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As Ukraine Struggles With Floodwaters, Russia Strikes Odesa

Ukraine’s 110th Territorial Defense Brigade shelling Russian positions near Zaporizhzhia in April.Credit…David Guttenfelder for The New York Times

The vast network of defenses that Russia has erected in occupied Ukraine — including minefields, trenches and concrete pyramids known as “dragon’s teeth” — sets out a huge challenge for Ukrainian forces as they try to push southward in the Zaporizhzhia region, according to a report released on Friday.

Moscow has “designed one of the largest defensive systems in Europe since World War II,” said analysts with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based research group.

The report, largely based on satellite data, notes that in Zaporizhzhia, Ukrainian forces would need to fight through layers of defensive positions more than about six miles deep or try a high-risk operation crossing the Dnipro River.

The number of fortifications Russia has installed in the Zaporizhzhia region since 2022 is more than double those erected in other regions of Ukraine where fighting is taking place, the report found, citing satellite data.

Zaporizhzhia has become a focal point of intensified fighting in recent days as Ukrainian forces mount an offensive that military analysts say is an effort to sever Moscow’s hold on territory connecting Russia to occupied Crimea.

The authors of the report — Seth G. Jones, Alexander Palmer and Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. — wrote that Russia’s layers of defense were designed to prevent Ukrainian troops from converging on the occupied cities of Melitopol and Berdiansk and slicing Russia’s occupied territory in two. Such a breakthrough, they said, would disrupt Moscow’s supply lines and would represent “a worst-case scenario for Russia.”

Overall, Russia’s defensive line — which stretches for about 600 miles of Ukrainian territory, according to the report — is more than double the length of the Maginot Line, the defensive barrier France erected to stop a German invasion before World War II, Mr. Jones said in an interview.

Still, Mr. Jones said, as extensive as the Russian defenses are, “there are always vulnerabilities to extensive fortifications,” especially from an attacking army, such as Ukraine’s, that is engaged in “a fight for survival.”

He said he expected Ukrainian forces to use drones and other technology to overcome the defenses. They could also pursue sabotage behind enemy lines and make use of intelligence, partly from Western allies, to learn which parts of the fortified line were poorly constructed or weakly manned.

Satellite images suggest that at least some of the Russian fortifications are of low quality, Mr. Jones said. Some images show concrete pyramids known as “dragon’s teeth” that appear not to be connected below ground, possibly making them vulnerable to being overrun, the report found. Others sit on top of the earth, when they are supposed to be partly underground, or appear to be eroded by weather, it added.

Ultimately, Mr. Jones said, regardless of their quality, fortifications “are only as good as the forces that are defending them.”

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