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Hints of a military breakthrough for Ukraine overshadowed by concerns about the future

In its fight against Russia, Ukraine has managed to establish a modest but significant bridgehead on the left bank of the Dnipro River near the village of Krynky. But Ukraine’s top general says his country needs more help from the West, particularly advanced technology, to cement gains.

Ukraine's top general spells out what it will take to beat Russia to the country's Western backers

Ukrainian sappers inspect a field for explosive devices, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kherson region, Ukraine November 9, 2023.

With hopes of a significant breakthrough by Ukrainian forces during their much-touted summer counter-offensive long dashed, the social media chatter this week out the southern Kherson region came as something of a surprise.

Slowly but surely, war-watchers from both sides confirmed that determined elements of Ukraine's 35th Marine Infantry brigade had managed to establish a modest but significant bridgehead on the left bank of the Dnipro River near the village of Krynky.

Not only was Ukraine able to reinforce the landing with fresh soldiers, unverified images posted on social media this week showed Ukrainian ferries loaded with heavy vehicles along with other amphibious vehicles coming ashore in the muddy area and taking up new positions.

A Ukrainian serviceman prepares a Partyzan small multiple rocket launch system for firing toward Russian troops near a front line, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine November 7, 2023.

To be sure, the territorial gains appear modest — a few square kilometres at best and the Ukrainian forces have yet to breakout beyond the vicinity of the river — but the strategic significance may nonetheless be important.

A bridgehead on the left bank of the Dnipro, about 90 kilometres from Crimea, has been a long-sought Ukrainian military goal.

Bridgehead breakthrough?

The marshy land affords the Russians fewer defensive advantages than further north in Zaporizhzhia and opens up a possible new route for a Ukrainian advance toward the strategically important Crimean peninsula.

"I think it's significant because they have been struggling to do this for the entire counter-offensive," said Jade McGlynn, a research associate at the Department of War Studies at King's College London.

"They've crossed it [the Dnipro] many times but [have] not been able to hold it, and that is a base where you can genuinely go to liberate parts of Kherson Oblast that are occupied."

FILE PHOTO: A local resident walks in front of damaged residential buildings, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in the town of Avdiivka, Donetsk region, Ukraine October 17, 2023.

There are indications that Russian commanders are worried enough that they have begun shifting troops south to defend against the new Ukrainian positions — but just how much tactical use Ukraine's military will be able to make of its new left bank positioning remains uncertain.

The bridgehead advance and river crossing comes at a time of intense reflection and re-assessment for Ukraine along with the Western nations that have supported it militarily since Russia's invasion in February 2021.

In advance of this summer's expected counter-offensive, European nations and the United States provided Ukraine with approximately 100 Leopard 2 main battle tanks, several hundred armoured personnel carriers and other fighting vehicles, and hundreds of thousands of rounds of artillery ammunition.

State Emergency Service deminer uses a remote-controlled de-mining vehicle GCS 200 to work on a field near the village of Kamianka destroyed last year by Russian military strike, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kharkiv region, Ukraine November 8, 2023.

But after failing to make what Ukraine's top battlefield commander referred to as a "deep and beautiful breakthrough" against Russian fortifications, the pivotal question now is how Ukraine can prevent the battlefield from grinding into an unwinnable stalemate.

Ukraine general warns of risks

Gen. Valery Zaluzhny kicked off the introspection with a highly unusual essay in The Economist magazine, where he bluntly laid out the additional Western help Ukraine needs to avoid losing.

With its deeper reserves of soldiers and equipment and extreme tolerance for taking heavy casualties, a long war favours Russia, he wrote.

In order to drive the Russian occupation forces out of Eastern Ukraine, Zaluzhny said Ukraine would have to fight smarter and use technology more effectively.

Among his "asks" from Western governments is more help to clear Russian mine fields, more counter-battery fire to suppress Russia artillery, enhanced electronic warfare capabilities and more robust training for Ukrainian reserves.

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Gen. Zaluzhny also pleaded with Western nations to help Ukraine build up its industrial and production facilities to produce more of its own weapons.

While President Volodymyr Zelensky initially appeared to criticize his senior commander for going public with his concerns, Zaluzhny's honest assessment struck a chord for many in Ukraine's military.

CBC News spoke to 37-year-old Ukrainian soldier Kostiantyn Denysov, who is now stationed in Zaporizhzhia in southeastern Ukraine. He fought over the summer in key battles at Piatykhatky and Robotyne with a division called the "Freedom Brigade."

"The Russians in Zaporizhzhia had a whole year to strengthen themselves, to mine, to dig in. All of their positions were controlled by artillery and they had drones in every trench," said Denysov.

Destroyed Russian armoured vehicles are seen in a field near the town of Vuhledar, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Donetsk region, Ukraine in this handout picture released November 5, 2023.

"The only advantage we had was that we were fighting for our own land. That's why we had huge losses of equipment and also of our cherished brothers," he told CBC News in a Zoom interview.

Denysov echoed the general's call for the West to send more de-mining equipment and long-range artillery to suppress the Russian fire.

The United States has provided the lion's share of Western military help to Ukraine with more than $46 billion US worth of weapons and other armaments.

Germany has provided the most direct military assistance of any European nation, at more than $17 billion US.

Canada has given Ukraine roughly $1.6 billion US in direct military support, including tanks, artillery, anti-tank weapons and ammunition.

But even with all the powerful assistance, Denysov said Western nations continue to overestimate the capabilities of Ukraine's army and hold unrealistically low expectations of Russia's.

'Unreasonable expectations'

He said during the summer offensive, Ukrainian soldiers could feel the pressure and many felt as though they had to prevail or else the Western support would stop.

"It was like being in a frying pan," he told CBC News of the added pressure. "It created unreasonable expectations and we were forced to move forward," taking higher casualties, he added.

By the end of the summer and after ferocious battles, Ukrainian forces ended up liberating roughly 65 square kilometres of territory in Zaporizhzhia, a tiny fraction of what they had initially wanted.

Russia still controls about 18 per cent of Ukraine's territory, according to an assessment by the Reuters news agency.

A cat is seen near a house destroyed last year by Russian military strike, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in the village of Kamianka, in Kharkiv region, Ukraine, November 8, 2023.

Serhiy Grabski, a former former Ukrainian air force colonel, told CBC News he expects to see only modest changes to the battlefield map over the next six months or so.

"Right now, the main task is to protect the line, try to make some advances … and destroy the Russian defences," Grabski said from Ukraine's capital, Kyiv.

For the past month, Russia's army has been mounting ferocious assaults on the eastern Donbas town of Avdiivka, trying to close a noose around the Ukrainian troops defending inside.

A Ukrainian military spokesman told Reuters Wednesday that roughly 40,000 Russian soldiers have surrounded the community and another attack appears imminent.

"Russia is able to deploy roughly 20,000 troops to the field every month," said Grabski.

"My assessment is that despite the desperate attempts of Ukrainian troops to destroy as many of them as possible, the Russian side can keep a balance of their forces without any decrease in tanks, missile launchers and equipment."

He said the stark reality is that Russia is geared to fight a never ending war that gives Gen. Zaluzhny's plea for more help urgency.

Grabski said he expects in the months to come, Western nations will provide Ukraine with much of what it is asking for, particularly the help with de-mining, and more electronic countermeasures to jam the communication and navigation signals of Russian drones.

He's less hopeful however that Ukraine will receive the longer range missiles that its commanders say they need to strike at Russian military bases deep inside the country.

Modest offensives

He said he expects Ukraine's army will continue to launch modest offensive actions all winter long and the Dnipro River bridgehead could become a useful launching point for attacks on Russian positions in the southern part of the country.

"Ukrainian forces must continue offensive operations … without that I am afraid our plans to destroy and break through the Russian south front will be unrealistic," he said.

A Russian serviceman holds a combat FPV-drone assembled by volunteers by order of the Russia's Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), during handing over ceremony in Simferopol, Crimea, November 9, 2023.

Jade McGlynn, the King's College War Studies analyst, said Ukraine has had some success at challenging Russia's hold on Crimea with medium range missile attacks, including hitting vessels belonging to Russia's Black Sea fleet and forcing many ships to relocate to ports further away from Ukraine.

Slowly but surely, she said Russia's ability to defend the key peninsula is eroding.

"We are definitely getting closer [to making Crimea untenable for Russia]," said McGlynn. "It would seem to me that this is one of those things that would happen quite gradually — and then all of a sudden."

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