Patrol boats are playing a key role in keeping the enemy at bay
December 12, 2023
The boat’s engine roars as it lurches through the icy water, machine gunners hanging on to their weapons when it turns fast in a tight arc to bisect the Dnipro River. Fully loaded with battle gear, the Ukrainian sailors on these American patrol boats would survive for only minutes in the freezing water if they fell overboard.
Upriver, Russian reconnaissance groups are trying to creep across the border from Belarus on gunboats, exploring weak points in the Ukrainian defences. “Their diversion groups are constantly trying to infiltrate from the side of Belarus,” says Lieutenant Commander Yaroslav Shevchenko, the river fleet’s deputy commander.
Behind us, a gunboat looms in the sights of the Willard Dauntless’s Mk 19 automatic grenade launcher. It is the pride of Ukraine’s river fleet, the Bucha — the name a reminder of the worst excesses of Russia’s troops and a symbol of Ukrainian defiance.
The Bucha’s radar catches the Russians in the act, coming south in Bumblebee gunboats or fast craft from a base at Pinsk on the Pripyat River. “We can see the groups that are about to infiltrate and act to prevent that from happening,” he adds, before breaking into a grin. “Then they disappear.” He refuses to be drawn on how that happens — but the Bucha carries state-of-the-art communications and targeting equipment. “We were quite alarmed when the Wagner Group was active in Belarus,” Shevchenko, 33, says. “We have to acknowledge they are specialists in small unit work but now the situation is under control.”
The Bucha is the latest of Ukraine’s armoured Gyurza-M gunboats, built last year in Kyiv and equipped with guided anti-tank missiles, two 30mm cannon, 7.62mm machineguns and grenade launchers. It is one of 20 commissioned before the invasion last February that, combined with repurposed civilian vessels and 18 American fast patrol boats, have allowed Ukraine to dominate the 700-mile stretch of the Dnipro that cuts the country in half. That domination has encouraged Ukraine’s commanders to try a new tactic: landing troops on the Russian-controlled side of the Dnipro to try to break the deadlock in the war.
Downstream, in the Kherson region, a flotilla of Gyurza-Ms are providing support to hundreds of Ukrainian marines running a gauntlet of Russian sea mines, artillery fire and bombs to try to expand a bridgehead at the village of Krynky that could open a new front for Ukraine’s stalled counteroffensive.
Initially the river crossings were small-scale special forces raids but now they have become a full-scale offensive action, Shevchenko says. “The first groups that landed in Kozachyi Lahery used small boats. When the operation became full-blown our boats were called on to participate.
These gunboats shoot the shoreline to suppress enemy fire, then the landing craft come and land the marines.”
Between Kozachyi Lahery and Krynky, the marines are trying to push the Russians back to the Oleshky Sands, a large, open, desert-like area, and cut off the two roads they use as supply lines along the riverbank. They need to drive the Russians 25 miles back from the water if they are to erect pontoon bridges capable of bringing their heavy machinery across en masse. “It’s like Vietnam, like a jungle. There are not many passages there,” he says. “You can’t dock everywhere, you can’t walk everywhere, and there’s a whole bunch of mini-lakes inside. Since we are locals, we have some idea of what to do. Right now, our job is to look for routes to the left bank but the Russians have planted a lot of mines, and it’s very difficult to get there. In August I was blown up when my boat hit a mine. The boat sank. My guys thought I was dead, but I survived.”
Guiding them across the Dnipro, the river Konka and the densely vegetated swampland between them is the “Witch” special forces unit, led by Vitaliy Panakhov, 45, a former Kherson partisan with a Russian price on his head.
The battle for control of the opposite bank is taking a heavy toll on the marines he helps to deploy, Panakhov says. A key part of his unit’s job is to help rescue wounded soldiers stranded on the wrong side of the water. “You need to have balls to cross. When the special forces guys went in under the Antonivka bridge near Kherson, they were bombed so hard nobody could pick them up for three days. Under heavy fire, we came and pulled them out.”
He displays a map on his phone and points to the E97 road along the riverbank and the M14 highway beyond, stretching towards Melitopol. “There are only two roads leading to Crimea from the left bank. As soon as our guys take the Melitopol road, that’s it, there will be zero Russian fire control from here. They will just have to run for their lives.”
Panakhov says the Ukrainian marine vanguard is already getting close to the Oleshky-Kakhovka highway, and their aircraft are working “effectively” on the Russians guarding it. “Their losses are very high. Two months ago, Russian marines from the Crimea arrived in Oleshky, but they barely managed to disembark before they were assaulted. The next day, the second company arrived — they were also assaulted and left,” he says.
Panakhov criticised his commanders for being too cautious at Krynky and not capitalising on gains made in recent weeks, saying the marines were now paying the price for that. “Last month, the marines successfully got there and cleared out the orcs [Russian troops]. I don’t understand why the situation hasn’t gone further. The orcs were running away. They lacked spirit,” he says. “But afterwards, the orcs attacked us with a lot of armour.”
The marine action at Krynky might have been delayed, he concedes, by the shortage of ammunition caused by a dispute in the US Congress over whether to approve an extra $60 billion of military aid for Ukraine.
Despite the difficulties, Panakhov, who is from Nova Kakhovka, a town in the Kherson region that is still occupied by the Russians, remains optimistic about the battle’s outcome. “I think that
it won’t be long before we see two or three big attacks being conducted. I think you will be surprised. Somehow I believe that I will be home soon.”
Additional reporting by Oleksii Savchenko.
Maxim Tucker was Kyiv correspondent for The Times between 2014 and 2017 and is now an editor on the foreign desk. He has returned to report from the frontlines of the war in Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February. He advises on grantmaking in the former Soviet countries for the Open Society Foundations and prior to that was Amnesty International’s Campaigner on Ukraine and the South Caucasus. He has also written for The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Independent, Newsweek and Politico.