Lenox native James Brooke has traveled to about 100 countries reporting for The New York Times, Bloomberg and Voice of America.

Crossing the Gulf of Dnipro in inflatable speedboats, Ukrainian special forces are fighting to reopen Ukraine’s river gate to the Black Sea, a chokepoint so strategic that the father of the U.S. Navy fought over the same strip of sand in 1787.

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From that land, the Kinburn Spit, the Russians have launched missile, drone and artillery attacks on Odesa and Mykolaiv, each city about 35 miles away. Russian guns have controlled shipping through the mouth of the Dnipro, a mighty waterway seen as the Mississippi of Ukraine. The strategic value of this pincerhold over a three-mile-wide channel has been recognized — and fought over — since the days of Homer and the Ancient Greeks.

More recently, in 1787, John Paul Jones was down on his luck after aiding the American Colonies win their independence. But his fame as a naval commander had traveled to St. Petersburg. Catherine the Great hired the Scottish-American as a rear admiral in the Czarist Russian navy. His mission was to free the mouth of the Dnipro from control by the Ottoman Turks. From his command aboard the 24-gun flagship Vladimir, Jones outfoxed the Turkish fleet, expelled the Turks and set up a 12-gun Russian shore battery on Kinburn Spit.

Seabees return

This time, in a reversal of history, the Americans are helping the Ukrainians to expel the Russians from Kinburn. Five years ago, American Seabees, the U.S. Navy’s construction arm, returned to these waters to build a Ukrainian naval command center and boat repair center at Ochakiv.

Inaugurated in 2019, the new Black Sea operations center for Ukraine’s Navy replaced one seized by the Russians in 2014, when Russia annexed the neighboring Crimean Peninsula. Reflecting the strategic value of this river chokepoint, investors from China and Russia later explored buying docks near the U.S.-made command center in Ochakiv.

It is from Ochakiv that Ukrainian special forces crossed the Dnipro to attack three Russian bases on Kinburn.

Although largely hidden from the world media, some news has filtered out. In late October, a video circulated online that appeared to show Ukraine’s largest amphibious assault ship, the 240-foot Yuri Olefirenko, firing rockets at Russian positions on Kinburn. Two weeks ago, photos apparently showed a flattened Russian garrison. Mykolayiv governor Vitalii Kim has said that troops are making progress on the Kinburn Peninsula, half of which is in his region.

“For now, this military operation is in silent mode,” spokeswoman for Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command Natalia Humeniuk said Monday on Ukrainian television. “Hostilities are taking place there, and this is very difficult work, in particular because of the weather conditions — storms, strong wind — the geographic location.”

If this amphibious, cross-river landing is successful, Ukraine will aim for three goals: cut the shelling of Odesa and Mykolaiv, reopen Mykolaiv as a major grain export port, and threaten Russia’s main logistical supply line to Crimea, 140 miles to the east.

Where things stand now

Unlike American soldiers embarking on the 1944 D-Day landings, Ukrainian soldiers have the advantage of satellite photos that clearly show every Russian trench and tank trap.

“Satellite imagery shows that Russian forces have prioritized digging trenches and erecting dragon’s teeth anti-tank defenses along [access roads],” the Institute for the Study of War reported Sunday. To block Ukrainian armor from breaking out of a beachhead, the report continues, “Russian forces have also heavily fortified a 3-kilometer-wide strip of land separating the Kinburn Spit from mainland Kherson Oblast.”

“Russian defensive positions suggest that the Russian military leadership views the prospect of a Ukrainian counteroffensive across the Dnipro River as a serious threat,” continues the report which is illustrated with satellite photos from Maxar Technologies. “Russian forces very likely expect Ukrainian forces to take the Kinburn Spit but intend to prevent them from advancing to mainland Kherson Oblast.”

All major road intersections and T-junctions have been fortified, Institute analysts conclude. But with nighttime temperatures forecast to dip below freezing all next week, southern Ukraine will enter a 90-day window when the ground is largely frozen. If Ukraine can get tanks and armored personnel carriers across the river — and the diesel to fuel them — this pancake-flat farmland opens itself to flanking attacks across open countryside.

Indeed, going back to the days of John Paul Jones, the American naval hero’s best land ally against the Turks were Ukrainian Cossack horsemen. They thundered across the open steppes, decapitating fleeing Turkish foot soldiers.

Perhaps aware that winter could turn the frozen lands north of Crimea into an open chessboard, Russian military bloggers are signaling that Russia could pull its troops south to defend Putin’s prize: Crimea. “Elements of the Russian information space are beginning to lose faith in Russian forces’ ability to hold key areas in western Zaporizhia Oblast, possibly setting long-term information conditions for a Russian withdrawal from this area,” the Institute reports, analyzing Russian military bloggers and reporters. Under this scenario, Russia would withdraw from the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, the largest nuclear power complex in Europe.

This might be why Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy predicted two weeks ago that the liberation of Kherson City from Russian rule portends the “beginning of the end” of the war.

If that day comes, the Kinburn Spit, long a magnet for birdwatchers, could become a destination for military history buffs.

Lenox native James Brooke has traveled to about 100 countries reporting for The New York Times, Bloomberg and Voice of America. He reported from Russia for eight years and from Ukraine for six years, coming home a year ago.