The news that Ukrainian soldiers have managed to cross the Dnieper River near Kherson has surprised military analysts. The Ukrainian operation is probably the first step of a larger plan, say former Army Commander Mart de Kruif and Professor of War Studies Frans Osinga. But what exactly that plan is remains a guess for the time being – although Russia must already respond to it now.
The US Institute for the Study of War reported yesterday that Ukrainian units have taken up positions on the east bank of the Dnieper. That bank was previously completely occupied by Russia. ISW relied on satellite images and information from Russian military bloggers. The units would also have rigged stable supply lines.
Ukraine itself does not want to say anything about the operation. It is also unclear how many soldiers have made the crossing, and how long they have been there.
Crossing the Dnieper is quite a risk, says Professor of War Studies Frans Osinga. The river is about 600 meters wide at Cherson and with every crossing you make yourself vulnerable. Especially given the scarce capabilities of Ukraine, it must have been a well-considered decision, according to Osinga.
So the question is what Ukraine intends with the operation. In any case, the Ukrainian presence on the eastern bank could help push Russian units further away from Kherson. Osinga: “From November onwards, the city was continuously bombarded by Russian artillery, which prevented normal life there.”
‘You don’t just do this’
But is that the main reason? “I think you should think of something related to an offensive,” says Mart de Kruif, former commander of the Land Forces. “Going across the Dnieper is not something you do just like that. For me, this is a side or mock attack, which can serve as a diversion or as a starting point for further operations.” Osinga also says that this operation goes further than the reconnaissance that Ukraine previously conducted in the area. “This seems to be more permanent.”
The analysts emphasize that it is now impossible to give a conclusive answer to the question of what exactly Ukraine is planning. “The starting point of being on that east bank is good, but that does not mean that Ukraine will attack there,” says De Kruif. In the swampy area with little infrastructure, that would not be obvious either.
According to De Kruif, the action could be misleading: attracting the attention of the Russians here and then striking elsewhere. “Last year, Ukraine also hinted at an offensive near Kherson, after which the Russians moved troops. Then Ukraine successfully struck in Kharkiv.” That area is hundreds of miles away.
“Russia has to do something with this”
What is also striking when looking at the map is the proximity of Crimea. Once you have crossed the Dnieper, it is another 90 kilometers to the border with the peninsula that was already annexed by Russia in 2014. Crossing the river is therefore a direct threat to Russia, says Osinga. “Russia cannot just ignore that. They have to do something with this.” That pressure alone could be worth the surgery, he says.
“You should see this as the first of several attacks in which Ukraine is trying to discover where the Russians are weak,” Osinga continues. The Institute for the Study of War, which was the first to report the Dnieper crossing, says that Russian units in the Kherson region are poorly organized and undermanned, especially now that better trained soldiers are needed elsewhere. Osinga: “Russia is faced with the fact that the front is 1000 kilometers long. You cannot deploy the most motivated and best trained units everywhere.”
Whatever Ukraine is secretly planning, it will not be easy. The crossed Ukrainian soldiers are in a relatively inaccessible area and with a 600 meter wide river behind them. Quickly transferring more men and pushing through is not possible now. “The logistics are very fragile,” says Osinga. “It would be risky business to make this the basis of your counter-offensive.”
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