After penetrating a major line of Russian defenses around the southern village of Robotyne, Ukrainian forces are now engaged in a fierce battle a few miles farther to the east as they seek to take the next step of a hard-fought counteroffensive, according to Ukrainian military commanders and Western military analysts.
The Ukrainian 46th Brigade, which is taking part in the fighting in the area, said that its assault units were attacking Russian positions near the village of Verbove, nine miles east of Robotyne.
Weeks of brutal fighting have resulted in small but significant advances that Ukrainian forces are trying to exploit. The move toward Verbove is notable because it shows that Ukraine feels it holds Robotyne securely enough to try to press forward.
While Western analysts believe that Ukraine has broken through a first line of defense in Robotyne, they note that several other defensive lines converge around Verbove.
Ukrainian military officials have warned not to expect rapid progress and troops are fighting hard for every bit of ground retaken. There are still miles of formidable Russian defenses — including mines, tank traps, fortified trenches, concrete pill boxes and sniper nests — ahead as Ukrainian troops seek to push south and drive a wedge between Russia and occupied Crimea.
On Thursday, the brigade said its forces had reached the western part of Verbove, though it underlined that there were much more difficult fights ahead.
“The battles will be for heights further south and southwest,” the brigade said. The brigade cautioned against “hype” since even if they punch through the next defensive line, Russia has more ahead.
At the same time, they also have to defend against Russian efforts to drive them back again.
“Russia is constantly counterattacking, conducting an active defense,” it said, adding that “our month of battles has shown that the enemy is not going to give up the captured lands — there is a lot of work ahead.”
If Ukraine can hold the ground it has recently reclaimed, its forces are in position to apply pressure on Russian supply routes running through the city of Tokmak, about 15 miles to the south.
Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, offered an example of the difficulty of the battle during a meeting of diplomats in France on Wednesday. After spending more than two months engaged in a grueling campaign to break the Russian lines around Robotyne, the fighting capability of the units was exhausted, he said.
The local commander asked for permission to restructure the attack force there, choosing 31 soldiers considered to be deeply motivated. A third of them had no combat experience, he said.
Over the course of 40 days, he said, this unit conducted six assaults and two reconnaissance missions. Seven of the soldiers were wounded, he said, including one who stepped on a mine.
“The work of this group made it possible for an entire brigade to attack Robotyne and liberate it after weeks of assaults,” he said.
Constant Méheut contributed reporting.