A Blog by Jonathan Low


Nov 20, 2023

Implications of Ukraine's Increasingly Strategic Cross-Dnipro Offensive

As a general wartime rule, when the normally tight-lipped Ukrainian military wants the world to know something, it is because there is a strategic reason for their openness. 

That the Ukrainians have been relatively forthcoming of late about the success of their cross-Dnipro offensive suggests both that they are encouraged by the Russians' inability to disrupt them and, by implication, that Ukraine perceives a major opportunity for advance. JL 

Phillips O'Brien reports in his substack:

A foothold is not the result of a raid, but implies the Ukrainians are across the river to stay. If you mention liberating Crimea, you are raising expectations on what can be achieved. The Ukrainian Marines were much more specific, making detailed claims about the damage inflicted on Russian forces. These speak of major engagements and a serious deployment of Ukrainian forces. “The Ukrainians have seen an opportunity there and taken it. What we’ve not seen is the Russians being able to push them back from that position.”When President Zelensky releases a public announcement about a military operations—its worth taking very seriously (even if what he is doing might not be what you think it is). On Friday he did something very unusual, releasing pictures of Ukrainian forces crossing the Dnipro river and operating on its left bank (or Eastern bank).

The Zelensky release came after three days of very loud Ukrainian chatter about the appearance of Ukrainian forces on the left bank of Dnipro. Indeed, it was a bit like taps previously closed had been opened wide.

Now from what we can tell, Ukrainian troops have had a foot hold on the occupied side of the Dnipro in Kherson oblast for months. There were reports relatively early on in the counteroffensive that Ukrainian special forces had crossed the river and seized territory near the village of Kozachi Laheri.1 What we didnt know was whether these were raids or attempts to set up a more permanent presence—as I wrote about in early August.

The key thing since then has never been whether the Ukrainians could cross the river (they can) its always been whether they can supply forces on the left bank, forces large enough to press forward and push the Russians back. The issue the face is pretty simple. A modern army requires so much supply to keep functioning (usually carried in trucks) that its impossible to see one advancing without a functioning road network to bring it supplies. If faced with a river—that means it needs a working bridge.

When the Russians were on the other side of the Dnipro in 2022, their position eventually failed because the Ukrainians basically made the bridges unusable. For a while they relied on pontoon boats to shuttle supplies across the river, but eventually gave up. Unable to guarantee supply to the right bank, the Russian withdrew across the river last November.

Since then the question has been whether the Ukrainians would be able to deploy force across the river, and the answer until this week has been yes, but in very small amounts. Certainly they have not been able to build up and supply enough forces on the left bank to undertake major operations. The Deep State Map, for instance, always cautious in its estimates, has no part of the left bank permanently under Ukrainian control.

And now we have all the chatter. It started on Tuesday, when Zelensky’s chief of staff, Andrii Yermak, (who is thought to be quite powerful) openly claimed to the Hudson Institute that the Ukrainians had a “foothold” across the Dnipro. Here is the quote in full.

"Against all odds, Ukraine's Defense Forces have gained a foothold on the left (east) bank of the Dnipro," Yermak said in an address to the Hudson Institute think-tank in the United States. The remarks were posted on Zelenskiy's website.

"Step by step, they are demilitarizing Crimea. We have covered 70% of the distance. And our counteroffensive is developing."2

Andrii Yermak, Office of the President, Ukraine.

Two things stood out from this—first that such a high-level source would make the claim and that he used the word “foothold”. A foothold is not the result of a raid, but implies that the Ukrainians were across the river to stay. I mean, if in the next breath you mention liberating Crimea, you are certainly raising expectations on what can be achieved and its not like you expect to bring all your forces back.

Yermak’s statement opened the floodgates. There was a series of quotes from different Ukrainian sources, culminating today in both official statements from Zelensky and the Ukrainian Marines and some confirmation from (anonymous) western sources. Zelensky’s statement was quite cryptic. He released pictures of Ukrainian forces in action along a riverbank, and stated on his Telegram channel. “Left bank of Kherson region, Our warriors.”3

The Ukrainian Marines, meanwhile, were much more specific. Not only did they release a rather stunning picture of a small Ukrainian boat in the Dnipro (see below), they made some detailed claims about the damage that had been inflicted on Russian forces.

FILE - Two boats of Ukrainian marines navigate along the Dnipro river close to the frontline near Kherson, Ukraine, Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023. A top Ukrainian official said Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023, its troops have established a beachhead on the eastern bank of the Dnieper River near Kherson, an important advance in bridging one of Russia's most significant strategic barriers in the war. (AP Photo/Alex Babenko, File)
Source: https://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/ukrainian-marines-claim-multiple-bridgeheads-key-russian-strategic-104971981

The Ukrainian Marines claimed that they had established three separate bridgeheads across the Dnipro, and that they had caused quite significant damage to Russian forces. According to ABC News the Marine claimed that their “troops killed more than 1,200 Russian soldiers and wounded more than 2,200 in a series of operations to establish its position on the eastern riverbank.” The Marines also claimed to have “destroyed 29 ammunition stores, two dozen tanks, four dozen armored combat vehicles, 89 artillery systems, watercraft, command posts and other vehicles.”4

If true, these speak of some pretty major engagements and a relatively serious deployment of Ukrainian forces. One western anonymous source claimed that the Ukrainians had elements of three different brigades across the river, and were planning on staying.

“The Ukrainians have seen an opportunity there and taken it,” one official said. “What we’ve not seen is the Russians being able to push them back from that position.”

So I think we are left with a few things we know, and a few things we dont. And its worth listing them.

This is what we can say safely.

  1. The Ukrainians have definitely crossed the river with a significant number of troops and established at least one bridgehead (and possibly more).

  2. The Ukrainian government and military wants very much for people in both Ukraine and around the world to know this.

What we dont know is what the Ukrainians plan for this operation is (hint, the Ukrainians might not be entirely sure either). But the most important questions I would say we dont know are:

  1. How many forces can the Ukrainians supply on the left bank of the Dnipro?

  2. What operations are possible, to what depth, with those they can supply?

The supply issues remains as critical as always. Even if Ukraine doesnt need heavy tanks to press forward in some places (actually during 2023 infantry have made many of the advances in the war), any army on the left bank of the Dnipro will eat through supplies. There is no sign yet that the Ukrainians have established a temporary bridge or tried to re-establish use of one of the pre-existing bridges they destroyed in 2022. As such all supply for their army on the left bank will have to come by boat (or in some cases even UAV—the multi-purpose workhorse of this war). Boat and UAV should be able to supply lighter forces to maintain themselves not far from the riverbank, but would struggle getting supply to significant forces who want to advance deeper into the interior (if there is any Russian resistance).

As such, if we dont see a bridge of any type become operational, we should assume this Ukrainian operation still has rather limited aims. Perhaps the hope is to push Russian forces back a bit to hinder their artillery fire on the right bank (the Russians have been hitting the city of Kherson regularly). Or it might be to force the Russians to deploy more forces to the area, thinning their lines in other places. Finally, its might also be to show some Ukrainian successes with the winter approaching—both for the Ukrainian population and those states supporting Ukraine. Or—as is likely its a combination of the three.

If the Ukrainians are going to achieve more, however, it will almost certainly require a bridge of some kind (unless Russian forces are extremely weak, which seems unlikely). And establishing a bridge, even a temporary one, will be very hard as they can be targeted. Its not impossible, but it will be a big challenge.

So if you want to see what the Ukrainians really hope to accomplish, see if they can establish a more permanent crossing. If they can it could make a major difference leading to major Russian troop movements. I just think it would be an enormous struggle to maintain such a crossing—so believe people need to keep their hopes for this operation very much in perspective.


The One Question that Needs an Answer

The articles judging the war a permanent/semi permanent stalemate, as Ive warned, are starting to appear in earnest now—and they are saying exactly what could have been predicted. The war is a stalemate, Ukraine should be forced to negotiate by its partners restricting aid, and this will result in Ukraine giving up large amounts of territory with little tangible in return. We’ve just had a major salvo in this campaign fired by Richard Haass and Charles Kupchan in Foreign Affairs. Just yesterday they released an article entitled: “Redefining Success in Ukraine: A New Strategy Must Balance Ends and Means”.5

The piece starts with a military evaluation of the state of the war—which makes its conclusions seem all so inevitable.

Such a reassessment reveals an uncomfortable truth: namely, that Ukraine and the West are on an unsustainable trajectory, one characterized by a glaring mismatch between ends and the available means. Kyiv’s war aims—the expulsion of Russian forces from Ukrainian land and the full restoration of its territorial integrity, including Crimea—remain legally and politically unassailable. But strategically they are out of reach, certainly for the near future and quite possibly beyond.

They premise of the article, and the other pieces that are on their way (there will be lots) are that this stalemate on the land war is somehow unbreakable. This, I would argue is nonsense. The war developed the way that it did this year because of what Ukraine was given and what is was not given. Im not going to go into great detail on this now, as Ive already developed these ideas in the Atlantic in two pieces, one released in March and the other released in October.6

What I could not decide at the time was whether the way Ukraine was being armed was the result of an old-fashioned (and flawed view) of how wars are won or whether they were a deliberate decision to limit what Ukraine could do out of a fear of the Russian response. In an odd way I would have preferred the former—as that meant that Ukraine’s partners (particularly the USA) actually wanted the Ukrainians to win the war—they just didn’t fully understand how that would be best achieved.

And btw, if you response, “how could the Pentagon not understand the best way to win a war”?—you only need to look at the catalogue of failure on this question over the last few decades. The US lost the most expensive war in US history (Afghanistan) and at the same time had no idea how the Russian invasion of Ukraine would develop (they really did think Kyiv would fall quickly and Ukraine would be defeated conventionally). So, to be frank, the Pentagon has been one of the worst places in understanding how wars are won—even when it possesses the most powerful armed forces in the world. It was thus perfectly conceivable to me, that they were arming Ukraine out of a mistaken understanding of how wars are won.

However, I wonder now whether the real answer was “no”, the US administration really doesnt want Ukraine to win the war. They want Ukraine to survive, with most of its territory intact, but they also want Putin to have a face-saving peace which gives him a claim to victory. It fits very well into the administration’s “de-escalation” world view which Ive argued is disastrous as it assumes the US can control things it cant. I wrote about that earlier.

So, with this in mind, what we really need to know is does the Biden administration actually want Ukraine to win and liberate its territory? Their rhetoric (at times) says yes but the way Ukraine is being armed says no. The arming says its more important not to antagonize Russia too much than it is to help Ukraine to win. If that is the answer, then the administration will simply continue to feed those who believe the war is a stalemate.

Ukraine can win this war if armed properly (I think I will write a mid-week substack about that soon), however if its armed in the weird way it is now (defensive weapons and weapons that force it to make battlefield attacks) it will be a much longer, more difficult war. The US administration cant micromanage the war the way that they think—but they absolutely can make it worse (and seem to be).

Ukraine-Russia War Talk Returning very Soon!

For those of you who listened, Mykola Bielieskov and I started a podcast in September about the state of the war (see above). On the one hand it was a great success (weve had more than 30,000 listens to our two episodes) on the other hand it was pretty much amateur hour run amok. We were just two guys with headphones speaking to each other over the internet and releasing the recording online. We didnt want to charge for the podcast (we wont) as we wanted people to donate to Come Back Alive—so we had little money to spend in it.

While it was good to do, and people found it informative, I would also say it needed a serious professional attention. People complained about the recording quality and the like, and as so many people seemed interested, we decided to step back and try and rectify things. Weve been able to do that, and the hope is to record a new episode this coming week. We now have better equipment, with an actual editor and more professional presentation. It will still be free, and we will still urge you to donate to Come Back Alive, but it will sound like a properly produced podcast. So stand by.


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