Ukrainian toeholds across the Dnipro River in the south are a rare bright spot amid glum

By Matthew Luxmoore

November 15, 2023

The Wall Street Journal


KHERSON, Ukraine—Ukrainian marines slip across the Dnipro River at night in small groups to reinforce a growing contingent of troops engaged in a daring operation to reinvigorate Kyiv’s military efforts in the occupied south. They have established three toeholds in and around villages on the eastern bank of the river in recent weeks, cutting off a road Russia uses to supply troops in the area, according to soldiers involved in the operation. The Ukrainians are hunkered down in basements and trenches and heavily outnumbered. Their hold is precarious.

Still, it is a rare bright spot for Kyiv amid a number of somber developments, including the failure of its counteroffensive to gain much ground, a new Russian offensive in the east and uncertainty over additional military aid from the U.S., Ukraine’s most important backer. Ukraine first publicly acknowledged the cross-river operation this week.

Ukrainian forces recently transferred armored Humvees and at least one infantry-fighting vehicle to support troops on the Dnipro’s eastern bank, the soldiers said. If the Ukrainians manage to amass sufficient units and armored vehicles there, they could seek to advance into territory where Russian defenses are less extensive than those further east that blunted the main thrust of Ukraine’s counteroffensive.

That could force Russia to reposition forces needed for offensives to the east, and pose a threat to Russian supply lines from occupied Crimea, a critical staging post and logistics hub for Moscow’s war effort that Ukraine has been targeting with drone and missile attacks for weeks.

The operation on the opposite bank a few miles from the Ukrainian-held regional capital of Kherson is proving costly and hard going. Soldiers involved in the fight say they are under heavy fire. Russian drones constantly circle over their hastily dug trenches, coordinating artillery strikes each time they detect movement. As darkness falls, the Ukrainian troops use shovels to dig themselves deeper into the ground. “We need to be realistic about what can be achieved here,” said Franz-Stefan Gady, an independent military analyst who recently toured the front lines in Ukraine. “The terrain is extremely difficult, making it not only a challenge to steadily resupply forces but also generate the necessary momentum to conduct sustained offensive operations.”

One private in Ukraine’s 38th Marine Brigade who crossed to the eastern bank at the start of November said his unit had advanced 100 yards in the six days he was there before he was evacuated for treatment of a concussion. “For every fighter we have there, they have 10,” said the 32-year-old private, who gave his name as Andriy. “And we’re sitting in trenches unable to even stick our heads out.”

Ukraine’s recapture of Kherson last November was its last major advance. Russia withdrew troops across the river and began digging defenses.

In June, the destruction of the Kakhovka dam on Russian-held territory to the east of Kherson unleashed a torrent of water that inundated dozens of settlements along the Dnipro. With the river much wider and a crossing less of a threat, Russia moved some troops eastward to fend off Ukraine’s counteroffensive, which began that month.

As the waters receded over the summer, Ukraine stepped up cross-river raids that initially harassed Russian forces and led to the capture of some soldiers.

Last month, the Ukrainians started establishing a presence on the eastern bank in the villages of Krynky and two other areas farther west.

Ukraine has shrouded the operation in secrecy, offering no official comment until Monday, when Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, acknowledged while on a visit to Washington that there was a Ukrainian military presence on the left bank.

Video posted by pro-Kremlin military bloggers shows houses in Krynky being hit by Russian munitions. “They are hiding in hedges, in houses,” Russian military analyst Boris Rozhin wrote on Telegram on Monday. Russia’s defense ministry said on Monday that it had captured a Ukrainian unit that tried to cross the river.

The area around Krynky is heavily mined by Russian forces. The Ukrainians move forward in small groups to limit their exposure. And the onset of winter next month will complicate their efforts to move men and equipment across the water and stage mechanized advances with any armored vehicles brought over.

Andriy, the marine private, arrived on the left bank on the night of Nov. 1. The soldiers disembarked in different locations, avoiding Russian mines and enemy snipers and spotters, and waded through mud to reach the village of Krynky.

The task for Andriy’s brigade was to move forward in squad and company-size units and push into the forests around the village. They took up positions in rudimentary trenches and dugouts in the forest, but immediately began being pounded by Russian artillery.

In the week Andriy spent on the eastern bank before being injured and evacuated, his unit moved forward 100 yards into the forest, he said. They defended trenches hastily dug in the wet ground, as Russian troops positioned less than 100 meters away blasted them with rocket-propelled grenades.

There was a constant hum overhead as Russian strike and surveillance drones circled over his trench line, with one replaced by another when its battery ran out. Small arms exchanges were constant. Two soldiers in Andriy’s company were killed by a sniper.

Andriy observed the Russians relaxing a short distance away in elaborate dugouts they had constructed over months, equipped with generators and cooking stoves. They played rap music during lulls in fighting.

Russian armored personnel carriers brought in regular shipments of artillery shells and ammunition during the night. Last week, the Ukrainians said they captured eight Russian soldiers who had changed into Ukrainian uniforms and tried to infiltrate their positions in Krynky.

Yaroslav, a junior sergeant who is a medic in the 38th and was part of the same river crossing as Andriy, set himself up in the basement of a house in Krynky that had been vacated by residents who left during floods unleashed by the Kakhovka dam explosion.

The high floodwaters have long receded, but the walls of the houses are covered with mold, with smelly clothes and rotted furniture inside. They have only basic supplies, with no generators and very few stretchers to carry the dead and wounded to the riverbank.

Yaroslav’s job as a medic was to patch up wounded soldiers and transfer them to boats for treatment on the left bank. He said he struggled to keep up with the flow of wounded soldiers to his basement stabilization point in Krynky, and often the shelling was so intense that some of those carrying stretchers were wounded themselves. “Everything you have there is what you brought yourself, and what they manage to bring you on boats,” he said. “But for that you have to go to the riverbank, and every such trip is Russian roulette.”

A Ukrainian special forces soldier involved in the river landings, who has returned to the fight despite losing a foot after stepping on a mine in the spring, said the Ukrainian military is trying before winter to sever Russia’s supply lines on the left bank.

On Nov. 7, the Russians launched a heavy bombardment of Ukrainian positions around Krynky, using airstrikes and multiple-launch rocket systems carrying thermobaric warheads, soldiers say. Andriy and Yaroslav said they left in a stupor, utterly exhausted.

Yaroslav joined Ukraine’s counteroffensive after undergoing a month of marine training in the U.K. during the spring. But when his unit entered Krynky, the 45-year-old felt that the British soldiers who trained him had no understanding of the severity of this war.

He said 70% of the homes in the village were intact when he arrived, but when he left six days later, only 30% were still standing. The forests around Krynky were full of corpses, both Russian and Ukrainian, that no one had the capacity to collect. “This is our last chance for a breakthrough until the war becomes a total stalemate,” said Yaroslav, who said the Kherson campaign has been his hardest battle since Russia’s invasion in February 2022. “If we don’t get support, this operation could be our swan song.”


Matthew Luxmoore is a reporter covering Russia, Ukraine and the former Soviet Union with a particular focus on Russia’s defense, national security and the role of its military on the world stage. He was previously Moscow Correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and was the 2018 winner of New York University’s Reporting Award and a recipient in 2015 of the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award. Matthew grew up in Poland and holds a master’s degree from the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard, where he was a Frank Knox Fellow.