Ukraine replaces defense minister; troops breach Russian defensive line

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KYIV, Ukraine —  Ukraine is facing a critical moment both on and off the battlefield.

Its troops are fighting to turn what appears to be a minor breakthrough in the south into a substantial breach of Russian lines before winter sets in. And in Kyiv, the defense minister has been dismissed in the biggest shake-up of the country’s leadership since the war began.

The departure of Oleksiy Reznikov has been rumored for months and appears linked to a broader anti-corruption drive, but the timing coincides with developments in another effort that could be crucial to securing ongoing Western support: The first claims of potentially significant gains in the military’s counteroffensive.

Ukrainian forces are gaining a foothold in the area where they have breached Russia’s first main defensive line in the south, Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s defense minister, told NBC News on Monday.

“Everything is very dynamic” right now, but the initiative is “definitely on our side,” Sak said on the phone from Kyiv.

Progress but no ‘walk in the park’

Washington said last week there had been notable progress in the fight to retake occupied land in the country’s south after months with no substantial advances against heavily fortified Russian defense lines.

The growing air of positivity was reinforced over the weekend by Ukrainian Gen. Oleksandr Tarnavskiy, who heads the country’s army in the south, saying that his forces had breached Russia’s first defensive line near Zaporizhzhia and were now pushing out on both sides of the breach. 

Last month, Ukraine reclaimed the village of Robotyne in the region, marking its first notable gain in months as its forces try to push toward Melitopol, a key city which has been under Russian control since early in the war.

Taking or even getting close to Melitopol could threaten Russia’s valued “land bridge” to the occupied Crimean peninsula, but that target has seemed increasingly out of reach for Ukraine given the painstaking nature of any advances until now.

“We always say that for us every centimeter of our land is important,” said Sak, the adviser in Kyiv. “So of course, when we managed to break the first super-mined defensive line, that’s really important.”

While there hasn’t been a definitive breakthrough yet, Sak said, penetrating through heavily fortified defenses where every square yard is packed with infantry or anti-tank mines “proves that we know what to do next.” 

He said it was a huge morale boost for those on the front lines and in the rear, but also cautioned against making any predictions about when Ukraine might be able to breach the second and third lines of defense, which are not thought to be as heavily fortified. 

“The Russian troops that were on the first defensive line will recede and will try to gain a foothold on the second and third defensive lines,” said Sak.

“According to our information, Russia has spent much more of its resources on the first defensive line, so it’s considered the strongest. Next, all our military commanders hope that things will get a little easier and faster, but it won’t be a walk in the park.”

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