Battle for Tokmak: A 3-Month Outlook and Geospatial Analysis

Ukrainian forces recently liberated the strategically vital village of Robotyne and broke through the Russian defensive lines in western Zaporizhzhia Oblast. Elements of the Ukrainian military are already pushing this advantage and advancing southwards towards Tokmak. Thus, the coming engagement around Tokmak will be extensive and brutal given that the city is encircled by extensive defensive fortifications. Using satellite imagery sources, we assess the ability of Ukrainian units to continue advancing south and capturing additional territory. Our assessment shows that there is a possibility that Ukrainian advances towards Melitopol will stall. Subsequently, these advances will encounter stiff resistance from entrenched Russian positions.

Key Judgement-1: It is likely that Ukraine will capture Tokmak, allowing for a continued assault on Melitopol in the next 3 months.
Key Judgement-2: It is highly unlikely that Ukraine will capture Melitopol after advancing beyond Tokmak in the next 3 months.
Key Judgement-3: It is highly unlikely that a stalled Ukrainian advance and failure to capture Melitopol will decrease public support for arming and funding Ukraine in the next 3 months.

Key Judgement-1: It is likely that Ukraine will capture Tokmak, allowing for a continued assault on Melitopol in the next 3 months.

a) Ukraine is conducting counter-battery operations against Russian positions in Novoprokopivka [source].

b) In the absence of air cover or superiority, counter-battery and artillery operations are the best method of suppressing enemy defences and flanking enemy positions [source].

c) Short-wave infrared imagery captured on 31 August indicates extensive counter-battery operations from Novoprokopivka down to Tokmak [see Fig. 1].

d) Ukrainian forces captured a Russian fortified position south of Robotyne known as “Boot”. Consequently, position “Boot” sits on a topographically elevated area and is considered the lynchpin of the Russian defensive lines in the area [source].

e) Images shared by Ukraine also show a multitude of western-made tanks and armoured vehicles kept in reserve [source].

f) Ukrainian forces diverted a significant amount of effort and manpower towards Verbove, east of Robotyne [source].

Name: Robotyne-Tokmak Axis

Location: 47°26’8.09″N, 35°51’35.91″E

Description: The area between Robotyne and Tokmak contains several active fires, assumed to be the result of artillery strikes and counter-battery operations. Directly to the south of the visible map, lies Tokmak and its defensive fortifications. Captured using SWIR, the image shows high reflections for heat signatures.

Tokmak axis battle
Fig. 1

Key Judgement-2: It is highly unlikely that Ukraine will capture Melitopol after advancing beyond Tokmak in the next 3 months.

a) Ukrainian forces pushed farther into Russian territory on 4 September in the direction of Verbove, increasing the likelihood that they would attempt to flank Russian defensive lines north of Tokmak [source].

b) Satellite imagery from 31 August shows extensive fortifications running from Tokmak towards Ocheretuvate [see Fig. 2].

c) The same imagery also indicates an additional layer of dragoon tooth-style trenches running parallel to the first trench system [see Fig. 2].

d) Ukrainian forces appear to be targeting armoured columns or supply convoys at the flanks of the trench system [see Fig. 3].

e) Imagery around Tarasivka shows intensive shelling of the settlement, indicating the presence of Russian forces in large concentrations [see Fig. 4].

Name: Russian Military Positions Around Tokmak

Location: 47°15’1.63″N, 35°42’58.36″E

Description: An overview of Russian military positions around Tokmak as of 31 August 2023. For example, the main defensive trench network is outlined in red. To the rear of the network is a second trench system.

Tokmak battle Ukraine
Fig. 2

Name: Ocheretuvate Trench System

Location: 47°22’7.13″N, 36°47’34.29″E

Description: A close-up view of the trench system to the west of the village of Ocheretuvate. Smoke is visibly rising from a road leading up the trench, as a result indicating that a grouping of troops of vehicles was targeted by either artillery or drones.

Tokmak area Ukraine
Fig. 3

Name: Tarasivka

Location: 48° 3’42.13″N, 35° 8’47.59″E

Description: A close-up view of the village of Tarasivka indicates that Ukrainian forces are actively shelling the settlement, which in turn may indicate the presence of a large concentration of Russian troops in the village.

Ukraine Tokmak area 2
Fig. 4

Key Judgement-3: It is highly unlikely that a stalled Ukrainian advance and failure to capture Melitopol will decrease public support for arming Ukraine, in turn further stalling offensive operations in the next 3 months.

a) A recent CNN poll indicated that a majority of Americans oppose additional support for Ukraine [source].

b) However, the margin of error in the poll as well as the sample size, was largely disqualifying. Subsequent analysis of the poll demonstrates a continued “resilience” of support for Ukraine [source].

c) Similar polls indicate that many Republican voters believe that the Federal Government should be more aggressive in countering Russian actions against its neighbours [source].

d) The Biden administration has not given any indication that it intends to draw down on its support for Ukraine. The White House announced a new round of funding and security assistance for Ukraine on 6 September [source].

Analytical Summary

Firstly, we have a very strong degree of confidence in our assessment that Ukraine will successfully capture Tokmak. At the current stage of the counter-offensive operation on the Southern Front, Ukraine demonstrated that it will prioritize the safety of its troops before blitzkrieg-like tactics designed to rapidly capture territory. Therefore, it appears as if Ukraine understood the nature and purpose of attrition warfare better than its opponent. Moreover, Ukraine is thus advancing towards Verbove and expanding its toehold behind Russian defensive lines. By successfully advancing on Verbove, Ukraine will likely be able to outflank Russian positions in Novoprokopivka.

Military Performance

Secondly, we have a lower level of confidence in our assessment that Ukraine will fail to advance further on Melitopol. Since the start of the invasion, Ukraine’s military has been serially undervalued and dismissed. Yet, since then, the armed forces have undergone extensive modernization and Western training. Ukrainian military leadership proved that it was able to rapidly respond to evolving circumstances and adapt to new realities. However, the defensive fortifications around Tokmak are more than formidable. Above all, the Ukrainian military will certainly haemorrhage material, manpower and morale by attacking head-on. Ukraine runs the risk of exhaustion and degradation accordingly. If Western military equipment was as much of a game changer as it was portrayed to be, we should be observing additional gaps along Russian defensive lines. This is of course not the case.

NATO Support

Thirdly, we also believe that the tenor of US-NATO support for Ukraine will not diminish in the foreseeable future. Even if the United States reduced its level of commitment, Ukraine can still rely on France, Germany, the UK and a whole plethora of other NATO member states. More so than that, US public opinion on Ukraine is far more complicated and muddied than what an opinion poll is able to capture. Thus, simply relying on opinion polling, an industry notorious for inaccurate and inadequate practices, would be analytical folly.

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