Ukrainian forces have stepped up assaults across the Dnipro river near the southern city of Kherson, carrying out raids into Russian-controlled territory on the eastern bank. The increased activity has prompted speculation among analysts and in Russian military circles that Kyiv might be planning a more ambitious effort to open a new front in the war.
In recent days, Western military analysts have cited geolocated video footage that shows Ukrainian forces operating in a number of locations deeper behind enemy lines than previously witnessed.
“Ukrainian actions appear to be larger than previously observed tactical raids,” analysts at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based research institute, said on Thursday night.
The Ukrainian military has remained largely silent on the amphibious operations into Russian-held territory near Kherson, and the extent of its ambitions with the river crossings are unknown. In the past, Ukrainian attacks across the river have been limited in scope and duration, with multiple goals, including reconnaissance, sabotage, and attacks aimed at undermining Russian defenses and logistical operations.
But President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, speaking to reporters during his trip to Beijing this week, indicated that the Kremlin believes the new assaults are more ambitious, claiming that they were part of the “next counteroffensive.”
Oleksandr Tolokonnikov, a spokesman for the Kherson military administration, said that Ukrainian forces are “constantly working on landing marines and others” on the eastern banks of the river, and while he could not talk about specific operations, he cited increased Russian aerial bombardments in the area as evidence of the Kremlin’s concerns about the situation.
“If you look at yesterday, there were 24 aerial bombs,” he said.
A month ago the Ukrainian military was seeing one or two powerful 500- and 1,000-pound guided aerial bombs every day. That number over the past week has risen to about 20, he said. They have often landed in areas populated with civilians, he said, killing and injuring dozens.
If Ukraine can manage to establish a secure position across the Dnipro, it would put Russian targets in Crimea at greater risk, allow Ukrainians to further compromise Russian logistics, and create a new front in an area where Russian fortifications are less comprehensive and minefields are believed to be less dense.
The potential promise of any such effort is matched by the peril it holds. Over centuries of warfare, rivers have proven to be among the most challenging natural barriers for an attacking army. The major bridges linking Kherson city to the eastern bank were destroyed by bombing.
The cross-river activity comes as Ukraine hopes to take advantage of newly supplied long-range missiles provided by the United States to target Russian air bases, ammunition depots and command centers in southern Ukraine, long out of reach of most Ukrainian weapons.
High resolution satellite imagery showing the aftermath of the first strikes this week at two Russian air bases in occupied Ukraine involving the newly acquired Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS (pronounced “attack ems”). The imagery indicated that at least 14 Russian helicopters had been damaged or destroyed, according to military analysts, expanding on initial claims by Ukraine that at least nine aircraft were damaged or destroyed.
One of the air bases, in Berdiansk, is a primary forward operating base for Russian forces in the south. The extensive damage there will most likely “have an impact on Russia’s ability both to defend and conduct further offensive activity” in the region, the British military intelligence agency said on Friday.
The Dnipro River carves an arc through Ukraine from its northern border to the Black Sea. In the south, it divides the two armies, near where it exits into the Black Sea.
Russian and Ukraine have controlled opposing banks south of the city of Zaporizhia since Ukraine staged a successful counteroffensive to drive the Russians out of the western Kherson region in November.
The Ukrainians control the higher ground on the western bank as the river empties into the Black Sea, forming a 135-square-mile basin. It is more than a mile wide in places and divides into several arms, with islands large enough to accommodate small settlements dotting the delta.
As Ukraine prepared to launch its counteroffensive in the south, there were signs of increased Ukrainian activity in the delta. But then in June the Kakhovka dam was destroyed, the entire region was flooded and military operations were largely halted as the front line was reshaped overnight.
As the floodwaters receded, Ukraine resumed cross-river attacks, according to both Russian and Ukrainian officials and soldiers.
The campaign was bolstered in August with the arrival of nearly 1,000 Ukrainian commandos who took part in a six-month training course in Britain that included more than a month of intense work focused on small boat amphibious operations, including beach raids.
It is impossible to know if the recent flurry of activity along the river is a prelude to a more ambitious operation, as some prominent Russian military bloggers believe, or a continuation of a campaign designed to exploit Russian weak points and force the Kremlin to stretch its military resources.
A prominent Russian military blogger who uses the name Rybar was the first to report on the new Ukrainian assaults, claiming that Ukrainian forces advanced north of the town of Pishchanivka, about nine miles east of Kherson City and about two miles from the river, and into the town of Poyma, seven miles east of Kherson City and 2.5 miles from the river.
While Rybar’s claims could not be fully confirmed, Western military analysts said combat footage indicated that ground fighting was taking place in those areas.
On Thursday night, Rybar reported that Ukrainians had overwhelmed Russian troops in another area across the river, gaining a foothold in the village of Krynky, about 19 miles east of Kherson City and about 1.5 miles inland from the Dnipro shoreline. His claims could not be independently confirmed.
The Ukrainian military rarely comments on ongoing military operations, but its general staff tacitly acknowledged operations when it reported that Russian airstrikes hit Pishchanivka on the eastern bank, implying that Ukrainian forces were operating in the town.
Konrad Muzyka, a defense analyst for Rochan Consulting, said that while open-source information suggested that Ukrainian forces massed on the western bank are outnumbered by Russians across the river, the current terrain conditions are favorable to support an attack, and he said there was a “roughly even chance” that Ukrainians would conduct a major cross-river operation.
The ultimate goal of a large-scale river crossing would be to establish a bridgehead, which American military doctrine defines as an area on the enemy side of a river that must be free of enemy presence and be large enough to position antiaircraft and antiarmor units to contribute to the crossing’s defense.
It must also provide sufficient space to organize the vehicles as they cross from the friendly side.
There is no indication Ukraine has established a secure bridgehead, and some military analysts are skeptical that Kyiv would undertake such an effort. Throughout the war, Russian offensive operations have been repeatedly undone by failed river crossings.
In weeks after Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, the Ukrainian military destroyed dozens of Russian armored personnel carriers in one location on the Irpin River northwest of Kyiv.
The Russians attempted seven unsuccessful pontoon crossings before retreating.
Several months later, Ukrainian forces decimated a Russian battalion as it tried to cross a series of pontoon bridges over the Seversky Donets river in northeast Ukraine, killing at least 400 Russian soldiers and destroying dozens of tanks and armored vehicles.
Constant Méheut contributed reporting.