Go Through Or Go Around: Russia’s Desperate Fort-Building In Eastern Ukraine Won’t Stop The Ukrainian Counteroffensive

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A Russian mercenary firm is building a line of anti-tank obstacles across eastern Ukraine. The Wagner Group earlier this month began laying parallel lines of so-called “dragon’s teeth”—three-foot-tall concrete pyramids weighing a couple of hundred pounds apiece—just west of Hirske in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine.

The initial line of dragon’s teeth is just a mile long. There are indications the Russians plan to build additional fortifications in nearby areas across the same region.

Experts are befuddled by the effort. The fortifications, as implemented, are fairly pointless. Indeed, inasmuch as they consume time and resources, they actually are counterproductive to Russia’s faltering war effort.

A few low obstacles across one small sector of a front that stretches for hundreds of miles won’t stop Ukrainian brigades that, for seven weeks now, steadily have been advancing in the east. The Ukrainians simply could go around the dragon’s teeth.

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And if for some reason they find it’s better to go through the obstacles, they have plenty of options for breaching them. Every experienced mechanized army employs combat engineers specifically for such tasks. And the Ukrainian army by now is the world’s most experienced mechanized army.

That Wagner is planting dragon’s teeth should surprise no one. “When on the defensive and time permits, Russians dig in,” Lester Grau and Charles Bartles detailed in their definitive The Russian Way of War.

But the dragon’s teeth by themselves aren’t very imposing. The Russian army and its mercenary allies still mostly follow Soviet doctrine. And in Soviet doctrine, physical obstacles such as dragon’s teeth are supposed to be part of a layered defense that also includes minefields and prepared positions for infantry armed with anti-tank weapons.

The idea is for the obstacles to channel attacking forces into the minefields. If the attackers get clear of the minefields, a good defensive plan then would guide them into kill zones where the infantry can finish them off.

It’s safe to assume Wagner’s engineers are burying anti-tank mines around the dragon’s teeth. Cheap and powerful buried mines are a major danger to troops on both sides of Russia’s wider war on Ukraine.

It’s less evident, however, that the mercs are preparing the extensive infantry strongpoints that, in good doctrine, are a necessary complement to physical obstacles and minefields.

“Barriers, obstacles and mines can be used in the economy of force role to strengthen a naturally strong existing obstacle area so that it need only be lightly defended,” the U.S. Army notes in its Joint Publication 3-15.

Lightly defended is not the same as undefended. To work against a motivated attacker, static defenses still require well-equipped, well-supplied and well-led infantry in supporting positions.

But the Russian army and its allies have lost 100,000 men in Ukraine and are struggling to recruit, train and deploy replacements. It’s possible Wagner isn’t preparing extensive infantry strongpoints behind its dragon’s teeth because there aren’t any infantry to occupy them.

If a Ukrainian brigade runs into the dragon’s teeth outside Hirske and discovers the fortifications to be lightly manned, the brigade simply can pause, deploy engineers and take its time demolishing the obstacles.

Don’t doubt the Ukrainians are prepared to breach a static defensive line. They’ve got the equipment for it, including mineclearing vehicles based on T-64 tanks plus classic ex-Soviet IMR-3 engineering vehicles and explosive line-charges. Ukrainian sappers have trained with the Canadian and Polish armies.

It’s easier to go around obstacles than to breach them, of course—even when the obstacles are thinly manned. The dragon’s teeth Wagner is planting protect just one approach to Hirske, a town with middling strategic value. In a country as big as Ukraine, there almost always are ways around.

It helps, of course, that everyone knows exactly where the obstacles outside Hirske are and how far they extend. When the Ukrainian counteroffensive reaches Hirske, it’s likely the attacking battalions simply will pivot north or south, looping around the dragon’s teeth and any other prepared fortifications.

That’s what the German army did in 1940 when it ran up against France’s famed, and ill-fated, Maginot Line—a far more sophisticated defensive obstacle than Wagner’s sad rows of concrete pyramids. “Didn’t work then, won’t work now,” retired U.S. Army general Mark Hertling quipped.

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