The Siverskyi Donets River has already played an outsized role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. East of Izyum, Russian forces attempted to cross the river three times with disastrous consequences that kos has documented in detail. In the east, Ukrainian forces in Severodonetsk, the last Ukrainian stronghold on the east side of the river, may be forced to move back to the west bank of the river, using its natural protection to halt a Russian advance. In the north, Ukrainian forces moving northeast from Kharkiv raced to the town of Staryi Saltiv in an attempt to capture the bridge there, then bombarded a sequence of towns further north in hopes of finding an intact crossing that would allow them to bring forces to the east side of the river, menacing Russian supply lines.
Unfortunately Russia blew up that series of bridges in the north, just as Ukrainian forces have taken down several bridges in the east. It may have seen that Ukrainian forces were just as hemmed in by the river’s rapid flow, which has been bolstered by recent spring rains, as the Russians have been in their own attempts to cross.
Except … maybe not. Because it seems that Ukraine has crossed the river anyway, and at a position that could be incredibly important: Staryi Saltiv.
The bridge at Staryi Saltiv is incredibly long, over a kilometer and a half, because the river there is not a river but a lake—a reservoir held back by a large hydroelectric dam. So of all the places that Ukraine might cross, at first glance this would seem among the least likely. However, from the moment Ukraine maneuvered around other villages and shocked Russian forces by capturing Staryi Saltiv, Ukraine began an artillery bombardment of the area directly along the eastern end of that bridge. It certainly seemed that they had some interest in what was going on across the river.
Every single village and town on this map was held by Russia when the Ukrainian advance out of Kharkiv (just off map to the left) began three weeks ago. That little curve of yellow line represents the actual border, where Ukrainian forces posed for a picture on Sunday before installing a bright new boundary marker.
Now there are reports that Ukraine has sufficiently repaired the lengthy bridge to move forces across and establish a bridgehead on the eastern bank. There are even reports that Ukraine has moved out from that location to capture two nearby villages. None of this has officially been confirmed by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense. However, it is coming from some of the reliable sources that first reported the Ukrainian advance on Ternova last week. There are other, even less confirmed reports that Ukraine may have crossed the river at another point further north, using a pontoon bridge. Take both of these reports with a good dash of salt, but since there are Russian Telegram messages complaining about the Ukrainian forces on “their” side of the river, maybe not that much salt.
From this bridgehead, Ukraine could go … just about anywhere. They might move north to threaten the rail and road junction at Vovchansk. They might move southeast toward the even more critical supply depot at Kupyansk. Mostly they are loose in Russia’s backfield, able to maneuver toward towns and cities in a way that will require Russia to turn still more forces away from the salient at Izyum, or the battles in the east.
In fact, former Russian military officer Igor Girkin, who is still stinging from the fact that he didn’t become the leader of the Donetsk area after the 2014 invasion, reports that Ukrainian forces on the east side of the river are already probing toward Vovchansk.
Russia’s primary response to the wave of Ukrainian advances from Kharkiv has been to withdraw its forces across the border. Only in a very few remaining villages are Russian forces continuing to fight west of the Donets rather than simply move on. However, just because Russia is pulling out of the Kharkiv area doesn’t mean the Ukrainian forces that won back that area are content to simply sit on the recaptured land.
Now Ukraine is threatening Russian supply lines in the rear. And Ukraine is pushing hard against the Izyum salient in a series of attacks that seem designed to destroy Russian forces positioned there. And Ukraine is continuing to keep Russian advances in the east to a snail’s pace. And Ukraine is feeling much more free to involve its air force directly in combat (even though Russia claims to have somehow shot down dozens of Ukrainian jets in just the last week).
If you’ve wondered why Girkin is allowed to speak so openly about Russian disasters while still being in Russian-controlled territory—and frequently passing along images of Russian equipment or troops shuffling from place to place—here are a few ideas.