The River War in Ukraine Is About to Get Intense Thanks to Drones

Rivers have long been natural boundaries that can act as a barrier against an invading force.

Such was the role of the Dnipro River in Ukraine after Russian forces retreated from the city of Kherson last year and took positions near its eastern banks.

Achieving any bridgehead on the left bank of the giant river has eluded Kyiv’s forces, but reports this week suggest an effort to establish greater control of the contested waterway.

Ukraine has sought to strike hard with small speed boats and drones, which are routinely used to target Russian positions on the small but fortified islands in the river. In one attack carried out late last week, several Russian soldiers were killed or wounded while attempting to hold one such island.

Disputing the Delta

The contested islands within the Dnipro Delta have been the scene of intermittent skirmishes between the opposing forces for months. The islands provide a strategic position and could be a launching pad for a Ukrainian offensive. 

“Since the start of July 2023, there has highly likely been an increase in fighting around the lower reaches of the Dnipro River,” the UK Ministry of Defense announced Wednesday morning in its latest intelligence briefing on the war in Ukraine.

“As well as intense combat on the eastern bank around the small Ukrainian bridgehead near the ruined Antonivsky Bridge, small units of Russian and Ukrainian troops have also been contesting islands in the Dnipro delta,” the Ministry added.

Both sides use small, fast motorboats in the skirmishes, while Ukraine has successfully relied on tactical one-way attack uncrewed aerial vehicles — drones — to destroy some of the Russian boats.

As a result, the Russian military faces a fresh dilemma. The UK Ministry of Defense believes Russia will have to decide whether to prioritize its efforts against the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Zaporizhzhia, or to try fending off new attacks on the Dnipro River. Reinforcing the Dnipro Group of Forces would require diverting crucial resources from the units already engaged in the Zaporizhzhia Oblast. This predicament highlights the strain Russian forces are under as they must deal with a dual threat.

The UK Ministry of Defense reported in a previous briefing that “Ukraine continues to attack on at least two axes” in the south, “but is unlikely to have yet broken into Russia’s primary defensive lines.” In addition, the British intelligence report suggested, “In Kherson Oblast, Ukraine maintains a small bridgehead on the left bank of the Dnipro River near the ruined Antonivsky Bridge, which is an added challenge for Russian commanders who are likely concerned about the vulnerability of their southwestern flank.”

While a bridgehead has yet to be made, it would appear that Ukraine’s use of drones could give it the advantage. The Battle for the Dnipro River continues. Once breached, it could open another front for Kyiv.

Author Experience and Expertise

A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.

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