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Ukraine river ambush shows again Russian military is ‘not up to scratch’

Smoke rises from what appears to be a makeshift bridge across the Siverskyi Donets River, eastern Ukraine, in this handout image from May 12, 2022. © Ukrainian Airborne Forces Command, Reuters

The Ukrainian military demonstrated its prowess once again on Wednesday, when satellite images showed dozens of Russian tanks and armoured vehicles destroyed after failing to cross the Donets River. The episode cost the Russian military an entire battalion – the latest sign that Russia’s pivot to eastern Ukraine is not working as planned.

“Recently, I have accomplished a mission which made huge impact on Russian losses and completely screwed up their plans to encircle Lysychansk,” a Ukrainian military engineer calling himself Max wrote on Twitter on Wednesday, giving a blow-by-blow account of how his company pretty much wiped out an entire Russian battalion a few days previously.

The satellite photos of its aftermath have been a sensation around the world. They show tanks, armoured vehicles and other Russian military equipment destroyed and abandoned on the banks of the Donets River, which runs through eastern Ukraine from the Kharkiv region to the Donbas. The photos suggest the Russians lost between 25 and 30 armoured vehicles in this operation.

“These estimates seem realistic,” said Sim Tack, at analyst at US military consultancy Force Analysis, after verifying the satellite images.

“These images have been relayed so much because they’re so visually impressive and they allow us to see in a very palpable way the damage the Ukrainians are inflicting on the Russians.”

Strategic importance of rivers

The fighting took place in the Donbas region, more than 100 km north of Luhansk, Max wrote. On May 7, he found a place that looked suitable for a Russian attempt to cross the river using a floating bridge. He suggested his unit set up an ambush.

Max recounted the following day’s events on Twitter: “Artillery was ready. We have been able to confirm Russians mounted 7 parts of the bridge out of 8. Russians have even succeeded to move some troops and vehicles over the river. Combats started".

"In ~20 minutes after recon unit confirmed Russian bridge being mounted, HEAVY ARTILLERY engaged against Russian forces, and then aviation chipped in as well. I was still in the area, and I have never seen / heard such heavy combat in my life.”

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After a day of intense fighting, the bridge was completely destroyed – leaving about 50 vehicles and an unknown number of ground troops with no prospect of retreat, at the mercy of enemy fire.

This extraordinary account on Twitter is “clearly a propaganda exercise, but that doesn’t mean it’s false”, said Jeff Hawn, an expert on Russian military issues and a non-resident fellow at US geopolitical research centre the New Lines Institute.

Ukraine and Russia have fought ferociously over rivers before. The Dnieper, Donets and other rivers form natural defences against the Russian army’s advance – not to mention the strategically pivotal Irpin near the capital, which the Ukrainians prevented the Russians from crossing several times during the battle for Kyiv.

Just like the fighting over the Irpin, the victory Max was celebrating held great strategic significance – principally because it “means the cities of Sieverodonetsk and Lyssychansk, located just to the south, will still be defended”, as Tack put it.

The place where Ukraine ambushed the Russians on the river is also “important for Russia from a logistical point of view”, added Nicolo Fasola, an expert on security in post-Soviet countries at Birmingham University.

“The Russians have a supply line close by and they’re trying to push the Ukrainians back as far as possible to secure it,” explained Glen Grant, a senior analyst at the Baltic Security Foundation. “So far they’ve failed and that makes the situation very difficult for them.”

Russian military ‘not up to scratch’

More broadly, the Ukrainian victory there signals a major setback for Moscow’s military strategy in eastern Ukraine. “The battle for control of the Donets River is a decisive theatre for the outcome of this war,” Tack said,

If the Russians manage to cross the Donets, they would find it a lot easier to encircle crucial cities in the Donetsk Oblast such as Sloviansk and Kramatorsk.

As things stand, “they’ve managed to cross at one single point far to the south, but they’re struggling to take advantage of it”, Hawn said,

Indeed, the Ukrainians concentrated their troops at this point in the river in order to contain the Russian advantage.

But as well as highlighting the Ukrainian military’s tactical acumen, the episode Max trumpeted underlines the sorry state of Russia’s military once more.

“It’s striking how hastily they tried to erect this crossing, even though it’s one of the most complicated military manoeuvres to perform,” Grant said. “Floating bridges have to be constructed quickly, at night to provide cover of darkness, with effective artillery support. Above all, it’s got to take the enemy by surprise. And none of that happened.”

The episode reinforces the fact that Russian soldiers’ training is “not up to scratch”, Hawn put it.

Amid Russia’s shambolic attempt to create a floating bridge, the Ukrainians showed yet again how eager they are to capitalise on their own strengths as well as Russia’s weaknesses: “They showed their ability to make the most of the few advantages they have – in terms of technology, knowledge of the terrain and likely access to US intelligence,” Fasola said.

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The Ukrainians should not get too carried away in rejoicing over this victory. “Russia’s failure at Severskiy Donets pontoon is likely to weaken their capacity to continue the offensive in the short term, but they will most likely try to bridge this river elsewhere,” said Aliyev Huseyn, an expert on the Ukraine-Russia conflict at Glasgow University. “They still retain offensive capacity in this area. As we have seen, they remain rather negligible of casualties as they are under severe pressures from the top command to get to the Lughansk administrative borders.”

But while this particular Ukrainian victory is unlikely to decide the ultimate outcome of the war, the destruction of an entire Russian battalion is “far from trivial” and will have a “significant impact” on future operations, Hawn said.

Ukraine’s victory means Russia has lost about 50 armoured vehicles used in its eastern Ukraine offensive. It will “diminish even more the morale of Russia’s already unhappy, demotivated soldiers”, Fasola said.

And the operation Max celebrated will only augment the morale of Ukrainian troops – showing how one man’s expertise and initiative was enough to nearly eliminate an entire Russian battalion.

This article was translated from the original in French.

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