David Axe


Oct 24, 2022

A brief glimpse of an old, ex-Soviet amphibious tractor, hauling a Ukrainian army platoon across a river, is a reminder that Ukraine’s expansive rivers are a battlefield as Russia’s wider war on the country grinds into its eighth month.

Ukraine no longer has a seagoing navy—Russia saw to that when it sank or captured most of the meager Ukrainian fleet. Ukraine itself finished the job when it scuttled its sole large warship, the frigate Hetman Sagaidachny, in Odesa back in February in order to prevent the vessel ever falling into Russian hands.

But Ukraine still has a riverine flotilla—a combination of old Soviet craft, former civilian boats, border-patrol vessels and secondhand craft the United States donated starting this summer. And that riverine flotilla has been busy.

It’s unclear how old the video of the Ukrainian PTS tractor is. If it’s recent, that means the Ukrainian armed forces still have a viable amphibious tractor unit. The Ukrainians had around a dozen of the 38-foot tractors before February.

The PTS is an ancient vehicle dating back to the 1960s, but it still is useful in a country with several large waterways. In particular, the Dnipro River bisects Ukraine from north to south, winding through Kyiv and several other major cities before emptying into the Black Sea near the port of Kherson. The Dnipro is 15 miles wide at its widest.

Russian forces captured Kherson in March, around the same time they were advancing along the Dnipro in the north—aiming, but ultimately failing, to capture Kyiv and unseat the Ukrainian government. The twin Russian attacks, from the north and south, made the Dnipro a battleground. It’s even more of a battleground now that the Ukrainians have launched a counteroffensive aimed at liberating Kherson.

But only the Ukrainians visibly have exploited the river for offensive operations. The old PTSs, doing yeoman’s work hauling platoons from riverbank to riverbank, are just a few of the craft comprising the Ukrainian riverine force. Ukraine’s special operations command has its own boats—and has used them to powerful effect in nighttime raids up and down the Dnipro and other rivers.

The Ukrainian Sea Guard, part of the quasi-military State Border Guard Service, might have the most vessels. The Sea Guard before the war had around 65 patrol boats and small craft, many of them armed. The Russians captured several of the vessels, including at least one of the Sea Guard’s three 123-foot Stenka-class boats.

The Ukrainian navy at this point might actually have fewer hulls than the border guard does. Before the war, the navy’s riverine vessels included up to eight 76-foot, gun-armed Gyurza-M armored patrol boats. The Russians captured three of the nearly brand-new vessels, leaving maybe four in Ukrainian service. But there’s no evidence of the surviving Gyurza-Ms fighting for Ukraine after February.

To make good its losses and grow its riverine flotilla, the Ukrainian navy this summer absorbed potentially dozens of civilian craft and armed them. “We must have the appropriate forces and means to withstand the enemy at our main waterway,” Vice Adm. Oleksiy Neizhpapa said.

And in June, the U.S. government pledged to the navy 18 secondhand patrol boats—six 40-footers, two 35-footers and 10 34-footers. All armed. “These are largely to protect the riverways and to enable Ukraine to maintain its control of the riverways,” an unnamed U.S. defense official told reporters.

Add them up. Between the army, special operations command, border guard and navy, the Ukrainian armed forces might have more than a hundred patrol boats, small craft and amphibious tractors that are capable of riverine operations. As Ukrainian forces counterattack and the front line moves farther south along the Dnipro River toward Kherson, they’ve got plenty to do.