdrew.

As the Ukrainian units returned to base, their aerial intelligence picked up something remarkable. The Russians, recovering from the onslaught, did not appear to be armed at their firing stations. And judging from activity on the road south, the Ukrainians surmised that the Russians were undertaking a large-scale rotation: Troops were leaving Position X for the Russian back lines, presumably to be replaced by refreshed forces. But in the interim, only a skeleton unit remained on duty.

The Ukrainians made a crucial decision. They would regroup and return that morning.

“They did not expect that the next morning, even in the dark, our troops would come back,” Poltava told us of the Russians. “They were already so tired, they thought they had repelled our advance, so they would make a troop replacement. But when we talked, we decided to storm these positions again in the morning. They did not expect this.”

Before sunrise, a few dozen Ukrainian soldiers—many of them having taken part in the action the previous day—headed back out to the hill, with Deputy Battalion Commander Poltava in the lead. Following the same path, they were dropped a distance from the staging point, and at about 5:30 a.m., they made their way toward the Corner.

As the Ukrainians took up their positions, the Russians detected them and unleashed a firestorm. Over the course of two hours, 10 kamikaze drones landed along the Ukrainians’ shallow trench—one even entering a blindage—and large explosions deafened the soldiers and injured several. The Ukrainians had to dig in deeper to survive. The Russians also launched flying mines equipped with strong magnets that could sense any soldier nearby. No direction seemed free from fire.

Yet as the sun rose, the momentum shifted. With the majority of Russian troops on rotation, the numbers were more evenly matched, and the Ukrainians advanced, using grenades and machine guns. Closer combat advantaged them: A Ukrainian unit was able to secure the position at the APC that had been their first objective. Other units were then able to move forward, and with oversight of the southerly road, the Ukrainians could prevent Russian reinforcements from arriving.

In total, the Ukrainians counted 11 Russians killed. Many others fled.

“They mostly ran away. They were not ready for us and they gave up,” Leonid told us. “Their artillery and their tanks, these are their trump cards. But in close combat, they run.”

Russian intelligence had apparently provided advance warning of the previous Ukrainian attacks. “We had stormed them four times, unluckily, because they were waiting for us,” Leonid recalled. “They had a phone message informing them when we would come. It would say, ‘Wait for your guests,’ and give the time. This time they were not waiting for us.”

No sooner did Ukraine seize Position X, however, than the Russian counterassault began. For several weeks, the Russians hammered their former location and decimated the tree cover. The Ukrainians defended the position and sought to progress down the southern road. But even with several brigades on the job, movement was difficult: Heavy mining, sometimes 50 or 100 mines along a field road, made every step a risk.

Nonetheless, by late August, the Ukrainians had raised their flag in the village of Robotyne, two and a half miles down the road. Russia’s front line had been pushed back several miles, and Ukraine’s counteroffensive was up and running.

Smoke rises in the distance on a road
A Russian shell explodes in the distance months after the capture of Position X. (Courtesy of Anthony Borden)

In the months that followed, Ukraine continued to make southerly progress, but the going has been slow. The next major objective, 12 miles from Robotyne, is the town of Tokmak. Seizing it would put the Ukrainians behind Russian defensive lines and in control of an important transport hub. It would also point them toward Melitopol, a further 30 miles on, and the sea.

For now, the soldiers explained, they were targeting not specific location milestones but Russian positions. With more time to dig in, the second Russian line is stronger, and the third even more so. Some areas are so robust, reinforced with concrete, that they can withstand a direct artillery hit. Ukrainians report that some trenchworks have multiple stories underground and video equipment enabling drone monitoring of the battlefield from safety. The Russians are also learning quickly: The 65th has recovered Russian military guides outlining how to counter the Ukrainians’ evolving, small-unit approach.

At Position X, Ukrainian troops demonstrated that when the terms of the fighting are relatively level, they have the persistence and agility to defeat their opponents. In close encounters, Russian soldiers will not match the commitment and determination of Ukrainian troops fighting on their own land. But there as elsewhere, the Russians begin from deeply entrenched positions and with many battlefield advantages.

Ukraine’s overriding priority is therefore to address its deficit of weapons, including bullets and other munitions, as well as control of the air. NATO troops wouldn’t consider attacking an entrenched position without air superiority. The Ukrainians have little choice. Under the circumstances, they are deeply concerned about drone protection and about securing communications lines so that they can retain the capacity for surprise.

“At the moment we are in defense—active defense, but it’s defense. This is because, as I understand it, we don’t have enough capabilities, neither human nor technical,” Leonid told us.

On our visit in November, the 65th was expecting some new, upgraded equipment that hadn’t yet arrived. Soldiers told us that they still hoped to move toward Tokmak in 2024. But since that time, political shifts in the West have slowed arms supplies to the front.

The main task of the Ukrainian Armed Forces is now simply to hold its positions and prevent Russian advances. Brigades near Position X report that, since mid-November, Russian forces have significantly increased offensive efforts, using tanks, mortars, artillery, and kamikaze drones to carry out up to a dozen attacks on Ukrainian positions every day. According to the Institute for the Study of War, the Russians have clawed back several hundred yards on the periphery of Robotyne, threatening to recapture it.

Speaking to us on December 31, 2023, the Ukrainian-army spokesperson Colonel Oleksandr Shtupun acknowledged that Russian troops are “actively trying to regain previously lost positions in the area of Robotyne.” But another Ukrainian army officer, whom we spoke with on January 2, insisted that Russia’s advances have been minimal and its losses, disproportionately high.

Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines closely follow the debates over military aid in Western capitals, especially Washington. Some told us that they are grateful for the weapons and ammunition Ukraine has received, but that they need about three times as much.

Highlighting Russia’s partnerships with Belarus, China, Iran, and North Korea, an officer told us by text message: “In a global war without international help, any single country is doomed to lose to a coalition of aggressors. This is a matter of resources and time, and in modern warfare, the courage of a Ukrainian fighter alone is not enough.”

In the emerging dark-blue light of a clear November dawn, the smashed buildings of Orikhiv’s outskirts gave way to a militarized zone of deserted fields and long dirt roads. Some officers from the 65th walked us past a burned-out private car that had been used for transport in the Ukrainian assault. Then we came to a broad natural expanse, from which a hill rose only modestly—but the area was so flat that the unobstructed vista from the high ground was 360 degrees.

“If you look from above, the picture is beautiful. But we didn’t come from above; we were below,” Poltava said.

The deep booms of Ukrainian artillery became more frequent as the sun climbed. We walked within the deep, winding trenches on the hilltop, noting the traces of Russian forces—and their hurried departure. Ordnance stores were full of mines, detonators, and unwrapped drone bombs. Tins of shells and rusted hand grenades lay scattered, along with open wooden munitions cases. In the living quarters, twisted sleeping bags lay amid rat droppings, Russian food cans, metal plates and cutlery, water bottles, cigarette packs.

The warren ran on and on, with frequent labyrinthine splits. Down one route we saw the skull of a Russian soldier, upturned. The remains of a second lay beyond. Occasional mounds of dirt suggested shell hits, though there was no way to know from which side.

The sounds of outgoing Ukrainian artillery continued, and in the distance, a towering wall of white smoke rose from the Russian lines that the Ukrainians were targeting outside Robotyne.

Poltava showed us the Corner, the staging point where the attack had begun, and indicated where the kamikaze drones had rained down. “They started hitting here, there, and there,” he said.

Suddenly, his radio crackled to life, warning of drones. Then the whizz-crack of a 152 mm artillery shell screamed above, landing in a field 100 or so yards away, a gray cloud rising where it struck. Shortly after, another hit the trees. We all took cover in a nearby blindage. Minutes later, the radio announced a pickup, and our group climbed from the trench, hustling single-file down the mud road.

A battered Jeep Cherokee appeared and made a fast U-turn. Doors opened, and we crammed in quickly. The vehicle took off down a heavily pockmarked back route, hugging the tree line to avoid being spotted by search drones.

The officers with us kept their eyes forward and rifles up. Only when the damaged city sign for Orikhiv appeared, and then its wrecked houses, did they relax and resume talking freely among themselves.


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