The Russians in Donbas are at their military antics once again. Satellite images of an entire Russian armored column composed of tanks and armored vehicles were reportedly destroyed as they were trying to cross a river in Donbas. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry identified the river to be the Siverskyi Donets River, near the town of Bilohorivka.
The Siverskyi Donets River is a river that flows through Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Luhansk in Ukraine, then on towards the Rostov Oblast in Russia. It is an important source of fresh water in Ukraine, specifically for those living in the East.
We saw some of these photos and tried to make sense of what happened. Our hypothesis is that the Russian forces, specifically the 74th Motorized Rifle Brigade, were trying to cross the river to get to resupply sites further east in the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic, where they may very well have repair and supply sites. They decided to cross the river to save time, and everybody knows you’re going to need pontoon bridges to do so. But erecting and setting these bridges up takes a certain amount of time to do so.
While they were doing this, the Ukrainian forces, possibly through their drones, spotted the Russians erecting the bridges and patiently waited for them to finish. We say this because these satellite photos reveal that some tanks had already crossed the river. Of course, when the tanks and armored vehicles were crossing, the Ukrainian forces waited for the first few to cross, then blew those units up to block them on the bridge.
We’re not entirely sure if the tail end of the column was bombed first prior to the bridge to block them off, but it may very well be the case. So far Ukraine has been very adept at ambushing Russian armored columns and sound doctrine would have you disabling the front and rear vehicles immediately, to stop the column from either advancing or retreating.
The bridge was then hit with artillery as Russian tanks and vehicles attempted to rush across. It may also be the case that Ukrainian ground troops, as well as their own tanks, had also encircled them, but we have no confirmation of this as of writing. This is also very smart tactically. By sinking tanks and vehicles in the river, it creates obstructions underwater that would make the construction of another pontoon bridge later on much more difficult for the Russian engineering units.
The rest of the column was either destroyed or abandoned as the troops operating these vehicles scattered into the woods during the artillery bombardment that followed.
“Bilohorivka is now an outpost of Luhansk oblast where Ruscists keep trying to cross the river but end up feeding the fish,” Ukrainian military official Serhiy Haidai said to a local media outlet.
The Ukrainian Unit responsible for the destruction of an entire tank battalion were the artillerymen from the 17th Tank Brigade, according to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. This unit is one of Ukraine’s four active tank brigades that operate T-64s and BMP fighting vehicles. Using their drones, they scoured the area and found these Russian tanks trying to cross and figured why not do some target practice. It wasn’t their tanks that did the damage, though. It was their 2S1 122mm howitzers in the Godzik Self Propelled Gun that rained fire down on this battalion. The howitzer used has a range of 9.3 miles or 13.5 miles with extended range rounds.
“Artillerymen of the 17th tank brigade of the #UAarmy have opened the holiday season for ruscists. Some bathed in the Siverskyi Donets River, and some were burned by the May sun,” said the Defense Ministry of Ukraine in a tweet.
There is no official count of how many tanks and armored vehicles were destroyed nor official casualty counts. However, satellite imagery revealed that some 100 vehicles were destroyed and a thousand troops were estimated to be dead, as per a report by Forbes. Unlike a fight between infantry, artillery barrages tend to blow you to bits, making accurate casualty counts from the air more difficult to assess. Among the casualties would have been members of the Russian engineering units as well. These are highly-trained specialized troops and will be hard to replace easily.
Director of Strategy, Technology, and Arms Control at the International Institute for Strategic Studies William Alberque said that these units were trying to encircle Ukrainian forces and had suffered a significant loss of tanks and armored personnel in these attacks. However, he also said that these losses would not change the course of the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
“I think this will significantly affect operations in the region for a while, but it’s not as if Russia is short” of the carriers,” he stated. “Ukraine is using geography. They’re using rivers, anything they can to force the Russians into choke points, and then attacking those chokepoints when they become permissive targets,” he added.
“To have this many vehicles in this small a space, this close to the Ukrainians shows incredibly poor discipline from the Russians.”
While the Russians appear to have picked an ideal crossing point on the river in terms of it having ready road access, low sloping banks, slow-moving water, and narrow width, but they failed to take into account that the Ukrainians would also be watching this location as an ideal place for a river crossing.
Rather than disperse their crossing units to conceal their intent to cross, they seem to have bunched them up on the road leading to the crossing. When the pontoon was constructed, which may have taken 4-6 hours or even longer depending on the proficiency of the engineer unit doing it. From the pictures, it appears they attempted to build two pontoon bridges when it would have been smarter to build one, cross and secure the opposite bank, and then build the second one to handle the increased traffic. They should have sent infantry across first on foot(and under the cover of darkness) to establish a secure bridgehead on the other side fanning out several hundred yards before their vehicles began to cross with several hundred feet of spacing between them. They appeared to have attempted this with troops inside fighting vehicles and only pushed out about 100 yards from the bridgehead.
Finally, the most fatal mistake was the failure of the Russian commander to conduct aerial reconnaissance of the area. A Ukrainian armored formation was about ten miles away with self-propelled artillery that could bring him under fire as his tanks and men crossed the bridge. That represented a major threat to the crossing attempt. It should have been attacked in advance of the crossing by air and artillery immediately before to cover his troops as they dashed across. It is also probable that his unit was under drone surveillance by Ukraine before, during, and after the attack. The inability or failure to establish even local air superiority prior to and during the crossing was fatal to the attempt as well
Whether by sheer tactical ineptness or by failing to appreciate the capability of Ukrainian forces, this Russian commander got his unit annihilated in that crossing.