Bridging a river under enemy fire is one of the toughest tasks any land force can face. Russia is offering the world lessons in how not to do it, say Western combat veterans.
Since launching its large-scale invasion of Ukraine three months ago, Russia has sought to cross several rivers using temporary floating bridges so its troops could advance. Many of the attempts went badly.
Early in the war, Russian forces deployed pontoons to cross the Irpin River near Kyiv, seeking to seize the village of Moshchun and attack the capital. Ukrainian artillery destroyed several of the bridges, some with Russian vehicles on them. Moscow got a number of men and vehicles across to engage in heavy fighting, but not enough to seize the village, contributing to Russia’s subsequent failure to take Kyiv.
Russian forces have recently tried repeatedly to cross the Siverskyi Donets River in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, in one attempt losing more than 80 vehicles during intense fighting, according to open-source estimates, or roughly equivalent to a battalion tactical group.
Western officers who have studied images of the failed crossing’s aftermath say Russian troops involved appear to have ignored their own military doctrine and combat manuals, launching a hasty attempt at a maneuver that requires careful planning, extensive resources and strict oversight.
“All combat should be a highly orchestrated ballet of kinetic violence, humans, vehicles and aircraft…and a river crossing is one of the most complicated maneuvers,” said retired Brigadier General Peter “Duke” DeLuca, who served in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and studied the Russian military for many years. “It all has to be coordinated to be effective, and we haven’t seen the Russians do that at all in Ukraine.”
Western military observers said Russia’s string of failed crossings—also including one over the Ingulets River—indicate problems higher in its chain of command than the battlefield level and probably indicate that senior leadership is pushing for gains that troops are unprepared to achieve.
Russia’s Ministry of Defense didn’t respond to a request for comment.
A river crossing in combat is in many ways similar to storming a beach, say military experts. Both are generally extremely exposed, requiring painstaking preparation, speed and a complex combination of land, water and air forces. In both maneuvers, the element of surprise is hard to maintain with more than a small force or in daytime.
River crossings can be vital in offensive combat situations since bodies of water often form natural defenses. But because crossings entail unusual equipment, specialized forces, and can put large numbers of troops in harm’s way, they should be attempted only when absolutely necessary, say tacticians.
“Commanders only use them when they expect a big payoff,” said retired Australian Army Major General Mick Ryan. “They are normally done where an army expects to use that route as an important axis of advance.”
Russia’s biggest failed Siverskyi Donets crossing wasn’t only a battlefield fiasco that cost it dozens of vehicles, many bridge sections and potentially hundreds of troops—probably including personnel skilled in military engineering and the deployment of specialized equipment, say analysts. The debacle also might have closed off for Russia an avenue of attack on Ukrainian forces in the area, limiting Moscow’s options in a region it very much wants to control.
The failure and others “have proven how difficult it is to encircle the Ukrainians in the Donbas,” said a North Atlantic Treaty Organization official.
River-crossing operations consist of at least six steps starting with reconnaissance and site selection that can begin days before a bridging. Tony Spamer, a retired British Regimental Sergeant Major who served as a commando engineer, said that when he was involved in bridge crossings during four tours of duty in Afghanistan, his units would conduct up to seven slow-speed rehearsals at their base and then practice at speed, each time shaving minutes off the dangerous operations before deploying for action.
“We’d have never rolled up to a site and tried to give it a go,” as the Russians appear to have done, he said.
Reconnaissance units try to select several crossing sites so defenders are spread thin and an attack on one doesn’t imperil the other, say engineers. Even if only one site is deemed possible, troops should pretend to work on other crossings to draw defenders away from the real one. The actual crossing should be constructed at night, where possible. If not, troops should create a smokescreen with fires, artillery or other charges around all their sites.
Russian forces used smoke as they prepared to cross the Siverskyi Donets, according to a Twitter thread by a person identified as Maxim, claiming to be a Ukrainian military engineer and explosives expert involved in the attack. But the Russian forces only bridged at one location—which Ukrainians appear to have already identified as a likely crossing point and targeted—without using deceptions.
“If you’re smoking a spot and you’ve only got one site, you’re not hiding anything,” said Gen. DeLuca.
Before specialists begin floating pontoon-bridge sections into place, commandos or infantry forces should attempt to secure up to half a mile on the river’s far bank, veterans say. They should coordinate with artillery or air support to suppress defenders’ artillery and ensure they can’t get clear views on the crossing zone. Infantry in boats may secure the river itself.
Clearing the far bank is vital not just to stop defenders from attacking the bridge but to ensure that troops crossing the river can quickly exit the area and make room for followers, avoiding congestion that would create a big target.
“Commanders need a clear plan for what happens after the crossing,” said Gen. Ryan. “It isn’t about sitting around drinking tea thinking, ‘Good job on that crossing’.”
Similarly, troops waiting to cross should be hidden a distance away in dispersed holding areas and gradually advance to preset staging points before racing across the bridge. All along, military police and engineers must direct the flow and be ready for the unexpected, like accidents or vehicles getting stuck on a bridge. Decisions such as whether to repair a stopped vehicle, push it forward or shove it off the bridge must be made on the fly.
“It’s like trying to run the New York Thanksgiving Day parade with people coming from all different directions, down one narrow space and dispersing again, all without traffic jams,” said Gen. DeLuca.
On the Siverskyi Donets, Russian forces appear not to have secured the far bank, say Western officers, based on the vehicles destroyed there. The Russians also deployed two bridges very close to each other, allowing artillery shells to damage both simultaneously.
“It doesn’t seem the engineers were being looked after at all,” said Maj. Spamer.
Western observers say the Russian forces’ mistakes are particularly surprising because the crossing was attempted on Ukrainian territory, presumably very familiar to the defenders. Such a situation requires extra planning and caution, say veterans.
“It wasn’t a stupid thing to try,” said Gen. DeLuca of Russia’s Siverskyi Donets operation. “It was stupid not to do it using a deliberate river crossing.”