A deadly river crossing reveals the dangers of being pinched in the East of the war

BELOKHOROVKE, Ukraine – Beyond the riverbank, a chaotic scene unfolds in the bright spring sunlight: exploding tanks, debris from a pontoon bridge, piles of twigs dead from the explosion and the bodies of Russian soldiers , some are buried in the mud.

In the woods, a short walk reveals tattered pieces of Russian military uniforms hanging from trees, a eerie reminder of the soldiers who died violently here.

The failed river crossing that took place at this site for several days in early May was one of the deadliest skirmishes by Russian troops. Its forces managed to encircle Ukrainian soldiers nearby town of Sievierodonetsk – but instead they became encircled, surrounded by the river and the Ukrainian front lines. At least 400 Russian soldiers were killed, most of them due to artillery attacks.

As the fighting raged across the plains and jungles of eastern Ukraine, troop deployments largely evolved into entrenched efforts. But as the deadly bridge encounter illustrated, this tactic comes with serious risks.

After failing to capture major cities like the Ukrainian capital Kyiv or cut off the entire Black Sea coast, the Russian army attempted to encircle the Ukrainian army in the east. That effort is looking difficult as Ukraine has blocked a major advance, near the town of Izium.

Thus, the immediate goal of Russian forces is to become a smaller encirclement of Sievierodonetsk, the easternmost city of the Donbas region still under Ukrainian control. The shelling of the Russian army approaching from three sides has devastated the city, destroyed electricity and water systems and in the past day left at least six people dead.

Russia’s strategy is to use the blunt tool of the army’s massive artillery force to attack Ukrainian forces, creating incremental gains in the Luhansk region of the Donbas. Western military analysts and intelligence officials believe that Moscow’s forces will face brutal urban warfare if they attempt to completely capture Sievierodonetsk, and they will struggle to wage a attack deeper inside Ukraine.

Encirclement was a difficult prospect for soldiers.

Pvt said: “I try not to think about it. Ivan Sichkar, a Ukrainian soldier surveying the destruction of besieged Russian forces. “If I think about being surrounded, there’s no time to do anything else.”

The refurbished Russian target focused the fighting on a slender, 75-mile front in the Donbas. It is seeking to advance from both the north and the south to close one remaining supply line to Ukraine into the city of Sievierodonetsk.

On Tuesday, Russian troops advanced from the south, forcing Ukrainian troops to withdraw from the small town of Svitlodarsk, fearing that Russian troops would surround the town and trap soldiers inside. And during Wednesday night’s briefing, the General Staff of Ukraine described increased attacks by Russian helicopters and jets in support of ground troops in the east.

With Russia just stopped in Ukraine, President Vladimir V. Putin on Wednesday turned to support at home, announcing an increase in pensions and minimum wages and making his first trip to meet with businessmen soldiers. “They are all heroes,” he said at a military hospital.

Putin also signed a decree opening up a quick route to obtaining Russian citizenship for Ukrainians in areas controlled by the Russian military, a next step towards the annexation of territory in southeastern Ukraine. occupied by Russia.

As Mr. Putin turns to reassure ordinary Russians, Ukraine’s Western allies are trying to maintain pressure on his government. In Ankara on Wednesday, talks took place between Turkey, Finland and Sweden over Turkey’s concerns about the two Nordic countries’ application to join NATO. At a press conference after five hours of talks, Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said further talks were needed.

“Turkey is not under time pressure,” said Kalin. “It is impossible to proceed with any process that is not responsive to Turkey’s security concerns.”

The encirclement strategy has brought far-reaching political benefits to Russia during the protracted conflict in the region, in which Russian-backed separatists fought Ukrainian forces for eight years before the invasion. comprehensive strategy this year. The two ceasefires, known as the Minsk agreements and seen as being implemented on conditions favorable to Russia, followed Russia’s successful encirclement of Ukrainian troops in the east in 2014 and 2015.

But in Belokhorovke, a tiny coal-mining town on the banks of the Seversky Donets River, the landscape changed earlier this month, at least temporarily slowing Russia’s advance.

Ukrainian soldiers who fought in the battle called the site “ear” because of a lobe-like loop in the river where the heaviest fighting took place. The Ukrainian military escorted reporters from The New York Times to the site, which is located on a front line formed in much of the Donbas region by the fast-flowing, rushing river, inflated by spring rains.

Sunlight filtered through the foliage of a quiet, dense forest above the floodplain of the river, which was a Ukrainian killing ground. Mosquito buzz. In some places, the smell of decomposing corpses covered.

“The Russian bodies start here,” Private Sichkar said as he rounded a bend on the dirt road that stretched for about a mile through the woods to the river’s edge. Only at this one point, 15 destroyed armored personnel carriers were scattered.

“The Russians want a little bit of victory,” Colonel Dmytro Kashenko, the Ukrainian officer who led the counterattack on the pontoon, said in an interview. “They tried in Kyiv, they tried in Kharkiv, and they lost. They are trying to win at least something.”

The Seversky Donets River, which cuts a meandering path through eastern Ukraine, forms a natural barrier to Russian advances. Colonel Kashenko said.

He was ordered to one of the crossings on May 8, after the Russians deployed pontoon bridges and moved troops into the nearby seaside forest. Ukrainian infantry entered the area the next day, but were pushed back and suffered losses, he said.

They then set up a line of defense to overwhelm the Russians as they crossed their pontoon, and rained artillery down the area. They also intended to destroy the bridge by placing floating mines upstream, allowing electricity to carry them to the Russian pontoon, which proved an effective tactic. Ukrainian forces blew up four separate bridges at the crossing site.

Colonel Kashenko said that the Russians hastily placed new buoys and sent armored vehicles through, but they were unable to penetrate Ukraine’s defenses. Dozens of armored vehicles and infantrymen were trapped and attacked by Ukrainian artillery. The Ukrainians also fought Russian troops involved in the construction of the bridge on the far shore.

The bombardment included some of the first barges from a new arrival American artillery gunM777, said Colonel Kashenko.

Colonel Kashenko said he gave enemy forces a chance to surrender, shouting over a loudspeaker, “” Russians, give up! “” But he said, “I don’t know if they heard us.”

Some of the enemy soldiers escaped by swimming across the river, the Ukrainian said. The Ukrainians have yet to collect the remains of the Russians scattered around the forest.

In the dappled light sifting through the leaves, food and personal belongings lay scattered: a sleeping bag, a bottle of shower gel, a can of beef, a bag of potatoes, a bag of Russian tea, a pair of flip-flops.

Ukrainian soldiers found a medal certificate issued to a Russian colonel for fighting earlier in the war. It was called “award for military excellence.”

Next to a disabled Russian tank was a cardboard box that appeared to have been used to carry supplies. On the box was a quirky message for a unit in the war: “Always believe that miracles are about to happen.”

General Philip M. Breedlove, the former supreme allied commander in Europe, drew a distinction between Ukraine’s tactics when it sought to target armored vehicles and the Russian army with artillery and the use of artillery. Russia bombarded towns and cities.

General Breedlove said: “In a grand scheme of things, Ukraine is trying to wage maneuver war to regain territory and cut off supply routes. “And Russia is doing a lot of wars based on attrition, wear and tear.”

Of the Russian covered pontoon crossing, he said, “The Russians did something bad, even if you did it brilliantly.”

Maria Varennikova contribution report.

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