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Yesterday, Daily Kos’ Mark Sumner wrote about the increased action in Kherson oblast, as Ukrainian units cross the Dnipro River and begin to threaten Russian control of the region. Today, we’ll take a closer look at what we know about those activities.
Here’s where things stand. On Oct. 30, Ukrainian forces (reportedly elements of the 35th Marine Brigade) launched a raid across the Dnipro River, about 30 kilometers east of the city of Kherson. This appeared at first to be one of many raids Ukrainian forces had launched on the left bank of the Dnipro. (Ukraine refers to the right and left banks by looking downstream. In this case, that’s the eastern and southern banks of the Dnipro.)
Ukraine currently controls or contests a narrow strip of land that extends at most 2 to 3 kilometers from the Dnipro riverbank. A series of small islands and marshy lowlands cover much of the area directly south of the river in this area, along with small tributary streams that split off and remerge with the main river.
The Dnipro River itself varies between a width of 800 to 1,200 meters in this area—wide enough that crossing the river poses a significant challenge. Even after crossing the river, Ukrainian forces must contend with watery marshland, outside of a few paved roads around Antonivka (near Kherson) and around where the Kakhovka Dam used to be located further upstream.
There is also an inoperable railroad line that runs through the marsh from the remains of the destroyed Antonivka rail bridge, but no paved roads.
Ukraine can bring over light infantry, all-terrain vehicles, and even heavy equipment at different landing sites. A secure river crossing is vital to supply any large mechanized force. And capturing a few villages near the riverbank won’t permit Ukrainian operations deeper into Kherson Oblast without first securing an inland road—and that means either capturing Oleshky (south of the Antonivskyi Bridge site) or Nova Kakhovka—the only two places where roads lead inland from the riverbank. There is no other way to supply any march toward Crimea or Melitopol with the fuel, ammunition, spare parts, food, water, and other equipment necessary to feed an advancing army.
As such, I doubt Ukraine has crossed the Dnipro in a serious operational or strategic sense. That is, they’re not ready to liberate the rest of Kherson oblast or march on Crimea. The marshlands and small villages Ukraine has liberated will gain broader significance only if they serve as a springboard for the liberation of key supply routes.
In addition to an inland supply route, Ukraine also needs a secure way to move supplies across the river.
Currently, all three bridges over the Dnipro River in Kherson are out of commission, fully disabled by the Russians after their retreat from the northern part of Kherson last November. Here’s recent satellite data of all three.
The Antonivskyi Bridge:
The Prydniprovske Rail Bridge is looking particularly gone:
And the Nova Kakhovka dam bridge is shattered:
A closer look at the Antonivskyi Bridge shows the extent of the damage:
Daily Kos’ own Mark Sumner used Sentinel satellite imagery to estimate the smaller gaps in the bridge to be at least 40-45 meters, but the large gap in the collapsed center section spans at least 110 meters, and possibly a few hundred meters.
Currently, Ukraine is using Soviet-era PTS-2 Amphibious transports to ferry supplies across the river.
The PTS-2 is a tracked amphibious vehicle that can carry up to 12 tons of supplies over water. It is large enough to transport lighter Ukrainian armored vehicles or Humvees. On Nov. 7, images of an abandoned and burning Ukrainian armored Humvee struck by a Russian drone were posted on social media, confirming that Ukraine has already been moving vehicles across the river.
In addition to the PTS-2, Ukraine also has some Western amphibious transportation options:
Ukraine has received numerous M3 Amphibious Bridging Vehicles and PFM Motorized Bridge Sections. These bridging vehicles can be linked together to create bridges, but they can also be used as military ferries. For example, just three M3 ABVs can be linked together to create a ferry that can carry 2 western MBTs. The PFM motorized bridge sections can be used similarly.
Much of this bridging equipment began to be delivered this spring, as Ukrainian allies began playing weapon deliveries closer to the vest. Ukraine received at least 6 German-made M3 ABVs from the Netherlands, but there are rumors that they received more. Germany’s Bundeswehr also uses the M3 ABV in its engineering corps, and it provided undisclosed “light and heavy bridging assets” that may include some M3 ABVs. The UK, Sweden, Latvia, and the Netherlands all use the M3 ABV, thus it would not be surprising if Ukraine had as many as a dozen or two M3 ABVs.
There are likely to be fairly limited numbers of these precious amphibious supply vessels. So to sustain any significant force, Ukraine needs a bridge.
One option is to do what Russia did when Ukraine knocked out the bridges over the Dnipro River: build a pontoon bridge. U.S. Army pontoon bridges can be both extremely lengthy and have a hefty carrying capacity. They are capable of supporting M1 Abrams Tanks weighing over 70 tons.
For example, the U.S. Army built a pontoon bridge crossing the Sava River into Bosnia to support NATO peacekeeping operations. The temporary bridge supplied over 20,000 NATO troops, the bulk of which was the U.S. Army’s 1st Armored Division—with logistically demanding M1 Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles.
Russia built their pontoon bridge alongside the former Antonivskyi Bridge in 24 hours. If Ukraine were to attempt the same, the process might be expected to take about a single day. For example, the 10th Operational Corps of Ukraine that conducted the Ukrainian offensive toward Tokmak around Robotyne was estimated at around 20,000 soldiers, so a single pontoon bridge would likely be enough to support a major Ukrainian offensive into Kherson oblast—if the bridge could be kept intact.
As the Russians have repeatedly discovered, keeping a pontoon bridge within enemy artillery range operation is no easy task. Remember this heavily meme’d video?
Two Russian attempts to construct a pontoon bridge across the Siverskyi Donets River resulted in that famous Russian catastrophe at Bilohorivka.
Ukraine similarly struck and destroyed Russian pontoons across the Dnipro near Kherson on multiple occasions, such as in August and October 2022. Ukraine used a combination of precision-guided artillery mentions and HIMARS GMLRS guided rockets to target these Russian logistical routes with pinpoint accuracy from as much as 40+ kilometers away.
If not pontoon bridges, what then?
The U.S. Army has the rapidly deployable WFEL dry support bridge that can span up to 46 meters, falling short of what would be needed for that larger gap.
The Mabey Logistics Bridge system used by the British Corps of Engineers as well as the U.S. Army can span up to 50 meters of open space, but more importantly, can span hundreds of meters with support struts anchored to the ground.
The Romanian Army was able to assemble a 98-meter Mabey bridge in just six days, which can support Western Tanks weighing over 80 tons.
While Ukraine has systematically targeted bridges to disrupt Russian supply routes, Russia has taken a different approach. Russia still has a substantial arsenal of cruise and ballistic missiles like the Iskander and Kalibr missiles, yet Russian strikes on bridges have been quite rare.
In April 2022, Russia set its sights on destroying the Zatoka Bridge south of Odesa, a key civilian trade route with Moldova. Hundreds of kilometers behind any front lines, Russia had to rely on long-range missile strikes to hit the target.
In 2022, Russia launched unimpeded missile salvos on Apr. 26, Apr. 27, May 2, May 17, and July 19, before Western air defense systems had arrived—yet failed to take the bridge out of commission. Russia simply couldn’t score a direct hit. As such, the bridge remained operational until February 2023, when Russia finally managed to put the bridge out of commission … using a naval drone.
This may explain why Russia has relied predominantly on tube artillery to take out bridges in Ukrainian-held territory.
During the Battle of Severodonetsk in the summer of 2022, Russia repeatedly attempted to take out the three bridges that connected Severodonetsk to the city of Lyshychansk. Russia finally succeeded on July 14, 2022, but only when the fighting had moved into the industrial section of the city, just 4 kilometers from their target.
Similarly, during the Battle of Bakhmut, Russia moved to take out a small bridge across a stream west of Bakhmut close to the village of Khromove, but only succeeded when they pushed up to the Bakhmutivka River, just 5 kilometers or so from the bridge.
Faced with Ukrainian bridging of the Dnipro, Russia could potentially deploy its FAB1500-M54 glide bombs, just recently entering battle in September. These bombs are massive, weighing in at 1,500 kilograms (3,300 pounds), far larger than the 227 kilogram (500 pounds) JDAM GPS-guided glide bombs that Ukraine typically uses, or the 500 kilogram (1,100 pounds) glide bombs Russia has been using since February 2023. Using a lobbed trajectory, these glide bombs can reportedly be deployed as far as 40 kilometers away, allowing Russian aircraft to strike front-line targets without coming suicidally close to Ukrainian air defense systems.
Russia claims these bombs have an accuracy of CEP<15m, meaning 50% of the bombs will strike within a circle with a radius of 15 meters. Western analysts almost uniformly believe these claims to be exaggerated.
Russian glide bombs rely on the GLOSNAST constellation of coordinate guidance, which is more than a generation behind the U.S. GPS system. The UMPK guidance module attached to these bombs were highly improvised and rushed into production—and from recovered copies almost completely built with Western electronic components. The CEP of these weapons are more likely to be two or three times greater than the claimed CEP accuracy—meaning 30-45 meters.
A standard U.S. Army pontoon bridge is just 5.7 meters wide. A direct hit from a Russian glide bomb is extremely unlikely, although the sheer power of a 3,300-pound bomb can do a great deal of damage within a broad radius. Still, when striking floating targets, the concussive effect of the bomb is partially absorbed by the water, and a low-lying flexible structure is least likely to be affected by shockwaves from a powerful but distant explosion.
A direct strike from a highly accurate 500-pound or smaller munition is much more likely to cause damage than a powerful and inaccurate 3,300-pound bomb when striking a bridge—partly explaining Russian difficulties with hitting small targets and their general reliance on area-bombing.
Furthermore, the most advanced Western air defense systems have proved highly effective at deterring glide-bombing attacks on key targets. After a series of glide-bombing strikes on Ukrainian positions near Krynky on Nov. 4 and 5, Russian military blogger Romanov noted that Ukraine shifted Iris-T air defense systems within a few kilometers of the village on the opposite side of the river, now protecting the area from slow-flying glide bombs.
Given the success of Western air defense systems in intercepting Russian planes, cruise missiles, glide bombs, and drones, a concentrated and layered Ukrainian air defense near a bridge site could be reasonably expected to protect it from Russian air strikes. Control of the waterways would protect against the kind of water drones that destroyed the Zatoka Bridge. That means Ukraine’s final challenge would be to protect any new bridge from Russian artillery.
Securing the Antonivskyi Bridge site would almost require capturing the town of Oleshky, and likely the surrounding villages of Pishchanivka, Poima, Sahy, and Pidlisne.
Securing the Kakhovka Dam Bridge would represent a similar challenge, requiring the liberation of the town of Nova Kakhovka and several surrounding villages.
Ukraine’s current methodical advances in this area are creating the conditions where all of this might be possible. Russia clearly sees Ukrainian gains as a serious threat.
No Russian tank losses had been reported in Kherson for weeks, suggesting that perhaps they had been moved to other active fronts. Then, on Nov. 6, Russia lost two T-72 tanks outside Krynky, followed by an advanced T-90M north of Pidsteppe on Nov. 7. Both Ukraine and Russia appear to be moving heavy equipment into this area as the fighting escalates.
Could this represent the beginning of a major Ukrainian operation in this area? Most definitely.
Russia has far fewer fortifications in Kherson oblast than in Zaporizhzhia to the east.
If Ukraine can secure a supply route across the river, Ukraine could threaten Russian defenses around Melitopol and the Surovikin line from behind. From there, it would be just a little over 100 kilometers (60 miles) to Crimea.
But the challenge of securing that initial bridgehead is immense. Amphibious assaults are considered among the most difficult operations in war. Ukraine may need to rely on predominantly light infantry forces supported by smaller numbers of heavy armored vehicles to secure a safe bridgehead.
Russian military blogger/propagandist Rybar has been warning that Ukraine is moving significant numbers of marines to Kherson, which would be the best elite light infantry unit for this task. They are trained to fight predominantly dismounted, moving by Humvee and MaxxPro armored trucks with minimal armor support.
The coming weeks will show if this is merely a Ukrainian fixing operation—designed to force Russia to weaken other fronts by reinforcing this one—or the real deal.