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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

Ukraine Is Smashing Russian Bridgeheads Left and Right—But Maybe Still Not Fast Enough

BM-21 Grad Rockets in Ukraine. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
BM-21 Grad Rockets. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Drone surveillance photos published this week reveal the annihilation of Russian mechanized forces attempting to cross the Siverskyi Donets River in eastern Ukraine using a pontoon bridge.

Surveillance Activity

Photos and videos show dozens of clustered tanks, trucks and miscellaneous armored fighting vehicles destroyed or abandoned at the attempted crossing point over one mile northwest of the town of Bilohorivka, in between the cities of Sloviansk and Severodonetsk. Several armored vehicles appear to be sunk in the river, while others had their turrets blown off.

Open-source analysts have counted at least 73 knocked-out vehicles and pieces of heavy equipment, amounting to the better part of a mechanized infantry battalion tactical group allegedly belonging to the Yurga-based 74th Motor-Rifle Brigade, a subunit of Russia’s 41st Army.

The PP-2005M pontoon bridge itself has been broken into component segments, several of which had holes punched clean through by shelling.

The destruction extends beyond the bridgehead to the surrounding forest.

Drone footage also confirms the destroyed or abandoned condition of the vehicles.

Analysts have counted at least seven T-72B tanks, 28 BMP or BMD infantry fighting vehicles, seven tracked MT-LB armored personnel carriers, a tugboat and miscellaneous command, recovery and engineering vehicles destroyed or abandoned.

Ukrainian sources also allege that on May 12, Russian forces stuck on the Ukrainian side of the river tried and failed to escape via a new bridge to the other side. This bridge was also destroyed, and survivors ended up swimming across without their equipment.

The Russian bridgehead reportedly fell victim to Ukrainian combat aircraft and artillery from Ukraine’s 17th Tank Brigade. The brigade’s artillery group is equipped with battalion each of 122-millimeter 2S1 and 152-millimeter 2S3 self-propelled howitzers, and one of BM-21 rocket launchers. Trees stripped of foliage in some photos suggest they employed air-bursting shells.

The Russian military has lost many troops and high-ranking officers in attempted pontoon-bridge crossing operations across Ukraine. In March, Russian Col. Nikolay Ovcharenko—commander of the Western Military District’s 45th Engineering Brigade—was killed trying to establish another pontoon bridge across the  Severskyi Donets river northwest of Izium, reportedly along with 18 other personnel killed and 46 wounded.

Two other Russian lieutenant colonels were killed in attempted bridge crossings, including the commander of the Central Military District’s 12th Engineering Brigade fallen to mortar fire, and the chief-of-staff of the 41st Combined Arms Army’s 40th Engineering Regiment, who died along with eight other Russian soldiers attempting to erect a pontoon bridge near Chernihiv.

Tale of a combat engineer in Ukraine

In a thread on Twitter, a Ukrainian combat engineering officer named Maxim, who specializes in Explosive Ordinance Disposal, describes his purported role in the battle. Several earlier posts from his account highlight wartime activities including demolishing bridges, laying and removing mines, and defusing unexploded artillery shells and a Russian missile.

According to his account (slightly modified for clarity) “Initially, there was intelligence from frontline units that there are Russians on the other side of the river and they gather various vehicles. So, my commander asked on 6th May me as one of the best military engineers to do engineering reconnaissance on Siverskyi Donets river. Together with recon units for backup, I went to explore the area of Hryhorivka and Bilohorivka on 7th May. Frontline units in Bilohorivka reported multiple Russian vehicles gathering on the other side of the river.

I explored the area and suggested a location where Russians might attempt to mount a pontoon bridge to get to the other side. And I used rangefinders to figure out river is 80 meters wide, thus Russians would need 8 segments (10 meters each) of the bridge connected to get to the other side. With that flow of the river, I knew they would need motorized boats to arrange such a bridge, and it would take them at least two hours of work…

Maxim double-checked his findings and reported them to his commander. He also advised local reconnaissance elements to listen for motorboat activity, as visibility was poor due to a combination of fog and forest fires.

“They had to hear the sound. And they did on May 8 early morning. Right at the place I said.”

Though Ukrainian ground surveillance didn’t spot the bridgehead, using a drone Maxim claims he found the Russian troops erecting a pontoon bridge in the very location he had predicted. The Russian bridging unit managed to connect seven out of eight needed bridging segments, and meanwhile ferried over some troops and vehicles to the opposing side, which engaged Ukrainian forces.

Around 20 minutes after the bridgehead was detected, Ukrainian artillery began raining down on the pontoon bridge. So did Ukrainian combat aircraft, likely Su-25 Frogfoot ground attack jets. Several recent video show Ukrainian Su-25s armed with multiple 122-millimeter rocket pods flying at low level over Donbas on May 8-9.

Maxim concludes:

“After on day of combat, by the morning of 9th May the bridge was down. Some Russian forces (about 30-50 vehicles plus infantry) were stuck on the Ukrainian side of the river with no way back. They tried to run away using broken bridges. Then they tried to arrange a new bridge. Then aviation started heavy bombing of the area and destroyed all of the remaining Russians there and the other bridge they tried to make. “

Whack-a-mole on the Siverskyi Donets

Losses from this destroyed bridgehead are variously estimated to equate to one or two battalion tactical groups (BTGs) rendered combat ineffective. Russia is believed to be currently fielding less than 90 combat-effective BTGs in the conflict.

Unfortunately, that force has proven sufficient to attempt multiple bridge crossings in succession, with at least two more recently destroyed by Ukrainian forces. Unfortunately, Ukrainian troops may not be able to detect and destroy Russian bridging attempts fast enough.

Recent reports suggest another crossing of the Siverskyi Donets has created a viable bridgehead allowing Russian troops to advance into Novoselivka, Yampil and Hryholivka.

This thrust is to the west of the heavily fortified city of Severodonetsk, a lynchpin of Ukrainian’s defensive positions in Luhansk. If Russian forces can successfully exploit this bridgehead, they could drive south and try to link up with Russian forces in Popasna, cutting lines of communication to three-to-five Ukrainian brigades defending the Severodontesk ‘bulge’.

A major battle is reportedly raging in this area as Ukrainian forces attempt to stamp a breakthrough.

The battle at the Siverskyi bridgehead illustrates how stubbornly terrain continues to dominate the conduct of land warfare in Ukraine, both in terms of natural geography and artificial obstacles. Combat engineers therefore play an important role in both attack and defense by seeking to create or circumvent such obstacles.

Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including The National InterestNBC NewsForbes.comWar is Boring, and 19FortyFive, where he is Defense-in-Depth editor.  He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.

Written By

Sebastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including the 19FortyFive, The National Interest, NBC News,, and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China.