For at least the last month, Ukrainian forces have been engaging in activity along the eastern bank of the Dnipro river. In the last few days, the Ukrainian government, and no lesser figure than President Volodymyr Zelensky himself, have stated that a ‘foothold’ has been established on the east bank. Putting aside the value of having some kind of success story to bolster morale at home and, to some extent, more importantly, amongst Ukraine’s western doners, this development poses a number of questions that deserve consideration.
The first question is to consider if this is a significant development?
To analyse this we need to start with the location of this ‘foothold’. The greatest extent of the Ukrainian summer offensive in 2023 has pushed out a salient towards the central hub town of Tokmak, with the intent of controlling supply routes overland to Crimea. Control can be exerted either by deploying long range munitions, such as the HIMARS or ATACMS, or by actually repossessing the territory.
However achieved, the Tokmak axis presented the opportunity to severe the supply route to Crimea through Ukraine and to isolate Crimea from the north, As a by-product, a successful advance towards the Black Sea might have opened up a new southern front against the Russian occupied land in the north of occupied Ukraine; a southern front that does not contain layers of Russian trenchworks.
However, as the counter-offensive unfolded, it seems the Russians anticipated this move and have defended successfully, largely containing the Ukrainians to a relatively small bulge, albeit one that is slowly expanding.
The new foothold on the eastern bank of the Dnipro, pushes the area of active operations further to the south, away from the heavily contested north of the line, with its ongoing battles around Bahamut and Avdiivka, and the central belt where the Ukrainian offensive has struggled against the trench-intensive, drone-surveilled, heavily defended, axis of most-likely attack. This new area of operations, beyond the formidable barrier of the Dnipro, lies in a land of fewer trench systems and fewer enemy units.
However, this Shangri-la is this way for a reason; Ukraine river-crossing capability is weak and, even if it were strong, operating across the river necessarily involves funnelling men and material though a limited number of crossing points. Here’s the rub; if the river crossing is to be fully exploited, perhaps opening up the mobile warfare that Western governments set such store on, then the Ukrainians need a way of getting large amounts of heavy material over the river on a steady and reliable basis. If you want an indication of how hard the supply situation can be, it is worth remembering that the sudden collapse of Russian positions on the other side of the river was triggered by a Russian withdrawal, driven by their recognition that their supply situation was untenable.
Given this, there is an alternate scenario that might best explain Ukrainian plans. Part of an effective war fighting strategy is to present your enemy with a series of difficult choices. The river crossing and subsequent expansion of the bridgehead gives the Russian commanders in Ukraine another set of potential priorities, on top of those they are already juggling.
The Russians are on the offensive in the north, trying to take the city of Avdiivka, and are defending against Ukrainian assaults in the centre of the front, notably around Robotyne. By adding in another axis for the Russians to worry about, the Ukrainians give their enemy a dilemma; how seriously should they take this new threat and should they divert troops to contain it? This is the dilemma that the Germans faced in the closing stages of the First World War when a series of offensives forced them to shift units up and down the front lines of the Western front.
Whatever the Ukrainian thought processes, the river crossing presents them with opportunities. The Russians may weaken other parts of the front to counter the bridgehead, and this will either slacken their offensive operations, reliving the Ukrainian defenders, or will reduce the defensive capabilities along the line, allowing the Ukrainians to advance along their preferred lines.
It is this optionality which is the true value of the river crossing.
The Ukrainians don’t have to make their choice right now. By exploiting the bridgehead, they create dilemmas for the Russians and, should operations over the Dnipro prove successful, they can attempt to solve the supply problem and push forward in this area. There are some indications that resistance in the area is weak, probably because the area could, before the crossings, be safely garrisoned with lower quality units, but now we are seeing multiple reports that Russian units have run away when attacked. This holds out the possibility that opening up this additional area of operations across the Dnipro may result in a rapidly unfolding situation that might have a disproportionate effect on the Ukrainians prospects for the rest of the year. And even if the Dnipro foothold fails to develop, it increases Ukrainian options in exchange for little cost, whilst simultaneously limiting Russian options.