Fragments from a War Diary, Part #170
They say images speak louder than words so I want to show you what the front line of the war in Ukraine really looks like. I am not the most spectacular photographer in the world - my skills lie more in the written and spoken word. However a friend has passed me the following set of harrowing and tragic photographs that reflect the sorts of nightmarish existence associated with the front line. Please look at all these photos (there is no paywall) and remind yourself of the fact that, as US Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman infamously remarked, War Is Hell. Please take the time to look at each and every last image as they are extremely moving and give a comprehensive overview of what living in Ukraine in the middle of this war is really like.
Yesterday evening it was made public, in a series of competing press releases coming from both Ukrainian and Russian sides, something that people “in the know” here have been aware of for several weeks: that the Ukrainian Armed Forces have established a “bridgehead” on the east / south bank of the Dnieper / Dnipro river, about 50 kilometres as the crow flies upstream from Kherson. It has been known that fighting for the Ukrainian Armed Forces to achieve this result has been continuing at least until August / September, but it was not published (or at least I did not publish it). The push across the Dnieper by the Ukrainian Armed Forces has been driven from the town of Tiahynka, where the river Dnieper is particularly narrow and there is a substantial selection of marshy islets on the south / east bank of the river. The Ukrainian Armed Forces’ tactics have been to pass from the north / west bank using rubber dinghies amidst the fog or the night to this marshland which is effectively an impassable part of the river connected to territory on the south / east bank, and to embed themselves in increasing numbers in the closest settlement on the Russian-occupied south bank of the river which is an isolated village called Krynky.
This village is virtually a western suburb of the principal Russian-held town in the region called Nova Kakhovka, which had a dam which also served as a bridge across the Dnieper and which the Russian Armed Forces blew up in June 2023 to prevent the dam being used as a bridge for the Ukrainian Armed Forces invading Russian-occupied territory to the south of Dnieper River. The consequence of the Russians blowing up the dam was the flooding of the city of Kherson and substantial portions of the rural communities in Kherson Oblast to the north of Kherson city, causing devastation to agricultural lands and to rural communities as well as significant water damage to the historical and modern buildings in Kherson.
In the interim the principal coastal road from Kherson northeast up towards Nikopol, the M14, has been effectively closed to civilian traffic; when I used this road in connection with the delivery of humanitarian assistance, in September 2023, there were military checkpoints every five kilometres or so and that is because, as I understood at the time but that has not been made public until now, there were covert operations underway in the vicinity of Tiahynka with a view to crossing the Dnieper at that particularly narrow and vulnerable (for the Russian Armed Forces) point. Gradually a Ukrainian Armed Forces presence was building up in Krynky, and yesterday the Russian government admitted as much in a series of hastily prepared official press releases some of which were then strangely and promptly retracted. The point is that the Russians have admitted that the Ukrainians have penetrated the south bank of the Dnieper even if only to a limited degree and therefore it is no longer a secret and I feel free to discuss what has actually been happening.
These events explain why Kherson city and the province more generally have been alive with shelling and counter-shelling operations: the Russian Armed Forces were presumably aware that the region around Kherson was being used for covert special operations to attempt to penetrate Russian-occupied territory and to traverse the Dnieper, and it seems that by a colossal failure of their own intelligence operations they failed to anticipate just where this was taking place. To anyone with the slightest bit of common sense the crossing was likely to be attempted in the vicinity of Tiahynka-Krynky, because the Dnieper is at its narrowest at this juncture and due to the boggy marshland that Ukrainian Special Forces have been able to take advantage of as cover in order to advance onto the Russian-occupied mainland south of the Dnieper. While pontooning the Dnieper is an impossible task at the current stage, this sort of covert operation represents extraordinary heroism on the part of the Ukrainian soldiers involved as it was no doubt extremely dangerous. In the meantime the Ukrainians had been deflecting the Russians with exchanges of artillery fire in Kherson. The Ukrainian Armed Forces have been taking advantage of the fact that the Russian Armed Forces are shambolic, slow to be able to adapt or change course, slow to receive and act on instructions or intelligence, and with slovenly morale.
It is not clear what happens next now that the Ukrainian Armed Forces have a bridgehead on the south bank of the Dnieper. In all likelihood it is only a few hundred men and their supply lines are the same as the way those troops got onto the south bank of the river: rubber dinghies and hiking through freezing misty marshland. Had the Russians been aware of what was going on, they would surely have sent reinforcements to Nova Kakhovka but as it is it seems that they have left that town virtually unguarded since blowing up the dam in June 2023 and this represents a catastrophic oversight. It is only some 20 kilometres from Krynky to Nova Kakhovka although the roads are of the worst standards. For the Ukrainian Armed Forces to head south from Krynky is eminently possible and they may seek to cut the T2206 minor road from Nova Kakhovka to the Russian Armed Forces positions south of Kherson city, effectively surrounding those positions and this might cause the Russian Armed Forces to surrender in the region of Kherson and then the terrible shelling of that city might be brought to a conclusion. This region of Ukraine is extremely remote and involves a series of minor roads around the Oleshky Sands National Park. If this minor road is cut then the westernmost Russian military positions in their occupation of Ukraine start to look extremely tenuous.
The main road from Kherson to Crimea, that the Russians control, is the E97 and presumably the Russian Armed Forces are now in the process of piling as many military resources as they can up the E97 towards their positions south of Kherson to prevent those positions from being cut off and to seek to eliminate the bridgehead that the Ukrainian Armed Forces have established in Krynky. The Russians will also presumably be moving as much military hardware as they can west along the M14 road from occupied Melitopol towards Nova Kakhovka, to prevent the bridgehead from being used as a base from which to attack Nova Kakhovka. This is the same M14 road as that which runs from Kherson to Nikopol; the M14 used to cross the Nova Kakhovka dam until it was blown up.
All of this illustrates just how tenuous the supply routes are for the Russian Armed Forces to the south of the Dnieper in the Kherson region, because the roads are so bad. Not holding Kherson city, which is the principal railhead in the region, represents a catastrophic loss for the Russian Armed Forces in terms of their logistics capacity in maintaining their occupation of this part of Ukraine and the Ukrainian Armed Forces are pressing effectively upon their weaknesses. This explains why Russia is so keen to construct a military-grade railroad from occupied Donetsk and Melitopol to Crimea, to obviate the need to use these minor south Ukrainian roads as logistics supply lines.
We salute the heroes who have sacrificed their lives, been irredeemably injured, and engaged in the utmost heroism, in establishing this bridgehead at Krynky, and we very much hope that it lasts and proves sustainable for a winter counteroffensive. The weather is getting worse, and that may play in the Ukrainians’ favour as Russian armour starts grinding to a halt amidst the freezing weather whereas Ukrainian Special Forces can continue operating mostly on foot and in rubber rafts as they continue this extraordinary military operation. Events will unfold in the next few days, one way or another, so we should continue to watch this space. This represents a major setback for the Russian Armed Forces and they will need to divert resources from elsewhere in the front line in their attempt to repel this counter-offensive. In the meantime the entire Kherson region will inevitably remain extremely dangerous. Let us cheer the heroes of the Ukrainian Special Forces. Slava Ukraini.