Warfare in Kinburn Spit Emphasizes Ukrainian Navy’s Utility in Coastal Combat Operations

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 10

Aerial view of the Kinburn Spit (Source: EuroWeekly)

Located between the Black Sea and the Dnipro-Bug estuary, the Kinburn Spit is a natural 10-kilometer (6.2 miles) formation in Mykolaiv Oblast, Ukraine. It occupies the westernmost part of the Kinburn Peninsula, and, being located on the left (eastern) bank of the Dnipro River, is only accessible by land from Kherson Oblast. The spit was taken by Russian forces on June 10, 2022, almost four months after Moscow’s re-invasion of Ukraine began (Facebook.com/GeneralStaff.ua, June 10, 2022). Since then, Russia has fortified the spit and used it as a site to deploy electronic warfare capabilities as well as coordinate missile and artillery attacks on Ukraine’s coastal territories and port facilities in Odesa, Mykolaiv, Ochakiv and Kherson.

Throughout the summer and fall of 2022, Russia used the spit as a base to launch multiple attacks on Ukrainian grain-export facilities. During the summer, Russian troops carried out an attack on the Nika-Tera grain terminal in Mykolaiv. The second-largest grain terminal in Ukraine suffered significant damage, with three elevators and loading mechanisms being destroyed. Russia also carried out covert mining of the Black Sea region and sections of the Dnipro River to block Ukrainian ports from exporting grain (Mfa.gov.ua, March 30, 2022). On the morning of September 4, 2022, the Russian military, from the Kinburn Spit, shelled and destroyed an elevator in the Port of Ochakiv containing several thousand tons of grain. Many private houses were also damaged in the attack (Lb.ua, September 4, 2022).

Last fall, Russian troops actively used the peninsula to train operators and instructors of the Iranian-made Shahed-136 kamikaze drone and as a launch point for drone strikes on Ukraine (Stopcor.org, November 6, 2022). On October 31, 2022, two tugboats of the Ukrainian shipping company Nibulon, which were towing a grain barge to Ochakiv, were attacked. The strike resulted in the death of two tug crew members, with another one missing (Nikvesti.com, October 31, 2022). Apparently, the attack was carried out by Russian military mobile groups on the Kinburn Spit using the latest Russian Kornet-D anti-tank guided missile systems installed on Tiger armored vehicles. Targeting for the attack was provided from observation points located on the northern coast of the spit, equipped with night-vision sensors and portable radars.

The situation changed after November 11, 2022, when Ukrainian troops entered Kherson, ending the city’s eight-month occupation. In their withdrawal, the Russians moved about 20,000 troops, some of the local population, mobile military logistics and ammunition to the left bank of the Dnipro River (Slovo i Dilo, November 11, 2022). However, despite this withdrawal, they remain in control of both the Kinburn peninsula and spit. From fall through early winter, the Ukrainian military repeatedly landed raiding parties on the Kinburn Spit, but apart from reconnaissance and sabotage actions, it was not possible to achieve greater success (Glavred.info, November 13, 2022). The Russian military keeps a mobile contingent with some armored vehicles on the spit, regularly shelling the coast and preventing navigation in the Bug River and the Dnipro-Bug estuary. Russian units on the spit are covered from possible Ukrainian air attacks by the dominance of Russian aviation based in Crimea. Russia has also deployed some mobile riverine forces consisting of fast boats for raiding. One of these boats was damaged by Ukrainian artillery on January 10 during ongoing fighting over contested islands in the Dnipro River delta. The Ukrainian troops want to ensure control over these islands to prevent continuous shelling on Kherson and halt open navigation of the area for Russian forces (Bbc.com/ukrainian, January 10).

Given the importance of the Kinburn Spit for the Russian occupation force, what is the military solution for Ukraine to recapture the spit? The half-year saga over the fight for the Kinburn Spit has outlined the importance of coastal defense and a surface fleet in defending the Ukrainian coast and littoral waters (40 to 100 miles off the coast). The lessons learned in Kinburn confirm the necessity for the Ukrainian Navy to develop feasible sea denial and sea control capabilities able to stop and repel a more powerful enemy from the sea. Considering the enemy’s close geographic proximity, Ukraine must first ensure its maritime security in coastal areas and littoral waters and only afterward plan to extend its efforts to the open sea.

The first step here should be constant and precise attacks on enemy positions along the spit using long-range 155-millimeter artillery and Multiple Launch Rocket Systems in concert with reconnaissance and strike unmanned aerial vehicles to provide sufficient firepower to repel and deny the enemy eastward to the Kinburn Peninsula. This approach proved successful during the liberation of Snake Island in May 2022 (Kyiv Post, July 12, 2022). Developing a fleet of maritime assault drones may support these efforts in littoral waters, threatening enemy corvettes and frigates armed with Kalibr cruise missiles.

In addition to land and air elements, amphibious raids on the spit must be supported by fire from sea-based platforms. Maneuverable and powerful fast assault boats with automatic cannons and short-range anti-tank missiles would be extremely effective in supporting such efforts. Here, it is worth recalling the US-made Mark VI patrol boats, which were included in earlier American military assistance packages intended for Ukraine (Defense Express, January 4, 2022). These vessels and their “sea control” capability can be delivered to and removed from the operational area by air or by ground given their light displacement (less than 100 tons). As time passes, these boats will gain even more importance in regard to the need for a potential restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty over the coastal waters of the Black Sea and Sea of Azov.

The vessels currently in use by the Ukrainian Navy, including the Gurza-M, PO-2, Zhuk and SeaArk Dauntless classes, are significantly less powerful and maneuverable and will have minimum contribution to the success of such operations at sea (The Drive, June 24, 2022). Larger warships with greater displacement, such as corvettes or frigates, in the confined waters of the Black Sea’s northwestern region would be desirable but provide easy targets for a more powerful enemy that dominates in air and sea power. Fast and powerful missile boats, however, may have the effect of denying the enemy the sea by using a combination of maneuver and missile fire to hunt and sink Russian vessels in littoral waters that are supporting ground troops in the occupied Ukrainian territories.

Ukraine has a few months to develop such capabilities to restore and control its 1991 maritime boundaries. To this end, it will be critical to secure Ukraine’s south and re-open navigation from Mykolaiv, Kherson and Ochakiv, which would contribute significantly to rebooting Ukraine’s international maritime and agriculture sectors. Furthermore, control over the Kinburn spit and peninsula will provide Ukraine with future access for the de-occupation of the Ukrainian coast along the Sea of Azov and Crimean Peninsula. Nevertheless, time is of the essence as the Russian military is actively building fortification to prevent any possible Ukrainian advance in these directions.