Gruelling cat and mouse fight along Ukrainian river poised to escalate

From her fifth-floor balcony in Kherson, Alina Spyrydonova can see the bank of the Dnipro River occupied by Russian forces.

She lives in one of the southern Ukrainian city’s more dangerous locations, her windows broken earlier this year by Russian shelling.

It is worst at night. Spyrydonova, 27, who works as a secretary at Kherson’s shuttered theatre, says: “We can hear what’s happening on the river very clearly. It’s most nights. Shelling and machine gunfire.” Sometimes she can hear the fighting on the river.

What is audible from Spyrydonova’s flat is the shadowy war being fought in the Dnipro delta, largely unreported, but potentially defining of the wider conflict.

In recent days, the violence in Kherson has worsened still as the city was ordered placed under a strict new curfew from Friday, amid mounting speculation of where Ukraine’s much-vaunted spring offensive may strike.

A map of the Dnipro delta including Russian controlled areas and military advances

From the streets close to the waterfront the Dnipro could be seen gleaming between waterfront buildings, a broad sweep of water separating the combatants into two areas of control.

On the west side is Kherson city, liberated from Russian occupation on 11 November last year. On the facing bank are the Russian troops who retreated across the river, only to take up positions there. They have since been shelling Kherson each day from those positions.

The riverbanks are within range of snipers too. Last week, an Ukrainian journalist was killed and an Italian colleague wounded by Russian fire after they ventured too close to the city’s Antonivskiy Bridge.

Least accessible of the frontlines, details of the war on the river have emerged from brief snippets from Ukrainian army press officers and Russian military bloggers, as well as material posted on social media channels and accounts supplied by local residents.

A resident takes cover on Wednesday in Kherson, Ukraine, after a Russian airstrike on a train station.
A resident takes cover on Wednesday in Kherson, Ukraine, after a Russian airstrike on a train station. Photograph: Carlos Barría/Reuters

What is clear is that fighting for the Dnipro delta’s islands, marshes and inlets has been very different from the gruelling battles on the eastern front. Here, combatants have moved in ribs (rigid inflatable boats) with powerful engines.

In this lethal game of cat and mouse, both sides frequently carry out raids from the boats, which are visible to drones and vulnerable to gunfire, artillery and mines.

What the fighting on the Dnipro portends is also opaque, despite media attention after claims Ukrainian forces have established positions on the far bank seen by some as a sign the Kherson area could be the focus of Ukrainian efforts.

Not all agree. Describing the latest fighting around Kherson city port in recent days, the Institute for the Study of War, a US thinktank, says: “The extent and intent of these Ukrainian positions remain unclear, and ISW does not currently assess that Ukrainian activities in and across the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast constitute a counteroffensive effort.”

A sign warns of mines along the bank of the Dnipro River at Kherson in Ukraine.
A sign warns of mines along the bank of the Dnipro River at Kherson in Ukraine. Photograph: Nacho Doce/Reuters

Dmytro Pletenhuk, a military spokesperson in the city, says: “The Russians have every kind of weapon [on the east bank]. They have rocket systems, mortars and artillery.

“They shell Kherson and the small villages on this side of the river every day and there are two or three air raids [by jets] most days. The river is a natural barrier. It’s what has been keeping the status quo between the two sides.”

It is violent status quo, however. During the Guardian’s visit intermittent shelling could be heard around Kherson and the dark shape of a banking fighter jet appeared at one point outside the city. Three civilians were killed in a Russian airstrike a little further down the river.

And despite Pletenhuk’s comments, the fighting has not been entirely static in recent weeks.

On Velykyi Potomkin, the biggest island, which sits opposite Kherson’s Ostriv or Island district, Ukrainian troops have been slowly pushing forward, their progress tracked by geolocation.

Once a pleasant spot where people from the city would visit their dachas or go to picnic, the island splits the river into two smaller branches to the immediate west of Kherson, making it a strategically important stepping stone. These days it is a battlefield.

The smaller islands – some of which are no more than specks on the river – matter because they can be used as bases for firing mortars on the city. Every scrap of land is bitterly contested.

Firefighters extinguish a blaze at a train station in Kherson after a Russian airstrike on Wednesday.
Firefighters extinguish a blaze at a train station in Kherson after a Russian airstrike on Wednesday. Photograph: Carlos Barría/Reuters

What video exits of the fighting depicts a grim struggle. In one, a night-time firefight on the water unspools in flashes of gunfire punctuated by alarmed shouting.

In a second, a Russian soldier is thrown from his boat as it comes under fire. His comrades speed away, abandoning him in the water to try to claw his way towards the bank.

In another, perhaps most gruesome, video, a small boat is seen hovering by the reeds before being struck by an explosion.

Even when the hard won raids by the Ukrainians succeed those trying to hold the ground know they can be targeted with strikes from Russian jets dropping guided bombs whose detonations can appear as big as the islands themselves.

In March, Natalia Humeniuk, the chief spokesperson for the Ukrainian military in the south, described one such battle that lasted three days as Russian forces tried to take an island.

“The enemy equipped [boats] with outboard motors and machine guns, and strengthened sides, and tried to reach the islands. They were unsuccessful, because the boats and nearly 20 of their people were eliminated in three days [of fighting],” she said.

Remains of buildings in Kherson.
Remains of buildings in Kherson. Photograph: Aziz Karimov/SOPA Images/Shutterstock

Yury Sobolevsky, a deputy administration head in Kherson, says the river is a frontline an a “grey zone”, an expression used to describe a contested area between the two forces. “The Russians have snipers working on the far bank and from time to time they will send sabotage teams onto the river,” he says.

“On the one hand the Dnipro is an effective water barrier against the Russians,. On the other hand, it will be complicated for Ukrainians to cross it too. But what I hear from people on the east bank, we’re pushing the Russians effectively.”

While Ukraine’s military has announced it has been conducting intensive artillery missions to try clear Russian forces from their positions on the east bank, the threat remains.

Yury Pogrobeny lived under Russian occupation until February on the east bank, in a village 2.5 miles (4km) from the centre of Kherson. When he did escape it was via a circuitous route through Russian-occupied Crimea, then Georgia and Moldova, finally reaching the city’s right bank where he now runs an NGO that plans to help his neighbours after they are liberated.

“I’m in touch with my former neighbours every day,” says the 64-year-old. “The village is about one kilometre from the river. Before the liberation of Kherson there were less Russian soldiers in the village. Now they are living in all the houses and they killed all the cows to eat them.

Ukrainian service personnel clear Russian munitions in Kherson, Ukraine.
Ukrainian service personnel clear Russian munitions in Kherson, Ukraine. Photograph: State Emergency Service of Ukraine/UPI/Shutterstock

“Where my house is there is a grad rocket system 200 metres in one direction and 250 metres the other way are mortars. The Russians took all the boats owned by local people and now have observation points all along the banks.”

For Spyrydonova, who lived through the occupation of Kherson, one kind of waiting has been replaced by another.

“Living under Russian occupation and now living under the threat of Russian shellfire are two very different things,” she says. “When the Ukrainian troops were getting closer to Kherson before the liberation, we waited for weeks for that single day of liberation, a day I’ll never forget.

“Now we’re waiting for the full victory and the liberation of the east bank. I really hope that something big is coming. We just need to be patient.”

The Guardian