After forcing Russian troops to retreat from the city of Kherson two weeks ago, Ukrainian special forces are now battling the Russians on the islands and in marshes to the southwest, trying to push them out of a strategically vital peninsula at the mouth of the Dnipro River where it meets the Black Sea.
The fighting is focused on the Kinburn Spit, on the east bank of the Dnipro River, the Ukrainian authorities said on Tuesday. For tourists who have visited the sliver of land, the spit is a place of rare natural beauty, but it could also prove pivotal to the next phase of the country’s war against Moscow.
Russia took control of the peninsula in June in one of its last notable advances in the south before it was forced onto the defensive by a sustained Ukrainian counteroffensive. Two weeks ago, the Kremlin ordered a retreat from the city of Kherson, on the west bank of the Dnipro, but military experts said it would fight tenaciously to keep control of Kinburn.
Control of the peninsula allows Russia to project force deeper into the Black Sea, guard routes to the ports in Mykolaiv and Kherson and protect its forces in Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014. If Ukraine were to take Kinburn, it would put key Russian supply lines running north out of Crimea in easy range of Ukrainian weapon systems.
In addition, Russian forces on the spit can launch missiles at the port city of Odesa, around 40 miles to the west, as well as the city of Mykolaiv, a similar distance to the northeast, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a military research group. By the same token, military experts say that if Ukraine can seize the spit, it could outflank Russian forces still establishing defensive positions east of the Dnipro.
“This specific bit of sandy territory becomes hugely significant because it’s a door to the Southern Bug and the Dnipro and it’s a gate out into the Black Sea,” said Rory Finnin, an associate professor of Ukrainian studies at the University of Cambridge and the author of a book about Crimea’s history.
Vitaliy Kim, the head of the military administration in the Mykolaiv region, said on the Telegram messaging app on Tuesday that Ukrainian forces were making progress on the Kinburn Spit. Ukrainian forces control the town of Ochakiv, less than three miles to the north across the water and well within artillery range.
Russian military bloggers have claimed in recent days that Russian forces have repelled attacks on the cape, while the spokeswoman for Ukraine’s southern military command, Nataliya Gumenyuk, told journalists, after the fall of Kherson, that the spit was the next objective.
At its tip, the Kinburn Spit is a strip of sand a few feet across, lapped by waves. Tourist guides speak of its sunsets and the area is known for its bird life — flamingos are sometimes sighted — and for its marshy woods. One is named after the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote about the area.
During the Crimean War, in 1855, the navies of Britain and France destroyed a Russian fortress on the peninsula, while a fierce battle took place there in 1787, as the Ottoman Empire tried to regain land lost to the Russian Empire.
Mr. Finnin argued that the current fighting over Kinburn was a sign that Russia’s retreat in the Kherson region made Moscow’s control of Crimea “hugely insecure.” Historically, the arid Crimean Peninsula and the more fertile land to the north have never been divided between competing powers for long.
“If they are able to claim the spit, it will have a lot of consequences for them in defeating Russia,” Mr. Finnin said of Ukrainian forces.
In late October, Russian news media showed images of concrete blocks that it said were being trucked to Kinburn for defensive fortifications. A few days later, a video circulated online that appeared to show the only Ukrainian amphibious assault ship reported to have survived the Russian invasion, the Yuri Olefirenks, launching rockets at Russian positions there. It was not possible to confirm the authenticity of the videos.