– The Ukrainian army’s 33rd Mechanized Brigade and 47th Assault Brigade massed their Leopard tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles for a powerful assault on Russian positions two miles south of Mala Tokmachka in southern Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Oblast on or before Thursday morning.
A dense minefield lay between the Ukrainians and their objective. And the Ukrainians knew it. They deployed at least one IMR-2 engineering vehicle and a Leopard 2R breaching vehicle in the hope of plowing away the mines and clearing a path for at least a company of 47th Brigade M-2A2 Bradleys and some attached Leopard 2A6s from the 33rd Brigade.
The engineers failed—either because the minefield was too dense or Russian helicopters or artillery interrupted their efforts to clear the mines. In short order, the IMR-2, a rare Leopard 2A6 and as many as nine Bradleys piled up, out in the open. Exposed, under fire and taking damage, the surviving crews and passengers bailed out—and took their dead and wounded with them.
The assault—a so-called “breach” targeting prepared enemy fortifications—failed. That doesn’t mean the Ukrainians have failed in their wider attempt to advance south into Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia, a prerequisite to an armored breakthrough that itself is a prerequisite to a large-scale liberation of occupied southern Ukraine.
But it’s a setback. And a potentially serious one if the Ukrainians can’t recover and repair some of the damaged vehicles. Ukraine’s allies so far have pledged to the war effort just 21 long-gun Leopard 2A6s and 109 missile-armed M-2s. The 33rd Brigade-47th Brigade battlegroup lost much as five percent of each vehicle consignment in a single morning.
Context is important. Breaches are the most difficult and usually costliest phase of any armored offensive. What we’re observing near Mala Tokmachka could be one of the most painful battles of this phase of Russia’s 15-month wider war on Russia—for both sides. But especially for the attacking Ukrainians.
The Thursday operation could have gone worse for the Ukrainian army. Some of the assault force retreated with its vehicles intact. The crew of one Leopard 2R breaching vehicle abandoned its heavy, British-made mineplow before high-tailing it off the battlefield.
If conditions improve for the Ukrainians, they should be able to tow away and repair the Leopard 2 and some of the Bradleys. They’ve already managed to fix up at least one battle-damaged Leopard 2A4, underscoring the fundamental toughness of the German-made tank. That the Leopard 2R escaped is especially good news: Finland produced just six of the breaching vehicles—and gave all of them to the 47th Brigade.
But the two-brigade assault force needs to switch up its tactics, like the nearby 37th Marine Brigade has done in its own attacks on Russian defenses. Russian fortifications south of Mala Tokmachka—manned by the Russian 291st and 70th Motor Rifle Regiments, the 22nd and 45th Spetsnaz Brigades and a reserve unit—are more imposing than Ukrainian intelligence indicated, clearly.
The 33rd and 47th Brigades should double down on their mineclearing efforts, or find some way around the minefields. Inasmuch as Russian attack helicopters were a factor in Thursday’s failed attack, closer air-defense support—perhaps from Gepard mobile guns—also would benefit the Ukrainian brigades. As always, Ukrainian artillery gunners should target Russia’s own big guns.
Ukraine’s long-anticipated 2023 counteroffensive is just six days old. The 33rd and 47th Brigades’ debacle near Mala Tokmachka might be Kyiv’s first major defeat of the counteroffensive, but it won’t be the last. In any event, tactical losses don’t necessarily translate into strategic defeat.
“The loss of equipment—including Western equipment—early on in the counteroffensive is not an indicator of the future progress of Ukraine’s counteroffensive,” explained the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C. “It is important not to exaggerate the impact of initial losses of Western or any other equipment, particularly in penetration battles against prepared defensive positions.”