Crossing the Dnieper River: Ukraine faces an unprecedented feat since World War II | International

Federico II, considered one of the military geniuses of history, wrote in the 18th century that “one of the most complex operations for an Army is to cross a great river in the presence of the enemy”. The Ukrainian infantry on the Kherson front do not need to know the words of the King of Prussia to sense that the most difficult mission of their lives awaits them. When EL PAÍS asked Yuri Chorkes, an officer of the 98th Tactical Infantry Brigade, in October how they would be able to cross the Dnieper River under Russian fire, he and his men remained silent. Only after a few seconds, Chorkes managed to reply: “It will be very difficult, but it will have to be done, other Armies have achieved it before us.” The last to achieve this feat were the Soviet troops in 1943, against Nazi Germany.

Chorkes attended this newspaper during a break in the Ukrainian offensive on Nova Kajovka, a city on the eastern bank of the Dnieper River, in the Kherson region. His units are the spearhead of the advance from the northwest into the province, and his path leads straight to Nova Kajovka. From this municipality the water supply to Crimea and one of the largest dams in Ukraine are controlled. When the interview took place, his troops were 30 kilometers from the river. If Moscow’s announcement on Wednesday comes true and Russian forces leave the territories they occupy on the western side of the Dnieper, the men of the 98th Brigade will have a free pass to the river. What awaits them there is something that no contemporary Army has faced: the Dnieper as it passes through Kherson is between one and three kilometers wide. Hanna Shelest, director of defense studies at the Ukrainian think tank Prism, emphasizes that it is not just about the flow of water: “Theoretically, overcoming the river can be achieved with the appropriate air support. But on the other shore the plavnithe floodplains of the Dnieper, great for fishing but lousy for moving any heavy equipment.”

There are multiple studies published in the last decade on military strategy in the river field. The analyzes of the British Kevin Rowlands and the American Edward J. Marolda, retired soldiers and prestigious historians, conclude that large-scale river battles have not been repeated since World War II. The freshwater combats were the keynote in the Vietnam War, there were also in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but they were actions that, due to the terrain and the types of Armies faced, cannot be compared to what Ukraine faces before a superpower like Russia and on the fourth longest river in Europe.

Russian Triple Line of Defense

The last time an Army crossed the Dnieper River was the Russian Army, in the first week of the invasion, last winter. The Armed Forces of Ukraine did not stand up and the invading brigades settled in the city of Kherson and in part of the provinces of Dnipro and Mikolaiv. As the Ukraine began to control the northern (Kiev) and eastern fronts of the war, the drive south paid off with the enemy steadily retreating toward the Dnieper. If Ukraine now wants to ford the river, through the city of Kherson and through Nova Kajovka, as its High Command for the South region assures, it will find a very different scenario. “Crossing the Dnieper, especially with Russian forces fortified on the east and south banks, will likely be a major challenge for Ukrainian troops,” Howard Altman, a veteran military journalist in The War Zone. The latest satellite images made public by analysts such as Benjamin Pittet show that Russia has erected three 100-kilometre-long parallel defensive lines, starting from the very eastern bank of the Dnieper, each about six kilometers apart. The lines are made up of trenches, machine gun nests, concrete bunkers and secure positions for armor.


region boundary

of Kherson

Withdrawal

announced

for Russia

region boundary

of Kherson

Withdrawal

announced

for Russia

region boundary

of Kherson

Withdrawal

announced

for Russia

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Rowlands, director of the United Kingdom Navy Center for Strategic Studies, stated in a 2018 study that the great river battles of World War II only took place when one of the contenders had clear air superiority. So it was in 1943 on the Dnieper, when the Red Army dominated the air in the reconquest of kyiv, and especially so it was when the Allies crossed the Rhine in 1945. Marolda added in Riverine Warfare, The US Navy’s Operations on Inland Waters —reference book published by the United States Navy—, which is just as relevant who controls access to the river through its mouth. Russia has on paper control of the air and the Black Sea, but Ukrainian anti-aircraft defenses and anti-ship missiles have forced Russian warplanes to stay on the ground and their ships to shelter in Crimean waters. With the mutual cancellation in the air and sea war, the artillery will be what decides the balance, General Dmitro Marchenko, one of the main leaders of the offensive on the city of Kherson, explained last week to the BBC.

Marchenko confirmed that the plan is to cross the Dnieper and that the landing will only take place when his battalions have “sufficient personnel, weapons and equipment.” “As soon as we have it, the counteroffensive will continue.” Marchenko added two more conditions to dare in this operation: that NATO supplied artillery capable of hitting 300 kilometers away and more anti-aircraft defense systems. The United States has so far resisted supplying Ukraine with long-range weapons for fear of their being used on Russian territory. The American precision artillery Himars, essential in the Ukrainian counteroffensive to annul the supply centers of the invading troops, reach just over 70 kilometers away.

Ukraine has another alternative, to bet on an offensive from the city of Zaporizhia, under its control and on the eastern bank of the Dnieper. But this operation is more painful and longer, as well as risky, because to reach Kherson, the Ukrainian forces would have to liberate the territory of the Zaporizhia province in Russian hands (and where the Energodar nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe, is located). To this must be added that they would do so against two Russian defense lines, one to the south from Kherson and another to the northeast, from Donetsk. The Ukrainian General Staff is committed to crossing the Dnieper as it passes through Kherson because it is the fastest way to close the passage of Russian equipment and troops from Crimea. Altman believes that achieving this will be very difficult, and estimates that the future will hold a stagnant front on the Dnieper, “with a potential brutal and prolonged war exchange in which the artillery, once again, is the focus of the battle.”

The French general Jérôme Pellistrandi raised numerous doubts this Thursday in an interview in France Inter about the feasibility of bypassing the Dnieper, and went further by predicting a black fate for Kherson: “If the Ukrainians reconquer this area, the city will be under Russian artillery. Although liberated, Kherson will not be able to be inhabited, it will be a ghost town.” Sources from the Ukrainian High Command in the south confirm to this newspaper that their forecast is that the Russian artillery will begin to hit the city of Kherson and its western shore en masse at the same time that the first Ukrainian soldiers enter.

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