Russia has pounded the southern Ukrainian cities of Kherson and Beryslav, destroying about 30 buildings and injuring civilians, as a Ukrainian advance has been reported in the Kherson region onto the eastern bank of the Dnieper River, which is controlled by Russian forces.
The US Institute for the Study of War said on Sunday that published geodata and reports by Russian military bloggers indicated that Ukrainian forces have taken up positions on the east bank of the river.
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However, the extent and objectives of these Ukrainian successes, recorded for the first time, were unclear, according to the US-based think tank.
Natalia Humeniuk, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s southern command, neither confirmed nor denied the report of the riverbank advance, which she told Ukrainian television foreshadowed “very powerful shelling” in districts around the west bank cities of Kherson and Beryslav.
“Reacting to such information, the enemy has significantly intensified its attacks on the opposite bank,” she said, referring to the reported river crossing. Civilians had been injured and about 30 buildings destroyed, including a school, she said.
She also called for “informational silence” to ensure operational security.
“I want everyone to understand that it is very difficult work to cross an obstacle like the Dnieper, for example, when the front line runs along such a wide, powerful river,” she said.
“It’s necessary to gather up some patience.”
The Dnieper has for months marked the contact line in the Kherson region, where its capital is regularly pummelled by shelling from Russian forces stationed on the other side of the river.
Ukrainian forces have reportedly established a foothold near the town of Oleshky across the Dnieper River Delta from Kherson, and the Institute for the Study of War said they were also approaching the nearby village of Dachi. The think tank cited data from Russian military bloggers for this assessment.
The Kremlin-installed head of the Kherson region denied that Ukrainian forces have established a foothold on the river’s east bank.
Vladimir Saldo said on the Telegram messaging app that Russian forces are “in full control” of the area, and he speculated that the images referenced by the Institute for the Study of War may have depicted Ukrainian sabotage units that “managed to take a selfie” across the Dnieper before being forced back.
Analysts widely believe that if Ukraine goes ahead with a spring counteroffensive, a major goal would be to break through the land corridor that Russia managed to capture early in the war between its territory and the annexed Crimean Peninsula. Such an operation would require crossing the Dnieper River.
According to the military bloggers referenced by the ISW, Ukrainian forces have been operating on the east bank for weeks and have established positions west of the Antonivsky bridge where they have “established stable supply lines”. One blogger claimed that Russian forces control an area 1.5 km (a little less than a mile) behind the bridge but that Ukrainian forces are in control of the rest, according to the ISW.
Fighting more than a year into Russia’s invasion has become a war of attrition with neither side able to gain momentum. The fiercest battles have been in the eastern region of Donetsk, where Russia is struggling to encircle the city of Bakhmut in the face of dogged Ukrainian resistance.
Russian Ministry of Defence spokesman Igor Konashenkov said on Sunday that Moscow’s forces had captured two more neighbourhoods in the western part of Bakhmut without providing details or clarifying what areas were still in Ukrainian hands.
Ukraine has recently received sophisticated weapons from its Western allies and soldiers newly trained in the West, giving rise to growing anticipation of a counteroffensive in the coming months.
US-made Patriot missiles arrived in Ukraine last week, and Ukrainian military spokesman Yuriy Ihnat said in a television report that some have already gone into battlefield service.
Russia is also expected to launch more intensive attacks in the spring, but the Institute for the Study of War reported that top Russian defence figures are showing signs that they may be pushing for a consolidation of existing gains in Ukraine rather than costly new operations as Moscow struggles with supplies of both material and manpower.