According to the best open-source reports, the Ukrainian Marines have pushed two groups of infantry, each numbering between 100-300 men, into a pair of enclaves on the left bank (the east bank) of the Dnipro River in the Kherson region. The enclaves are about 20 km apart and don’t support each other.
There have been scattered reports of a few light armored vehicles and military 4WD automobiles getting ferried across, as well as light artillery or mortars. For the most part, the Marines are dug in and defending themselves with small arms, grenade launchers, heavy machine guns and anti-tank rockets and missiles they carried over the river.
Also, the Marines are defending themselves with drones, both observation drones for spotting targets for artillery on the right bank of the river, and with home-made kamikaze drones, which an operator can fly into a Russian position or vehicle, blowing it up.
What are the weak points for the Ukrainians?
The terrain is a mix of marshy lowlands and resort or fishing villages, meaning most of the time a defender must set up either around buildings or on patches of dry land, making finding him and hitting him with drones or artillery a lot easier. There are more than a few dirt roads in the area but driving on them is risky: in the summer, dust clouds advertise the vehicle’s location, and in all other seasons, a drone can usually follow tracks to wherever one parks.
On the morning of November 25, a large-scale drone attack in the capital cut off power to an overhead line,” Ukraine’s energy ministry said in a statement.
The bridgeheads are relatively close to Russian air bases in Crimea, making it easier for the Kremlin to run air strikes against the Ukrainian positions. Recently the Russian military started using glide bombs in Ukraine, making it possible for the Russian air force to hit the bridgeheads with guided bombs, without coming in range of Ukrainian air defense missiles on the other side of the river. This allows the Russian air force to bomb the bridgeheads, if at times inaccurately, with something like impunity.
Although the specific numbers are Ukrainian military secrets, it appears each of the bridgeheads covers an area a few kilometers square. That means that if the Ukrainians try and build up strength within the real estate they control, their troops and equipment would be packed close together, easily spotted, and a perfect target for bombardment.
Another problem for the Ukrainians if they are wanting to build up strength, is that although they clearly have enough small boats and ferries to support several hundred infantrymen on the left bank of the Dnipro, and to evacuate casualties, deploying tanks and artillery to the left bank would require a proper pontoon bridge. Unless the Russian air force can be kept at distance, a pontoon bridge is an easy target to spot and with effort it almost always will be hit.
When it comes to bridging, the Ukrainians face an additional complication in that their all their best tanks – the British Challenger 2, German Leopard 2 and the American M1A2 Abrams – are too heavy to use the Soviet-issue pontoon bridges operated by the Ukrainian army.
According to open sources the Ukrainians have received NATO-standard pontoon bridges from the Czech Republic, Germany and France. A reasonable guess is the Ukrainians probably have enough NATO-standard pontoon pieces to build one bridge capable of carrying their NATO-standard heavy tanks across the Dnipro River. If destroyed, it would probably take months to replace.
What are the weak points for the Russians?
The Marines by the standards of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) are better-than-average troops, selected and trained for assault and amphibious operations. The soldiers holding the enclaves now are for the most part seasoned troops with combat-experienced leaders, and most likely, all volunteers. As an organization, the Ukrainian Marines consider themselves more skilled fighters than their Russian opponents (and for that matter most of the AFU) and they believe their combat record proves it. Chances that Ukrainian Marine morale will crack quickly, no matter what the Russians throw at them, are pretty low.
Ukrainian artillery outranges Russian artillery by 5-8 km thanks to Western deliveries of 155mm howitzers and ammunition. Shell reserves are limited but, for the most part, in order for the Russian artillery to get close enough to hit the Ukrainian Marines, the Russian artillery must come into range of the Ukrainian artillery, which is more accurate and can blast away without worrying much about the Russians shooting back. Over time, given sufficient ammo, the Ukrainian artillery should dominate terrain around the bridgeheads.
There are some reports that the Ukrainian civilian, volunteer-operated drone presence is the densest of the war so far, and certainly some Russian military information platforms are complaining about Ukrainian drone swarms. In almost every battle of the war since wide-reaching maneuvers came to a halt about a year ago, wherever the Ukrainians have been able to fly large numbers of observation and kamikaze drones, Russian casualties have been heavy and sometimes prohibitive, and Russian ground progress at best limited.
What are the Russians doing about the bridgeheads right now?
For the most part, keeping their distance and trying to hammer the Ukrainians with air strikes. The Ukrainians have been across the river for more than a month, and for the most part, Russian ground forces have not even attempted to dislodge the Ukrainians. Russian military Telegram channels have intensified calls for volunteer-funded drones.
Why is that? Why don’t the Russians just put together a big attack force with tanks, artillery and infantry and just flatten these little bridgeheads?
If you believe the Kremlin, it is because the Russian air strikes and bombardments are so accurate and effective, that the Ukrainian Marines are suffering continuous casualties they cannot sustain over time, so fairly soon the Ukrainian bridgeheads will collapse of their own accord.
If you believe Ukrainian military information platforms, it looks very much like Kremlin military strategists bet the lower Dnipro River sector was a place they didn’t need very dense defenses, so when the Ukrainians came across in October in small numbers, the first Russian response was to believe it was just raiders, and then to conceal from Moscow that the Ukrainians had crossed the river in moderate strength and that there wasn’t enough Russian firepower in the area to force them back quickly.
Now, those accounts go, the Russian army doesn’t have enough soldiers and equipment available to plug the new gap in their defensive lines created by the Ukrainians with the bridgeheads, without reducing force commitments elsewhere on the front. This would not be an easy move for the Kremlin to make because the Russian state propaganda narrative to the Russian people is that the Russian advance in Ukraine is inexorable and will inevitably succeed.
Another part of the problem is the terrain, because there are only a few roads in the area capable of driving a big armored force towards the Ukrainian bridgeheads. The Ukrainians know this and according to open sources, Ukrainian Marine foot patrols are ranging up to 8 km from the bridgeheads, meaning any force driving along the road to attack the Ukrainian bridgeheads, might be ambushed.
Open sources also widely agree that it’s hard for Russian units to make a move even one or two dozen kilometers from the bridgeheads without getting spotted by a Ukrainian drone, and then it’s somewhat of a lottery on whether the spotted Russian soldier or vehicle manages to hide before a Ukrainian kamikaze drone or artillery strike follows up.
What’s the future look like?
According to most observers, the future of the Ukrainian bridgeheads across the Dnipro will come down to three things: drones, artillery and air defenses. The side that manages to build up dominance in a piece of that triad will gain a powerful advantage and if either side manages to establish superiority in all three, the bridgehead will be destroyed (Russian victory) or the bridgehead will expand to a legitimate launch platform for a major offensive that would put Russian bases in Crimea into the range of systematic precision-guided munitions bombardment (Ukrainian victory).
If the Russian air force manages to increase its sortie rate sufficiently to carpet bomb the bridgeheads for weeks, the Ukrainian Marines might die to a man or just retreat. If the Ukrainians build up air defenses around the bridgeheads – probably at the expense of defending one or more cities from Russian long-range missile attacks – then functional AFU bridges across the river and a rapidly-expanding bridgehead become a lot more possible.
Pretty much without exception, all observers say, that of those three, by a significant margin, the most important single factor is raw numbers of artillery shells.
OK, so what’s the prognostication on artillery shells?
Both Russia and Ukraine and its allies have said that 2024 will see big jumps in artillery shell manufacturing. In early 2023, both sides made the same sort of declarations, but ten months later soldiers on both sides were still complaining about shell shortages.
Any other military solutions?
Some “experts” in Russian state-controlled media have said the way to solve the problem is a warning nuclear strike, maybe in Siberia. On the allied side, some Ukraine supporters argue that were the US and its NATO allies to hand over to Ukraine several hundred long-range precision-guided missiles, rather than the less than 50 seen over 2023, the stalemate on the front might be broken.
That doesn’t tell me anything, give me a prediction I can use!
Assuming no major changes to firepower available to the Russian army and the AFU, there will be at least a couple of months of positional warfare around the bridgeheads. Maybe by February the direction of trends on things like artillery shells or air defense will be clear.