Ochakiv & the Battle for the Kinburn Spit
Zarina Zabrisky reports from Ochakiv on the Black Sea coast, one of Ukraine’s most dangerous and underreported hotspots after almost a year of full-scale Russian aggression
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Located at the mouth of the Dnipro River on the banks of the Dnipro-Buh estuary, Ochakiv can trace its history all the way back to the 5th Century BC and has political, military, economic, and symbolic importance for Putin’s plans to restore the Russian Empire.
The Russian President referred to Ochakiv in his address to the Russian people just two days before invading Ukraine on 24 February 2022, calling the local training maritime centre a major threat to the Russian Black Sea Fleet and reminding the audience that “in the 18th Century, the lands of the Black Sea region, annexed to Russia as a result of wars with the Ottoman Empire, were called Novorossiya. Now they are trying to oblivion these milestones of history, like the names of state military figures of the Russian Empire.”
The term ‘Novorossiya’ (literally, ‘New Russia’) has been at the heart of Putin’s major ambition: to expand the Russian Federation to the former borders of the Russian Empire. Putin first brought up the term in 2014 after the Russian annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula Crimea. The US Foreign Policy Research Institute recognised that introducing the concept signalled the intention to “dismember” Ukraine. As reality has proved, breathing life into the outdated term was the first stepping stone on Putin’s way to restoring the empire, his own ‘New Russia’.
Ochakiv: Military Significance
Byline Times’ visit to Ochakiv was almost cancelled. At five am, on April 7 2022, the Russian military fired 72 artillery and mortar shells at the city and 50 shells at the water area around it. They showered the community with Soviet-made multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS) BM-21 Grad (122 mm calibre), cluster munitions launched by MLRS BM-27 Uragan (220 mm calibre), and incendiary projectiles prohibited by international conventions when used against civilians.
The shelling damaged a big supermarket, high-rises, private houses, garages, a city market, and a gas pipeline. Fires broke out, and two civilians were injured. By the time Byline Times arrived in Ochakiv from Odesa, a major seaport in southern Ukraine, two hours later, the residents were busy repairing the broken windows and smashed doors.
“We used to have thirteen thousand population before the full-scale invasion. Now, seven thousand civilians left in Ochakiv are used to the shelling,” said Mayor Serhii Bychkov. “It started two days after Putin’s speech and never stopped. That day, the Russians hit what they wanted to hit.”
A local man told Byline Times: “We had a small mission with a classroom—the one the Russians called a NATO base and destroyed immediately.” Other locals pointed at a destroyed and charred carpet and floor tiles store that the Russian social media claimed to be a storage place for US-made light multiple rocket launchers, HIMARS.
Commenting on Putin’s allegations that Ochakiv was the location of a decision-making “NATO centre”, Natalia Humeniuk, the head of the United Coordinating Press Center of Security and Defense Forces of the South of Ukraine, told Byline Times, “Putin finds either a NATO base or a biological laboratory in every Ukrainian city.”
The Kinburn Spit: a Russian Springboard
Imaginary HIMARS garages and NATO decision-making centres are not the real reason for Ochakiv’s strategic importance to the Russian military. Its location, the area’s geography, and its natural resources all make it of paramount importance to the control of the South of Ukraine.
The Ochakiv district, a part of the Mykolaiv region (oblast), includes the Kinburn Spit, a sandy area only 40 kilometres long and fewer than ten kilometres wide. The spit is the extension of the Kinburn peninsula, which belongs to the Kherson oblast. A former tourist attraction, the spit is now off-limits even for a quick visit.
Russians seized the Kinburn Spit in June 2022. From its tip, located only 3.6 km (2.2 miles) away from the cape of Ochakiv——their missiles, artillery, and drones can reach the seaports Mykolaiv and Ochakiv. IAs well as a base for electronic warfare, the Kinburn Spit could serve as a perfect springboard for attacks on these two ports. The peninsula, connected to the currently Russian-occupied left bank of the Dnipro River in the Kherson region, could be used in any attempt to recapture Kherson.
The Ukrainian military command understands the importance of the Kinburn Spit and works on preventing such moves.
“We have defeated the Russians at the western part of the Kinburn Spit during the first week of April,” Natalia Humeniuk told Byline Times. “Amphibious landing, crossing the estuary on boats would be too dangerous for our military. We used counter-battery fire instead. As a result, the enemy had to withdraw from the tip of the spit to the peninsula, and the shelling stopped for a couple of days”
The lull in shelling was short-lived. On 7 April the Russians launched a particularly ferocious bombardment of Ochakiv. To Humeniuk, this was “clearly the reaction to the success of the Ukrainian army”.
“Their tactic is to convince the residents that the Ukrainian military was to blame for the Russian attacks. ‘Your military hurt us, so we will hurt you.’ Ukrainian people understand that if their army hits the enemy, the latter will take revenge on innocent civilians,” Humeniuk said. “The Russians are thus trying to convey to the world that the Ukrainian army is fighting against its own people.”
The Mayor of Ochakiv, Serhiy Bychkov, confirmed that the Russians had to retreat to the peninsula due to the risk of their positions being destroyed by the Ukrainian artillery. “Now, to shell Ochakiv, the invaders move their equipment back to the very tip of the Kinburn Spit and then quickly retreat to avoid our artillery fire,” he told Byline Times. “They are firing in the dark as they are afraid to be targeted. With no roads, it is not an easy manoeuvre. The 14-ton MLRS vehicles get stuck in the sand, and the Russian military has to build special passages – prokhody.”
However, the Mayor of Ochakiv doesn’t underestimate the capacities of the Russian military. “There was hardly one day without artillery fire in Ochakiv,” he told Byline Times “and even children tell the type of shells by the sound. Cannon artillery and MLRS take 12-15 seconds to reach the target. Our people take the threat seriously, hiding in the basements. We have built bomb shelters where anyone can spend a night.”
The residents of Ochakiv understand both the danger and the Russian tactic. Standing by the damaged stalls at the city market, Serhii, a security guard, told Byline Times, “If the Russian incendiary projectiles interacted with the leaked gas, a major explosion would follow. It’s scary, but we believe in our military. They defend us, and we are thankful.” A middle-aged woman at an ATB supermarket said, “The Russians hit us day and night. Thank god for the Armed Forces of Ukraine (ZSU)!” The Mayor of Ochakiv also sounded positive, “We will clear our land.”
Accomplishing this goal and clearing the Kinburn Spit will require additional capabilities according to the Ukrainian military. “We want to strike to destroy only the occupying troops, weapons, and their places of deployment, not our civilians,” said Humeniuk. “To do so, we need long-range artillery and high-precision projectiles. This is the nature of this war. We cannot drop an aerial bomb to destroy territory for several kilometres around. Our people live there, and we don’t want to and will not harm them.”
According to the Mayor of Ochakiv, before the full-scale invasion, the population of the Kinburn Spit was 800 people. Currently, 130 in one village and 50 in another live under occupation.
The Economic Factor: The Grain Corridor
In addition to its military importance, there are economic reasons for the Russians to hold on to the Kinburn Spit. On 22 July 2022, Russia and Ukraine signed the Black Sea Grain Initiative, with the support of the United Nations (UN) and Turkey. The grain deal allowed Ukraine, one of the leading exporters of wheat, to transport grains and other commercial food from Odesa, Chornomorsk and Yuzhne, three major Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea, using a safe “grain corridor” in the Black Sea during the ongoing Russian invasion. Russia consistently puts the agreement at risk. On 11 April, it violated the conditions of the Black Sea grain initiative, blocking the inspections of ships transporting grain.
Unsurprisingly, Ukraine’s intention to add the Mykolaiv ports to the deal is not popular with the Russian Government. As Humeniuk explained, “Negotiations are underway to add the Mykolaiv region ports to the ‘grain corridor’ but Russia wants to cut the Mykolaiv capacities from the grain deal, undermining the Ukrainian economy, and ensuring the opportunity to sell their own grain. While the Russians control the Kinburn Spit, Ukraine cannot ensure a safe ship passage from Mykolaiv.”
The Power of Symbolism
Beyond the political, military, and economic significance of the Ochakiv region, another unique factor makes it a land-grab dream for the Kremlin. Putin and his propagandists weaponize history. Victorious wars have become a brand and a tool of the hybrid war. “The [Putin’s] regime claims to be the direct successor of all Russia’s glorious victories… and thereby makes itself immune to criticism,” according to Moscow Carnegie Center expert Andrei Kolesnikov.
The Kinburn Spit—“a cape thin as a hair” in Turkish—is the realm of myths and legends, rich in symbolism. The Greek historian Herodotus visited the area and call it “a home to the Scythians,” in the 5th Century B.C. Scythian gold is said to be hidden in the sandy dunes. Ancient Greeks believed that Achilles, the greatest of Greek warriors, won a major naval battle nearby. In the late 9th to the mid-13th centuries, during the era of the Kyivan Rus, the first East Slavic state, vessels filled with wines, spices, fruits, fabrics, jewellery, silver coins, furs, honey, wax, and amber sailed here on the route “from the Varangians to the Greeks” between Scandinavia and the Baltics to Byzantium.
In 1737, during the Russian-Turkish wars, it was in Ochakiv that Baron Munchausen’s horse survived being chopped in two only to be sewn together later, in the satirical fantasy novel written by Rudolf Erich Raspe. And, in a final historical irony, the Kinburn Spit could have inspired the most iconic image of Russian culture, Lukomorye. When the father of Russian poetry, Aleksandr Pushkin, wrote of a magical forest of “the Russian spirit” on a bow-shaped cape, he might have meant Volyzhin forest, the dense thicket of ancient shrubs, groves of oak, birch, alder, and aspen, described by Herodotus as the “green miracle”.
Scythian gold would be of interest to the Russian military, infamous for looting. Yet, this is not the major attraction for Putin. For the immortality-hungry Russian president, Ochakiv symbolizes ‘Novorossiya’ and the colonial conquests. But his grand plan is hanging by a hair. The hope of inscribing himself in history as a great military leader of modern times could be sinking as fast as the Soviet-made artillery in the sands of the Kinburn Spit.