At Mykolaiv, Ukraine Repels Russian Threat to Odessa. But Danger Looms to the East: Amidst the shambolic misfires of the first week of Putin’s multi-front war on Ukraine, there was one sector where Russian forces did make rapid gains and capture several important cities: southern Ukraine, adjacent to the Crimean peninsula seized by Russia in 2014.
Elements of the 58th Combined Arms Army had begun reinforcing Russia’s Crimea garrison under the 22nd Army Corps early in 2021. When hostilities commenced on February 24, these forces rapidly secured the two narrow passages to the mainland and were marching into the cities of Melitopol and Kherson directly northeast and northwest within 48 hours.
Though a Ukrainian counterattack recaptured Kherson, by March 1st the city and its critical Antonovskiy bridge (see battle here) were firmly under Russian control. That victory poked a hole in Ukraine’s most robust geographic defensive feature, the river Dnieper—a hole through which Russian forces poured into southwestern Ukraine so as to advance on the major Black Sea port of Odessa.
But because the south was the only region Russian forces truly ruptured Ukrainian lines and achieved freedom of maneuver, the forces staging from Crimea were spread thin advancing to the west, north and east simultaneously.
The 58th Army’s 42nd Motor Rifle Division surged north, damaging and seizing the nuclear power plant at Enerhodar on March 3-4, but lacking the mass to credibly capture Zaporizhzhya (population 722,000).
Separately, the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade rolled eastward to capture Tokmak and Berdyansk, completing the encirclement of the port city of Mariupol on the sea of Azov.
Battles for Mykolaiv and Voznesensk
Meanwhile, a captured Russian military map reveals the smaller 22nd Army Corps and 49th Combined Arms Army, bulked out with two externally attached divisions, were assigned to manage the westward charge towards Odessa. Their order of battle included:
- 205th and 34th Separate Motor Rifle Brigades (from 49th Army)
- mechanized paratroopers of the 7th Guards Airborne Division
- 20th Guards Motor-Rifle Division (from 8th Army)
- 10th Spetsnaz (Special Forces) Brigade
- 126th Coastal Brigade and 127th Reconnaissance Brigade (from 22nd Corps)
Thread about the captured Russian plans for the Kherson region, dated 10 March. Ukrainian military intel has already fully exploited this. I’ve gone through it, translating and recreated sections of it in NATO symbology. Here is the original source. https://t.co/hIhs1yZKAS pic.twitter.com/Lq85hkbovL
— Henry Schlottman (@HN_Schlottman) March 22, 2022
However, the most direct westerly route from Kherson to Odessa involves crossing three rivers feeding into the Black Sea. Just 30 miles northwest of Kherson, a bridge over the first of these (the Bug river) lies the city of Mykolaiv, Ukraine’s second most important naval base.
Given that an advance force of 12 Russian tanks had briefly rolled through Mykolaiv on the second day of the war, the port seemed ripe for the plucking. The Ukrainian Navy even preemptively scuttled its only sea-going warship, the frigate Hetman Sahaidachny, on March 4.
However, a Russian sabotage squad hidden in a grocery delivery truck was intercepted on February 27. And when Russian forces tried to seize Mykolaiv in earnest starting March 28, they failed again and again to dislodge the stubborn Ukrainian defenders, which included:
- 79th Airborne Brigade (three battalions)
- 36th Naval Infantry Brigade (1-2 mechanized battalions in BTR-80s, T-80 tank battalion)
- 123rd Territorial Defense Brigade (with six TDF battalions).
— Rob Lee (@RALee85) March 3, 2022
Moreover, the Ukrainian Air Force’s Su-24 Fencer bombers (see here) and Su-25 Frogfoot attack jets of the local 299th Tactical Aviation Brigade were especially active harrying Russian vehicle columns, perhaps because the region is distant from powerful Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile batteries positioned along Ukraine’s border with Russia and Belarus.
That said, both sides lost Su-25s to each other’s short and medium-range air defenses.
Undated video of Ukrainian Su-25 aircraft reportedly attacking a Russian military column. It appears one drops a bomb before the second crashes. This most likely occurred in Kherson. https://t.co/8kx6XTxMOM pic.twitter.com/2fu83P1Tj1
— Rob Lee (@RALee85) March 17, 2022
Furthermore, on Feb. 28 a Ukrainian TB2 Bayraktar drone destroyed a fuel train in Crimea, possibly slowing the tempo of operations. A week later, Russia was observed deploying a gun-armed armored train from Crimea for escort.
As attacks on Mykolaiv fizzled despite bombardments using cluster munitions, the 22nd Army Corps sought to flank the city by rolling northwest towards Bashtanka and Voznesensk.
On March 2, a Russian battalion tactical group (BTG) from the 126th Coastal Brigade (T-72 tanks, infantry in BTR APCs) and the 11th Engineering Brigade seized the city. But that evening, Ukrainian troops called down precision artillery strikes while anti-tank teams armed with Javelin missiles and rocket-propelled grenades began picking off Russian vehicles.
The invaders withdrew, leaving behind around 110 killed or captured, and thirty of their 43 armored vehicles destroyed or abandoned, as described in an article by Yaroslav Trofimov for the Wall Street Journal. A second attack on March 9 was also repulsed in several days of fighting additional tanks were knocked out.
Meanwhile, Russian paratroopers were expelled from Mykolaiv’s docks district by TDF forces on March 4 and rubble-strewn Kulbakino Airport after an armored battle on March 7.
Seeking headway, units of the 20th Guards Motor Rifle Division instead rolled north from Kherson towards the city of Kryvyi Rih (population 680,000), initially making progress, but ultimately foundering against Ukrainian defenses.”
Troops and supplies were simply stretched too thin. Large-scale protests in occupied Kherson and Melitopol also disrupted Russian logistics, prompting Russian troops to kidnap Melitopol’s ethnically Russian mayor. He was later released in a prisoner exchange.
On March 7, Ukrainian commandoes launched a night raid claimed to have destroyed 30 landed helicopters. Satellite evidence subsequently found a smaller number of Russian helicopters destroyed or damaged. The airfield also was cratered from bombardment by Ukrainian rocket artillery assisted by drone spotters (footage here).
First March 16th imagery of Kherson airbase following a Ukrainian attack that destroyed multiple helicopters via @planet (left). Compared to the @Maxar imagery from March 15th (right) there appears to be additional damage. pic.twitter.com/fYklB5WFuZ
— Bellingcat (@bellingcat) March 16, 2022
But at 1:30 PM on March 15, a Ukrainian airstrike devastated the airport, destroying at least seven helicopters and numerous trucks. A later strike there allegedly killed a general commanding Russia’s 8th Army.
A better version of the video of the Kherson airport strike by pic.twitter.com/AjmBadcXfj
— Bogdan Vasylchenko (@BVasylchenko) March 16, 2022
Then on March 18, Ukraine launched a counteroffensive with its veteran Odessa-based 28th Mechanized Brigade down the M14 highway. Mounted in T-64 tanks and BMP-2 fighting vehicles, the unit captured Posad-Pokrovske, just 15 miles northwest of Kherson (map here).
This compelled Russian forces up to 90 miles away to withdraw to a defensive perimeter around Kherson now held by at least four BTGs of the 7th Air Assault Division, and one from the 34th Brigade.
The helicopters stationed in Kherson were withdrawn, with several too damaged to fly towed away by truck (see here), leaving the airport empty, though Orlan-10 tactical surveillance drones remain active.
Russian forces still hold the bridges at Kherson and Nova Kakhovka, but their potential to advance westward seems limited given the current defensive posture.
However, the 20th division’s probe towards Kryvyi Rhi has not withdrawn and continues to test the city’s defenses. Though capture of this city would be disastrous, this force appears inadequate to achieve it, and its supply lines, guarded only by a BTG of the 205th Brigade at Snihurivka, look vulnerable.
However, Russia can still inflict painful damage even with its maneuver forces at bay. On March 18, three missiles launched from Kherson struck naval infantry barracks at Mykolaiv, killing at least 80 sleeping soldiers. (Following earlier strikes on barracks at Mykolaiv and Yavoriv, Ukraine’s military must stop concentrating personnel in such prominent, easily-targeted facilities.)
Despite these pressures, in reality the threat to Ukraine’s vulnerable southwestern underbelly appears substantially contained, and Odessa looks remarkably secure. Though Russian naval infantry could theoretically still attempt to seize Odessa, such an amphibious landing facing well-prepared defenses would likely end disastrously, especially as Russian ground forces are in no position to link up with a landing force.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces could conceivably encircle and besiege the Kherson bridgehead, and/or cut the supply lines of Russian troops assailing Kryvyi Rhi.
Can Ukraine stem the bleeding in the East?
With the southwestern front stabilized, Ukraine’s leaders may contemplate judiciously releasing carefully husbanded reserve brigades in Western Ukraine to tip the scales.
That could involve stabbing into the flank of the force besieging northwestern Kyiv, like the counterattack which recaptured Makariv. But forces defending northern Ukraine around Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Chernihiv are holding out comparatively well. The situation is most desperate in eastern and southeastern Ukraine.
Many of Ukraine’s most capable mechanized brigades were deployed in the Joint Forces Operation (JFO) containing Russian separatists in the Donbas region. These have come under sustained assault by Russia’s 8th Combined Arms Army and separatist auxiliaries. The JFO has been slowly pushed back and nearly encircled on several occasions, though a timely counterattack at Izium has bought time.
But the JFO’s shrinking perimeter also cut the H20 road at Volnovakha through which it could send supplies to Mariupol. This city devastated by artillery and airstrikes now has neither gas nor electricity and is running out of food and water. Its defenders have inflicted heavy losses, but Russian forces have nonetheless gained a foothold in the city itself.
— BlueSauron?️ (@Blue_Sauron) March 22, 2022
It’s unclear how long Mariupol can hold out under these horrifying conditions; even Kyiv has admitted the JFO probably can’t mount a southward counterattack to reopen supply lines soon.
Should Mariupol fall, that would release many units from Russia’s 58th and 8th armies for operations elsewhere, including credibly besieging Zaporizhzhya, reinforcing the Kherson bridgehead, or linking up with Russian forces advancing south from Ukraine’s northern border with Russia. The same would happen if the JFO is compelled to withdraw from Donbas or is overrun.
That implies Ukrainian forces have a narrow window of opportunity to capitalize on its improving fortunes in southwestern Ukraine.
Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com, War 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.