November 23, 2022
It‘s official: Ukrainian commandos riding in small boats have infiltrated the Kinburn Spit, a three-mile finger of sand and scrub curling across the mouth of the Dnipro River west of Kherson, the southern port city that Ukrainian forces liberated from its Russian occupiers earlier this month.
In seizing the spit and the adjacent Kinburn Peninsula, the Ukrainians would flank the defensive positions the Russians are building on their side of the Dnipro River. The Kinburn operation could be the first phase of a wider Ukrainian offensive targeting Russian forces on the left bank of the Dnipro River.
There are other benefits. Whoever controls the Kinburn Spit controls the mouth of the Dnipro River and can dictate who sails ships from Kherson and nearby Mykolaiv into the Black Sea. Liberating the spit helps to liberate Mykolaiv and Kherson sea trade.
There were reasons to believe the Ukrainian military would pause and reconsolidate after liberating Kherson and its pre-war population of 300,000 on Nov. 11. The Kherson campaign was a hard one. Ukrainian artillery spent months bombarding Russian supply lines in and around the city before the tank and infantry brigades attacked starting in late August.
Kherson Oblast mostly is wide open farmland, crisscrossed by rivers, streams and canals. It‘s unhappy terrain for the crews of tanks and other vehicles, who must advance in the open in full sight of artillery spotters and gunship pilots. We don‘t know for sure how many Ukrainians died liberating northern Kherson Oblast and Kherson City. Potentially thousands.
The Russian army in Kherson Oblast is badly damaged. The Ukrainian army in the oblast might be only slightly less afflicted. But rather than halt for a much deserved rest along the right bank of the Dnipro River, on the southern edge of Kherson city, the Ukrainians promptly pivoted right, organized a small amphibious operation and landed special operations forces on the Kinburn Spit.
There were rumors of a Ukrainian landing as early as Nov. 14, three days after the liberation of Kherson. Videos circulated online depicting Ukrainian commandos in rigid-hull inflatable boats speeding across what appeared to be the mouth of the Dnipro River.
The U.K. Defense Ministry just a week later concluded that Ukrainian forces were in control of the three-mile spit. The same day, the Ukrainian military‘s southern command alluded to a Kinburn operation. Two days after that, there was clear photographic evidence of Ukrainian troops on the spit.
It‘s unclear how far along the adjacent peninsula the Ukrainians have advanced—and how far they intend to advance for now. Natalia Humenyuk, a southern command spokesperson, urged Ukrainians to stay silent about the Kinburn operation.
Ukraine‘s Special Operations forces are some of the best in the world. But the command had just a thousand people on the day back in late February when Russia widened its war on Ukraine. While Kyiv since then surely has expanded its special operations command, it still is a small force—and lightly armed.
The narrow, undeveloped Kinburn Spit is good terrain for fast-moving light infantry riding in small boats, but the adjacent peninsula—and, farther east, the open farmland of southern Kherson Oblast—might favor heavier forces.
If Ukraine‘s aim is to liberate some or all of the Kinburn Peninsula in order to ease sea traffic between the Black Sea and the ports of Kherson and Mykolaiv, the commandos might be able to handle the operation on their own. But if Ukrainian commanders aim to use the Kinburn operation to flank the Russian mechanized brigades on the Dnipro River’s left bank, they might need to land heavier forces on the peninsula.
That‘s easier said than done. The Ukrainian armed forces have built up a sizable force of small boats for patrolling the Dnipro River and conducting riverine raids. These boats cannot lift a mechanized battalion. If there‘s a wild card, it might be the 240-foot amphibious vessel Yuri Olefirenko, apparently the Ukrainian navy‘s last surviving big ship. In October, video circulated online reportedly depicting the aging Yuri Olefirenko firing rockets at Russian forces on or near the Kinburn Spit.
If Yuri Olefirenko indeed still is operational and operating somewhere around Kherson, she might be in a position to move heavier forces to Kinburn. That could make the peninsula a viable starting point for a flanking maneuver targeting the Dnipro River’s left bank.