The critical importance of rivers for Ukraine’s defense

Evacuees carrying bags walks along the river bank near a destroyed bridge as they flee the city of Irpin, northwest of Kyiv, on March 7, 2022.

Western Ukraine has undulating-to-mountainous terrain, which is why Belarus will never attack. It’s easy to defend such territory. But out in the east, where the ground war is being fought, it’s as flat as a pancake, the western side of the great Eurasian Steppes, where nomads roamed for centuries. It’s great farmland, the breadbasket of Europe, and, it turns out, much of the Middle East and Northern Africa as well.

Great farmland, however, makes for shitty defensive ground. Amber waves of grain might offer some visual cover in the summer, but you don’t even get that in the winter. Yet Russia and its separatist allies haven’t been able to push deep into Ukraine’s interior. Part of that, of course, is the ferocious tenacity of Ukraine’s defenders. But they also have two natural allies in the war—the spring mud, which we’ve discussed, and the region’s network of rivers.

Where are the battle lines drawn in northwest Kyiv?

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Bucha, to the north of the Bucha River, is Russian held. Directly to the south? Irpin, Ukrainian held, and this is where we’ve been since the first week of the war. Further assisting defenders on that Northwest approach is the Irpin River, which Ukraine flooded to create, well, this:

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Several Russian attempts to bridge the Irpin River with pontoon bridges were swept away by the rising river waters.

In the south, Kherson sits on the north side of the Dneiper River, and you might remember the back-and-forth battles in the war’s first few days for the bridge crossing that river. No one knows why Ukraine didn’t blow it up, as it would’ve altered the Russian advance.

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If you click the link above, you’ll see that’s a big river. There was no pontoon bridge crossing that sucker, which would’ve forced Russians to route to the east, lengthening supply lines and giving Kherson time to dig in for defense. The push up north to Mykolaiv would’ve been hindered. But speaking of Mykolaiv …

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Russia wanted to push past Kherson, and head west to the strategic port city of Odesa. However, it’s impossible to do so without crossing the Southern Bug River. Russia thought, “fuck it, we’ll bypass it!” However, the next crossing wasn’t possible until the city of Voznesensk, 80 kilometers (50 miles) away! And if you’ve been paying attention, the battle of Voznesensk was the beginning of the great Ukrainian counterattack. But had Russian forces pushed their way into the city, defenders were ready to blow up the bridge. Russia was never going to cross there. Looking at the map, the next crossing wasn’t until Oleksandrivka, which was another 15 miles up the road, and that bridge would’ve been blown. Lather, rinse repeat.

Yesterday we took a look at Ukrainian offensives around the country, and we learned that the hamlet of Vilkhivka, just east of Kharkiv, had been liberated. Looking at the map, we see it opens up the highway that rings the outside of the city. But there’s another benefit. Let’s look at the map:

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Vilkhivka, east of Kharkiv, liberated yesterday by Ukraine.

Well look at that, it’s a river! This one is called the Rohanka. And look at the closeup of this speck of a village:

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Vilkhivka, Ukraine

That’s the whole town of Vilkhivka, but it has that all-important bridge. Now Ukraine can leave a garrison behind to defend the bridge, or, if necessary, blow it.

Let’s go to Donbas front. Someone asked in a previous story of mine why Ukraine was fighting for Severodonetsk, since it was surrounded on three sides.

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Izyum on the left, Sievierodonetsk on the right in the eastern Donbas front—some of the fiercest fighting currently underway.

To the right you have Severodonetsk, under unbelievable shelling and constant attacks. To the left is Izyum. The fighting is desperate, existential. And you know why they hold on those cities so tightly?

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Severodonetsk

Yup! There’s a river! Russia wants to encircle Ukraine’s defensive positions on that broader front, but to do so, they have to cross the Seversky Donets river. Same thing in Izyum, which Russia had captured, but Ukraine has been fighting to win it back.

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Izyum, Ukraine. It’s kind of amazing how few bridges cross some of these rivers.

Russia has the north half of town, Ukraine has battled back to hold the southern half, and both those bridges have been blown. Therefore, Russia has had to find other ways to cross the river.

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Except Ukrainian artillery or drones target those pontoon bridges, as they did near Kyiv:

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Here’s another broken pontoon near Kyiv. Also, Mykolaiv Oblast:

You know where Russia has had the most success? Around Mariupol. And you know what’s missing down there? Rivers, of course.

Keep the geography of rivers in mind when you wonder why Ukraine is putting up a fight in one place, but not others. And also note, what helps Ukraine defend, could hinder Ukraine if it ever manages to go on a full-scale offensive. Once Kherson is liberated, do they blow the bridge south of the city, thus protecting it from southern approaches, or do they keep it open for potentially pushing south into Crimea? All those bridges they’ve blown northwest of Kyiv can slow counterattacks. You get the picture.

And thus concludes my big, long, extended look at rivers.

Sunday, Mar 27, 2022 12:44:51 PM +00:00 · Mark Sumner

This location is actually quite a bit south of Kharkiv and closer to Luhansk. It’s quite close to Slovyansk, which was the first city outside Crimea that Russia captured in their 2014 invasion.

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