By: Mark Krutov
The photograph, showing a man in combat fatigues posing on a river ferry alongside Russian military equipment, was posted on Russian social media on October 10. Three days later, a video that appeared on the same account seemed to show the same ferry and equipment.
"And we're moving," the man, identified as Makar Teplinskiy, from the eastern Ukrainian region of Luhansk, says in the video. Later, off-screen, a voice can be heard asking, "Who are you showing that to?"
The ferry appears to be part of an ongoing Russian pullback of soldiers and equipment from the right bank of the Dnieper River, in the southern Kherson region, where Ukrainian forces have been making gradual advances. The video was identified and pinpointed by RFE/RL using geolocation, satellite imagery, and surrounding landmarks.
The findings, by RFE/RL's Russian Service and Schemes, the investigative unit of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, highlight the mounting pressure on Russian forces, who have been pummeled by Ukrainian troops pushing southward. Experts say the advances are likely to lead up to an effort to take back the city of Kherson itself -- the only regional capital to fall to Russian forces since Moscow launched a large-scale invasion on February 24.
If the city is recaptured, it will be a major tactical victory for Ukraine -- and an embarrassment for Russian commanders and President Vladimir Putin.
For weeks, stretching back as far as August, Ukraine had used precision weaponry provided by the United States and other Western countries to target Russian supply lines and command posts in Kherson.
Those targets included many Dnieper River bridge crossings, including the Antonivskiy Bridge, a major crossing that connects the city of Kherson with the opposite bank. Russian forces have built a ferry crossing immediately adjacent to the damaged bridge, and there are at least two other ferry crossings used by civilians close to the Antonivskiy Bridge, as well as others used by the Russian military nearby.
More recently, the Ukrainian artillery and missile barrage has morphed into a ground offensive, documented by military observers and military bloggers -- Russian and Ukrainian -- pushing south along the west bank of the Dnieper and forcing Russian troops to withdraw south and east, across the river.
The Kherson effort dovetails with an earlier, likely connected offensive hundreds of kilometers to the northeast, where Ukraine stunned Russian forces, recapturing dozens of towns in the Kharkiv region and an important rail hub in the Donetsk region, Lyman.
The offensive in the east has slowed more recently, though it's unclear if it's due to Ukrainian forces' regrouping and resupplying, or stiffer Russian resistance, or even Ukrainian forces shifting focus back to Kherson.
In recent days, amid the Ukrainian advances, there have been mounting signs from Russian officials and their local proxies that Russian forces were under pressure, and commanders could be considering pulling back entirely from the west bank of the Dnieper.
In an unusual interview broadcast on October 18, the newly appointed overall commander for Russian forces, General Sergei Surovikin, said that the situation in the Kherson region was "very difficult" and that Russian military might have to make "the most difficult decisions" in Kherson.
It wasn't clear what Surovikin meant, though some observers speculated it signaled a possible large-scale withdrawal of Russian forces from the west bank of the Dnieper.
As of late on October 19, Ukrainian forward positions were believed to be less than 40 kilometers from the village of Kozatske and the town of Nova Kakhovka, on opposite sides of the river.
That same day, residents of Kherson city received text messages urging them to urgently leave, citing potential attacks by the Ukrainian Army. Locals also reported leaflets reading, "Save your family; move to the left bank" being distributed.
"The battle for Kherson will begin in the very near future," Kirill Stremousov, the deputy head for the Russian-imposed administration for Kherson, said in a video. "The city of Kherson is turning into a fortress," he said.
Another official, Vladimir Saldo, announced restrictions on civilian travel in the region, and said public-sector workers like doctors and teachers would be moving to the river's left bank. He said between 50,000-60,000 people would be moved, and some would be sent to Russia itself.
"I think they are preparing the audience that they will lose the battle for the Kherson region," Yuriy Sobolevskiy, a Ukrainian official who is the first deputy head of the Kherson Regional Council, told Current Time. "That is, they are preparing their population for reports of defeat," he said, referring to Russian proxy authorities in the region.
Ukraine's targeting of the Dnieper River crossings has forced the Russian military to rely heavily on temporary pontoon bridges, and even makeshift ferries assembled from parts of pontoon bridges.
The photograph and video identified by RFE/RL were posted by Teplinskiy to the Russian social media site VK.
Archived social-media accounts show that Teplinskiy, as well as his father, had served since 2015 in military units under the authority of the Russian-organized administration that controls the Luhansk region, which calls itself the Luhansk People's Republic. Moscow-backed units from Luhansk and neighboring Donetsk have fought alongside regular Russian troops in those two regions, known collectively as the Donbas, and in Kherson.
RFE/RL geolocated the ferry crossing shown in Tepinskiy's video to the right bank of the Dnieper, near Kozatske. The ferry is heading to the mouth of the canal that connects the village with Nova Kakhovka, located on the left bank.
A series of satellite images obtained by RFE/RL from the private company Planet Labs in the first week of October showed several ferry crossings at this location. The last time a ferry loaded with military equipment on the way from Nova Kakhovka to Kozatske was captured by satellite imagery was on October 4.
On October 5, it would have been scheduled to return to Nova Kakhovka with a full load. On October 8 and 12, satellite images also show the movement of empty ferries toward the right bank. One of these crossings was in all likelihood the one filmed by Teplinskiy and posted to his account on October 13.
Another video posted by Teplinskiy on October 13 includes metadata pointing to a house where he was staying in Nova Kakhovka, and a video of an apparent birthday with other military men, taken at approximately the same time.
Teplinskiy did not respond to messages from RFE/RL seeking comment. (KB/RFE-RL)
(Mark Krutov is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Russian Service and one of the leading investigative journalists in Russia)