George Barros, Kateryna Stepanenko, Riley Bailey, Angelica Evans, and Frederick W. Kagan
September 24, 2023, 9:00 pm ET
Click here to see ISW’s interactive map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This map is updated daily alongside the static maps present in this report.
Click here to access ISW’s archive of interactive time-lapse maps of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These maps complement the static control-of-terrain map that ISW produces daily by showing a dynamic frontline. ISW will update this time-lapse map archive monthly.
Note: The data cut-off for this product was 3pm ET on September 24. ISW will cover subsequent reports in the September 25 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.
ISW is providing an assessment of a very dynamic situation in the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive near Orikhiv in western Zaporizhia Oblast. ISW emphasizes that the situation remains dynamic and unclear and that the tactical situation is likely changing rapidly. It is too early to forecast if Ukrainian forces will achieve an operational breakthrough in this sector of the front.
Elements of three Russian divisions are actively defending against Ukrainian assaults around the Ukrainian salient in the Orikhiv area in western Zaporizhia Oblast. Elements of the Russian 42nd Motorized Rifle Division (58th Combined Arms Army, Southern Military District) are deployed and are defending at the southernmost point of the Ukrainian penetration and are engaging Ukrainian forces in Novoprokopivka (13km south of Orikhiv). Elements of the Russian 76th Air Assault Division deployed to the Ukrainian salient’s western flank near Kopani (11km southwest of Orikhiv) towards Robotyne (10m south of Orikhiv) and are counterattacking there. Elements of the 7th Air Assault Division are deployed on the Ukrainian salient‘s eastern flank near the Verbove-Novopokrovka line and are counterattacking there. Sources affiliated with the Russian Airborne (VDV) Forces report that the 56th Air Assault Regiment (7th Air Assault Division) is deployed about 5km north of Verbove near Novofedorivka.
A Russian source claimed that the 7th and 76th VDV Divisions were ordered to conduct an operational encirclement of the Ukrainian salient, but that they failed to do so and that the 7th VDV Division’s effectiveness significantly declined after a successful Ukrainian strike against the division headquarters on September 19. ISW offers no assessment about these reported orders to encircle Ukrainian forces beyond noting that it would be a sound practice for Russian forces to conduct counterattacks against Ukrainian forces’ flanks within limits.
Ukrainian forces are attacking along three directions within the Orikhiv salient as of September 24. Ukrainian forces are conducting attacks from Robotyne against Novoprokopivka. Ukrainian forces are attacking directly into Verbove’s western side. Ukrainian forces are also attacking north of Verbove.
Russian sources report that Ukrainian forces broke into Verbove on September 22 and continued attacking the settlement with armored vehicles as of September 24. Geolocated combat footage posted on September 24 shows a Ukrainian BMP operating within Verbove’s westernmost village limits. A VDV-affiliated source reported that Ukrainian forces entered Verbove for the first time on September 22 and continued pushing east. The VDV source later reported that Ukrainian forces occupy half of Verbove as of September 24. The VDV source accused the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) of trying to conceal Ukraine’s tactical progress in Verbove, rhetorically stating, “For how long can Shoigu’s MoD hide the breakthrough in Verbove?“ Several Russian sources reported on September 24 that Ukrainian forces continue deploying vehicles against Verbove, including Bradley infantry fighting vehicles. Some Russian sources are vehemently denying any Ukrainian breakthrough in Verbove as of September 24. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces captured new unspecified locations near Verbove on September 24.
Ukrainian forces are attacking north of Verbove and could isolate the 56th VDV Regiment deployed in Novofedorivka from its sister regiments in the Verbove area according to Russian sources. A Russian VDV source warned that there is a “real threat” of Ukrainian forces reaching the 56th VDV Regiment’s rear near Novofedorivka on September 21. The VDV source warned on September 22 that Ukrainian forces are within 7km of encircling the 56th VDV Regiment and that the regiment would be in a difficult position if its commander did not make a decision to withdraw from Novofedorivka to other previously prepared positions. ISW does not assess that an encirclement of the 56th VDV Regiment is likely, though Ukrainian forces may isolate it from the rest of the 7th VDV Division if Ukrainians manage to outmaneuver it from Verbove’s north and the regiment inexplicably remains in its current positions.
Ukrainian military journalist Konstyantyn Mashovets reported on September 22 that Ukrainian forces are attempting to bypass Verbove from the north. A prominent Kremlin-linked milblogger reported on September 24 that Ukrainian forces improved their positions near Novofedorivka’s flank. Another prominent Russian milblogger reported on September 23 that Ukrainian forces attempted to attack an unspecified tactical height with an elevation of 136.7 meters near Verbove and that Ukrainian forces were deploying vehicles from the north to the south near Verbove. ISW assesses that this tactical height of 136.7 meters is likely located approximately 3.5km northwest of Verbove based on an analysis of digital elevation data around Verbove. (It is customary in militaries to identify locations based on terrain elevations as marked on commonly used military maps, but ISW does not have access to the Russian maps to check for such markings.)
NASA FIRMS/VIIRS thermal anomaly data collected between September 22-24 shows an unusually intense cluster of heat anomalies north of Verbove. These anomalies, while not dispositive, are a supporting indicator of combat north of Verbove and support the Russian and Ukrainian reports of Ukrainian activity between Novofedorivka and Verbove.
ISW cannot assess the extent of this Ukrainian attack north of Verbove and has not collected enough geospatial information to map it confidently at this time.
A Russian source affiliated with the VDV expressed panic at the prospect of significant Ukrainian advances in the Verbove area. A Russian milblogger, whose stated mission is to protect VDV Commander Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky from removal or arrest, warned on September 22 and 23 that the 56th VDV Regiment was under imminent threat of encirclement following the reported Ukrainian advance into Verbove. The milblogger asserted that the commander of the 56th VDV Regiment was unable to make any decision about withdrawal and called on the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) to allow Teplinsky to remedy the situation. The milblogger noted high losses and poor morale among the 56th VDV Regiment and claimed that more than half of the personnel of the 7th and 76th VDV Divisions are mobilized personnel. Other Russian sources, including those with close ties to the VDV, have not yet described the situation in Verbove or among VDV forces as this dire. The Russian milblogger may be exaggerating the situation in the Verbove area to negatively portray the Russian military command and advocate for Teplinsky to have more control over tactical and operational decision-making.
The milblogger compared the poor morale in the 56th VDV Regiment to the general morale of the Soviet military during its invasion of Afghanistan and of the Russian military during its campaign in Chechnya. This level of poor morale may have significant impacts on the Russian defense in the area as relatively elite VDV units appear responsible for conducting counterattacks, which require high morale. It is less likely to affect the operations of units under direct attack, however, unless it reaches the point of causing surrenders, which is unlikely among VDV units even comprised of mobilized personnel.
Russian forces continue to expend significant combat power on counterattacking to hold their current positions and appear to be resisting the operationally sound course of action of falling back to prepared defensive positions further south. The Russian command constructed a multi-echeloned defense in southern Ukraine that would have allowed the Russian command to deploy defending Russian forces in depth throughout subsequent defensive layers. Russian forces have instead expended considerable amounts of manpower, materiel, and effort to hold the forwardmost defensive positions in southern Ukraine and have only withdrawn to subsequent defensive positions at the direct threat of Ukrainian advances. Russian forces’ elastic defense requires that one echelon of Russian forces slows a Ukrainian tactical advance while a second echelon of forces counterattacks to roll back that advance. Counterattacking requires significant morale and relatively high combat capabilities, and the Russian military appears to rely on relatively elite units and formations to counterattack, likely at the expense of these forces’ degradation.
Some Russian and Ukrainian sources have acknowledged that some Russian counterattacks in the wider Robotyne area have been senseless. A defense in depth should afford these units respite from further degradation through withdrawal to a subsequent defensive layer. This withdrawal would allow the Russian command to conserve critical combat power for more operationally significant counterattacks and efforts to attrit attacking Ukrainian forces, although the task of conducting an orderly withdrawal under fire or pursuit is quite challenging and risky. American military analysts Michael Kofman and Rob Lee recently assessed that Russian forces have underutilized the depth of their defense and have yet to execute “a true defense in depth” in which Russian forces trade “space for attrition” and that the Russian command’s decision to defend forward has allowed Ukrainian artillery units to attrit Russian forces. ISW concurs with this assessment. ISW has observed a concerted Ukrainian effort to attrit Russian forces even as Ukrainian forces make significant tactical gains, and the Russian resistance to withdrawing to defensive positions further south is likely compounding the asymmetric attrition gradient Ukrainian forces are trying to create. Russian counterattacks aimed at holding forward positions have been tactically significant, but it remains unclear if these counterattacks will have lasting operational importance.
The Russian military command may be ordering these counterattacks to buy time, but it is unclear how the Kremlin intends to use time bought at such a price. Russian forces appear to be unwilling to surrender tactical areas and are focusing instead on fighting for every meter instead of benefiting from the depth of their prepared defenses. Ukrainian military journalist Konstyantyn Mashovets observed that the Russian military command is achieving its objective of buying more time from these counterattacks but questioned what the Russian military command intends to do with this time. Mashovets argued that the sacrifice of combat-ready forces and assets during defensive operations only makes sense in two situations: if it allows time to organize defensive systems at another prepared line or if it buys time for the organization of a more substantial counterattack or counteroffensive. Mashovets added that both scenarios assume that Russia has additional reserves and the ability to rapidly deploy these reserves to a new defensive line or an operational direction where it plans to carry out a new offensive. Mashovets concluded that regardless of the Russian intent behind buying time, the Russian military command still needs additional reinforcements in the western Zaporizhia direction in addition to forces already concentrated on this frontline for Russian forces’ current counterattacks to be operationally sound.
The Russian sacrifice of combat power to hold every meter may alternatively be intended to support the Kremlin’s informational and hybrid warfare objectives. Russian President Vladimir Putin first acknowledged the start of the Ukrainian counteroffensive on June 9 by emphasizing two key and persistent narratives: that Ukrainian forces will not achieve significant successes due to well-prepared Russian defenses and that the Ukrainian forces are suffering heavy losses in personnel and Western military equipment. Putin and the Kremlin have been framing Russian defensive operations as a major battlefield victory, and persistent Russian counterattacks allow the Kremlin to claim these operations as individual victories amidst the general lack of Russian battlefield advances elsewhere. These efforts likely intend to erode support and trust in Ukrainian forces in Ukraine and the West. Putin may have ordered the Russian military command to hold all Russia’s initial defensive positions to create the illusion that Ukrainian counteroffensives have not achieved any tactical or operational effects despite substantial Western support. This informational undertaking can only succeed in the long run if Russian forces can actually prevent Ukrainian forces from breaking through and liberating large areas, however.
The Russian resistance to ceding ground may also be tied to Russian military commanders’ and officials’ attempts to use the counteroffensive to achieve political goals, or it could result from Putin’s micromanagement. A Kremlin insider source claimed that Putin reportedly gave Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu a deadline of one month until early October 2023 to improve the situation on the frontlines, stop Ukrainian counteroffensives, and have Russian forces regain the initiative to launch an offensive operation against a larger city. The insider‘s claim, if true, may indicate that the Russian military command may be ordering relentless counterattacks in hopes of forcing the Ukrainian counteroffensive to culminate, even at a high cost to Russian military capabilities. ISW has previously observed instances in which the Russian MoD, fearing the imminent loss of Putin’s favor, intensified its efforts to purge commanders who offered honest but negative views and advice and pursued unachievable military objectives at the expense of Russian forces. The Russian MoD, for example, launched an unsuccessful and costly offensive on Vuhledar in February 2023 to undermine the domestic Russian informational effects of the Wagner Group’s progress in Bakhmut and maintain favor with Putin. Russian insider sources and milbloggers who have advocated for Teplinsky claimed that Shoigu has been focusing on setting conditions to convince Putin to remove Teplinsky from command – which would likely be achievable if Shoigu is able to achieve Putin’s objectives during the counteroffensive. One pro-Teplinsky channel even claimed that Chief of the Russian General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov had already removed Teplinsky from overseeing the defensive operation in southern Ukraine, although ISW cannot confirm the validity of this claim at this time.
Ukrainian forces may be able to achieve an operationally significant breakthrough in the southern frontline if several key assumptions hold. A significant Ukrainian success will be more likely if:
1) Russian forces do not have the necessary reserves or combat power to maintain Russian defenses in western Zaporizhia Oblast;
2) Ukrainian forces retain enough combat power to continue pushing after exhausting Russian combat power; and
3) Russian defensive positions behind the current battle area are not as heavily mined or well prepared as the fortifications that Ukrainian forces have breached.
This hypothesis is invalid if any of these assumptions are invalidated. There are indicators that these assumptions remain valid as of this writing. ISW continues to assess that the Russian military does not have sufficient forces deployed to western Zaporizhia Oblast to completely man its defenses in depth and that Ukrainian forces should be able to operate through Russian field fortifications more rapidly if they are not properly manned. Ukraine’s operations in Bakhmut have kept Russian forces committed to eastern Ukraine and away from the southern front and helped deny the creation of a strategic reserve. Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Head Lieutenant General Kyrylo Budanov stated on September 22 that the Russian military deployed its “reserve army” (the 25th Combined Arms Army [CAA]) “roughly north of Bakhmut” to defend against Ukrainian counteroffensive efforts in eastern Ukraine. It remains unclear if Ukrainian forces have enough reserve forces and combat power to continue conducting offensive operations in the south until the Russian defenses break to effectively exploit an operational breakthrough. It also remains unclear how heavily mined or well prepared the Russian positions south of the current battle area are.
The Ukrainian counteroffensive is in an extremely dynamic phase and ISW is not prepared to offer any confident forecast of events despite recent positive indicators. Recent promising reports of Ukrainian tactical progress, including breaking through some Russian field fortifications, in the Orikhiv area should not be read as a guarantee that Ukraine is on the cusp of a significant operational success. Observers should be patient with Ukraine's campaign design and should expect Ukraine’s counteroffensive to continue through winter 2023 and into spring 2024. Ukraine does not need to achieve a sudden and dramatic deep penetration to achieve success.
- Elements of three Russian divisions are actively defending against Ukrainian assaults around the Ukrainian salient in the Orikhiv area in western Zaporizhia Oblast.
- Ukrainian forces are attacking along three directions within the Orikhiv salient as of September 24.
- Russian sources report that Ukrainian forces broke into Verbove on September 22 and continued attacking the settlement with armored vehicles as of September 24.
- Ukrainian forces are attacking north of Verbove and could isolate the 56th VDV Regiment deployed in Novofedorivka from its sister regiments in the Verbove area according to Russian sources.
- Russian forces continue to expend significant combat power on counterattacking to hold their current positions and appear to be resisting the operationally sound course of action of falling back to prepared defensive positions further south.
- The Russian military command may be ordering these counterattacks to buy time, but it is unclear how the Kremlin intends to use time bought at such a price.
- The Russian sacrifice of combat power to hold every meter may alternatively be intended to support the Kremlin’s informational and hybrid warfare objectives.
- The Russian resistance to ceding ground may also be tied to Russian military commanders’ and officials’ attempts to use the counteroffensive to achieve political goals, or it could result from Putin’s micromanagement.
- Ukrainian forces may be able to achieve an operationally significant breakthrough in the southern frontline if several key assumptions hold.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast on September 24.
Things hang in the balance in the Robotyne salient, though the pace of Ukrainian progress is making the Russian Bakhmut offensive earlier this year look like blitzkrieg. Still, if the available Russian units are being fed into a meatgrinder and destroyed, there may still be opportunities for meaningful advances before the year's end, though this will require a sea-change to a far more aggressive approach - it's still a long way to the sea and time is growing short. Even with a change however its starting to look too late to effect anything other than severing the land bridge to Crimea as a realistic 2023 objective. While that would still be a victory, it falls well short of anything that would likely force an end to the war in 2024.