Fig 1. Graphic of the current situation on the ground in Kherson and surrounding areas, 30 November 2023.

This article will not analyse potential Ukrainian movements on the battlefield in order to maintain Operational Security, and will instead focus on Russian losses, tactics and potential movements in response to Ukrainian advances or activity.

Overview

Over the past year Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) have been carrying out Special Forces raids, sabotage missions, and recce-in-force operations on the east (left) bank of the Dnipro River in occupied Kherson. Ukrainian authorities have been discreet regarding these incursions into Russian-occupied Kherson. However, more information regarding the UAF counteroffensive in this direction is surfacing on social media and in western journalism.

Situation on the Ground

Last month, assaults were carried out on Pishchanivka and Poima, diverting Russian Federation Armed Forces (RFAF) to the area, and allowing UAF to establish another bridgehead in Krynky. As of 29 November 2023, UAF have established a total of three (3) bridgeheads in the vicinities of (IVO) Krynky, Poima, and Hola Prystan (please see Fig 1). Since Prevail Partners’ last tactical update, the bridgehead IVO Krynky has been expanded, meaning UAF now controls approximately 65% of Krynky’s residential areas. This will enable UAF to push further east and to expand their bridgehead. The UAF reportedly has a stable line of defence along the Krynky coast allowing them to rotate personnel efficiently, and to maintain a bridgehead and grouping of approximately 250-300 (a company’s worth of) personnel on both banks of the Konka River.

As of 29 November 2023, Ukrainian forces continue to hold these positions along the east (left) bank of the Dnipro River despite intense efforts by Russian troops and aviation to dislodge them. The three (3) bridgeheads mentioned above are all connected via the M14 highway, a crucial ground line of communication (GLOC) used by RFAF. To date, UAF have transported small infantry fighting groups and light vehicles across the river to establish their bridgeheads. However, the area is not yet secure enough for heavy artillery or tanks to be transferred to the region without them potentially becoming isolated. Ukrainian forces will be working hard to cut off this GLOC from Russian forces in order to stop supplies reaching Russian ground troops, as well as to push Russian artillery further from the forward line of enemy troops (FLET), in order to allow for heavier military fighting equipment to cross the river.

Russian BTR engages UAF on the east bank before being destroyed by a Ukrainian One-Way Attack Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. Source: @PStyleOne1

Challenges and Tactics

While the fighting around these bridgeheads remains intense, UAF drones in the region reportedly outnumber enemy drones by three to one (3:1), wreaking havoc among Russian assault and defence units, as well as enemy vehicles. However, even if UAF are able to force Russian forces and artillery further back, Ukrainian tanks/heavy artillery/equipment will be at risk from Russian close air support and aviation raids.

Russian forces have highly likely broken down the Krynky area into five strategic zones (A to E) (please see Fig 2) to control, disrupt and destroy UAF movements and operations:

Zone Location Equipment/Systems used so far Assessed Aim
Zone A Krynky TOS 1 Thermobaric Multi Rocket Launcher System (MRLS), FAB 500*, FAB 1500 Neutralise immediate UAF threat in the area
Zone B Beachhead in Krynky First Person View (FPV) drones with night vision Destroy evacuation boats and landing sites to hinder UAF withdrawals and arrivals
Zone C Boat launch sites south of Tiahynka FPV and Lancet drones with night vision Destroy boat launch sites, disrupt river crossings, prevent troop rotations and resupply
Zone D Tiahynka, Novotiahynka villages FAB 500, FAB 1500 Destroy boat parking areas, troop concentrations, logistics and resupply
Zone E Near rear UAF positions Lancet drones Suppress, disrupt and destroy UAF artillery supporting operations in Krynky

*FAB – The term “FAB” refers to a series of bombs used by RFAF for aerial bombardment. “FAB” stands for “Fugasnaya Aviatsionnaya Bomba,” which can be translated from Russian to English as “explosive aviation bomb.” The FAB series includes a range of bomb sizes, measured in kilograms, such as FAB-100, FAB-250, FAB-500, and FAB-1500, among others. The numbers denote the approximate weight of the bomb in kilograms.


Fig 2. Graphic illustrating the 5 assessed zones (A-E) of Krynky and its surrounding areas for Russian targeting, 30 November 2023.

Russian forces target Ukrainian forces with guided aerial bombs launched from Su-34s. Source: UKikaski

Despite RFAF’s pragmatic approach to the UAF threat, Russian units in the area are experiencing heavy losses. Complaints that Ukrainians are “too well organised, using MLRS, cluster ammo, drones…” are surfacing from Russian soldiers in the area who are now refusing to fight. Russian forces, particularly from the 70th Motor Rifle Division have reported failings and vulnerabilities in their logistics due to Ukrainian drone strikes, insufficient fire support, unit coordination, electronic warfare, counterbattery, and air defence. Russian soldiers in the Krynky region reportedly endure extended periods of active combat without rotation, degrading their effectiveness.

Russian Special Forces troops were reportedly redeployed to the area to bolster capability in the region but were quickly eliminated, which is not the first time in this conflict we have seen the misuse and poor deployment of elite special-purpose troops. Repeatedly snubbed by Russian Defence Minister Shoigu as “failed attempts to establish beachhead/bridgeheads”, UAF positions have managed to divert and destroy substantial heavy equipment and thousands of troops from areas like Robotyne, Verbove and Urozhaine.

Russian senior leadership are aware of the threat posed from the growing UAF presence in Kherson and have appointed Colonel-General Teplinsky, Commander of Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) to oversee operations in the region.

UAF destroys a Russian command vehicle. Source: @GloOouD

So What?

Despite the deteriorating weather conditions, Russian and Ukrainian forces have no choice but to persist in conducting ground operations across all axes of the front. The heavy snow and cloud cover has reduced visibility for aerial assets, which means combat tempo has slowed. Heavy snows and strong winds that impede RFAF aerial reconnaissance and artillery fire in the Kherson direction, have allowed UAF to capitalise on the limited visibility and consolidate their positions on the east (left) bank. Notably, Ukrainian military officials have reported a decrease in Russian artillery and drone usage IVO Tavriisk, Kherson. Russia has reportedly increased the use of thermal cameras on FPV drones, which may improve their effectiveness in cold ambient temperatures and limited visibility.

Ultimately, the heavy snow favours neither side – therefore the ability to operate effectively in the cold will almost certainly become a major factor in the success or failure of winter operations in the region. The firm ground along the frozen tundra of marshlands that handrail the left bank will enable easier movement for mechanised units but the bitter cold hampers both logistics and troop endurance. Sub-zero temperatures and freezing winds make maintenance of equipment increasingly arduous. The challenging winter conditions will highly likely lead to heavier reliance on infantry-led ground attacks from both sides, given the constraints on aerial reconnaissance and artillery capabilities. Severe cold weather also drastically reduces battery capacity – reducing the loiter time and range of UAS and other battery-operated systems such as thermal sights.

Ukrainian forces destroy a Russian air defence system in occupied Kherson. Source: @bayraktar_1love

What Next?

While it would make sense for RFAF to focus on improving supply lines and addressing deficiencies in fire support, past attempts to remedy similar logistical issues in Donetsk Oblast have been ineffective. Doubling down on efforts to stop UAF advancements in Kherson would highly likely draw on crucial reserves from Verbove, Robotyne, and Urozhaine, allowing further UAF exploitation in southern Zaporizhzhia – and drawing troops 540km from Avdiivka to Kherson is almost certainly out of the question.

The appointment of Colonel-General Teplinsky, who previously oversaw the successful withdrawal of Russian forces from Kherson on the right (west) bank of the Dnipro, almost certainly indicates that Russian leadership value repelling UAF from the left (east) bank as a primary objective. In order to avoid redeploying formations from other (more distant) sectors of the front, Russia will highly likely continue to deploy units like the newly formed 104th Guards Airborne Division to the Kherson front. The unit is highly likely to be comprised of poorly trained personnel – below the usually high standards of an airborne unit.

Failing to dedicate further resources to Kherson and neglecting the Ukrainian initiative on the left bank would almost certainly allow UAF to consolidate their gains and capitalise on further advancements. Russia must strike a balance between defending Avdiivka, securing Kherson and its critical M14 supply line and maintaining fortified positions in Zaporizhzhia. This difficult balancing act suggests any major deviations from Russia’s current approach are unlikely. Russia will highly likely continue to send poorly trained reserves and mobilised soldiers to the Kherson front, bombard Kherson with aviation and target the five (5) zones around Krynky in hope that some strategic gain materialises off the back of it.