President Putin is desperately redeploying thousands of Russian troops to southern Ukraine to stave off a humiliating defeat, moving troops from the Donbas to bolster a force that has been split precariously across two banks of the wide Dnipro river.
The reinforcements bring the total Russian force in the area to more than 25,000 troops, a Ukrainian reconnaissance and intelligence team told The Times, adding that nine Russian battle groups, each between 500 and 800 men, had been moved there from the Donbas and Crimea.
“Sadly Boris Johnson didn’t give us the longer-range missiles we needed to hit them on the road,” grinned Sergeant “Hulk”, 47, the goliath commander of a 28th Mechanised Brigade intelligence squad. “But we have a surprise in store for the Russians all the same.”
More than 10,000 Russian soldiers are now on the west bank of the Dnipro, separated from their supply lines by half a mile of water and three bridges, two of which have been rendered inoperable by Himars missiles fired by Ukrainian forces.
The low rumble of artillery fire reverberates along the waves of the Southern Bug river as it sweeps through the shattered city of Mykolaiv. The tributary, the Inhul, cuts a protective curve around its shell-shocked inhabitants before the waters join those of the Dnipro and the Inhulets rushing into the Black Sea. These four rivers form the defining features of the battle for Ukraine’s south.
The enemy has been lured in by Ukrainian announcements of a counteroffensive in the south, calls for civilians to evacuate the area and a slow but steady recovery of territory in the area. Hulk’s battalion is at the tip of the spear of those efforts. Southeast of Mykolaiv, they have moved the front line a mile and a half forward so far this month.
“We don’t have the massed artillery of the Russians, so we need to advance slowly in small groups, by stealth,” he said. “First our reconnaissance teams go forward and take up observation positions. Then our infantry move up to secure them. We go deeper and again they follow. We’re the sledgehammer that makes holes in the wall. It’s hard work building fortifications, so we’d rather take the Russian ones.”
The Ukrainian attacks are becoming increasingly bold. Last month a special operations force filmed themselves walking right into Kherson, storming a building and releasing five Ukrainian prisoners that a group of Russian soldiers had tried to ransom.
It’s these penetrations of Russia’s front line, stretched more than 200 miles towards Mariupol, that have forced the Kremlin’s lurch to the south. Yet the core of the men moved from Donbas are Russian airborne assault troops, according to President Zelensky’s military adviser Oleksiy Arestovich, and there are signs that the Russians are planning their own push to encircle the city of Mykolaiv from the northwest.
That manoeuvre is necessary to move the Himars out of range of the Kherson bridges. And if Putin’s goal remains to take Odesa, his men will need to cross the Southern Bug. The only viable option is the bridge through Mykolaiv.
Russian reinforcements are already taking up positions outside the city. “The Russian 305 Brigade — we call them the Washing Machine Brigade because they looted Irpin — have just arrived on our front lines,” said “Mama” 34, the intelligence squad medic.
The Ukrainian military’s optimism in the south is tempered, however, by the devastation being wrought nightly on Mykolaiv and the hellish experience of their compatriots in the Donbas, who endured weeks of concentrated Russian artillery fire. “This is a massive artillery force, we have to take them seriously,” said Hulk, whose brother was captured in the east and held in jail near Olenivka. Last week the Russians said that 50 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed there; the victims, they claimed, of a Ukrainian strike.
However, satellite images appear to show that the Russians had dug graves there prior to the explosion, and Kyiv has accused Moscow of trying to cover up a massacre of Ukrainian prisoners. “I know he was alive before the explosion. Now I have no idea,” Hulk grimaced.
A new Russian offensive here relies on getting supplies across the Dnipro. Videos posted on Russian social media channels appear to show pontoon bridges being loaded onto antiquated 1980s KRAZ-255 trucks, probably taken from Soviet-era storage facilities. Satellite photos have shown Russian ferries towing supplies across the vast waterway on sections of pontoon bridge, but this is no substitute for the road bridges, experts say.
“You can’t compensate for a four-lane motorway bridge with a pontoon, even if you were to put four pontoons next to each other. This is something the Russians really miscalculated when they decided to cross the Dnipro,” said Oleksiy Melnyk, a retired colonel and director at the Razumkov Centre, a Ukrainian think tank.
The ferry crossing is slow and would not allow Russian forces to react or withdraw rapidly in the event of a Ukrainian offensive, he added, but building a full pontoon bridge would be risky. “Especially now with Ukrainian capabilities to deliver precision strikes. It’s one matter to destroy a concrete bridge, which took eight missiles. One hit on a pontoon bridge and it’s done.”
Ukraine’s precision Himars, equipped with missiles that have a range of 53 miles, have targeted Russian weapons depots and reinforcements far behind the front line. A recent attack completely destroyed a 40-wagon military train packed with ammunition and equipment. They have also been eroding Russian anti-aircraft defences.
This has allowed the Ukrainian air forces to fly more sorties over the area, culminating in what observers described as a “massive attack” on enemy positions in the Kherson region. “I think the orcs already lack air defence systems, because they were ‘eaten’ by the Himars,” wrote Sergei Naumovich, a Ukrainian military blogger. “This is the first time such a large-scale air assault by the Armed Forces of Ukraine on these positions is taking place.”
Sandwiched between vast rivers and the sea, the split Russian force looks to be in a precarious position. Putin’s political capital cannot afford to lose Kherson, the only city occupied intact, but clinging on to the Dnipro’s west bank could end in a disastrous defeat. “Moscow has two choices,” Hulk said. “Withdraw now, or watch their men try to swim across.”