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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
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.  



  1. speedster

    May 13, 2022 at 6:11 pm

    I take on board the writers comment regarding the Ukrainians may not be able to stop all incursions over the river. However the article indicated the use of pre existing Ukrainian howitzer and it is known the Ukrainians have received more powerful western howitzer numbering over 100. I would think the superiority of the new artillery will give an advantage to ukraine to make up for any shortfalls due to unforeseen Russian incursions.

  2. Stefan Stackhouse

    May 13, 2022 at 8:25 pm

    Rivers are one of the few natural defensive terrain features that the Ukrainians have. It should not be a surprise that they are trying to make the most of them. Bridges are unavoidable concentration points for equipment, so they become a happy hunting ground for the defenders.

  3. aldol11

    May 14, 2022 at 7:08 am

    neither Russia or Ukraine can sustain a prolonged offensive, i predict a stalemate

  4. Alex

    May 14, 2022 at 9:04 am

    You need to understand the main thing: the United States is hysterical because the United States is losing the war in Ukraine. The only thing is to intervene directly in the conflict. And this will mean the end of the US country.

    And here are the real numbers:
    In total since the beginning of the special military operation, Russia has destroyed: 165 aircraft, 125 helicopters, 858 unmanned aerial vehicles, 304 anti-aircraft missile systems, 3,051 tanks and other armored combat vehicles, 372 multiple rocket launchers, 1,507 field artillery pieces and mortars, as well as 2898 units of special military vehicles.

    Will the old American idiot decide on a nuclear war because of a slap in the impoverished Ukraine? We will see. But one thing is clear: the United States will cease to exist not as a country, but as a continent.

    • BattleCat

      May 15, 2022 at 7:06 am

      Complete nonsense. The United States is not ‘hysterical’ , nor does it have any reason to be, because it’s not “loosing the war in Ukraine”. This is self evident to everyone who isn’t living in the Russian media parallel universe version of the world.

      In fact, “Loosing the war in Ukraine” is probably a far closer description of Russia’s current position. The Russian military is having an absolutely horrendous time and is racking up dizzying losses of both men and equipment, much of it verified with photographic evidence, unlike your tally of Ukrainian equipment that Russia claims to have supposedly “destroyed”, but provided practically no evidence to back this up. Those numbers are almost certainly just plucked out of thin air by the Russian MoD.

      Perfect example being the video of very real Ukrainian Su-25s in the article, which according to Russia should be impossible as Russia has already claimed to have destroyed more Su-25s than the Ukrainian Air Force even had.

      Finally the only ‘idiot’ threatening Nuclear war is Putin, who has alluded to this several times already, such as on the 24th of February when he launched his invasion and threatened other countries with “consequences greater than you have ever faced in history” if they intervened. Or again on the 27th if February when he theatrically announced Russia’s nuclear deterrent forces were being put on high alert.

  5. Alex

    May 15, 2022 at 11:22 am

    A demobilized French soldier, author of the book “Get up and go thanks to science” Adrien Boke went to Ukraine on a humanitarian mission and spent three weeks there.

    Upon his return, he decided to convey to the French information about the events he had witnessed in Ukraine.

    “I take full responsibility for what I say. While in Ukraine, I witnessed war crimes. All of them were committed by the Ukrainian army. But in France we don’t talk about it!

    When I returned to France from Ukraine, I was shocked: TV channels invite as experts people who have not been to Ukraine and do not know anything about what is happening there now. However, they dare to speculate about these events. Between what I hear from the TV screen and what I saw with my own eyes is an abyss.

    Azov fighters are everywhere. With neo-Nazi stripes. It shocks me that Europe is supplying weapons to neo-Nazis. Not only do they not hide their views. They advertise them. I worked with these people and treated them.

    Being there, there was nothing I could do. Just watch and make videos. I have this footage and will use it as evidence of Ukraine’s crimes.

    I witnessed how the Ukrainian military shot through the knees of captured Russian soldiers and shot in the head higher-ranking officers.

    I have personally seen American videographers making fake footage from the scene of the events staging.

    All destroyed civilian buildings, given out by Ukraine for bombardment of civilians, are nothing more than the result of inaccurate shooting by Ukrainians at military facilities.

    The Armed Forces of Ukraine hide ammunition in residential buildings at night, without even informing the residents. This is called using people as a shield, ”Boke quotes one of the French media.

    The Washington Post recently drew attention to the fact that Ukrainian troops are placing military equipment in residential areas of cities in an attempt to counter the Russian Armed Forces, which threatens the lives of civilians.

    Boke also spoke about the untruthfulness of Western media reports about the events in Bucha.

    “Bucha is a staging. The bodies of the dead were moved from other places and deliberately placed in such a way as to produce shocking footage, ”the French author noted.

    The documents confirming this were submitted to the Federal Security Service – how, who – there are relevant intercepts – on what transport he came to this settlement and created the conditions for organizing this provocation.

    Soon all the collected evidence about the crimes of the Nazis in Ukraine will be seen by the whole world. And the most important thing is the help of Western countries to the Nazis of Ukraine and assistance in their crimes.

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