Ukraine Situation Report: The Battle For Dnipro River Islands

The creeping Russian advances in the Donbas have overshadowed an ongoing battle in territory that Ukraine has secured. For the past two months, as larger and deadlier clashes take place to the east, Ukrainian and Russian forces have fought for control of islands in the Dnipro River near the city of Kherson, which Ukraine captured in November.

Russia has been lobbying artillery and mortar fire on Kherson ever since evacuating. In response, Ukrainian forces have been attempting “small naval operations” on some of those islands to “establish control and push back Russian 122mm and 152mm artillery from the left bank,” a Ukrainian military advisor told The War Zone on Tuesday.

Ukraine and Russia have been fighting over Dnipro River islands for the past two months. (Google Earth image)

In addition, Russians have been launching sabotage raids from those islands, using smaller mortars to attack Kherson, Andrii Ryzhenko, a retired Ukrainian Navy captain and military expert, told The War Zone on Tuesday.

Over the past 24 hours, the city was hit by Russian fire seven times and the region 54 times in total, Kherson Oblast Administration Adviser Sergey Khlan said Tuesday on his Facebook page. “Fortunately, there were no casualties. But the invaders are knowingly destroying housing and critical infrastructure to avoid the possibility of extinguishing fires or providing medical care to the wounded.”

Previous attacks have hit a local hospital, wounding a nurse.

Ukrainian troops tried another such island attack on Tuesday, according to Russian military bloggers and official Russian state media. While the details may differ, those accounts fit with what we are hearing from Ukrainian sources about the islands being hotly contested.

“At about 9 am on Jan. 31, 2023, the enemy landed on our bank of the [Dnipro] in three boats and entrenched themselves in the nearest houses,” the pro-Russian “Two Majors” Telegram channel reported Tuesday. “Our rocket and cannon artillery is working on the enemy right now, the area has been shot.”

On Tuesday, Ukrainian troops attempted a raid on Dnipro River islands held by Russians. (Two Majors Telegram channel image)

Russian gunners “fixed” the area “for an hour and a half,” according to the Two Majors.

“Previously, the enemy had already tried to land three times,” Two Majors reported. “Forces up to the company tactical group were involved. The enemy has failed.”

Ukrainian troops “tried to [forge] the [Dnipro] in the Kherson region,” the official Russian RIA Novosti news agency reported Tuesday, citing regional authorities. “The attempt was repulsed.”

The Ukrainian military advisor, who acknowledge that another island attempt may have taken place, called the river islands “a gray zone” where neither side has established control.

Ryzhenko told The War Zone that Ukrainian troops have also conducted small cross-river sabotage operations on Russian military operations and returned. On Jan. 24, for instance, the Ukrainian Defense Intelligence directorate (GUR) claimed it carried out one such night raid “with the support of the Armed Forces of Ukraine… in the area of Novaya Kakhovka,” upstream from Kherson City.

But a large-scale Ukrainian river crossing, using pontoon bridges, “is impossible” right now due to the ongoing Russian shelling,” said the advisor. The Russians, you might remember, came under tremendous fire trying to get across the river back in the fall.

“Do you want to be the driver of a tank crossing a huge river on a temporary bridge on barges?” the Ukrainian military advisor asked rhetorically. “Everything is shaking. The Russians are trying to shoot you with artillery. And how fast can you get one brigade from the right bank to the left bank over a temporary bridge? It’s impossible.”

Maybe so, but Ukraine will almost certainly continue trying to wrest control of the Dnipro River islands, to reduce fire and fix Russian forces ahead of any wider maneuver operations by either further to the east.

Before we head into the latest news from Ukraine, The War Zone readers can get caught up with our previous rolling coverage here.

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Elsewhere on the battlefield, Russia continues to tighten its noose around Bakhmut in Donetsk Oblast, another sign of a significant shift in momentum since Ukraine made sweeping advances in the Kharkiv and Kherson oblasts last fall. These gains come ahead of an expected Russian offensive in the coming months.

Here are some key takeaways from the latest Institute for the Study of War assessment.

  • Western, Ukrainian, and Russian sources continue to indicate that Russia is preparing for an imminent offensive, supporting ISW’s assessment that an offensive in the coming months is the most likely course of action.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks to regain lost positions west of Kreminna as Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations northwest of Svatove.
  • Ukrainian forces continued to strike Russian force concentrations in rear areas in Luhansk Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct ground attacks across the Donetsk Oblast front line.
  • Russian forces continued to make marginal territorial gains near Bakhmut.
  • Russian forces did not conduct any confirmed ground attacks in Zaporizhia Oblast.

Russia, meanwhile, continues to build out fortifications in Zaporizhzhia Oblast, according to Brady Africk, a spokesman for the American Enterprise Institute (@AEI ).

The U.S. is readying more than $2 billion worth of military aid for Ukraine that is expected to include the first provision of the Ground Launched Small Diameter Bomb (GLSDB), according to Reuters, citing two U.S. officials briefed on the matter Tuesday.

The recently developed GLSDB, an adaptation of the widely used air-launched Small Diameter Bomb, or SDB, has not previously found a customer but would provide a significant boost to Ukraine’s capacity to strike in Russian rear areas. The GLSDB has a range of around 94 miles, or 150 kilometers.

That’s about double the range of munitions fired by the M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS), and variants thereof, and the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS). 

You can read more about how it would help Ukraine in our deep dive here.

The weapons aid is expected to be announced as soon as this week, the officials told Reuters.

The question of the U.S. and allies providing F-16 fighters to Ukraine, meanwhile, continues to be a Groundhog Day-like issue as the calendar approaches Groundhog Day.

A day after President Joe Biden issued a curt “no” in response to a reporter’s question about whether the U.S. will provide the Fighting Falcons to Ukraine, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby was peppered with questions about the jets during a press briefing Tuesday.

“I really don’t have anything to add to what the president said,” Kirby told reporters, including from The War Zone, “We’re focused on making sure that Ukraine is ready and able to meet the threats that they’re facing right now, as well as those in the future, particularly as the weather gets better. We can expect the Russians are trying to go on the offense. So we’re in constant contact with our Ukrainian counterparts nearly every day…”

Pressed about whether Biden’s response came after a policy review, Kirby essentially repeated his answer, pointing out that the U.S. has backed, and will continue to back, Ukraine in its nearly year-long defense of Russia’s full-on invasion.

He offered a similar response when asked if Biden’s response represented a change in previous U.S. policy that left the door open for discussions about weapons systems like Abrams tanks, 31 of which were recently promised to Ukraine.

Kirby’s comments came after much international discussion Tuesday about sending western aircraft to Ukraine.

Earlier in the day, Ukrainian Col. Yuri Ignat, spokesman for his country’s Air Force, said that Ukraine needed 200 F-16s. Polish officials, meanwhile, seemed to pour cold water on the notion that it would provide Ukraine with F-16s.

Other NATO allies offered a mix response about whether they will provide Ukraine with western jets.

U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s spokesman, Max Blain, said Tuesday that “the U.K.’s Typhoon and F-35 fighter jets are extremely sophisticated and take months to learn how to fly,” although he didn’t say London was opposed to other nations sending planes, according to The Associated Press.

However, the Baltic states seem to be on board with Ukraine receiving western fighters.

“Ukraine needs fighter jets … missiles, tanks. We need to act,” Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu said in the Latvian capital of Riga at a news conference with his Baltic and Polish colleagues, according to AP.

French Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu said on Tuesday “there is no taboo” when asked about supplying fighter jets to Ukraine, Reuters reported. Lecornu spoke after meeting his Ukrainian counterpart Oleksiy Reznikov in Paris.

As the debate over jets to Ukraine continues, the U.S. State Department on Tuesday announced that leaders from the Offices of Inspector General for the Defense Department (DoD), State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) returned last week from a joint trip to Ukraine, Germany and Poland, where they continued their examination of how Kyiv is handling more than $113 billion in U.S. aid provided for its fight against Russia.

The State Department announcement offered no indication of any findings but said that officials engaged with counterparts in Ukraine and met with U.S. Army Europe and Africa Command, the Security Assistance Group–Ukraine, and International Donation Coordination Center officials.

“In coordination with our colleagues at the State and USAID OIGs, we will apply these insights and observations to our ongoing oversight of DoD support to Ukraine,” DoD IG Robert P. Storch said in a media release.

Last week, we told you about the Biden administration’s plan to keep an eye on that aid, through the creation, by the Pentagon, State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development inspectors general’s Joint Strategic Oversight Plan for Ukraine Response (JSOP), highlighting 64 ongoing and planned oversight products and 14 completed reviews.

Inspection or no inspection, the Russians clearly remain troubled with all the military aid provided and promised to Ukraine.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova warned on Tuesday that the weapons will be targeted and besides, they won’t change the course of the war.

A day after NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg pushed South Korean officials to change their laws and provide Ukraine with direct lethal aid, South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup did not rule out the possibility that Seoul could change its position.

“We share the sentiment on the need for the international effort in overcoming this crisis,” Lee said at a press conference with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who was visiting Seoul. “However, to provide my answer regarding our weapons support that – our Republic of Korea’s weapons support – I’d like to leave my answer at that we are directing our close attention to the situation in Ukraine.”

Bogged down in the Donbas, and concerned about an expected new Russian offensive and eyeing one of its own, Ukraine says it needs all the weapons and ammunition it can get.

Indication of just how badly Ukraine might need more ammunition is given in the images below, posted on Twitter by the Ukraine Weapons Tracker OSINT group, of Ukrainian artillery troops using projectiles designed for ancient B-4 howitzers in a 2S7 Pion 203mm self-propelled cannon. The B-4, first developed in 1931, was used by the Soviet Union during WWII.

Though Russian forces, particularly the Wagner mercenary group, are pressing closer to Bakhmut, Ukrainian forces continue to fight back, as is this case of this crew firing a German-made PzH 2000 self-propelled 155mm howitzer.

After months of fighting, there’s not much left of that city.

On Tuesday, CNN profiled Ukrainian drone operators and the key role they are playing.

“The pine forests near the city of Kreminna have become one of the hottest combat zones in the war in eastern Ukraine,” CNN reported. “Almost every weapon seems to be at work here, artillery, howitzers, tanks and mortars. But perhaps the most important is the smallest: The reconnaissance drone.”

CNN accompanied two Ukrainian drone operators from the Dnipro-1 battalion deep into the forest to see how they operate. “The journey was along tracks of soft sand amid a thin canopy of pine trees, through an eerie landscape dotted with streams and bogs.”

Speaking of drones, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry has placed orders for 105 more long-endurance Vector reconnaissance drones from Germany’s Quantum-Systems.

Not only does Ukraine have to contend with Russian troops, it has to deal with spies uncovering its positions and recruiting new informants, as this video, from Ukraine’s SBU security service, claims to indicate.

That’s it for now. We will update this story if there is anything major to add.

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Howard Altman Avatar

Howard Altman

Senior Staff Writer

Howard is a Senior Staff Writer for The War Zone, and a former Senior Managing Editor for Military Times. Prior to this, he covered military affairs for the Tampa Bay Times as a Senior Writer. Howard’s work has appeared in various publications including Yahoo News, RealClearDefense, and Air Force Times.