Ukrainian commandos have made an amphibious landing on Kinburn Spit

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It’s official: Ukrainian commandos are sailing in small boats has infiltrated Kinburn Spita three-mile finger of sand and scrub curls 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.

By seizing the spit and the adjacent Kinburn Peninsula, the Ukrainians would outflank the defensive positions the Russians are building on their side of the Dnipro River. The Kinburn operation may be the first phase of a wider Ukrainian offensive targeting Russian forces on the left bank of the Dnipro.

There are other benefits. Whoever controls the Kinburn Spit controls the mouth of the Dnipro and can dictate who sails ships from Kherson and nearby Mykolaiv into the Black Sea. Liberation of the spit helps free Mykolaiv and Kherson sea trade.

There was reason to believe that the Ukrainian military would pause and consolidate after liberating Kherson and its pre-war population of 300,000 on 11 November. The Kherson campaign was a tough one. Ukrainian artillery spent months bombarding Russian supply lines in and around the city before the tank and infantry brigades attacked from late August.

Kherson Oblast is mostly wide-open farmland, criss-crossed by rivers, streams and canals. It is unhappy terrain for the crews of tanks and other vehicles, who must advance in the open in full view of artillery spotters and gunner pilots. We do not know for sure how many Ukrainians died during the liberation of northern Kherson Oblast and Kherson city. Potentially thousands.

The Russian army in Kherson Oblast is badly damaged. The Ukrainian army in the oblast is perhaps only slightly less affected. But instead of stopping for a much-deserved rest along the right bank of the Dnipro, on the southern outskirts of the city of Kherson, the Ukrainians immediately turned right, organized a small amphibious operation and landed special operations forces on Kinburn Spit.

There were rumours of a Ukrainian landing as early as November 14, three days after the liberation of Kherson. Videos circulated online depicting Ukrainian commandos in rigid-hull rubber boats speeding across what appeared to be the mouth of the Dnipro.

The British Ministry of Defense concluded just a week later that Ukrainian forces were in control of the three-mile spit. On the same day, the Southern Command of the Ukrainian military alluded to a Kinburn operation. Two days after that, there was clear photographic evidence of Ukrainian troops on the spit.

It is unclear how far along the adjacent peninsula the Ukrainians have reached – and how far they have intends to move on for now. Natalia Humenyuk, a spokesperson for the Southern Command, urged the Ukrainians to remain silent on the Kinburn operation.

Ukraine’s special operations forces are some of the best in the world. But the command only had a thousand men a day left at the end of February as Russia expanded its war against Ukraine. While Kyiv has certainly expanded its special operations command since then, it remains a small force — and lightly armed.

The narrow, undeveloped Kinburn Spit is good terrain for fast-moving light infantry in small boats, but the adjacent peninsula – and further east, the open farmland of southern Kherson Oblast – may favor heavier forces.

If Ukraine’s goal is to liberate some or all of the Kinburn Peninsula to facilitate sea traffic between the Black Sea and the ports of Kherson and Mykolaiv, the commandos may be able to handle the operation on their own. But if Ukrainian commanders aim to use the Kinburn to flank the Russian mechanized brigades on the left bank of the Dnipro, they may have to land heavier forces on the peninsula.

It’s easier said than done. The Ukrainian Armed Forces have built up a significant force of small boats to patrol the Dnipro and conduct river raids. These boats cannot lift a mechanized battalion.

If there’s a wild card, it might be the 240-foot-long amphibious craft Yuri Olefirenko, apparently the last surviving large ship of the Ukrainian Navy. In October, video circulated online purportedly depicting the aging Yuri Olefirenko firing rockets at Russian forces on or near Kinburn Spit.

Whose Yuri Olefirenko is actually still operational and operating somewhere around Kherson, she may be able to move heavier forces to Kinburn. That could make the peninsula a viable starting point for a flanking maneuver aimed at the left bank of the Dnipro.

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