Ukrainian forces believe they have broken through the most difficult line of Russian defences in the south and will now be able to advance more quickly, a commander fighting in the south told Reuters.
Ukraine launched a counteroffensive in June, but well-prepared Russian defence lines reinforced by minefields have slowed their southward advance towards the Sea of Azov.
Ukrainian forces said on Wednesday they had raised the national flag in the settlement of Robotyne in the southern Zaporizhzhia region, about 10 km (six miles) south of the frontline town of Orikhiv.
“We don’t stop here,” said a commander who led some of the troops into Robotyne and uses the nom de guerre “Kombat”.
“Next we have (the town of) Berdiansk, and then more. I made it clear to my fighters at once: our goal is not Robotyne, our goal is (the Sea of) Azov.”
Robotyne is about 100 km from Berdiansk, a port on the shores of the Sea of Azov, and 85 km from the strategic city of Melitopol. Both are occupied by Russian forces following Moscow’s full-scale invasion in February last year.
Moscow has not confirmed that Ukraine has advanced into Robotyne.
A US official said last week that Ukrainian forces did not appear likely to be able to reach and retake Melitopol in their counteroffensive, intended to split Russian forces in the south.
Defending Ukraine‘s strategy this week, President Volodymyr Zelensky dismissed suggestions that his country’s troops were spread too thinly and repeated his belief that Kyiv would regain all Ukrainian territory that has been seized by Moscow.
“We have passed the main roads that were mined. We are coming to those lines where we can go (forward). I’m sure we’ll go faster from here,” Kombat said.
He said two houses were still under Russian control in Robotyne: “We’re fighting for them, and then we’ll have full control (of Robotyne).”
Kombat said Ukrainian troops had now entered territories where there were only “Russian logistics” groups, and where he made clear he did not expect Russian defences to be as difficult to break through.
In its latest intelligence update, the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) also warns that Russia has made limited advances in the country’s north-east and is likely to intensify its attacks there over the next two months.
Latest Defence Intelligence update on the situation in Ukraine – 26 August 2023
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The MoD said that Russia’s western group of forces had made their advances around the towns of Kupiansk and Lyman through “continued small-scale attacks”.
Although Russian troops may have made limited advances, the intelligence update added: “The Ukrainian counter-offensive has put Russian forces under pressure in Bakhmut and southern Ukraine.
“Despite this, Russia’s Western Group of Forces has continued small-scale attacks in the north-east, in the Kupiansk-Lyman sector, and has made some limited local advances.
“As Ukraine continues to gradually gain ground in the south, Russia’s doctrine suggests that it will attempt to regain the initiative by pivoting back to an operational level offensive. Kupiansk-Lyman is one potential area for this.”
The MoD added: “There is a realistic possibility Russia will increase the intensity of its offensive efforts on the Kupiansk-Lyman axis in the next two months, probably with the objective of advancing west to the Oskil River and creating a buffer zone around Luhansk Oblast.”