The Other McCain

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Ukraine Wipes Out Russian Battalion at Attempted Pontoon River Crossing

Posted on | May 12, 2022 | No Comments

Just because a war can be described as a “stalemate,” it doesn’t mean there’s no action, and the failed Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine is an example of how bloody a “stalemate” can be. Attempting to cross a river near Bilohorivka, east of Lyman, a Russian mechanized battalion got blasted out of existence by Ukrainian artillery:

The better part of a Russian army battalion — 50 or so vehicles and up to a thousand troops — in recent days tried to cross a pontoon bridge spanning the Siverskyi Donets River, running west to east between the separatist provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian artillery caught them at the river bank — and destroyed them. The rapid destruction of around three dozen tanks and other armored vehicles, along with the bridge itself, underscores Russia’s deepening woes as its troops try, and fail, to make meaningful gains in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.
“We still assess Russian ground force in the Donbas to be slow and uneven,” an unnamed U.S. Defense Department official told reporters on Tuesday. The Russians’ inability to cross rivers might explain their sloth.
The Siverskyi Donets, which threads from southern Russia into eastern Ukraine then back into Russia, is just one of several water barriers Russian battalions must cross in order to advance west into Ukrainian-held territory. According to the Ukrainian armed forces’ general staff, the battalion that got caught at the pontoon bridge apparently was trying to strike at Lyman, a city of 20,000 that lies 17 miles west of the doomed crossing.
The Ukrainian army’s 17th Tank Brigade spotted the bridge, perhaps using one of the many small drones that function as the army’s eyes over the battlefield. The 17th is one of the army’s four active tank brigades. Its line battalions operate T-64 tanks and BMP fighting vehicles. But it was the brigade’s artillery battalion with its 2S1 122-millimeter howitzers that apparently got first crack at the Russian bridge.
The 17th’s shelling destroyed at least seven T-72 and T-80 tanks, 17 BMPs, seven MT-LB armored tractors, five other vehicles and much of the bridging unit itself, including a tugboat and the pontoon span.
It’s unclear how many Russians died or were wounded, but it’s worth noting that no battalion can lose three-quarters of its vehicles and remain capable of operations. In one strike, the Ukrainians removed from the battlefield one of the roughly 99 Russian battalion tactical groups in Ukraine.

The Russian advance on this sector of the front in eastern Ukraine has been almost completely stalled for weeks. The Ukrainian forces fighting near Rubizhne, Severodonetsk and Lysychansk have a supply line running west through Slovyansk. The Russian attempt to cross the river near Bilohorivka was clearly an intended move toward Slovyansk, so the destruction of that Russian battalion at the pontoon crossing was of strategic importance to maintaining the Ukrainian defensive position. You can click the map below to see it full-size.

However, if the Russians can’t safely cross the river, the same is almost certainly true of the Ukrainians, which means the opposing forces are dug in on either side of the river, hence the “stalemate” that exists. Because the Russians have numerical superiority, they are able to threaten the Ukrainian positions from several different directions, but the Ukrainians have the tactical advantage of interior lines, and can more easily shift their forces to meet these threats. The most significant factor in enabling Ukrainian forces to hold on, however, is the effectiveness of their light anti-tank weapons like the Javelin missile system.

If it weren’t for this factor, the Russian advantage in armor would enable them to roll over the Ukrainian defenses, but any Russian armored vehicle that exposes itself on the open road is at risk of getting blown up by Javelins or other anti-tank weapons. Ukraine claims that the Russians have lost 1,195 tanks and 2,873 other armored vehicles in the war so far, as well as more than 25,000 Russian troops killed. Of course, these claims probably overstate the extent of Russian casualties, but there can be no doubt that Russia has lost a lot of tanks in this war, and this is a major reason why the “stalemate” in Ukraine continues.