The bridge at Nova Kakhovka and the bridge at KhersonJuly 21, 2022
Way back at the beginning of Russia’s illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine—a whole five months ago—Kherson was one of the first places where rapidly advancing Russian forces got a serious bloody nose. In attempting to capture the bridge over the wide Dnipro River east of the city, Russia first claimed that they had it, then Ukraine took it back, the Russia claimed they had it again, only to have it turn back in Ukrainian hands the next day.
Then, just a few days later, Kherson was suddenly in Russian hands. What had seemed to be a hard-fought resistance crumpled. Forces from the local territorial defense laid down their arms. No one took the obvious move of blowing up that bridge to prevent Russian forces from entering the city.
It wasn’t until a month later we understood that Kherson had been betrayed. The actual plan for Kherson had been to blow up the bridge east of the city, along with a second bridge 50km to the north between Mykolaivka and Nova Kakhovka. Finally, forces were meant to destroy the damn north of that second bridge, flooding the low ground east of the river and ensuring that the city had an even wider buffer holding back Russian forces.
Had that plan been carried out, there is a good chance that Kherson—the city and the oblast—would never have been occupied by Russia at all. As kos reported back in March, all of this was expected to take place in a single day as soon as Russia initiated hostilities. Only a whole series of officials in the area were apparently long-time beneficiaries of a pipeline of cash flowing out of Moscow. Instead of ordering forces to carry out the plan, they literally walked away from their posts, leaving Kherson open to a nearly effort-free invasion by Russian troops.
March was also the first month in which Ukraine announced a counteroffensive to recapture Kherson. And it seemed to be going well at the time, “What is happening now along the road between Mykolaiv and Kherson. Ukrainian forces are advancing from village to village, dislodging Russian troops and reversing a Russian advance that stalled out a week ago.” Expectations were that Russian forces, caught in the featureless plain west of the city, would hustle back to an area they could better defend. Within days, there were reports of gunfire heard in the streets of Kherson, and claims that Russian soldiers were loading up trucks with loot, ready to flee the city.
In April, Russian forces advanced west of Kherson to capture a series of towns whose names—like Snihurivka, Vysokopillya, and Davydiv Brid—whose names have become way too familiar to those who are following this war closely. Because Russia is still in these towns. Another Ukrainian counteroffensive later that month got Ukrainian troops close enough to the city to launch artillery into the airport area to the west. For everything that’s happened since … that’s pretty much where things stands now.
For the last month, Ukraine has been engaged in another announced counteroffensive in the Kherson region. At times, that effort has generated excitement, as when Ukrainian forces crossed the Inhulets River south of Davydiv Brid and moved swiftly to capture a number of villages on what had been the “Russian bank.” More often, the counteroffensive has been frustrating in failing to produce any visible results. But then, Ukraine has insisted from the outset that the operational security is all important and that this time, unlike other events in Ukraine, they intended to clamp down on all those tantalizing Telegram posts and Twitter videos. The fact that foreign observers are frustrated doesn’t mean Ukraine isn’t hitting their own goals. But those goals certainly don’t seem to be getting back into the city any time soon.
At various times over the last month, fighting in the area has bulged in toward Kherson along that main road leading down from Mykolaiv. Or it’s churned up the southern tip of the the oblast down around Stanislav. Or it’s pushed through the middle at that cross-river breakthrough. Or it’s … you get the idea.
For the third time in five months, Ukrainian forces have pushed close enough to Kherson to drop artillery all around the city (they could undoubtedly hit targets in the city, as well, if they weren’t trying to avoid damage to civilian areas) but “just 15km out of Kherson” seems to be an endless refrain, and not a lot seems to be happening to bridge that gap.
For some weeks, there has been news that Ukraine plans the real counteroffensive for some time in August. Which, to be honest, seems reasonable. With every passing day, more weapons are arriving in Ukraine from the West while more of Russia’s army is converted into shrapnel. The idea that by August Ukraine might be in a position to bring in well-equipped, freshly trained troops with shiny new gear to face the remains of Russian BTGs that have been sitting on the front lines for weeks in battered gear that dates back to the days of disco, isn’t just appealing, but probably pretty good strategy.
Except that there are other voices who have begun to suspect that the target of the Kherson counteroffensive isn’t Kherson at all. It’s that bridge at Nova Kakhovka.
Russia took that bridge just one day after they strolled into Kherson. Having both bridges gives them a backup to the Kherson bridge when it comes to supply lines. It’s what makes Russia’s presence west of the Dnipro robust enough to think about making runs at Mykolaiv or Kryvyi Rih. The idea that Ukraine might go after that bridge in order to cut off Russian forces in the west and make Russia think very seriously about whether Kherson is really “Russia forever” also dates back to the early days of the war.
As someone said back in April, “If Ukraine could move quickly toward that bridge, they could potentially cut off a large Russian force, stranding them on the west side of the river.” Yeah, that. Nothing would make it easier to capture Kherson than having that bridge east of the city be the only remaining bus out of town. Only … you could also do it the other way around.
What if someone took out the bridge east of Kherson, and Russian forces found their only lifeline back to the remainder of their forces, and their only source of supplies, was a bridge 50km to the north, at a position that’s much less well defended? Russia has a dozen BTGs clustered around Kherson. They have dug-in and fortified positions. They have forces in the city itself, where Ukraine definitely doesn’t want to employ heavy weapons. That’s a big obstacle.
As long as Russia can stay there.
And that was a lot of prequel before getting around to saying that Ukraine has been deliberately painting a picture for Russia over the last week. A picture that says “look here, boys, we can take out those bridges any time we want.”
The first big part of that message came a week ago when Ukraine struck an ammunition depot at Nova Kakhovka, resulting in a massive explosive.
Not only did this attack, and strikes against several other such depots across Ukraine, coincide with a not-so-mysterious drop in Russian artillery usage, it showed Russia that Ukraine was positioned—very likely with U.S. HIMARS systems—to precisely strike targets all the way over on the other side of the river. If this shot had been made from that area across the Inhulets liberated by Ukraine, it would have been about 50km from the ammo depot. But it’s highly unlikely that Ukraine would put a HIMARS system at risk by moving it that far forward. More likely this was made by a unit based well back of the lines and operating near the operational range of standard HIMARS rockets at about 85km. So … helluva shot.
Since then, Ukraine has demonstrated their skills again, and drawn a double-underscore beneath their message, by putting serious pockmarks in the bridge that is directly east of Kherson, the Antonovskiy Bridge. That bridge was hit not once, but reportedly 11 times, making some serious pockmarks in the surface of the roadway.
Unlike some of the other bridges that have been critical in this war, the Antonovskiy Bridge is not just bridging a short gap across a dam or divided into segments. It’s a 1km bridge, a genuine architectural masterpiece. If it goes down, it will be sad. It also will not go back up in a hurry.
As U.K. intelligence notes, this is the critical piece of infrastructure in the region.
The UK Ministry of Defense sums all this up in a sentence: “Control of Dnipro crossing is likely to become a key factor in the outcome of fighting in the region.”
Exactly what Ukraine hit that bridge with is still in question. HIMARS seems like the obvious answer, though it’s unclear that the damage the bridge took in that barrage matches what a pod or two of HIMARS missiles would achieve. There have also been indications that GPS-controlled Excalibur shells fired from an M777 were the source of the damage. Honestly, it’s just over 20km from the bridge to areas under Ukrainian control. If they’re willing to position a gun far forward, there’s no reason to think the bridge wasn’t hit by a well-aimed grouping of standard artillery shells.
Whatever the case, those holes in the bridge have to be making Russia think very carefully. If Ukraine is about to make a big push in Kherson, they’ve made it clear that can take out one or both of the bridges whenever they choose.
If they do, Russian forces could find themselves trying to hold their positions with no easy way to get more troops, more equipment, or more ammunition.
Russia has repeatedly made the declaration that Kherson is “Russia forever,” and there have even been hints that, should Ukraine move to retake “Russian territory,” that would be legitimate cause for dragging out a tactical nuke from storage. Assuming they haven’t all been sold for parts.
But Russia has repeatedly put off those referendums it’s been talking about since days after taking Kherson. Maybe that’s because they realize that “forever” might only be a few more weeks.
Over on Telegram, the pro-Russian ensemble “Rybar” is reporting that Ukraine seems to be completing its preparations for the real push in Kherson oblast.
- Over the past 24 hours, artillery crews and MLRS of the Armed Forces of Ukraine have attacked the Antonovskiy Bridge, Berislav, Lyubymivka, Snihurivka, Novovoznesenske, Olgino, and Zolota Balka.
- The offensive will be preceded by massive artillery shelling from M777 howitzers on the positions of the Russian Armed Forces on the line of contact.
- HIMARS high-precision munitions have practically disabled the Antonovskiy Bridge, which complicates the supply of the Russian group in this direction.
Yes. For Russians in the Kherson area, it seems like things are about to get very complicated.