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Overcoming setbacks: NATO-Trained Brigade breaches Surovikin Line in Zaporizhzhia Oblast

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ZAPORIZHZHIA OBLAST – The weight of historic anticipation bore down on Ukraine’s large-scale counteroffensive in 2023, promising to shift the course of the ongoing conflict. After enduring a brutal Russian assault throughout the winter, Kyiv’s grand opportunity had arrived. The aim was clear: regain the initiative, propel the war towards a decisive Ukrainian victory, and challenge Russia’s presence in Crimea. All eyes were on this pivotal moment.

Months of preparation led to the 47th Mechanized Brigade, affectionately known as “Magura,” shouldering this monumental task. Formed from scratch just a year ago, Magura represented the Ukrainian army’s progressive future, boasting soldiers trained in NATO countries and equipped with state-of-the-art Western weaponry. Their mission: spearhead the advance south of Orikhiv, targeting the critical cities of Tokmak and Melitopol.

Oleksandr “Hollywood,” a former filmmaker turned soldier in the 47th, shared, “They invited people (to the brigade) who knew why they want to be here, for what, for whom, which goals… not just in a military sense of following orders, but on the level of liberating our country.”

For over three and a half months, the world watched as Magura and other units battled fiercely in the villages south of Orikhiv, an area considered the most pivotal and heavily fortified among Ukrainian advances. Progress seemed slow on the map, prompting endless discussions about the counteroffensive’s success.

However, the map alone failed to convey the immense challenges Ukrainian forces confronted: dense minefields, fortified defensive lines, and relentless Russian artillery and airpower.

After enduring an extended period of attritional combat and criticism, Magura and its fellow units finally achieved breakthroughs. In late August, they liberated the village of Robotyne and successfully breached the main Russian line of defense, known as the Surovikin line, named after the former overall commander of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

As autumn enters its second phase, time appears to be running out for Ukraine’s counteroffensive, raising questions about the prospects of success in this costly campaign.

Building a unique brigade
Unlike many combat brigades that earned their reputation through battlefield accomplishments, the 47th Mechanized Brigade was constructed around its own unique brand before engaging in combat. The mastermind behind this innovative brigade was Valerii Markus, a 30-year-old sergeant who, along with battalion commander Ivan Shamalaha, was tasked with forming the brigade in October 2022.

Markus, a prominent face in the Ukrainian military, used his personal brand to attract a new wave of volunteer soldiers when most enlistments had already occurred. According to Vyacheslav “Arkush,” an assault soldier in the brigade, “When the brigade was first formed and I heard about it, I was interested straight away, by its culture, its modern approaches… not just about right or left ideology, it’s just about good, capable, dignified people.”

Magura’s assault troops received training in various NATO countries, including Germany, Slovakia, and Latvia. While some praised the training, others found it lacking in preparing soldiers for Ukrainian trench warfare without air superiority.

However, despite their lack of combat experience and training deficiencies, the 47th, equipped with Bradley and Leopard 2 tanks, was assigned one of the most challenging tasks of the war: a direct assault in Zaporizhzhia Oblast, where Russian defensive lines were strongest.

The initial assault didn’t go smoothly, with the brigade suffering significant losses in armored vehicles and drawing criticism. Oleksandr lamented, “Our problem was that we hadn’t been shot up (didn’t have combat experience), they threw us into battle, and it was hell.”

Learning from setbacks
Early setbacks became a propaganda victory for Russia, amplified by drone footage of destroyed vehicles. Markus publicly accused the 47th’s officer corps of incompetence, and tensions escalated within the brigade’s leadership.

After a period of reflection, the brigade regrouped, refined their plans, and continued to exert pressure on Russian forces from a distance. By mid-August, they were back in action, demonstrating resilience and growth. The 47th Brigade had transformed from a green outfit to a battle-hardened force, shaped by their experiences on the frontline.

Challenges above and below ground
As the conflict evolved, so did the nature of warfare. Both sides escalated the use of first-person view (FPV) drones, a development that impacted soldiers more accustomed to traditional artillery fire. The Ukrainian anti-air unit, equipped with lightweight Lithuanian-made anti-drone devices, found themselves countering the new threat of FPV drones, often deployed to target not just vehicles and artillery but also individual soldiers.

The conflict’s changing dynamics have not only challenged soldiers on the ground but also the equipment they use. The M2 Bradleys, vital assets of the 47th Brigade, have proven their worth in terms of survivability but are now vulnerable due to the density of Russian fires and real-time drone reconnaissance.

An uncertain future
The 47th Brigade’s breakthrough of the Surovikin line marks a significant achievement, but the road ahead remains daunting. Tokmak, the strategic city seen as the main objective of this counteroffensive axis, is still a considerable distance away, defended by Russian fortifications of its own.

The upcoming winter may alter the dynamics of the conflict, but the brigade is determined to persevere. Despite setbacks and challenges, the soldiers of the 47th Brigade are acutely aware of the historical importance of their mission. As Yaroslav put it, “We were told that either we will go down in history, or we will be forgotten because we are here at the tip of the spear, we were to be sent into one of the toughest fights that this war could possibly offer.”

As the battle rages on, Magura continues to symbolize Ukraine’s resolve to push forward, facing adversity head-on in the pursuit of their ultimate goals.

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