International support for Kyiv is waning and calls for negotiations are growing louder. But Ukraine has now managed to establish a bridgehead on the other side of the Dnipro River. From there, its troops could advance to Crimea — and turn the tide of the war.
Updated Nov. 27, 2023 at 2:30 p.m.
Lots of water, a few boats and soldiers. That's all you can see in the three photos that Volodymyr Zelensky published on the X (Twitter) platform last weekend.
The Ukrainian president's commentary was also somewhat cryptic: "The Kherson region's left bank. Our warriors. I thank them for their strength and for moving forward."
Zelensky would probably have liked to write more, but that might have jeopardized the operational security of the armed forces.
His soldiers have recently crossed the Dnipro River at several points near Kherson in the south of the country. The river that has marked the line of demarcation with the Russian army since the liberation of the city of Kherson a year ago.
The Ukrainians were able to dig themselves into a 45-kilometer (28-mile) section of the Russian-occupied territory. But exactly where these new Ukrainian positions are located remains a secret. Each of these positions could be transformed into a bridgehead with a floating pontoon, allowing tanks, artillery and other heavy equipment to be transported across the water.
Meaning of success
Zelensky needs success stories, and the advance in the south could be his last chance — before winter arrives — as part of the counteroffensive launched in June. International support for Kyiv is waning, even from the U.S. there are repeated calls for "negotiations."
Zelensky is also under pressure domestically. There is speculation in Kyiv about a conflict with army chief Valerii Zaluzhni. The general is already seen as a contender in possible presidential elections, which are supposed to take place on March 31, 2024. But the elections, and its potential candidates, remain a question mark due to the current martial law.
All that is known about the advance in the south so far is that Ukrainian naval units are active near Krynky, which is said to have been completely destroyed after continuous Russian shelling.
"The village no longer exists today because the enemy is trying to destroy the bridgeheads we hold by force," reported Serhiy Bratchuk, spokesman for Ukraine's Southern Territorial Defense Forces, said this month on Ukrainian television.
Danger for Russia
The new advance poses a serious threat to Russia. Should Ukraine expand its bridgeheads and go on the offensive, it would open up an additional front. And this would have the potential to change the course of the war: the Crimean peninsula, which Russia occupied in 2014 in violation of international law, is only 70 kilometers (43 miles) away from the eastern bank of the Dnipro.
The objective leaves no doubt: Kyiv wants to reach Crimea and cut the land connection from the peninsula to the Russian mainland.
There are no Russian fortifications on the way there that could be compared with the multiline defenses further to the northeast. If Ukraine were to achieve a breakthrough near Kherson, Russia would have to call up extensive reserves, which would lead to a significant weakening on other sections of the front.
"Against all odds, the Ukrainian defense forces have gained a foothold on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River," confirmed Andrii Yermak, head of the presidential office, recently. "Step by step, Crimea is being demilitarized. We have already covered 70% of the distance. And our counteroffensive is making progress."
The objective leaves no doubt: Kyiv wants to reach Crimea and cut the land connection from the peninsula to the Russian mainland. This would be a serious blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his invasion of Ukraine. Especially as the Russian army has not yet been able to capture other significant Ukrainian territories.
Members of a military brigade launch a drone aircraft on a mission in the Kherson area, a few kilometers from the Russian front
The right terrain
The terrain near Krynky offers a number of advantages for the Ukrainian armed forces: There are heavily wooded areas there, and further south of the town lies the Oleshky Sands National Nature Park.
Wooded areas offer more cover than the vast plains on the Zaporizhzhya front.
The Ukrainian military probably chose the attack site with this in mind. Wooded areas offer more cover than the vast plains on the Zaporizhzhya front, where the Ukrainian counteroffensive is making slow and laborious progress at best. Tanks and troop transports are easy targets for enemy drones and artillery in the open terrain.
According to the Ukrainian Marines, their troops have killed more than 1,200 Russian soldiers and wounded more than 2,200 in a series of operations to secure their position on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River. There were also 29 ammunition depots, two dozen tanks, four dozen armored combat vehicles, 89 artillery systems, watercraft, command posts and other vehicles that have been reportedly destroyed.
'Still a lot of work ahead'
According to Kyiv, the considerable losses are due to the fact that the Russian army is trying by all means to stop the Ukrainian advance. The Russians are launching up to ten counterattacks a day.
Despite this, the Ukrainians say they have pushed the Russian units back "between three and eight kilometers", as army spokeswoman Natalia Gumenjuk assured on Ukrainian television last Sunday.
"The distance varies depending on the geographical and landscape conditions on the left (eastern) bank," said the spokeswoman.
Now Russian mortars could not hit the right bank, which speaks for a certain degree of success. "But we still have a lot of work ahead of us," said Gumenjuk. The next main task of the Ukrainian armed forces will likely be to push the Russian army back further with their artillery.
A photo posted on President Zelensky's X profile after Ukrainian troops reportedly established a bridgehead on the opposite side of the Dnipro River.
Bring the pontoon
Sooner or later, Ukraine will need a pontoon bridge across the Dnipro, and this should ideally be out of range of Russian artillery. This is the only way Ukraine can bring the heavy equipment and supplies necessary for an offensive to the eastern bank.
Until now, everything, even armored vehicles, have been transported across the river in boats. In some cases, drones are also taking over the supply of food and ammunition.
"But if the Ukrainians want to achieve more, some kind of bridge is needed," explains Phillips O'Brien, historian and professor of strategic studies at the University of St Andrews, in Scotland. "And building a bridge, even a temporary one, will be very difficult because it can be attacked. It's not impossible, but it will be a big challenge."
New Ukrainian techniques
A few weeks ago, army chief Zaluzhni complained about the stalemate on the front and called for new, innovative techniques. In the south of Ukraine, the commander-in-chief's suggestion seems to have been accepted.
Drone videos show so-called mother ships flying numerous smaller drones to the deployment site. This allows the small unmanned aerial vehicles to save battery power and carry a larger warhead. They normally have a range of five to eight kilometers. But carried by the mother ship, which flies up to 30 kilometers, the small drones can operate far into the hinterland.
Ukrainian forces have increasingly begun to carry out reconnaissance and sabotage operations behind enemy lines.
They are also extremely important for reconnaissance. They provide the GPS coordinates of Russian artillery and air defense systems, which can then be eliminated with precise counterattacks. The long-range guns of the Russian units are the greatest threat to a possible bridge over the Dnipro.
At the same time, Ukrainian forces have increasingly begun to carry out reconnaissance and sabotage operations behind enemy lines. Only recently, a naval battalion is said to have destroyed a number of Russian trucks.
"This is extremely hard work, and we have had casualties," Bratchuk, spokesman for the Southern Territorial Defense Forces, said on television. "But these trucks were meant to supply the enemy with ammunition."
The interruption of Russian logistics routes is one of the most important tasks on the eastern bank of the Dnipro: one more piece in preparing for a final battle for Crimea.