Russian forces have set up defensive lines and positions in territory leading toward Crimea.
But their fortifications focus on roads and highways, rather than fields and open terrain.
This is a gamble for Putin's troops and could make them vulnerable to Ukrainian offensives.
In the wake of its recent humiliating defeat in Kherson, a key southern city that was under Russian occupation since the early days of the war, Russia is now gambling big on how it intends to defend against further Ukrainian advances.
Recent satellite images captured by Maxar Technologies and obtained by Insider show multiple Russian defensive positions in the eastern Kherson region, above the occupied Crimean peninsula, as Moscow tries to hold ground in the face of Ukraine's rolling battlefield successes.
Russian defensive positions have been built along critical ground lines of communication like roads and highways and connect Russian forces at the Dnipro River with other occupied areas to the southeast, like Crimea and the Kherson and Zaporizhia regions, according to an assessment this week from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington-based think tank.
These positions exist in the form of trenches and dragon's teeth anti-tank defenses, the ISW assessment said, referring to a decades-old strategy consisting of hardened fortifications that are built to slow and stop heavy armor. But instead of connecting communication lines across the battlefield, the positions appear more like "elaborate roadblocks" that don't stray too far from the roads or into the fields.
ISW assesses that the defensive positions indicate that Russian military leadership is concerned that Ukrainian forces could advance across the Dnipro River and into the lower Kherson region. The nature of these positions is a gamble, however, because while Russia is focusing on defending roads and highways, it is ignoring the real possibility that Ukraine could advance across open terrain.
Ukraine's tanks and tracked vehicles could cut through fields and bypass them or assault the Russian positions from their more vulnerable flanks.
"They are not arrayed in such a way to create necessarily long, coherent defensive lines that cut across cross-country into the fields and things of that nature," George Barros, an expert with the ISW, told Insider. This "suggests that the Russians expect that they have vulnerabilities on the road and the highways, and they're not expecting a cross-country drive."
Given the "battlefield geometry" and how the positions are set up, Russian forces may also be vulnerable to Ukrainian encirclement if they're able to advance from the eastern and western flanks in southern Kherson, Barros said. Additionally, Ukraine could use precision strikes to threaten Russia's communication lines.
Beyond this, Barros said that in establishing these defensive lines, Russian forces are also limiting themselves in their ability to conduct offensive operations in the area.
It remains to be seen exactly how Ukraine will build off its success in retaking Kherson - a counteroffensive that began months ago and went hand-in-hand with lightning-fast advances in the country's northeastern Kharkiv region. Since late summer, advancing Ukrainian forces have managed to liberate thousands of square miles of territory from under Russian occupation.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has previously and repeatedly vowed to expel Russian troops from the entirety of Ukraine's territory, including Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014. On Thursday, a top Ukrainian military official said Russia does not plan to relinquish territory adjacent to the occupied Crimean peninsula, signaling that a tough fight lies ahead given Russia's reluctance to abandon these holdings.
Brig. Gen. Oleksiy Hromov, the deputy chief of the main operational department at the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, told reporters, per state news agency Ukrinform, that "the priority of the Russian Federation remains to maintain positions in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, as well as the land corridor to the temporarily occupied territory of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea."