You can access the original article in Ukrainian under this link. It was first published on September 27, 2023.
“I disembark carrying two shoulder bags. We walk in complete darkness guided by PVS (night vision, — Ed.) devices, and then I make a misstep leading me half a metre off the trail. That distance might seem like nothing, but I instantly end up knee-high stuck inthick mud. There I stand, hands holding the shoulder bags raised high, and unable to do anything… I wait until my brothers-in-arms take my load, and only then am I able to get out of that mud.”
This recollection by Liubomyr, a member of the Liubart Special Operations Assault Battalion, shows what has been happening to Ukrainian forces between the two banks of the Dnipro River in the Kherson region.
His account offers us just one tiny detail (not the most gruesome) of what the Russian-Ukrainian war looks like in the most inaccessible part of its frontline, where stepping 50 centimetres off the trail can imperil your life, not just due to landmines, but also quicksand.
From day one of the full-scale invasion, the Mykolaiv and Kherson regions have been the most inaccessible for journalists. We know next to nothing about the assault on Davydovyi Brid between May and October 2022, which ended with the Russians forced back across the Inhulets River, and have no info about the course of hostilities after the liberation of Kherson in November last year.
In the media landscape, the Kherson region exists as a place of regionwide Russian shelling and air raids on civilian sites — unlike the other parts of the frontline, there are no heavy battles and significant losses.
“Honestly, the situation in the South is largely underestimated, with all the attention being directed to Bakhmut and Zaporizhzhia,” says Oleksandr Kapshyn, commander of the “Khymera” unit of the 126th Territorial Defence brigade, when speaking to an Ukrainska Pravda (UP) correspondent. Oleksandr has been fighting in the South of the country ever since the full-scale invasion started. His unit took part in forcing the passage across the Inhulets River, and now they work side by side with special forces on the isles between the banks of the Dnipro river in Kherson region, and onto the occupied left bank. It’s hard to disagree with his words. UP made it their mission to cover this part of the frontline, the factors that critically hinder the Defence Forces from advancing here, and what the virtually only publicly-known operation of disembarking near the Kazachi Laheri looked like.
To do that, the UP correspondent spoke to about 15 servicemen from the Special Operation Forces (SOF), Defence Intelligence, and the Territorial Defence operating in this direction. Most of them agreed to speak on the record. All numbers and locations that could be of substantial importance to the enemy were deliberately omitted or encrypted.
The Importance of the Kherson Front
“There’s a main strategic direction of counterassault, which is Zaporizhzhia: to reach Melitopol, Tokmak, and so forth, while our [Kherson] part of the frontline is operational. Our task is to create as many distractions as possible, including informational ones,” explains one of the SOF servicemen, who can’t disclose his name.
For example, he cites the instance when a [Ukrainian] flag was raised in Dachi, on the occupied bank of the river.
“Like, everyone heard about a [Ukrainian] flag being raised on the left bank. That act had no practical meaning other than to make some Russian general hear about it and be like, ‘What the f*ck? Why is there a f*cking flag hanging there?! Kill them all!’ — and so they forward-deploy some of their units in this direction. Thus, we make it easier for our fellow servicemen. That’s the main purpose of this part of the frontline,” he adds.
The Defence Forces view the Kherson region as similar to the Kupiansk – Lyman line, a section of the front in the Kharkiv direction, where diversionary actions were also used. This is meant to keep the Russians engaged, so there always has to be activity to divert enemy forces from the main direction of counteroffensive.
It’s not the first time that the Kherson region has played the role of a distraction. This happened in the summer and autumn of 2022, during the rapid and highly successful Kupiansk – Balakliia operation, and then again in 2023 during the Zaporizhzhia counteroffensive. If one’s impression of the Kherson front is based on the news, one might think that the operations here intend to take over the left bank from the Russians. That isn’t the case.
“It’s not that plain and simple, it’s not just: here’s the river, here’s the right bank, and here’s the left bank. There are also isles and floodlands, and this is where the main hostilities take place, offering an opportunity for further tactical advance,” continues the serviceman.
“Those isles are staging grounds for logistics, both ours and theirs, therefore, they are of great importance. After all, the width of this part of the Dnipro river varies from 0.7 to 2 km and the current is quite strong,” explains Vadym Krykun, Commander of Liubart Special Operations Assault Battalion.
One who owns the isles on the east part of the frontline owns it all: such as the vantage points, control over the river, a foothold, a storage space, and a place to sort the wounded. The Special Operations servicemen hold back their assessments of who has control of the most isles on the Dnipro. However, they note that the situation is moving back and forth between Ukrainian and Russian control.
The hardest battles are fought over the isle Kozatskyi, which is located downstream from the Kakhovka hydropower plant (HPP), as the terrain there is difficult. As described by one of the servicemen interviewed for this piece, “There’s a jungle over there, a real Vietnam.”
While the Ukrainian military in the South are fighting for every wooded area, in the Kherson region, they are fighting for every wetland, floodland, and tiny parts of the isles. Some of them became even more swampy after the Russians blew up the dam of the Kakhovka HPP in June 2023.
In the Kherson region, in contrast with other areas of the frontline like Kupiansk–Lyman, Bakhmut, and Tavria, there are no classic assault operations using the American M113 armoured personnel carriers or the German Leopard tanks. In fact, one can’t even use armoured vehicles here: military personnel cannot transport them across the river, and on the Ukrainian-controlled bank, the Russians can detect them in no time.
Thus, it’s the gunners, drone operators, so-called river infantry, and the local assault units who do all the work. The infantry usually resorts to pinpoint operations involving disembarking on the isles and the left bank and holding certain positions.
No operation guarantees them the chance to return to the right bank.
Nevertheless, while working on this piece, we never came across a single story of someone refusing to go. The assault units largely consist of young men (and in the case of the Khymera unit, of football fans from the Odesa club Chornomorets), and such operations offer an opportunity to hasten the liberation of their country from the invaders.
For Liubomyr of Liubart, it’s also a chance to liberate his home in Nova Kakhovka, on the opposite bank of the Dnipro.
What Makes Military Operations in the Kherson Region So Hard
The Ukrainian special forces have been disembarking on the occupied bank of the Dnipro River for several months now. According to the UP sources, they started doing that in March-April 2023.
These are some of the most difficult operations carried out by the Defence Forces.
Technically, to disembark on the occupied bank upstream from Kherson, a soldier needs to board a boat and sail about 1 km across the open waters, drifting in the floodplains, known as the aquatic labyrinth, and then cross the Dnipro river again,or across the Konka river, depending on direction).
Even a minimal deviation of the steersman from their specified route can lead to hitting an anchored naval mine, getting stuck in the silt, or disembarkment well off the mark, away from their fellow servicemen.
According to our interviewees, anchored naval mines that detonate after being hit by a boat are the main cause of casualties in the Kherson region. This is how Oleksandr Kapshyn, Commander of Khymera, lost one of his men.
Once in a while, boats do hit those mines. Every evacuation or rescue of a wounded or killed soldier from the river is a risk for their unit, specifically because the corpses often get entangled in other mines.
“When you tell a person, ‘We’ll come and pick you up’, regardless if they’re cargo 200 [which means a dead soldier] or cargo 300 [which means a wounded soldier], that person will perform their task until the end. It’s completely different when you order somebody to board a boat while understanding that there may be no chance of evacuation home,” explains the specifics of operating in the Kherson region by a serviceman [name withheld].
“I know that I’ll get Roma out,” he nods to his brother-in-arms, “and that he’ll get me out. With this knowledge, we go and do our duty,” he adds.
In addition to the terrain and mines, FPV drones make the life of the Ukrainian military difficult. According to the FPV drone operators from Liubart, with whom the UP spoke, the Russians are so well-equipped with FPV drones that even a pair of Ukrainian servicemen is a good enough target for them, even though this is not a very insignificant target by military standards.
The Russian FPVs (emitting a horrible and yet alarming buzz that increases over time) come flying in more often than the Russian missiles.
“The enemy has been here for quite a while, so they gained a foothold, both on the river and on land, and even in the air. Mines, FPV drones, artillery, and an occasional hit squad in the brush. When on land, you at least have a chance to change your position so that you aren’t that easy a target anymore, but that’s no use when on the river. The only emergency option there is falling into the water, usually with all your gear still on,” shares Liubomyr. “And if an emergency occurs after you’ve reached the opposite bank, you either stay hidden and then return to your bank, or reveal yourself and accept the battle, and then await the evacuation. This is very hard,” adds Mr. Kapshyn.
The True Meaning of Kozachi Laheri Operation: A Distraction Front
Around the 6 August 2023h, the Defence Forces deployed an operation in the Kherson region that the Media later branded “raid across the Dnipro” or “the disembarkment at Kozachi Laheri”. It was a several-day operation to gain a foothold on the occupied bank downstream from Kozachi Laheri, the only one that got broad media coverage. Russian “military correspondents” burst in reporting “The enemy took over the settlement of Kozachi Laheri and even broke through the first line of defence.” The next day, based on their reporting, the American Institute for the Study of War gave a more balanced description of the operation, as follows:
“Ukrainian forces landed up to seven boats, each carrying around six to seven people, on the east bank of the Dnipro near the settlement of Kozachi Laheri, broke through Russian defensive lines, and advanced up to 800 metres deep”.
The Americans were more accurate: the Defence Forces never seized Kozachi Laheri, and the overall operation was a classic example of what it means to be a “distraction front”.
“That was rather an attention-grabbing operation while in the other part of the frontline, in the Zaporizhzhia direction (where there was an ongoing battle for Robotyne) certain things were happening. We just drew off some enemy forces, creating a foothold that gave the other servicemen a chance to survive,” explains cover-name ‘Rave’, a junior sergeant at Liubart, who led one of the assault groups in that operation.
For ‘Rave’, who had previous military experience from the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) zone in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in 2014, and served in the Ukrainian Air Assault Forces, it was his first military operation involving disembarkment on a riverbank and the first where he led his group as a commander. For some of his subordinates, that was their first operation.
‘Rave’s unit made their way to the left bank along with another group under the command of ‘Arkan’, also a cover-name. They crossed the river in several boats on the second day of the operation, 7 August. For “Rave’ and his group, it took two attempts to cross the Dnipro: their first attempt was cut short by a Russian mortar. Several of ‘Arkan’s people were unable to cross and were forced to turn back. Besides, the disembarkment points of those groups were under fire.
“The Russians started their assault against us on that very same day, on 7 August, and on 8 August those assault attempts came one after another… In the afternoon of 8 August, we were attacked from three sides, at the assault directions of three, nine, and 12 o’clock. On 8 August, ‘Arkan’ was killed in action.
“According to the information we have, on the night of 7 to 8 August, the Russians moved about 300 ‘Shtorm-Z’ personnel from Oleshky as cannon fodder. I never even imagined that one could send four consecutive groups down the same road to find out the location of a machine gun,” recalls ‘Rave’.
Among his men, it was a machine gunner Ihor, cover name ‘Joker’, who stood out the most, "welcoming" every Russian assault with bullets during those two days. Along with his assistant, he spent almost 20 hours holding back advancing enemy forces. ‘Joker’ was killed in action in that fight.
“It took us quite a while to evacuate him, but how he’s been laid to rest. I visited his grave recently, on the 40th day of his death,” adds ‘Rave’.
Oleksandr KAPSGYN, the Commander of Khymera, also recalls the Kozachi Laheri operation as a living hell for his men, with its endless shelling by artillery, intense infantry shooting, repelling constant Russian assaults, evacuation of cargo 300 and cargo 200, and retreat.
Capture of Major Tomov: a valuable POW
The most widely known (but not fully told) page in the history of Kozachi Laheri is the story of the captured Russian Major, Commander of a Combat and Intelligence Battalion Yuriy TOMOV, a valuable POW for a future exchange.
Initially, there was a video shared with Russian channels on Telegram with Tomov seemingly interrogating some bound Ukrainian soldiers who disembarked on the left bank — where he explained how every provocation by Ukraine failed, and Russia had found and defeated their adversaries. However, a few days later, there was a slightly different video…
…where Tomov is kneeling in front of a map and is told in Ukrainian, “Now draw everything, as correctly as you can”, and marking the location of the Russian positions with a pencil.
That’s how everyone learned that a) the first video was recorded and shared as a means of disinforming the enemy, and b) that the Ukrainian special forces managed to outwit the Russians.
The only question was, how?
In actuality, what worked in favour of the Ukrainian special forces was that Tomov was quite a timid man. As UP learned from its sources in the Defence Intelligence, after the Defence Forces, including one Defence Intelligence Special Operations Battalion ‘Shaman’, defeated several Russian Units near the Kozachi Laheri, Tomov became scared of taking responsibility and thus reported to his command that in his sector, everything was under control.
After doing so, Tomov sent his men on a reconnaissance mission to learn the real state of affairs at their positions. The Ukrainian special operations personnel, on their part, ambushed and captured them. When Tomov himself went on a reconnaissance mission later on, a similar fate awaited him.
Thanks to Tomov, the Ukrainian military were able to clarify the operational situation in the direction, learn the location of the main units of the Russians, and also source some information to continue their operation in the south.
It’s hard to tell how long the Kherson region will play the role of a distraction.
“As of now, any great manoeuvres here are impossible. The Defence Forces are too waterlocked, and there’s a constant need for boats. The task of disembarking, say, a brigade on the left bank and initiating an offensive against the Russian positions for further de-occupation of the Kherson region seems impossible.
“The way things look,” shares Vladyslav, Commander of Liubert’s FPV team, “no party can have any significant advance in this direction.”
In his opinion, the Russians are hardly planning to advance to the right bank, but never miss an opportunity to set a foothold on the isles. The Ukrainian forces are trying to take over all the isles, and advance to the occupied bank.
“So now everything comes to exchanging rounds of artillery fire and air raids, as well as drone operations. Until we take over the last of the isles, there is no point in disembarking on the opposite bank,’ adds the serviceman.
The battle for the aisles continues, and every day someone has to risk their life on the waters.