Ukraine believes it has found the Achilles’ heel of Russia’s defenses on the Dnieper. That weak point is the Kinburn Peninsula, an enclave of high ecological value in the Dnieper-Bug estuary on the Black Sea coast. In times of peace it was a destination appreciated by lovers of ecotourism; In times of war, it is a Russian-occupied country and the scene of a campaign of cursory Ukrainian attacks, which experts see as a new chapter in the conflict: that of the riverine guerrillas.
Russia pushed back to the east bank of the Dnieper last week, abandoning the west side of the river in Kherson province and fortifying its defenses by more than 100 kilometers. The Southern High Command of the Ukrainian Armed Forces insists that it intends to continue the offensive until it lands its troops on the Dnieper, although that will be the case if they have sufficient units, equipment and artillery, as General Dmitro indicated two weeks ago has Marchenko to the BBC.
The military and analysts consulted by EL PAÍS warn that it will take months before the conditions for a large-scale landing on the Dnieper are optimal for Ukraine. Thibault Fouillet, a French soldier and expert at the Foundation for Strategic Defense, confirms that it would be the most difficult operation of the war so far: “Three or four months ago I would not have even considered the feasibility of something like this, but now I can I don’t.” rule out, it will depend on whether the Russians hold the positions in front of the river”.
Intelligence agencies of Ukraine and allied countries like Britain have insisted in recent weeks that morale among the invading troops is low. Last week, pro-Russian Telegram accounts aired a video of a unit south of the city of Kherson denouncing that they had been forced to abandon their positions because they lacked the necessary weapons to protect against Ukrainian artillery. The location of these unspecified soldiers was near the Dnieper Delta, near the estuary it forms with another estuary, that of the Bug. In this area, the Russian fortifications are not of the magnitude that they built in the stretch of the river running north from the city of Kherson into Zaporizhia province. Southern High Command released images on November 18 of a Russian barracks in Kinburn destroyed by Ukrainian shells.
Nature is the best Russian defense on the final stretch of the Dnieper. The river has a width of 8 kilometers in this area, considering the swampy waters on its banks. The shortest access point between the two coasts is Cape Kinburn, a narrow promontory in the eastern part, 3.5 kilometers from the western part, in the municipality of Ochakiv, which is under Ukrainian sovereignty. “This large area, dominated by lush vegetation and lagoons, is poorly accessible for transportation and has not been fully controlled by either side,” Rybar, one of the nearby war analysis groups, told Russia Nov. 15.
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Rybar says that small Ukrainian reconnaissance groups have repeatedly attempted to land since the spring. These operations have not yet been made public by the Ukrainian authorities. After the liberation of the city of Kherson, Ukrainian military accounts, including the Defense Ministry, posted videos on social media of naval units sailing on speedboats on the Dnieper. The General Staff reported firing more than 50 artillery shells on the Russian defenses at Kinburn on November 15. In the morning, the Russian military administration reported that it had thwarted the landing of special teams of the 73rd battalion of Ukrainian marines.
The regional government of Mikolayiv confirmed that this morning the demarcation of Ochakiv was bombed by Russia with unusual intensity. Ochakiv is the coastal town off Cape Kinburn and from where the Ukrainian boats set sail. The Ukrainian High Command in Mikolaiv denied EL PAÍS access to Ochakiv, claiming that military operations were underway.
French General Jérôme Pellistrandi, in an interview with this newspaper, emphasized that the terrain at Kinburn is not suitable for landing amphibious armored vehicles, large numbers of troops or the movement of heavy artillery. “It’s interesting for special forces operations, for small groups striking with river guerrilla tactics,” says Pellistrandi. This soldier, a regular analyst of the war in the French media, adds that Ukraine is far from having a fleet of boats for a large-scale landing: “It costs a lot of money and a lot of time.”
Mike Martin, a researcher at King’s College London’s Center for War Studies, wrote on Twitter last week that Ukraine is most likely launching a diversionary operation at Kinburn for Russia to reduce its defenses on the Dnieper front in Zaporizhia. Robin Häggblom, an analyst at Finland’s defense consultancy Corporal Frisk, published a report on November 14 which also concluded that the Ukrainian armed forces are trying to open a new flank for the enemy without the need to open theirs To move artillery that can act from the other bank: “If the Ukrainian light infantry starts to act from Kinburn, Russia must act in the Russian rear. Is that perhaps the logic of Russia moving units to the Gulf? [de Kinburn]it must leave other more vulnerable areas”.
From the Russian side, they see the situation in a similar way, as Rybar said: “The Ukrainian command will most likely not focus its efforts on physically conquering the Kinburn Peninsula, but on strengthening the actions of its groups of saboteurs. The aim is to force the reaction of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation in the area, cut off supplies to their fortifications and create the conditions for deeper attacks on Russian territory.
But Kinburn has strategic value beyond retaking Russian-held territories. Fouillet points out that if Russia ever has an opportunity to return to western Ukraine, the estuary could hold the key to supporting its Black Sea fleet. Alexei Kondratiev, commander of the Russian Don Cossack Brigade, pointed out in an interview last October that Kinburn is important to Moscow because it is the westernmost position in Ukraine: it is only 32 nautical miles (59.2 kilometers) from Odessa. From there, bomb drones were fired against southern Ukrainian cities. But it is even more important for Ukraine to eliminate the enemy in Kinburn, because it is from there that river traffic is controlled along the Bug River, which connects Mikolayiv with the sea.
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