Ukraine's counteroffensive begins in earnest

It's little mystery who blew up the Kakhovka dam

By Lucian K. Truscott IV


Published June 10, 2023 8:00AM (EDT)

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy | A view of destruction at site after Russian attacks struck a shopping mall, in Kyiv, Ukraine on March 21, 2022. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy | A view of destruction at site after Russian attacks struck a shopping mall, in Kyiv, Ukraine on March 21, 2022. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

There's no place where you can dig on a boat. That's why river crossings, or crossing any body of water for that matter, are the most hated and dangerous of military operations. So let's get this straight, right off the bat:  A country contemplating launching an offensive – that would be Ukraine — especially against an enemy force larger than its own, does not choose to immediately make things more difficult for itself.

It's not the only reason, but it's the main reason why Ukraine did not blow the Kakhovka dam on the Dnipro River.  They would be idiots to destroy the hydroelectric plant at the dam that supplies electricity to much of the Kherson region. That was of course done by Russia, which has made it part of their overall strategy of the war to launch a campaign against Ukraine's energy infrastructure since its beginning. 

Ukraine holds the west bank of the Dnipro, and Russia holds the east bank. Does anyone actually think Ukraine blew up that dam, turning a river into a mile-wide lake the Ukrainian army would have to cross in order to attack Russian positions on the east bank? The first thing an army calculates when planning for a river crossing is how much time its soldiers will spend in boats on the water, where they are most vulnerable to enemy fire. Alternatively, it was to the advantage of Russia to widen the water gap Ukrainian forces must cross before they reach the east bank of the Dnipro to engage the enemy and seek cover and concealment from enemy fire.

The destruction of the dam, and the flooding of Kherson and the entire Dnipro delta, drowned out the idea that Ukraine might launch at least one part of its offensive in that region.  There had been speculation for months about where Ukraine would begin its counteroffensive.  The front line in the war is more than 600 miles long, reaching from the Russian border in the north to the Sea of Azov and the Crimean Peninsula in the south, so Ukraine has had a lot of spots to consider.

Would they choose to focus the attack on Bakhmut and humiliate Putin and his attack dog Prigozhin, who recently announced they had won the year-long battle for Bakhmut?  Ukraine could shove Russia's egotism down their throats:  You spent 100,000 troops to take a town of 70,000 in the middle of Eastern Ukraine nowhere?  Watch this!

Does anyone actually think Ukraine blew up that dam, turning a river into a mile-wide lake the Ukrainian army would have to cross in order to attack Russian positions on the east bank?

Or Ukraine could build on their previous offensive success by pushing the gains they made last September in the Kharkiv region further east toward Luhansk.  They could have done the same thing in the area of Kherson if Russia hadn't blown the Kakhovka dam, turning all of Kherson and much of the region south of the dam into a lake.

Instead, Ukraine has apparently chosen to attack from Zaporizhzhia south toward Melitopol, a city once known as "the gateway to Crimea" because 80 percent of passenger rail traffic passed through the city, and so does the main highway to the peninsula.  It's a bold strategy.  If Ukraine is able to push through Russian defenses all the way to Melitopol, they will have cut the so-called land bridge to Crimea Russia has been using to resupply its military along the southern portion of the front lines in Eastern Ukraine. 

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Russia has been so paranoid that Ukraine will try to cut off its access to Crimea, they have spent the last six months digging an elaborate series of trenches across the Zaporizhzhia region north of Melitopol to protect the rail and road link leading to Crimea across a bridge.  They have also dug trenches and built so-called dragon's teeth anti-tank defenses to the south of Kherson to protect their control of the narrow isthmus Perekop, along which runs the second road link between the Ukrainian mainland and Crimea. 

As in all wars, however, only time will tell how well this offensive works for Ukraine.

Incredibly, or perhaps insanely, they have dug trenches and set long rows of dragon's teeth along the beaches of Vitino, a little town on the western coast of Crimea.  How the Russians think that Ukraine, a country without a significant navy, is going to launch an amphibious attack on the west coast of Crimea is known only to Russia, and specifically to Vladimir Putin, whom the Washington Post describes as obsessed with the peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014. "The Russian military, apparently, understands that Crimea will have to be defended in the near future," Ian Matveev, a Russian military analyst told the Post. "For Putin, Crimea is just a sacred cow."

Aerial view of a beach

Description automatically generated with low confidence

This photo from the satellite company, Maxar Technologies, shows a section of over 5,000 feet of four-foot tall concrete dragon's teeth set in two rows for a total of more than 1,000 in all. The photo also shows in dark brown lines the defensive trenches dug along the beach. Because they are in a zig-zag pattern, there are more than 6,500 feet of trenches in the same 5,000 feet of beach. Look closely, and you'll see that both the dragon's teeth and network of trenches extend beyond the edges of the photo, so there is no telling how many thousands of feet there are of both protecting what, exactly? I see at least one backyard pool in the photo, so it looks to me like they're protecting the vacation dachas of some very wealthy Russians.

All that money for concrete and labor to move the dragon's teeth and dig the trenches could have been spent better protecting the land bridge between Melitopol and Crimea which is more than 200 miles away. Which I guess gives some color to the Russian military analyst's "sacred cow" description of the way Putin sees the prize seized in 2014. Last year a story in American news media revealed that Putin has built himself a palace on a spit of Crimean land close to the Kerch Bridge. According to a video distributed by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny before he was put in the slammer by Putin, the place is nearly 200,000 square feet in size and costs more than $2.3 billion. I'd love to see satellite photos of the defenses around that.

The Russian military has also established networks of anti-tank trenches and dragon's teeth near the small towns of Polohy and Novofedorivka, both along the road from Zaporizhzhia to Mariupol. Some of the trenches and lines of dragon's teeth are shown in a Maxar Technology satellite photo here:

Russia digs in as Ukraine prepares to attack | Reuters

Both the Washington Post and the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), which tracks movements by Ukrainian and Russian forces along the front lines using cell phone geo-locating and reports from Russian military bloggers, as well as from what is officially released by the Ukrainian and Russian military, report that there has been heavy fighting in the Zaporizhzhia region, around a town called Liubymivka, located along the road from the city of Zaporizhzhia to Mariupol. There is also fighting by Ukrainian partisans in Tokmak, south of Zaporizhzhia, and in the city of Melitopol. 

The New York Times reported on Thursday that some of the Ukrainian brigades that received training in Germany and Poland in recent months have attacked south of Zaporizhzhia near a town called Novomikhailivka, using U.S. Bradley fighting vehicles and Leopard II tanks from Germany. Ukrainian forces are "looking for weaknesses in the Russian line," according to the Times, and will "wait to see which of several advancing forces achieves the most success before making that one the main thrust of the overall attack." The battles described by the Times and ISW indicate that the Ukrainian counteroffensive may be along two axes, directly south towards Melitopol and southeast toward Mariupol. The Times is also reporting there is heavy fighting near Bakhmut, where Ukraine is having successes to the north and south of the city.

When Russia blew the Kakhovka dam on Tuesday, it should have been seen as the last chance desperate move that it was.  Now we know it didn't work.  Ukraine already had forces in place to attack elsewhere, and by Thursday afternoon, the reporting in U.S. newspapers indicated that military experts believe the long-expected Ukrainian counter-offensive is now fully underway.  The British Ministry of Defense, which has had excellent intelligence on the progress of the war ever since it began, said Thursday that "heavy fighting continues along multiple sectors of the front," and concluded that "In most areas Ukraine holds the initiative."

There is an old saying that an army on the attack is happier than when it's on the defensive. As in all wars, however, only time will tell how well this offensive works for Ukraine.

By Lucian K. Truscott IV

Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. He has covered stories such as Watergate, the Stonewall riots and wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels and several unsuccessful motion pictures. He has three children, lives in rural Pennsylvania and spends his time Worrying About the State of Our Nation and madly scribbling in a so-far fruitless attempt to Make Things Better. You can read his daily columns at and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.

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