The Dnipro River is the biggest natural obstacle in all of Ukraine. Running north to south through major cities including the capital Kyiv, the river—which at points is as wide as 10 miles—curves right in southern Ukraine, flowing past the port of Kherson before emptying into the Black Sea.
The river is an opportunity for the Russians and the Ukrainians. But there are strong hints the Ukrainians are in the best position to exploit it.
The Ukrainian armed forces back in May used their new, American-made rockets and European-made howitzers to target the Dnipro bridges near Russian-occupied Kherson. Dropping the bridges cut off supplies to the Russian troops occupying the northern half of Kherson Oblast.
When the starving Russian forces finally retreated from northern Kherson last week, they crossed the Dnipro on pontoon bridges and dug in on the river’s left bank. Where once the Dnipro was a problem for the Russians, now it’s an asset—a natural defensive barrier.
How and how well the Ukrainians cross the Dnipro could dictate when, and to what effect, the Ukrainian military continues its so-far highly successful counteroffensives, which kicked off in late August and early September. The counteroffensives have liberated all of Kharkiv Oblast in the east and most of Kherson Oblast in the south.
The Ukrainians’ southern push mostly has paused on the Dnipro’s right bank, although there are signs that Ukrainian special operations forces have used small boats to cross the mouth of the Dnipro and reconnoiter the Kinburn Spit, a sandy strip jutting into the sea just south of the river mouth.
Yes, the Russian army in Ukraine is battered, tired and starving—and bleeding combat power by the day as untrained and unhappy draftees trudge toward the front lines in order partially to replace the 100,000 good Russian troops who’ve been killed or wounded in nine months of war.
But the Russians still are in the fight. Tens of thousands of troops and hundreds of armored vehicles belonging to the 8th and 49th Combined Armies are on the Dnipro’s left bank. The Russian armed forces still have more and better attack helicopters and warplanes than the Ukrainian armed forces.
If the Ukrainians try to force their way across the river against these defenses, they could suffer heavy casualties—and might fail. Consider how long it took, and how much it cost in people and equipment, for Ukrainian brigades this summer to cross the much narrower Inhulets River that threads across northern Kherson.
Which is why Mike Martin, a fellow at the Department of War Studies at King’s College in London, proposed they might not even try. Instead, Ukrainian forces could launch a fresh counteroffensive from areas where they already have crossed the Dnipro. That is, from Zaporizhzhia Oblast, east of Kherson Oblast. “They could drive an axis south and try and cut the Russian forces in two,” he tweeted.
Much of Zaporizhzhia Oblast east is under Russian occupation, but not the northern part—and not Zaporizhzhia city, which lies astride the Dnipro River 150 miles northeast of Kherson city. Ukrainian forces around Zaporizhzhia could assault toward the south and, assuming they can breach Russian defenses in the oblast, turn east and roll along the Dnipro’s left bank all the way to the river’s mouth.
A successful left hook, to borrow boxing terminology, would force the Russians out of all of southern Ukraine except the strategic Crimean Peninsula, which Russia occupied in 2014. It’s no exaggeration to say a left hook would position the Ukrainians to force their way into Crimea and begin reversing eight years of Russian expansion. “Crimea is their strategic goal here,” Martin explained.
Martin posited a Zaporizhzhia left hook because it’s an obvious move. But it’s so obvious that Russian commanders anticipated it … way back in August. Eyeing Ukrainian buildups around Kharkiv in the east and Kherson in the south, Russian commanders began reinforcing the dozen or more battalions belonging to the 58th Combined Arms Army south of Zaporizhzhia.
The problem, for the Russians, is that the reinforcements aren’t great. They include many of the hundreds of 1980s-vintage—or older—T-62 tanks the Kremlin pulled out of long-term storage to make good some of its losses in Ukraine. The T-62s have proved less than useless: the Ukrainians have been capturing them by the dozen.
But it’s not clear Ukrainian forces have the manpower and firepower they’d need to pull off a left hook. The best and most experienced Ukrainian formations including the 92nd and 93rd Mechanized Brigades and 128th Mountain Brigade are leading the eastern and southern counteroffensives, respectively.
If Kyiv has a surprise in store for the Zaporizhzhia front, it might come in the form of two Ukrainian tank brigades that exist on paper but have yet to make appearances on the front line. The 5th and 14th Tank Brigades might be in reserve somewhere around Zaporizhzhia. Then again, they might not be.
If the Ukrainians do have available to them two tank brigades together with a couple hundred T-72 tanks, they just might have the mass they need for a successful left hook. “I’m guessing this will happen over the winter,” Martin mused.