The Kinburn spit, a tiny headland at the mouth of the Dniepro river, has been described as having “enormous strategic importance” in the next phase of the Ukraine war. Ukraine has indicated its intention to liberate it and an operation seems to be under way to do so.
Considering the area’s location and history, retaking this strip of land makes sense. The sandy Kinburn spit is the tip of a peninsula which is about 40km long and between 4km and 12km wide. Jutting into the Black Sea, it commands the entry to the Dniepro (in Russian, Dnieper) river system which traverses and indeed bisects Ukraine all the way north to Kyiv and beyond.
It also controls access from the Black Sea to the significant port of Mikolaiv. This in itself could be truly vital. As matters stand amongst Ukraine’s existing ports, only Odesa is larger. Ukraine is in dire need of an alternative exit point for its exports. Possession of this flat patch of land also allows those who control it to project force and consequently influence south and east into the Black Sea. That is how the Russians have been using it since they captured it in June.
History also indicates this small area’s importance. Since the Russians took an active interest in this area in 1737, several major battles have been fought for control of the peninsula and the local area.
Most notable are the battles of Ochakov (1737 and 1788) which secured Russia’s possession of southern Ukraine (or “New Russia” as Catherine the Great called it). At sea, the significant naval battles of Liman (1788, where the Russian fleet was commanded by the founder of the US Navy John Paul Jones) and Kinburn (1855) serve now to highlight the spit’s military importance.
In terms of contemporary operational matters, the spit was as far west as the Russians have penetrated in 2022. Their presence put Russian rocket systems within range of Ochakiv town just three miles away across the water, (which it proceeded to shell). Now matters are different and Russia, anticipating attack by Ukraine, is constructing large fortifications to the east of the Dniepro River (or the “left bank” as it is called).
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Ukrainian forces are looking to impose upon their enemy some very difficult dilemmas. Geography and logic dictate that one way or another Ukraine will have to advance on the left bank of the Dniepro. One option is to come from the east, striking from Zaporizhe.
Another, somewhat more risky possibility, is to cross the river at or near Kherson where they can receive artillery support. An attack from Kinburn towards Russian forces deployed between Kherson and Crimea, even on a relatively small scale, outflanks Russian forces and requires the Russians to divert scarce forces to deal with it. Those forces will be under Ukrainian artillery fire from across the Liman Bay only a few kilometres away – well within range.
By any normal military calculations any effort to cross the bay, take the Kinburn spit and advance onto the peninsula would be seen as utterly hopeless. An attempt at landing would not be expected to get beyond the opposite shore a few kilometres away, let alone get ashore and establish some kind of foothold.
But these are not normal circumstances. As matters stand, Russian ground forces are in poor shape. They cannot be everywhere and moving forces from one area to defend or indeed deter attack at another is very difficult. Further, any Russian attempt to attack a Ukrainian beachhead on the Kinburn spit will get hammered by Ukrainian artillery on the opposite bank of the Dniepro.
What about the Russian navy – how do they figure in this? To assault Kinburn, Ukraine has to cross 4km of water, and even in the absence of large ground forces, a reasonably competent navy should easily be able to prevent a crossing. Since the sinking of the Black Sea fleet’s flagship the Moskva in April, the Russian navy ventures out of its (increasingly insecure) base at Sebastopol only to fire cruise missiles at largely civilian targets far out of range of Ukraine’s missiles deployed on the south-west coast. In other words, Ukraine can take the Kinburn spit.
It is vital that Ukraine maintains its momentum to ensure its enemy doesn’t have the time to organise, construct effective defences and regroup. By establishing a presence on Kinburn, the Ukrainians are opening what amounts to another front, however narrow, creating further problems for Russian commanders already struggling to deploy limited and often ill-trained forces.
If Ukraine can gain a foothold on this flat, featureless sandbar and develop a beachhead from which it might advance up the peninsula (or if it has already done so) it will mark yet another step in Ukraine’s relentless advance towards Crimea. There is no doubt this is their ultimate objective.
General Zaluzhny, the Ukrainian chief of general staff has been luminously clear about this: “The 2023 campaign will involve the de-occupation of Crimea.” President Zelensky has been even clearer: “Everything started with Crimea and will end with Crimea.”
Russia has no idea what Ukraine will do, and it must make provision to defend against a whole range of possibilities. This in itself is testament to the shift in the strategic posture of the invader from the offensive to the defensive marked by the Kharkiv offensive in September. Russia has lost the initiative.
The question for Russian generals is not “what will we do?”, it is “what will the Ukrainians do?”. If Ukraine takes Kinburn, it will be one more considerable step towards standing at the threshold of Crimea only 100km away – the Perekop Isthmus, the narrow strip of land that connects the peninsula to the rest of Ukraine.
Frank Ledwidge is affiliated with the Ukrainian Transatlantic Dialogue Center.