Ukrainian forces have achieved a “tactical breakthrough” after punching through Russia’s main defensive line on the southern front, top military analysts have said.
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a United States-based think-tank, said elements of three Russian divisions were actively defending against Ukrainian assaults, one of which breached Russian defences west of Verbove, in the Zaporizhzhia region.
The breakthrough appeared to be a continuation of an earlier breach late last week, when Western armoured vehicles were filmed penetrating the defensive line for the first time.
But Western analysts said the progress was not yet significant enough for a rapid mechanised assault involving tanks and other armoured vehicles.
Battlefield footage newly circulated online showed a Soviet-era armoured vehicle operated by Ukraine inside Verbove.
Russian military bloggers said Kyiv’s armed forces had entered the settlement, which is part of the so-called Surovikin line, and pushed east into territory held by Moscow.
One source with ties to Russia’s elite paratroopers said Ukrainian forces controlled at least one-half of Verbove, which is integrated into Moscow’s network of trenches, anti-tank ditches and minefields put in place to thwart Kyiv’s counter-offensive.
In recent weeks, the village has become a key target for Ukraine in the push to reach the coastal cities of Melitopol and Berdyansk, thereby severing Russia’s land bridge between its mainland and occupied Crimea.
“On the left flank (near Verbove) we have a breakthrough and we continue to advance further”, General Oleksandr Tarnavsky, the commander of Ukraine’s southern counter-offensive, told CNN on Saturday.
The Ukrainian BMP, a Soviet-era infantry fighting vehicle, was spotted fighting on the western outskirts of the village, for the first time in the area since the beginning of the full-scale invasion in February last year.
Nasa satellites, which track fires using infrared, picked up an “unusually intense cluster of heat anomalies” north of the settlement over the weekend, according to ISW, suggesting increased fighting in the area.
“For how long can Shoigu’s ministry of defence hide the breakthrough in Verbove,” wrote a VDV-linked channel on the Telegram messaging app.
The same source suggested Ukraine was within five miles of encircling a Russian paratroop regiment in the nearby village of Novofedorivka from other elite units in Verbove.
“Even though Ukraine is slowly making progress every month, we haven’t seen an actual breakthrough,” said Emil Kastehelmi, an open-source intelligence analyst with Black Bird Group.
He added: “In a breakthrough, there should be exploitable and re-enforceable success, which brings the defender into a reactive state, unable to carry out the original defensive plans.”
It is unclear whether Ukrainian forces will try to capture Verbove or continue moving around it to widen their breach through Russia’s defensive line.
On Sunday, Ukraine’s general staff said its forces had captured locations near the village, but did not offer any specifics.
In its daily battlefield update, ISW said the breakthrough could only be deemed “operationally significant” if three assumptions hold for Ukraine.
For the progress to be upgraded, Russian forces would have to be thinly spread with little in the way of reserves, while its defensive positions not as heavily mined or as well prepared as those Ukraine had already crossed, the think-tank wrote.
Ukraine would also need to have retained “enough combat power” to continue pushing after “exhausting” Russian forces, it added.