One of the keys to planning a military campaign is to take into account the type of terrain the war will take place on. The frontlines of the Ukraine conflict underline how important this is – they are mainly defined by rivers and other land-based obstacles. To progress, Russian forces need to negotiate their way across or around these natural barriers. But if they approach the problem head on, they will not have the luxury of making these crossings unopposed.
At the moment, Russia’s main effort is consolidating its control over the entirety of the Donbas region, with forces currently concentrated around population centres such as Severodonetsk, a town of about 100,000 people before the war in Luhansk province in the east of Ukraine. Should Russia prove successful in its current operations, it will face the challenge of crossing the Siverskyi Donets river if it is to secure the remainder of Donbas to the west.
This promises to be no easy task. In all likelihood there are no bridges that remain intact in this area of operations. So a crossing will require a significant feat of combat engineering. So far in this “military operation”, Russia’s track record with such enterprises has been poor. Previous attempted crossings of the same river have met with disastrous results, with one such operation even causing Russian spectators to begin openly questioning the capabilities of their forces. Alternately, Ukrainian forces have proved adept at responding to attempted crossings, effectively orientating their forces around these obstacles.
River crossings are not impossible for the Russian military – the Siverskyi Donets was, after all, crossed by Russia back in March, though as part of an offensive that has since stalled. So, the difficulty Russia is experiencing at present with river crossings elsewhere is still a little baffling. River crossings were a centrepiece of Soviet military tactics, featuring heavily in Red Army plans for pushing into Europe. Many of Russia’s armoured vehicles and tanks benefit from this legacy, being amphibious by design, and they have access to bridging equipment that should be fit for purpose.
In general terms, Russia’s approach is not vastly different from western military doctrine on the same subject. But, based on its performance in current operations, Russia’s present-day military has clearly failed to effectively prepare and train for gap crossing. Contested river crossings, probably did not factor into the initial Russian plan.
Looking at some of the problems being faced by the Russian military at present, they seem familiar – they have recurred throughout the campaign. Flawed planning for a start. Russian military logistics have been another constant problem. It’s also likely that many of Russia’s’ difficulties stem from having to confront new technologies in the hands of a motivated opponent. Significant battlefield losses will have eroded the stock of competent soldiers, leaving Russia reliant on ill-trained recruits and even conscripts to fill out its numbers.
In isolation, any one of these factors could severely limit Russia’s capacity to carry out one of the toughest tasks that land forces have to face.
While these issues certainly contribute to Russia’s problems, it is perhaps worth looking a little deeper. After all, it is not just Russia that is out of practice with this type of operation – realistically, few armies have attempted anything close to what Russia is pushing ahead with since the second world war. But while the difficulty of crossing significant barriers such as rivers is perhaps unchanged in its fundamentals, technology and combat operations have moved on significantly.
It is no secret that a crossing requires a concentration of resources. In the past, maintaining the element of surprise would have been difficult. Under current conditions, it is perhaps near impossible. Not only do Ukrainian forces have access to high resolution, near real-time satellite imagery of the battle space, but this this advantage is enhanced by access to drones, and even camera phones in the hands of civilians.
The Russian side has additionally faced challenges with maintaining secrecy when moving its forces, which has further boosted Ukrainian abilities to track Russian troop movements. Concentrating adequate forces to conduct the crossing without detection is likely to be extremely difficult. And, with advance warning and support of local knowledge, Ukrainian forces can effectively deploy their own limited forces to oppose an anticipated crossing.
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Don’t forget that it is not so much the river, but the continuing capacity for the Ukraine to defend effectively and maximise their home advantage that makes it difficult for Russia. Failure to sufficiently degrade the abilities of Ukrainian forces in Donbas prior to attempting such complex operations represents a failure of strategy. For their part, Ukrainian forces seem content to make the most of the terrain, blowing up bridges where necessary to complicate the Russian advance, forcing them into potentially costly improvised river crossings.
Of course, Russia may be looking to correct their approach moving forward. The conflict is showing signs of having devolved into a war of attrition with the respective sides trying to simply wear each other out rather than take risks. This may present a problem for Ukraine, who are still critically outgunned.
On the whole, the largely open territory of Donbas is well suited to the Russian approach to war, particularly the focus placed on the use of artillery. To succeed, Ukrainian forces will have to leverage every advantage available. This will include the effective use of terrain and other lines of defence to help even the odds moving forward.
Christopher Morris is a Teaching Fellow at the University of Portsmouth.