Ukraine Situation Report: Russia Building Up Zaporizhzhia Fortifications

It is no secret that Kyiv is planning a counteroffensive sometime in the spring, one reason that the U.S. and allies have provided so many weapons and so much training to Ukraine.

It’s also no secret to the Russians as well, which is why they are building out fortifications in Zaporizhzhia Oblast, according to the U.K. Defense Ministry and confirmed by satellite images compiled by Maxar Technologies last month and shared with The War Zone Wednesday. Those images show trenches and personnel positions, rows of dragon’s teeth barriers, and artillery emplacements among other fortifications.

Trenches and positions along the E105 highway. Satellite image ©2023 Maxar Technologies.
Russian trenches in Zaporizhzhia Oblast. Satellite image ©2023 Maxar Technologies.
Three rows of dragon’s teeth barriers and personnel trenches east of Vaylivka. ©2023 Maxar Technologies.
Russian artillery positions were set up in Zaporizhzhia Oblast. Satellite image ©2023 Maxar Technologies.
Closer view of dragon’s teeth and personnel trenches near Shyroke, Zaporizhzhia Oblast. Satellite image ©2023 Maxar Technologies.

“Russia has continued to develop extensive linear defense in Zaporizhzhia Oblast in southern Ukraine” ahead of a looming Ukrainian counteroffensive likely targeting that region, the U.K. Defense Ministry said in a tweet Wednesday. “The area is highly likely the responsibility of the Southern Grouping of Forces (SFG).”

Russia “has now completed three layers of defensive zones across approximately 120km (about 75 miles) of this sector. These consist of a front line of forward combat positions and then two zones of nearly continuous, more elaborate defenses. Each zone is approximately 10-20km (about 6 to 12 miles) behind the one in front.”

The U.K. MoD confirmed what The War Zone wrote back in December about how Russia was beginning to fortify Melitopol before Ukraine can advance.

Russia “has probably put significant effort into these defensive works because it is convinced Ukraine is considering an assault toward the city of Melitopol,” according to the U.K. MoD. “The defenses have the potential to be formidable obstacles, but their utility almost entirely depends on them being supported by sufficient artillery and personnel. It remains unclear if the SFG can currently muster these resources.”

Russia has built fortifications in Vasylivka, Zaporizhzhia Oblast, about 40 miles north of Melitopol. (Google Earth image).

Russia has constructed similar fortifications in Crimea as well.

The Russians have built dragon’s teeth and trenches along the beach west of Yevpatoria, Crimea. Satellite image ©2023 Maxar Technologies.

Trenches and deployed vehicles north of Armiansk, Crimea. Satellite image. ©2023 Maxar Technologies.

With all these defenses in mind, the U.S. and its allies have promised and provided not just tanks and infantry fighting vehicles, but also bridging equipment to Ukraine to help its forces punch through. You can read more about that in our coverage here.

As with questions about whether the Russians can man and support these defenses, it also remains to be seen whether enough of the equipment promised to Ukraine arrives on time and in enough quantity to make a major difference in the counter-offensive.

We will be watching these events closely.

Before we get into today’s latest news from Ukraine, The War Zone readers can get caught up with our previous rolling coverage here.

The Latest

Last week, we reported that a tranche of leaked classified U.S. documents included information about the presence of U.S. and allied special operations forces on the ground in Ukraine.

On Wednesday, Washington and Kyiv pushed back on the notion that special operators are assisting Ukraine on the front lines.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby intimated during an interview with Fox News that those troops are part of the effort by the U.S. to track weapons supplied to Ukraine, something we wrote about in January.

“I won’t talk to the specifics of numbers and that kind of thing. But to get to your exact question, there is a small U.S. military presence at the embassy in conjunction with the Defense Attachés office to help us work on accountability of the material that is going in and out of Ukraine,” Kirby said. “So they’re attached to that embassy and to that the defense attache.” 

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov shot down any assertion that there are special operations forces operating in Ukraine.

Reznikov dismissed as “not true” suggestions in the Pentagon leaks that NATO special forces were operating inside Ukraine during a briefing in Madrid, according to Reuters.

On the battlefield, the Wagner private military company has performed the bulk of Russia’s fighting in the months-long bloody battle over Bakhmut. But Wednesday, Wagner capo di tutti capi Yevgeny Prigozhin said in a video statement posted on Telegram that the flanks of that sector were transferred to units of the Russian Armed Forces, in particular the airborne troops. That’s allowing his troops to concentrate on the fight inside the city.

The previously liberated settlements of Sakko and Vanzetti, Zaliznyanskoye, Nikolaevka and others are now in the zone of responsibility of the Airborne Forces, Prighozin said. 

“This made it possible to release the forces of the PMC assault squads, and to use them directly inside Bakhmut, 80% of which is already under the control of the Orchestra attack aircraft.”

The New York Times on Wednesday delivered a deep dive into Ukraine’s fight for Bakhmut.

“After 10 months of one of the longest and bloodiest battles in Russia’s war in Ukraine, Ukrainian soldiers are now defending a shrinking half-circle of ruins in a western neighborhood of Bakhmut, only about 20 blocks wide and continually pounded with artillery,” the newspaper reported.

“Pushed into this ever-smaller corner of the 16-square-mile city, the Ukrainian army is determined to hunker down and hold out, even as allies have quietly questioned the rationale for fighting block by block, sustaining significant casualties, in a city that is a devastating panorama of damaged buildings and rubble.”

Bakhmut is also where Ukraine saw the end of one of its more well-known captured tanks.

Dubbed “Bunny,” the T-80BVM tank was captured by Ukrainian forces in March, 2022 and featured at the time in a report by CNN that made it famous.

But Bunny was recently damaged by Russian 240mm mortar fire in Bakhmut and set on fire by its crew to prevent its recapture.

South Korea has reached an agreement to lend the United States 500,000 rounds of 155mm artillery shells in a deal that could allow the U.S. to provide more ammunition to Ukraine, Reuters reported Wednesday, citing a South Korean newspaper.

The DongA Ilbo newspaper cited unidentified government sources as saying South Korea decided to “lend” the ammunition instead of selling, to minimize the possibility of South Korean shells being used in the Ukraine conflict.

Yesterday we wrote that Denmark is still considering sending F-16s to Ukraine. Finland, however, shot down suggestions that it might provide Ukraine with F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets.

Finnish Defense Minister Antti Kaikkonen on Tuesday told the Finnish Uutissuomalainen news agency that his nation is currently preparing its 15th defense aid package for Ukraine but that the Hornets are not likely on the table.

“The fighters will be used by our defense forces for years to come, after which their life cycle will end after about three decades of use. The discussion about the possible transfer of machines abroad is not current,” Kaikkonen said.

According to Kaikkonen, Finland gave its answer on the jets to Ukraine last week.

Finland will not likely send Ukraine F/A-18 Hornets, according to its defense ministry. (Finnish Defense Ministry photo)

Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau on Wednesday announced his nation will provide Ukraine with additional aid in the form of 21,000 assault rifles, 38 machine guns and more than 2.4 million rounds of ammunition.

In addition to providing weapons and other supplies, the U.K. has been among the nations training Ukrainians to fight. On Wednesday, the BBC released a video report highlighting the training of Ukrainian civilians.

“They are florists, teachers, welders, people with no experience at all in battle,” the report explains.

Add a Finnish 152K89 (Giansin-B) 152mm field gun to the list of weapons donated to Ukraine. The Ukraine Weapons Tracker OSINT group reported the first appearance of that weapon on the battlefield. That transfer had not been previously reported.

That isn’t the only piece of unrecorded Finnish military hardware to Ukraine to have recently emerged on the battlefield. According to Ukraine Weapons Tracker, the Ukrainian Army also received an unknown amount of Finnish 112 RSKES APILAS (JVA) anti-tank rocket launchers as well.

Ukrainian drone-dropped munitions continue to bedevil Russian forces, in this case, an MT-LB armored vehicle with a Zu-23-2 autocannon.

Ukrainian officials are condemning videos that emerged online apparently depicting the beheading of Ukrainian troops by Russian forces.

“This is something no one in the world can ignore,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video message. “How easily these beasts kill. This video, the execution of a Ukrainian captive, the world must see it.”

Ukrainian Foreign Minister compared the video to those released of prisoner beheadings by the so-called Islamic State jihadi group in Syria.

One video being circulated appears to show the beheaded corpses of two Ukrainian soldiers lying on the ground next to a destroyed military vehicle, according to The Guardian. A voice says: “They killed them. Someone came up to them. They came up to them and cut their heads off.”

A second clip purports to show a member of Russian forces using a knife to cut off the head of a Ukrainian soldier. It is unclear when that was taken, though from the foliage it could have been before the cold weather set in last year.

Prigozhin denied his troops were involved.

“I have watched this video,” he said Wednesday on his Telegram channel. “It’s bad when people’s heads are cut off, but I haven’t found anywhere that this is happening near Bakhmut and that Wagner PMC fighters are participating in the execution.”

Regardless, the U.S. reminded Russia to adhere to the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of armed conflict and investigate the incident.

Thanks to repeated Ukrainian attacks on Crimea, Russian occupation officials there have canceled two major upcoming celebrations. 

“The authorities of the Republic of Crimea and the Hero City of Sevastopol made a joint decision not to hold festive demonstrations on May 1, marches of the Immortal Regiment and a military parade on May 9,” Crimean occupation governor Sergey Aksenov said Wednesday on his Telegram channel. ”This decision is due to security considerations.”

The cancellation decisions apply only to Crimea, Aksenov added.

“Despite the cancellation of festive events, our veterans will not be left without attention. Representatives of local authorities will definitely visit them and congratulate them on Victory Day.”

Crimea has been affected in other ways by ongoing Ukrainian attacks as well, Aksenov noted.

“The government worked in very difficult conditions,” he said. “These are the consequences of sanctions, and problems with logistics associated with the suspension of air traffic and the terrorist attack on the Crimean bridge, and many other negative factors. Nevertheless, we managed to avoid a negative scenario. The economy has demonstrated stability, growth has been noted in a number of industries, and all social obligations of the state have been fulfilled.”

A pig farm in Russia’s Belgorod Oblast was struck Tuesday by a Ukrainian drone and artillery fire, the Russian SHOT news agency’s Telegram channel claimed Wednesday.

In total, 179 pigs were killed and 150 more were injured, according to SHOT.

“According to our information, shelling of ‘Agro-Belogorye’ was carried out the day before (it is located about three kilometers from the border with Ukraine),” according to SHOT

According to SHOT, the attack began at about 9.00 A.M. local time when a drone damaged a video surveillance camera on the pig farm’s water tower. In the afternoon, artillery fire damaged three buildings and a gas pipeline. 

“Today, employees are cleaning up the aftermath and trying to save the wounded and shell-shocked pigs,” SHOT reported.

Belgorod and other Russian regions near the border have come under frequent attacks by Ukraine.

Nearly 200 pigs were killed in a Ukrainian attack on a pig farm in Belgorod Oblast, according to Russian media. (SHOT photo via Telegram)

Meanwhile, “several municipalities” elsewhere in Belgorod Oblast “came under fire from the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said Wednesday on his Telegram channel. “Unfortunately, there is one injured civilian in the village of Novostroevka-Vtoraya of the Graivoron urban district. The man was driving by in his car when the shells began to explode. Thank God that the gaps did not occur on the driver’s side. Everything worked out only with a slight concussion, the victim refused hospitalization.”

The attack also damaged a private household and a barn there, he said, adding that four homes on a farm in the Stary Volokonovsky district were also badly damaged. There were no casualties, and a state of emergency was declared in the village.

And finally, there may be few luckier troops on the battlefield than this Ukrainian Marine defending Bakhmut, who narrowly missed being felled by a bullet to his head.

That’s it for now. We’ll update this story when there’s more news to report about Ukraine.

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Howard Altman Avatar

Howard Altman

Senior Staff Writer

Howard is a Senior Staff Writer for The War Zone, and a former Senior Managing Editor for Military Times. Prior to this, he covered military affairs for the Tampa Bay Times as a Senior Writer. Howard’s work has appeared in various publications including Yahoo News, RealClearDefense, and Air Force Times.