Kinburn – the Indirect Approach

The Ukrainian liberation of Kherson has been yet another success on the side of the defenders in the war, though it is also easy to assume it will lead to something of a pause on the southern part of the frontline. The withdrawal to the left bank of the Dnipro – even if the losses to heavy equipment are on the scale expected – will still put the battered Russian forces behind one of the more formidable natural obstacles in Europe, and any Ukrainian assault over the river will require either serious amphibious equipment, a lot of luck and daring, or preferably both. The alternative for a continued offensive in the direction of either Crimea or the Sea of Azov is to do so east of where the river turn north and head down the Zaporizhzhia – Melitopol axis.

However, Ukraine just might have found an alternative option. Or at least they might be pretending to have done so, which at the end of the day might in fact prove more or less as useful.

Reports have namely come in that the Ukrainian forces have landed on the Kinburn peninsula, a narrow peninsula stretching out to the west and forming the southernmost part of the Dniprovska gulf, which sees the river outlet situated in the easternmost end of the gulf. Exactly what is happening is somewhat open, but there seem to be Ukrainian light troops on the move, with Herois’ke being reported as having been liberated. And it is a development that causes some major headaches for the Russians. The obvious one is that we have Ukrainians on the left bank of the Dnipro, something that they very much would prefer not to be the case in the south.  If the Ukrainian really are in Herois’ke to stay, it start to open up alternatives.

From the peninsula it is roughly 60 km in a straight line to Olesjky and the southern end of the Antonovskiy Bridge. The bridge is seriously battered, but if the Ukrainians can secure both bridgeheads it is still likely the easiest location to set up a functioning logistics train over the southern stretches of the Dnipro. And coming from southwest would likely flank the Russian positions, as it is safe to assume that these are oriented towards the river banks. An even bolder option which really would get Kremlin worked up is if Ukrainian soldiers started pouring out of the peninsula eastwards, where it is just 130 km to Armjansk and Crimea.

Now, wars have a tendency to be far more complex than just drawing arrows on a map. If Ukraine want to break out of the peninsula with any kind of force, they first need to get it over there, then supply it over the water and by a single road, while advancing along a narrow front which spans at maximum approximately five kilometers across. The Canadian advance on Beveland during the Battle of the Scheldt in 1944 is a good example of the issues that can be expected – though in that case it was an attacker trying to enter a peninsula along a narrow front. As such, is a Ukrainian offensive here even a theoretical possibility?

The Ukrainian 36th Separate Marine Brigade practicing amphibious operations back in 2017, including with light vehicles and APCs. A capability that suddenly could come in handy. Source: ArmyInform

It might be, depending on a number of factors. If the Russian forces in the region are second- and third-tier garrison forces without much in the way of tactical and operational mobility a quick Ukrainian offensive might gather enough momentum to sweep them away. Some have argued that the Ukrainians can’t go on the offensive without armoured or mechanised units, but in this case against an enemy that likely hasn’t had time to entrench themselves the ability to operate quickly and with a limited demand on the stretched supply lines might make light infantry a more interesting option. Infantry certainly is able to conduct offensive operations as demonstrated throughout history in general and this conflict in particular, especially if distances are manageable and the indirect fire support is plentiful. And that’s another interesting issue about Kinburn – the Ukrainian artillery doesn’t have to cross the water to be able to provide fire support. Rather it is possible to stand on the northern shore of the gulf and support the advancing troops for quite some time, including until the frontline would have been pushed well enough east that a supply node in the westernmost part of the peninsula would be relatively safe. This is a huge factor when looking at what kind of supplies Ukraine would have to be able to ferry across the bay to be able to keep going forward.

Another key detail which the possible operation again highlights is the relatively sparse nature of the battlefield. The number of troops involved is huge for a European post-WWII conflict, but so is the length of the frontline. If the Ukrainian light infantry starts moving quickly in gaps behind the frontline, the Russians will have to take action. And that might be the whole point. If Russia starts to shift serious forces south, that might open up possibilities on other fronst, such as finding a nice less-than-well-guarded position for a river crossing. As such, operating against Kinburn might be a fixing attack, or even just a raid in which a limited unit strikes terror and wait for the Russian tanks to come rumbling down the road, before slipping away back over the sea.

It remains to be seen what Ukraine plans to do with the operation, if  there in fact is an operation ongoing at all which so far isn’t completely confirmed. Still, it does seem to indicate that the Ukrainian counteroffensive hasn’t run out off steam just yet, and that they want to capitalise on the momentum in some form or another. It is even possible that the Ukrainians themselves hasn’t decided on the fate of the landing just yet, planning to press the move in case Russia doesn’t respond or then retreat from Kinburn and attack elsewhere in case Russia shifts serious numbers of troops south. In any case this further seem to disprove the somewhat strange notion that the winter would lead to a stop in offensive operations. People living in places where winter occur annually usually have methods to keep performing even if the temperature drops, and as long as other factors doesn’t come into play (such as e.g. ammunition shortages following the fall offensives) winter often can provide better conditions for offensive operations than spring or fall.