Ukraine’s push into Russian-occupied territory was bold, but a breakthrough is far from guaranteed

Ukrainian servicemen board a boat on the shore of the Dnipro river at the front line near Kherson, Ukraine, on Oct. 15, 2023.
Mstyslav Chernov | AP

Following the confirmation that Ukrainian forces had crossed the Dnieper river into Russian-occupied territory in recent weeks, hopes have risen that this could be a small but key breakthrough in the six-month counteroffensive against Russia.

The Dnieper has effectively operated as a front line in the southern Ukrainian region of Kherson, separating Ukrainian troops on the west bank from Russian forces on the east, or left, bank. Russian forces had retreated to the east bank last year following an earlier counteroffensive by Ukraine that left the Kherson region — strategically important given its location above Russian-annexed Crimea — partially occupied.

Then the official confirmation came earlier this month that Ukrainian forces, including marine infantry and special operations forces, had managed to cross the wide Dnieper river in more substantial numbers than in previous sorties, and had established several footholds on the east bank.

The development, described as a small but significant breakthrough by military analysts, has spurred hopes that Ukraine could build on those positions and advance south toward Crimea, potentially breaking a land bridge that Russia has established between its territory and the peninsula via a swathe of occupied southern Ukraine.

“The left-bank [of the Dnieper river] in Kherson is very important because it’s near to Crimea,” Oleksandr Musiyenko, a Ukrainian military expert and head of the Centre for Military and Legal Studies in Kyiv, told CNBC.

“Our forces right now on the ground, on the left bank are just 70 kilometers from occupied Crimea,” he said, “so if we have success in this offensive operation, that means that we will move behind Russian forces, we can break up their logistics, and also we can move forward to the west and to the south to occupied Crimea, and they will have a huge problems because of that,” Musiyenko noted.

Ukrainian soldiers navigate on the Dnieper river by boat at the front line near Kherson, Ukraine, on June 11, 2023.
Mstyslav Chernov | AP

The scale of Ukraine’s latest river crossing appeared to catch Russia, which has largely concentrated its forces in eastern Ukraine, somewhat unawares.

The Russian-installed governor of the Kherson region Vladimir Saldo said Ukraine had initially sent “more personnel [across the Dnieper] than our firepower could destroy” but he then vowed to rain “hell” down on the troops that had crossed the river, saying they had been sent to the slaughter as Russian artillery, missiles and drones began to target the men and heavy equipment that had been taken across the river.

Military updates since last week suggest that intense fighting is clustered around several villages on the east bank, with Krynky the epicenter as Russia tries to counterattack and prevent Ukrainian advances southward toward the prized Crimean peninsula.

Ukraine’s military said last Sunday that its forces had pushed Russian forces between 3 to 8 kilometers back from the river, impeding their ability to pound Ukrainian forces back on the west bank of the Dnieper with mortars. It also requested an operational “silence” as it what fought along what it described as a “fairly fluid” front line.

Last week, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said the ground fighting on the east bank as “has been characterised by confused, dismounted infantry combat and artillery exchanges in complex, wooded terrain.”

Ukrainian marines move through trees at the front line close to the Dnieper river near Kherson, Ukraine, on Oct. 14, 2023.
Mstyslav Chernov | AP

“Ukraine has made particularly effective use of small attack uncrewed aerial vehicles, while the Russian Air Force is conducting significant numbers of sorties in support of frontline troops, predominantly launching munitions from beyond the range of Ukraine’s air defences,” the ministry said on X, formerly known as Twitter.

The ministry noted that, while the fighting around Krynky is on a smaller scale than some major battles of the war, it “will be considered highly unfortunate by Russian leaders” given that they had hopes to “hold Ukrainian forces west of the river, keep the sector quiet, and free up Russian forces elsewhere.”

Ukrainian servicemen walk on the shore of Dnieper river after exiting a boat at the front line near Kherson, Ukraine, on Oct. 15, 2023.
Mstyslav Chernov | AP

The outcome of Ukraine’s attempts to maintain and advance positions on the east bank of the river matter at a time when there have been few gains made in the counteroffensive, first launched in June, and as Western support for continued aid for Ukraine falters.

Military analyst Sean Bell told Sky News that while Russia was put on the back foot by Ukraine’s bold river crossing — with its main focus on the Donbas in eastern Ukraine and limited reserves to re-deploy to Kherson further west — the road ahead is challenging for Ukraine.

“Although Russia has established some defensive positions near the Dnieper, if – and this is a big if at this stage – Ukraine is able to develop a robust beachhead on the eastern bank of the Dnieper, this could threaten the western flank of Russian forces,” he told Sky News Tuesday.

“If Ukraine is able to launch an offensive from the Dnieper, that would bypass the layered Russian defences near Zaporizhzhia and potentially force Russia to withdraw its forces in the land bridge back into Crimea,” he added.

This would liberate a huge proportion of the territory occupied by Russia and mark a significant breakthrough for Ukrainian forces, Bell said.

“But, the winter weather precludes manoeuvre warfare, and Russia might yet re-focus its military effort and deny Ukraine a vital breakthrough,” he warned.

Outwardly, Russia has been bullish about the situation in Kherson, with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claiming last Tuesday that Ukraine was suffering “colossal losses” on the east bank of the Dnieper.

“All attempts of the Ukrainian Armed Forces to conduct an amphibious operation in the Kherson direction were unsuccessful. Thanks to the proactive and professional actions of our military personnel, units of the Marine Corps and special operations forces of the Ukrainian troops are suffering colossal losses,” Shoigu said in a speech to defense ministry officials, without presenting evidence.

CNBC was unable to verify the claims made by Ukraine or Russia regarding the situation on the battlefield.