Ukrainian officer on Russian fortifications in southern Ukraine – interview

Ukrainian soldiers near the front line in Zaporizhzhia region, September 6, 2023

Oleksandr Solonko, a Ukrainian military officer and communications specialist, explained in an interview with NV Radio on Oct. 6 the difference between the maps of enemy fortified positions in southern Ukraine and the real situation on the battlefield, as well as how the Armed Forces of Ukraine are overcoming Russia’s defenses.

NV: You recently made a rather popular post on Twitter [X], analyzing the fortified positions the enemy has built in southern Zaporizhzhya Oblast.

Can you briefly tell us what are the main difficulties in advancing in that area? What do our troops have to face?

Solonko: Those fortified positions that were recently shown are only part of that. This is a certain piece, a section, an example that shows what kind of fortified positions we must overcome and under what conditions. But in general, there was a series of such posts. I explained these things comprehensively in the very first of them. If the readers or listeners are not familiar with it, I can briefly explain.

NV: This needs to be explained since, frankly, not everyone understands what our soldiers are dealing with.

Solonko: We work in certain specific conditions. This is a steppe area, which is almost like a pan, and only in some places is it broken by some ravines and rather mild hills. Of course, if compared with the landscape when we worked in Bakhmut, these heights look quite conventional. But nevertheless, they’re important in such an area when everything can actually be seen not only from the air or drones. You can visually see the enemy movement from quite far away and set firing points accordingly, as well as striking at long distances, deploying anti-tank missile systems or artillery.

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And, accordingly, the Orlan unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are always hanging above our heads. In general, the enemy regular aerial reconnaissance system, which directs fire, calculates targets and movement. In fact, you don’t have any opportunity to hide and covertly move forces and equipment. Except for some nighttime hours when you can slip by relatively unnoticed. Or when you have a minimal opportunity to hide somewhere in wood lines, which are constantly being destroyed, ground up, burnt, and where we always have positions. That is, you step out and you’re immediately under fire. Any movement you make is noticeable.

Then, a minefield is before you: these are land strips that are mined and must be overcome. Relatively speaking, even when we advanced on this so-called Robotyne ledge, we still move through narrow corridors that are also shot through. The Russians have it all mapped out i.e., the coordinates of their lost positions. They know quite well where they had their trenches or dugouts. They are targeting those. Even when you occupy these positions, it’s quite difficult and dangerous to stay there.

NV: You say the invaders know where they had their positions. It’s clear that our soldiers are entering these positions. Have our forces previously fired at these positions?

Solonko: Of course, this is standard practice. This happens not only in this area. When you enter an enemy position, take it, it’s easy to cover and shoot it as they perfectly know the coordinates of their fortified positions and weak points. They know perfectly well where our units, which knocked them out, could potentially be hiding. Therefore, this is standard practice. This happens both in this area and in all others. This is not something new for us. We have no air superiority. The enemy has a several-fold or up to ten-fold advantage in the air. Accordingly, our Air Force operates basically in a guerilla mode.

Instead, we’re constantly under pressure from the Russian aviation. We can read that some settlement in some other area was attacked with guided glide bombs. This is not news for us as we have a huge number of such attacks per day. Every day, aerial bombs fall on heads, on positions, on logistics routes, on places where perhaps the enemy believes that there are some targets in the form of equipment or personnel, or warehouses, or command posts. They’re constantly conducting reconnaissance of all these targets.

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They [these air strikes] don’t really work out that often. But it’s still a huge pressure. And it’s a very powerful weapon that causes a lot of problems. And there is no way to actually fight it because they adapt. We had interviews after Bakhmut. I explained for a long time that no one should laugh at the enemy and old tanks, because you have to experience how this tank shoots at you. The story is the same here: the enemy is not a bunch of clowns, they adapt, and they cover their weak points. They had problems with the loss of aviation, they solved it by changing the tactics of using their aircraft to bomb us from afar [with glide bombs].

Instead of using expensive, new guided air bombs, they redesign a large quantity of those old FABs [general purpose air-dropped bombs] that aren’t accurate at all. But they add flight control modules to them, as well as navigation systems to make them controllable. They fly up to a long distance, drop these bombs at a high altitude. Our MANPADS units are simply physically unable to reach these aircraft. Accordingly, their jets quite easily climb up, release the bombs, and return. And it repeats constantly. These bombs fall in huge quantities.

They cause serious damage. Both residential buildings and civilian objects in villages close to the contact line are being destroyed. In fact, they’re gradually turning the town of Orikhiv to rubble, because these bombs are constantly falling on the houses. Everything is “stuffed” with weapons and firing positions. They have the opportunity to place anti-tank missile systems at a long distance, because the terrain is flat here. They can target military equipment from quite a long distance.

The enemy spots our movement and starts targeting artillery there. And it’s difficult to hide since both the enemy and we use wood lines. There was a lot of talk about the so-called “Surovikin lines,” i.e., the first and second defense lines. But if we look at the map, this Robotyne ledge isn’t just a single line crossed or something like that. Each wood line includes positions, trenches, mine barriers, narrow corridors, through which you have to run every time at risk.

NV: It turns out that when people look at the map, for example, DeepState, where all those mine barriers and fortified positions were marked before the start of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, is it all such a visualization that does not fully correspond to reality? Can all these lines be extended to each wood line, to each theoretical tree?

Solonko: It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t correspond to reality. It doesn’t fully convey the amount of work we have to do to get through it all. Satellite images don’t fully show you the depth and full structure of these fortified positions. Because, first of all, they are three-dimensional, not two-dimensional. Second, they don’t show the reality…

NV: What do you mean by the concept of three-dimensional?

Solonko: When you look from above, you just see a diagram, e.g., of a fortified position dug out somewhere in the middle of a field. But you don’t fully realize what’s inside, first of all. Secondly, you don’t see what is located, for example, in the nearby wood line. Because just in this diagram that I showed, this is one such example that a fortified position is built not just in the field, but it stretches to the wood line where there are also trenches and passages. They are disguised and aren’t so clearly seen.

Only after the artillery had “worked” thoroughly on these fortified positions, it becomes clear that this network is quite seriously woven into the wood line. And, accordingly, we add the routes by which we, among other things, determined they enter. This is such an integrated system of fortified positions that uses every possible opportunity to at least slightly cover or disguise the entry points. Because they have the same problem, i.e., they must bring personnel, and the equipment must leave for combat missions. They need at least some partial shelter. Therefore, they build these routes so that they’re at least partially visually covered by these wood lines.

Read also: As fighting continues in south, Ukrainian military digs in near Verbove after seizing back territory from Russians

And ending the topic of these lines, of what we passed to Verbove and Novoprokopivka. In fact, they [Russians] had their positions in every wood line. And the Russians were ousted from every wood line. And particularly heavy fighting took place on the hills adjacent to Robotyne, where we had the fiercest battles. There was a height to the east and in front of the village for which very fierce battles took place. And already advancing in conditions where each wood line has a [enemy] position. A narrow and very limited number of corridors, which are also fired upon. The enemy knows where we go, where we drive. All this can be seen from the air. It’s often seen visually on the battlefield.

All this is shot through by artillery, mortars, and aircraft. Mining. These are anti-personnel mines, and anti-tank mine barriers. It also slows us down and creates many problems. Of course, it’s not even that we don’t have superiority in the air, we don’t have parity in the air. And, probably, no Western army, no Western theoretician who told us that we should go around the minefields in columns. We cannot go around them because it’s a contiguous barrier. This is all a theory on paper that simply doesn’t work.

Therefore, the work is carried out in smaller formations. In addition, it helps a little to be at least not so dependent on air power. Because the enemy, dealing with our small formations, uses more ammunition. It’s less accurate. And, accordingly, it gives a lower efficiency, reduces losses as much as possible in this situation. Because, again, we’re in plain sight. If you get caught in an open area, it’s very bad news.

NV: When we’re watching [from the sidelines], people ask themselves the question: well, whats next? Do you understand what’s next? What’s the task as of now, understanding, seeing, experiencing all these difficulties in advancing towards Tokmak?

Solonko: Let’s put it this way: we have, relatively speaking, a specific functional task that we perform. I think, if we talk about some further strategic or operational things, it should be done, first of all, by people who have the authority to do it, who have the leverage to do it. They can talk about it both professionally and from the point of view of their authority.

We’ve done a great job, and this great work continues to be done. This is a colossal effort in a situation where, in principle, others simply would probably not have even attempted it. Because it’s obvious that any army, including a NATO force, is simply not designed to do anything without air superiority or at least parity. Therefore, on the one hand, of course, we would like some, perhaps greater successes. But I believe that what we’ve achieved at this stage with the resources, with the deployment of forces, and with the minimal resources we had, is already quite formidable.

Read also: Ukraine steadily advancing south, weakening Russian lines, repelling enemy assaults in east

What’s next? It’s obvious that in this chess match we also must look at what is happening beyond our western border, whether we’ll have support in the future or whether our arms will be twisted. All this, of course, creates some kind of pressure. But when you do the work directly, of course, you also have to have a headache for that. We can hardly influence it. All we focus on is doing our job, fulfilling the tasks at hand. We understand that no matter what the political landscape is, we have no choice but to do this job and keep fighting. Because we bet on all or nothing.

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Read the original article on The New Voice of Ukraine

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