In Ukraine, there is the front line. And there is the “Wagner line”. On October 19, the boss of the paramilitary group Wagner, Yevgeny Prigojine, announced the construction of this defensive line bristling with anti-tank “dragon’s teeth” in the Lugansk region. It should eventually reach 200 kilometers in length. This Tuesday, the British Ministry of Defense announced that these small concrete pyramids were erected in other territories of Ukraine. These “dragon” fortifications were spotted by satellite images far from Donbass, in Mariupol. Other lines are also planned in Zaporozhye and Kherson, says London.
Consisting of two rows of concrete pyramids and completed by a trench, these defensive lines were erected while the Ukrainian forces had been carrying out a counter-offensive for several months. “It is a change that we have seen since the start of the Ukrainian counter-offensive, the Russian forces are no longer on the offensive but on the defensive, especially in Kherson which had nevertheless been conquered practically without fighting” at the beginning of war, notes Carole Grimaud, founder of the think tank CREER and expert at the Geneva Geostrategic Observatory.
“Stop the movement of armored vehicles”
“It is a sign of firm defensive preparation for the arrival of winter, it is normal for an army which is preparing to repel an assault to strengthen its positions”, underlines General Vincent Desportes, professor of strategy at Sciences Po. and HEC. Because kyiv is at the gates of Kherson. The city in southern Ukraine, in the hands of the Russian army since the start of its offensive last February, has been transformed into a “fortress” as Ukrainian troops approach.
Wars often bring in their wake defensive constructions intended to slow down the enemy or ambush him. “These are structures that allow you to stop the movement of armored vehicles in order to pull them [les éliminer] “, explains General Vincent Desportes. By establishing obstacles, Russian forces can prevent Ukrainian tanks from advancing and, therefore, force an infantry fight or steer them into a bottleneck that can be mined, for example. However, “we must defend the obstacles and amass large quantities of artillery” because if the defensive line is not protected “it is ineffective and can be dismantled by the enemy”, explains Vincent Desportes.
“The Russian army prepares for the most urgent”
The construction of the “Wagner line” is not yet impressive, however, especially compared to historic structures such as the Atlantic Wall, the remains of which can still be admired on the Normandy coast. “There is a matter of time, the Atlantic Wall was built in three years”, recalls General Vincent Desportes who adds that “the Russian army prepares for the most urgent”. But these defensive constructions also require men and equipment. Resources that Moscow is sorely lacking.
On September 21, Vladimir Putin announced the mobilization of 300,000 reservists to bolster his ranks on the ground. But while some of these soldiers are not even equipped with bulletproof vests – some even received paintball vests -, the construction of this defensive line could be too expensive for the Kremlin. In mid-October, the “dragon’s teeth” followed one another over only two short kilometres, far from the ambition of stretching over 200 kilometers in length. “At this rate, it won’t be finished before the end of winter or even spring, especially with the weather conditions,” says Carole Grimaud, who adds that, for the moment, the Wagner line is “not exceptional”.
A defense “in the depth”
The erection of a defensive line in Mariupol remains surprising. The port city, which was the subject of a bitter battle until May, is located about a hundred kilometers south of the front. “It is not aberrant, however slice General Vincent Desportes. A defensive position is organized in depth, we have a first line of defense, a second line of defense, a third line of defense. The German defensive system during World War II had several lines organized in such a way as to gradually wear down the enemy. »
The head of the Wagner group also assured that this line of defense would not be “necessary” against the Ukrainian army, “the mere presence of Wagner units on the front line already being an impregnable wall”, according to him. “This fortified line is not that much, perhaps it is more symbolic than truly effective on the ground”, however analyzes Carole Grimaud. Not wrong, because according to the Washington Post, the Biden administration would pressure Ukraine so that it does not give up on peace talks with Russia. For the moment, kyiv refuses any dialogue “as long as Vladimir Putin is president”.
The outline of underwater negotiations
“Public and non-public communication are different. Officially, it’s always the same chorus but maybe behind the scenes something is happening, ”says Carole Grimaud, who recalls that the Oslo agreements were made “in secret”. More than lines of defense, Moscow could therefore mark its territory with its “dragon’s teeth”: Kherson, Mariupol and the territories of Donbass whose “Wagner line” strangely follows the lines of 2014. Thus Sevorodonetsk, which had remained in the hands of Ukrainians after the Donbass war, will not be entrenched behind these pyramidal blocks.
Washington could, by submarine, try to establish temporary borders and freeze the conflict. “Now is the time, on the Russian side, to study the option of an exit without it looking like a surrender because the skillfully distilled propaganda in the Russian media has persuaded the population that the Russians can only win”, decrypts Carole Grimaud.
It remains to be seen whether Ukrainians and Russians will agree. Kherson has a powerful symbolic character for Kyiv and supplies Crimea with water. Mariupol is a strategic port for the region. Zaporozhye is home to the country’s largest nuclear power plant. So, while waiting to draw diplomatic lines, Moscow continues to erect its dotted border and dragon’s teeth.