Meet Ukraine’s elite troops taking on Putin’s best in counteroffensive clash

Ukraine’s 35th Marine Brigade liberate Urozhaine

Elements of Ukraine’s finest brigades have been unleashed into its counter offensive, sparking a rapid flurry of advances after months of sluggish operations.

Across the 600-mile front line, two acute attacks in the centre are racing through static Russian fortifications, having reportedly de-mined miles of territory and destroyed artillery stores deep in the occupied regions with the help of UK-supplied long range missiles.

Units of Ukraine’s four prized marine brigades, the 35th to 38th, are currently stationed along the Donetsk/Zaporizhzhia border, proceeding down a spinal attack towards Berdyansk, on the coast of the Sea of Azov.

Less than 75 miles to the west, the first alleged sightings of British Challenger 2 tanks on the front line suggest Ukraine’s two heavily-armed, Western-trained brigades are being drip-fed into an attack on the village of Robotyne, in the direction of Melitopol, a critical Russian hub also by the Sea of Azov. conducted a deep dive analysis of the frontline, as well as speaking to a former US intelligence director based in Europe, to tell you everything you need to know about this latest phase of the counter offensive.

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In the early hours of August 16, Ukraine’s deputy defence minister Hanna Mailar confirmed what the military blogger community had hinted at for almost 24 hours: Urozhaine, known as “Harvest”, had been liberated.

“The harvest was released,” she said. “Our defenders are entrenched at the borders. The offensive continues.”

Only hours later, after the Ukrainian Defence Ministry published footage of the 35th and 38th Marine Brigades liberating the small settlement, footage showed retreating Russian forces being chased by the advancing troops towards Zavitne Bazhannya, the fallback position two and a half miles to the south.

What had for weeks looked like a stalled spinal attack from Velyka Novosilka towards Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov was suddenly kicking into gear.

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Steven Horrell, a former director of a military intelligence centre for the US European Command at RAF Molesworth, Cambridgeshire, now a senior fellow at the Centre for European Policy Analysis, described the Russian loss in Urozhaine as a “pretty sudden collapse”.

He said Ukraine had effectively “rotated units forwards” into the attack, ensuring “fresh legs” that could quickly move onto the next Russian fortification after capturing Urozhaine.

By “rotating elements of the reserve forces forward in smaller units, companies and battalions”, he said, Ukraine was concurrently ensuring a swift attack while giving their reservists experience on the front line without exhausting them.

Mikhail Zvinchuk, aka Rybar, a prominent Russian military blogger with nearly 1.2 million followers on Telegram, appeared to confirm this on August 17.

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“South of Urozhayne, Ukrainian marines resumed their attacks on the village of Zavitne Bazhannya,” he wrote. “Yesterday, several assault groups of 37 infantry regiment with a total of 25 people tried to break through the defences, but the attack was repulsed.”

Moving forwards, elements of these four marine units, aided by other military brigades, appear to be attacking to the east of Zavitne, a lowland area heavily fortified by Russia.

Geolocated footage posted on Thursday (August 17) showed a small column of armoured vehicles, including UK-supplied 4×4 Huskies, 850 metres to the east of Urozhaine.

The advances are “incremental”, Mr Horrell added, but their rapidity is a “positive indication” of the potential of Ukraine’s full-throttle counter offensive.

To the west, Russia’s forces are facing a different, albeit equally difficult, challenge. For two and a half months, Ukraine has withheld its heavily-armed, Western-trained brigades as other forces cleared minefields and destroyed artillery houses behind the first wave of defence.

After one Russian milblogger claimed that the “foreground of Robotyne had been de-mined”, the informational sphere lit up with alleged pictures of British Challenger 2 tanks and American Stryker infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) in the area.

It was the first sign of Ukraine’s 2,000-person 82nd Air Assault Brigade, as well as its sister air-assault unit, the 46th Brigade.

Russian milblogger reports cannot be taken at face value but these claims appeared to have some “basis in fact” at the least, Mr Horrell said. Tracking brigades is not difficult for those on the ground.

In a similar style to Urozhaine to the east, Mr Horrell suggested the Ukrainian forces were drip-feeding smaller units of these two brigades, with their heavy Western tanks and armoured vehicles, into the attack, with the result being the same.

Ukraine has made rapid advances to the north and northeast of Robotyne, turning it into a “grey zone” after months of fighting, meaning it is no longer entirely occupied by the Russians, with one milblogger claiming the two forces were merely “10 metres apart” in certain areas of the now “half-occupied” settlement.

On August 17, Ukrainian forces destroyed a Russian Ka-52 helicopter immediately south of Robotyne while Vladimir Putin’s forces reportedly “fired from 500 to 600 shells in three hours”.

In response, Russia redeployed elements of the 7th Guards Airborne (VDV) Division, their most valuable forces, from Kherson Oblast in the south to Robotyne.

These military movements suggest “Ukrainian advances have significantly degraded the Russian forces that have been defending in western Zaporizhia Oblast without rotation since the start of the counteroffensive”, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington-based US think tank said on August 18.

The Russian forces defending both along the Donetsk border and in western Zaporizhzhia now appear to be panicking.

Alexander Khodakovsky, who commands forces that retreated from Urozhaine, called on August 17 for a freezing of the conflict, suggesting the latest Ukrainian advances may be “weaking confidence in the Russian defence”, ISW said.

“Can we bring down Ukraine militarily?” the commander asked on Thursday. His answer was brief but telling: “Now and in the near future,” he added. “No.”

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