Ukrainian Marines Crossing the Dniepr in Echo of an Epic World War II Struggle

With the world’s news cameras focused on Gaza, Ukrainian Marines are secretly crossing the half-mile wide waterway, ferrying men and ammo in inflatable rubber rafts and establishing beachheads on the opposite shore.

AP/Mstyslav Chernov
A Ukrainian serviceman jumps out of the boat on the shore of the Dniepr River at the front line near Kherson, Ukraine. AP/Mstyslav Chernov

For generations of Soviets, “crossing the Dniepr” evokes the epic 1943 battle that pitted three million Soviet soldiers against one million Nazi defenders. As memorialized in monuments and murals, Soviet soldiers used small boats, rafts, and logs  to cross a river as wide as the Mississippi. By the end of a four month long amphibious assault, more than one million Soviet soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing. However, by surmounting Ukraine’s water wall, they broke the back of Nazi power in Eastern Europe.

Eighty years later, Ukrainian soldiers this month are attempting the crossing in reverse, moving this time to dislodge invaders from the east. With the world’s news cameras focused on Gaza, Ukrainian Marines secretly cross the half-mile wide waterway, ferrying men and ammo in inflatable rubber rafts. As temperatures hover around freezing, a fall in the water can be fatal.

Guided by drones by day and by night scopes on moonless nights, the Ukrainians fight their way through swamp and forest to establish two beachheads, each about ten miles apart. Using larger craft to cross what they call the Dnipro River, the Ukrainians land Humvees, artillery pieces, and parts for a German mobile bridge.

Map of Ukraine, via Central Intelligence Agency. Via Wikimedia Commons

Over the last month, they have cleared about 25 miles of shoreline, depriving the Russians of the ability to fire mortars across the river. In the one year since Russian troops retreated east across the river, Russian shells have killed 409 Ukrainian civilians in the liberated, western half of Kherson region.

 “Against all odds, Ukraine’s defense forces have gained a foothold on the left bank,” the Ukrainian presidential chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, announced last week, breaking the news in a speech at  a Washington think tank, the Hudson Institute. Of good news to Ukraine’s supporters at Washington, the move is outflanking Russia’s Donbas trenches, lines that held up well against Ukraine’s summer offensive.

Now, about 500 Ukrainian Marines threaten the M-14, a 250-mile east-west international road —  President Putin’s fabled “land bridge” to Crimea. For a decade, Mr. Putin has sought to maintain a road to ferry ammunition and supplies to Crimea from Russia.

“The goal is to reach the M-14 highway,” Russian military blogger Semyon Pego wrote Tuesday on his War Gonzo Telegram channel. Noting that Ukraine’s new positions are only 60 miles north of Crimea, he wrote: “If success is achieved, [Russia’s] Armed Forces will have serious problems.” Ukrainian units are now believed to be in position to ambush truck convoys on the M-14.

Russia’s reaction ranges from panic to ferocity. Realizing that months of Ukrainian cross-river probes were turning into fixed beachheads, the Kremlin fired its Dnipro regional commander on October 30. The charge: providing “false reports” to his superiors.

“Results on the ground did not correspond to the information delivered by the Dniepr group’s command,” a Kremlin-appointed official for Kherson region, Vladimir Rogov, wrote on Telegram. “The enemy has recently increased combat activity in this part of the southern front, crossing to our side of the Dnipro River and trying to create bridgeheads there for attempts to attack the area of Crimea.”

The Kyiv Post’s senior defense correspondent, Stefan Korshak, wrote yesterday: “The first Russian response was to believe it was just raiders, and then to conceal from Moscow that the Ukrainians had crossed the river in moderate strength, and that there wasn’t enough Russian firepower in the area to force them back quickly.”

The new commander, Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky, was sidelined last summer for alleged association with the Wagner mercenary revolt. Back in charge, he has failed to calm Russian jitters. Last week, two Russian state news agencies published alerts saying Moscow was moving Dnipro troops to “more favorable positions” east of the river. The Kremlin routinely uses this language to describe retreats. Two hours later, the agencies withdrew the news reports, noting that Russia’s Defense Ministry said they were false.

On the ferocity side, Russia attacks Ukraine’s forest positions with thermobaric weapons, which are this war’s equivalent of napalm. Flying out of range of Ukrainian air defense systems, Russian war planes release glide bombs which are guided remotely for the last 25 miles to hit targets.

The Russian-installed governor of eastern Kherson region, Vladimir Saldo, claims that Russia is eradicating a Ukrainian bridgehead around the village of Krynky. He wrote last week on his Telegram page: “Our additional forces have now been brought in. The enemy is trapped in Krynky, and a fiery hell has been arranged for him: bombs, rockets, heavy flamethrower systems, artillery shells and drones.”

According to Ukrainian soldiers, shelling has destroyed most of the houses in the village, which had a pre-war population of 1,000. Unrecovered bodies of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers litter the forest. Thursday, Russia’s Defense Ministry released a video showing Russian soldiers shooting in a forest. An accompanying text said: “Black Sea Fleet Marines are stopping all attempts by the Armed Forces of Ukraine to carry out amphibious landings on the Dnipro islands and the left bank of the Dnipro River.”

Reflecting a serious level of fighting, Ukraine’s military last week released a photo of a 41-ton Russian T-62 tank disabled by a Ukrainian drone bomb only two miles east of Krynky. In another posting, the military claimed to have blown up in Russian-controlled Kherson several howitzers and a TOS-1A Solntsepek — Blazing Sun — thermobaric rocket launcher

The Ukrainian Marines post on Facebook that, as of last Thursday, Russian forces operating in the Dnipro had lost 1,216 dead, 2,217 wounded, 24 tanks, 48 armored vehicles, 89 artillery systems and mortars, 135 other vehicles, nine multiple launch rocket systems, and 14 boats.

“The situation at the site is consistently difficult,” the pro-Kremlin Russian military blogger Rybar lamented on Telegram. Ukraine’s southern military spokesman, Natalia Humeniuk, tells Ukrainian TV that Russia has “several tens of thousands of soldiers” in the area.

The next step for Ukraine is unclear. A D-day style amphibious assault? A costly Soviet-style cross-river bloodbath?

“You can bet the Ukrainians studied the Israelis bridging the Suez in the Yom Kippur war – that was the last time there was a major successful military bridging operation,” the defense reporter, Mr. Korshak, said. In Israel’s “Operation Gazelle,” Ariel Sharon’s divisions crossed the Suez Canal in October, 1973 – 50 years ago.

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