KHERSON REGION, Ukraine — The pontoon bridge had been in place for barely a day. The Ukrainian Army rushed to move troops and equipment across. Then the soldiers watched on a drone video feed as the Russians blew up their bridge, yet again.
“Yes, they hit the bridge,” the drone pilot said matter-of-factly, peering at images beamed in from a safe distance, a mile or so away.
The soldiers shrugged. It was no great loss.
The Ukrainians would soon build another bridge, across the slender, slow-flowing Inhulets River in southern Ukraine, to replace the one destroyed by the Russians. It’s a cycle that repeats itself daily: The Ukrainian Army builds pontoon bridges across the river as it tries to advance in the Kherson region, only to see them blown up.
“We build them, they blow them up,” said Col. Roman Kostenko, the commander of the troops stationed here. “They build them, we blow them up.’’
The Ukrainian troops had reason to be confident on this day. Fighting in the pale, late-summer sunshine across hundreds of miles of front line, the Ukrainian Army has broken through Russian positions, recaptured some villages and taken prisoners in its most significant counteroffensive since Russian forces withdrew from northern Ukraine last winter.
While it is early to gauge the full extent of the army’s gains, videos, witness accounts and some Russian reports have all pointed to Ukrainian momentum, including in this spot. It is one of two bulges Ukraine’s forces have created by pushing into Russian lines in the past week; the other is north of the city of Izium in eastern Ukraine.
Building bridges and destroying the enemy’s, however unglamorous, low-tech and old-school as a military art, has nonetheless become a central tool for both sides in Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the south.
Using long-range rockets provided by the United States, the Ukrainian Army has largely destroyed four bridges over the broad Dnipro River, Ukraine’s longest and biggest river, cutting off about 25,000 Russian troops on the western bank from resupply.
The Russian Army responded by building pontoon crossings, which Ukraine is now attacking, too. The plan is to probe the Russian front lines for weaknesses as their troops run out of ammunition, fuel and even food.
The State of the War
But to do so in some locations, Ukraine must attack across the smaller Inhulets River, building pontoon bridges of its own that then become targets for the Russians.
Bridging is a “continual process,” said Colonel Kostenko, who is also a member of Ukraine’s Parliament. No one strike on a bridge will decide the fate of Ukraine’s offensive — which relies both on building pontoon bridges and preventing the Russians from doing so.
In the first, chaotic days of the war, Colonel Kostenko obtained about 200 pounds of high explosives from the military that he said he drove in a minivan to several bridges on the path of the Russian advance toward the city of Mykolaiv. He blew the bridges up, creating barriers to a Russian attack on the city, which the Ukrainians still hold.
The war in the south has revolved around rivers and bridges since.
That the fighting has even advanced to this stage — with Ukrainian troops dug into an expanding pocket of territory on the east bank of the Inhulets that was previously mostly held by the Russians — is an encouraging sign, Colonel Kostenko said.
“That we started to move, and take territory from the enemy, this is a very positive moment,” he said, despite the setback with the one bridge, which was blown up shortly before he had intended to show it to visiting reporters. “It’s a positive beginning, and it will show everybody we can do it.”
The Ukrainian military has kept details of the counteroffensive under wraps, saying operational secrecy is paramount, and reporters are mostly barred from visiting the front lines. But the location of the pontoon bridges is already well known to the Russians and hardly a secret.
The Ukrainian bulge into the Russian front lines on the far bank of the Inhulets River is one of the demonstrable successes of the counteroffensive so far.
A photograph of soldiers hoisting the Ukrainian flag on the roof of a hospital in the village of Vysokopillia, to the north of the battle of the pontoon bridges, appeared in Ukrainian media and was later confirmed as authentic by an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky. It lifted spirits in Ukraine.
Simultaneously, the Ukrainian Army has gone on the offensive in the country’s east, pushing to cut Russian supply lines to the occupied city of Izium. Videos posted on Ukraine social media show that Ukraine has advanced as much as 30 miles in this area, capturing several villages in a dramatic, surprise thrust into an exposed flank; it adds to an overall sense of momentum after months of disheartening, bloody, grinding defensive warfare.
Ukraine was seen as needing to demonstrate it can push back Russian forces, lest support in Europe for arming Kyiv wane as countries face inflation and high energy prices, and before autumn rains slow any offensive in muddy fields.
“Ukraine needs a victory now,” Colonel Kostenko said.
“We need to pivot to the offensive,” he said. “This is a place where we can do it successfully, so everybody in the army, all those who are mobilized, and those in training, get a taste of victory. Yes, it could come at a high price. Yes, we understand it is difficult.”
The difficulty is also felt on the Russian side.
The Dnipro, a mighty river, forms a barrier to resupply and reinforcements of their troops in the area of Ukraine’s counteroffensive. And Russian attempts to cross on pontoons or ferries are clearly seen by Ukrainian drones — and swiftly hit.
In a video filmed by a Russian soldier, a truck packed with ammunition lumbers onto a pontoon crossing, and a soldier is heard saying, “Let’s do it, let’s do it.” But artillery strikes the pontoons, blowing soldiers across the bridge deck. They curse and groan from wounds.
The Ukrainian strategy for counterattacking might be viewed as “death by a thousand cuts,” referring to strikes at supply routes and probing attacks on the front, strikes that fall short of a full-scale attack but do damage on a smaller scale.
The strategy, at least for now, is not to capture large chunks of territory but to inflict a flurry of blows, said Serhiy Grabskyi, a former Ukrainian Army colonel and commentator for the Ukrainian media.
“Intelligence is well established,” he said. “Our military is eagerly waiting for the enemy to make the next pontoon bridge, because that is the No. 1 target.”
Quick territorial gains are unlikely.
The Institute for the Study of War, an American analytical group, reported the Ukrainian goal as to “chip away at Russian military capabilities” slowly and methodically.
But it all adds up. If the advance continues, isolating and encircling Russian forces on the western bank of the Dnipro, Ukraine could “create a killing area for a large portion of Russia’s best assault troops,” Jack Watling, a research fellow and specialist in land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute in Britain, wrote.
Once traffic across the river dwindles to an ineffective trickle, “we will have an effective encirclement” of Russian troops, Colonel Kostenko said.
“Now, we hear already the enemy has problems with ammunition,” something seen in the dwindling Russian artillery fire along the front line. He said that on intercepted Russian walkie talkie chatter, “it’s pleasant to hear them say, ‘I’m empty, I cannot fire.’”
The two armies are fighting across a table-flat expanse of farm fields and tree lines in the southern Ukrainian steppe. Shadows of clouds play across the fields.
Armored personnel carriers, fuel trucks, pickup trucks and ambulances clog the dirt roads, carrying ammunition and soldiers to the front and evacuating the wounded, and forming traffic jams.
A pontoon bridge takes about three hours to build and on average in this spot lasts about 24 hours, Ukrainian officers in Colonel Kostenko’s unit said.
“Everywhere, every day, we are doing engineering work” to build new bridges, said one of the officers, who uses the call sign Slon. The Russians hit them with rockets, artillery and aviation bombs. “They aren’t excited about our pontoons,” he said.
About an hour after the artillery strike on the bridge, a column of trucks carrying yet more pontoons bumped along a road toward the river.
“We’ll rebuild it, and the counteroffensive will resume,” Colonel Kostenko said.
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