Ukrainian forces liberated the southern town of Kherson last November, routing Russian troops in an embarrassing defeat for the Kremlin. But the front line spanning the length of the country has barely shifted since.

Here are the main flashpoints between Russian forces and Ukraine’s army, which has been trying to puncture deep Russian defensive lines in recent months.

The battle for the Dnipro

Since Kherson’s liberation last November, the Dnipro river that winds through Ukraine and into the Black Sea has acted as the front line in the south.

Russian and Ukrainian forces on opposing banks of the river that cuts through the Kherson region have been exchanging regular artillery fire, injuring and killing dozens of civilians.

In June, as Ukrainian forces were preparing a massive counteroffensive, an explosion ruptured the front line Kakhovka dam, flooding swathes of the region downstream.


Kyiv said Russia blew up the dam to hamper any Ukrainian advance through water-logged ground, and neither side has built up troops in the months that followed.

Ukrainian special operations teams taking advantage of the lower Dnipro’s thick vegetation, labyrinth of canals and swampy terrain had raided and patrolled on the Russian-held left bank of the river since May.

Ukrainian regular forces, mostly Marine infantry, in mid- to late-October crossed the river at two locations and began digging in in two to four bridgeheads on the opposing bank.

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The threat from drones, loitering munitions and precision-guided weapons applies as much to artillery systems as it does to tanks and other armored vehicles.

Russian forces have struggled to dislodge them because defenses manned by the Ukrainian Marines in marshy and thickly-wooded landscape are difficult to approach and attack with massed armor and artillery.

The Russian air force has led efforts in recent weeks to dislodge the Ukrainian footholds, as the Ukrainians have slowly strengthened their positions.

By mid-November reports of Ukrainian light armored vehicles having been ferried across the river, to strengthen Marine positions, were confirmed.


A Ukrainian serviceman of the 123rd Territorial Defense Brigade watches an area of the Dnipro River, in an undisclosed location in the Kherson region, on Nov. 6, 2023. PHOTO: AFP

The question remains whether the Marine foothold will pave the way for more ambitious Ukrainian attacks.

The key factor is which side can supply and reinforce its troops in this sector more efficiently: the Russians using a limited network of narrow roads that are easily ambushed, or the Ukrainians who must deliver reinforcements and ammunition, and evacuate casualties, using small boats and amphibious transports.

Were the Ukrainian bridgehead to become solid enough for army leadership to risk construction of a pontoon bridge over the Dnirpo, the Kherson sector could become the focus of intense and possibly decisive combat, because a Ukrainian armored breakout from the Kherson bridgehead could lead to a serious strategic defeat for the Russian army, whose forces would be split in half, and the Russia-controlled Crimea peninsula and its major military facilities would be effectively cut off from Moscow.

Hopes dashed in Robotyne

After nearly three months of fierce fighting, Ukrainian forces in August said they had broken through deep Russian defensive lines in the south, spanning for hundreds of kilometers.


The capture of Robotyne, a village in the Zaporizhzhia region, was supposed to have paved the way for Ukrainian troops towards the city of Melitopol and then the Azov Sea, cutting Russian occupying forces in two.

But more than two months later, Ukrainian forces have struggled to move past Robotyne, coming under Russian artillery fire and counterattacks.

Further east, Russian lines held this summer when Ukrainian forces concentrated attacks – and incurred heavy losses – around the village of Urozhaine.

Ukraine’s advance amounted to several kilometers. Ukrainian army commander Valery Zaluzhny in early November comments declared attempts at breaking through Russian lines using massed armored attacks in this sector fruitless.

A Ukrainian soldier of the 65th Mechanized Brigade walks in the trench built by Russian forces, near the frontline village of Robotyne, in the Zaporizhzhia region, on Oct. 1, 2023. PHOTO: AFP

Both sides still have major forces deployed in this sector and combat continues to be intense and frequent.

For the most part, the battles are local, typically for a chain of entrenchments in a wood line or a portion of a village.

However, were either side to suffer casualties or otherwise reduce forces in this sector and see a wide-scale defensive collapse, and combat shift from trench fighting to mobile warfare, control of large sections of territory in this region could change hands quickly, because of the open and rolling terrain with few natural obstacles like major cities or rivers.


Bakhmut, back and forth  

After more than a year of brutal fighting, the town of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine has been reduced to rubble and fighting there has likely cost tens of thousands of lives, including Russian prison recruits.

In May, after 10 months of carnage, Russia claimed to have captured the town but Ukrainian forces almost immediately began retaking territory around its flanks, including nearby villages, AFP reports.

Russian forces are in an exposed situation here, forced to hold the town with Ukrainian troops able to fire on supply routes in and out of the city.

A Ukrainian artilleryman fires a 152 mm towed gun-howitzer D-20 at Russian positions on the front line near Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine, on July 20, 2023. PHOTO: AFP

Russia attacks Avdiivka

Russian forces began a push to wrest control of the industrial hub of Avdiivka south of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine last month, a town Kremlin-backed separatists tried to capture after 2014.

Avdiivka lies 13 kilometers (eight miles) north of Donetsk, the Moscow-controlled stronghold of the region, which the Kremlin claimed to have annexed last year.

Ukrainian forces have for years been heavily entrenched in Avdiivka and on Oct. 10 began facing down a concerted Russian effort to encircle the town.


Some of the bloodiest Russian losses of 2023 followed in the next three or four weeks. Despite heavy artillery fire and some lost ground, Ukrainian forces have largely fended off the onslaught for the town that was once home to some 35,000 people, and where just hundreds remain.

However, the Ukrainian situation at Adviivka is similar to the Russian one at Bakhmut, with Ukrainian forces trying to hold onto a town with higher ground nearby controlled by Russian forces, and Ukrainian into and out of the town at times under fire by Russian artillery.

Re-occupying Kupyansk

The town of Kupyansk was captured by Russian forces early in their invasion launched in February last year.

But months later, in September, Ukrainian forces took it back as part of a lightning offensive in the northeast Kharkiv region that stunned Kyiv’s allies as well as the Kremlin.

In July, as Russian forces were defending towns and villages on the southern front, they launched a fresh effort to take back Kupyansk.

Ukrainian officials ordered the evacuation of civilians from nearby settlements as Moscow’s troops claimed incremental gains and bombarded the region, including the killing of 59 people in Groza in early October.


But after more than three months of pushing, Russian forces have yet to break through Ukrainian defensive lines.

There is some evidence the Ukrainian military is using the Kupyansk sector, where fighting overall has been less intense and bloody than in the Donbas and southern sectors, as a place for green troops to get their first exposure of combat, or for veteran troops to rest and recover from more violent fighting elsewhere on the front.

On the Russian side, the Kupyansk sector has become the default focus of the regular Russian army and its conventional forces.

The Ukrainian long-range war

Away from the front lines, the Ukrainian military’s increasingly capable long-range, precision-guided strike systems by October 2023 had destroyed or long term-damaged about a third of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet based in the Crimean port Sevastopol, and forced the Russian fleet to evacuate its base there for the first time since German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.

The main weapon used was the French/British Storm Shadow anti-ship cruise missile. Strikes in October and November against Russian airfields in Crimea and in occupied Luhansk had much the same effect on elements of the Russian air force, forcing Russian close air support assets to shift to bases further away, inside Russia.

The US-delivered ATACMS ballistic missiles was the primary weapon used in these strikes. Potentially, were Ukrainian supplies of these anti-ship and anti-airfield precision-guided missiles substantial, the long-range strike weapon battle could become decisive in coming months, because Russian air defenses have struggled and in the large picture failed to stop these high tech NATO weapons.

However, Washington and other NATO states have been hesitant to hand over to Kyiv the hundreds of cruise and ballistic missiles Ukraine would probably need to break the Russian navy and air force decisively.

The critical questions facing military analysts on this front will be how many of these weapons Ukraine will be sent, and how quickly?

South Korean ATACMS in action during a training exercise. PHOTO: AFP

The Russian long range war Russian missile and drone strikes in winter 2022-23 damaged but failed to destroy Ukraine’s power grid thanks to Ukrainian civilian willingness to endure blackouts and slowly increasing Ukrainian air defense capacity.

As the winter 2023-24 approaches, Ukraine’s power grid is better protected both by air defense systems and physical fortifications, and Russian missile reserves are according to Ukrainian intelligence at about 800 weapons total: insufficient to overwhelm Ukraine’s air defenses and collapse Ukraine’s power grid long term.

Russian strike planners have received and launched hundreds of Iran-manufactured Shahed drones, a cheap weapon normally not capable of taking down a Ukrainian power station or major transformer substation due to its relatively small warhead.

Over the past six months the Kremlin has shifted tactics from lobbing missiles and drones in uncoordinated strikes, to individual strike packages mixing drones and missiles launched along complicated flight paths.

Thus far in the war Russia has not attempted a major bombardment of complex strikes of drones mixed with missiles, over several days or weeks.

Although Ukrainian air defenses are substantially stronger now than a year ago, it remains to be seen how well Ukrainian anti-aircraft missiles and anti-drone machine gun teams can deal with Russian saturation missile/drone strikes.

Should those defenses crumble, then the Kremlin would be on track to achieve a major war aim by plunging millions of Ukrainian civilians into long-term cold and darkness, due to catastrophic failure of Ukraine’s power grid.

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