Crossing the Dnipro has been a huge success for Ukraine. But the situation remains perilous — and Russia knows it
Originally published on the ABC
Military river crossing operations are notoriously difficult to plan and execute. They are one of the most difficult forms of combined arms manoeuvre because of the challenges posed by river currents, the availability of bridging, and enemy action designed to interfere with crossing activities.
Since their liberation of western Kherson in November 2022, Ukrainian forces have conducted periodic crossings of the Dnipro River to conduct raids, harass Russian forces and capture prisoners for intelligence. In the past month, however, the nature of these raids has evolved.
In October, the Ukrainians executed river crossings at three different locations in Kherson. They were able to gain a small foothold at each location. Since then, Ukrainian forces have been working towards linking up these three bridgeheads in Russian-occupied Kherson, while also advancing east to clear Russian artillery so that it cannot fire on the Ukrainian river crossing sites.
This week, the Ukrainian government provided the first official confirmation that Ukraine has successfully conducted a cross-Dnipro operation. The aim of this operation remains unclear.
It might be designed to draw Russian units away from further east and provide an opportunity for Ukraine to continue chewing their way through the Surovikin Line. On the other hand, this could be a significant new operation designed to exploit the weakest section of the Russian front line.
What does this mean for the Ukrainian war effort, and the overall trajectory of the war? There are political, strategic and tactical implications.
'We are coming for you, Crimea'
Politically, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has not had a good second half of 2023. The Ukrainian southern offensive has not achieved its objectives to advance south to places such as Melitopol.
While Ukraine has made progress in advancing around Bakhmut, in pushing the Russians out of large parts of the Black Sea and conducting strategic strikes in Russia, many are focused only in the south. The antics of the US Congress, which is yet to approve a new funding deal for Ukraine, will also have caused Zelenskyy some sleepless nights.
This operation shows that Zelenskyy's government and military are still trying to find ways to hit the Russians and push them back in the south.
The timing is right. Having had a major offensive in the south achieve only minimal territorial gains over the last four months, the Ukrainians want to finish 2023 with a significant operational success — to bolster domestic political support and the morale of Ukrainian citizens going into a winter where a Russian air and missile offensive against power stations is expected. The Ukrainian president will also have one eye on waning foreign support.
The Ukrainian attack across the Dnipro may also generate important strategic opportunities. Every gain made on the eastern bank of the Dnipro will compromise Russian narratives that project a lack of progress for Ukraine in 2024.
Success in this Kherson operation would also result in significant Ukrainian territory being liberated. This, in turn, may allow the Ukrainians to place more of Crimea at risk and would force a drastic realignment of the Russian scheme of defence. Part of the message of this Ukrainian cross-Dnipro offensive is: "We are coming for you, Crimea."
The final throw of the dice for the year?
There are also tactical opportunities for the Ukrainians. They have landed away from the main Surovikin Lines defences in southern Ukraine — this location on the Dnipro may offer the best chances of tactical success before the end of the year.
It should be borne in mind that river crossings are only undertaken if absolutely necessary. The resources needed — engineers, bridges, artillery — are extensive. Such operations normally only occur on a military axis of advance that is a main effort (or about to become the main effort).
There remain many challenges for the Ukrainians in this operation. First, Ukrainian forces on the eastern bank, even with the developments this week, still have only limited artillery and protected mobility. This will limit their rate of advance.
A second challenge is that all logistic support must be transported on boats and rafts across the river. While a floating bridge may eventually be built, until then the Ukrainians have limited ammunition and other supplies that can be provided to their troops in eastern Kherson.
This Ukrainian operation may also be the final throw of the dice for 2023. In his interview with The Economist, Ukrainian Commander in Chief Valery Zaluzhny notes that: "There will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough."
As the war's most informed observer, Zaluzhny's views are crucial. Not only does it mean that the Dnipro operation is perhaps the only location where there is any possibility of a breakthrough but that even there, a return to a war of manoeuvre with deep penetrations into the Russian-occupied south is a low probability. There is no certainty of success. And a Ukrainian failure would have consequences, such as the loss of its east-bank forces and political support for Ukraine.
Achieving this crossing successfully has been a significant Ukrainian feat. Given the masses of UAVs and other sensors on the battlefield, crossing the river and then beginning an advance is a major tactical achievement.
Despite this, there remains much at risk for the Ukrainians in Kherson. The situation on the eastern bank of the Dnipro remains tactically perilous. The Russians are now well aware of the danger it poses. There is considerable hard fighting ahead if they are to realise the full potential of this operation.