Nearly three months into their counteroffensive, the Ukrainian army has finally found a way to breach the first line of Russian defence. Ukraine has moved through minefields, ‘dragon’s teeth’ defences and swarms of drones. They have retaken the village of Robotyne which lies on the highway to Tokmak, the next objective on the way to Melitopol (one of the main Ukrainian targets for blocking the land corridor to Crimea). Russia is trying to reinforce its defences, while Kyiv is anticipating a much-needed breakthrough.
Russian forces have built some of the most extensive battlefield fortifications seen in Europe since the second world war to defend those borders it has managed to establish. To date, approximately 1,500 mines have been planted per square kilometre in the south of Ukraine. The Ukrainian army now has to face a layered Russian defence north of the village of Novoprokopivka, one that is manned by Russian reserves, an extensive artillery, and the same mine density as on the path to Robotyne.
In June, Russian mines destroyed many Western vehicles and caused massive casualties amongst Ukrainian personnel. Ukraine is the most heavily mined country in the world with a third of its land now deadly to walk on. It is mainly for this reason that it took the Ukrainian army ten weeks to overcome the first line of Russia’s defence and capture the first village on the road to Tokmak.
Kyiv’s strategy has improved since then. Now, the path for the Ukrainian infantry is cleared by combat engineers, or ‘sappers’ – only then do heavy armoured vehicles follow. Armed with metal detectors and mine-clearing kits, sappers hunt for mines under heavy Russian fire. ‘We go ahead of the infantry, ahead of the intelligence – we go ahead of everyone’, says Varan, sapper platoon commander for the 108th brigade.
Varan commands a ten-member sapper team searching for possible routes for troops through the grey zone between the Ukrainian and Russian sides.