A bid by Ukrainian forces to reclaim the strategically critical Kinburn Spit from Russian control could hold the key to freeing ships caught in the war-torn port of Mykolaiv.

Vitaliy Kim, head of the Mykolaiv Regional Military Administration, told Interfax-Ukraine that successful reclamation of the three-mile-long strip of land running into the Black Sea in the south of the country would open the door for the port of Mykolaiv to join the Black Sea Grain Initiative.

The Kinburn Spit controls the entrance to the Dnipro and Pivdennyi rivers and access to the port cities of Mykolaiv and Kherson.

Russian forces have used the Kinburn Spit to launch rocket and artillery attacks on Ukrainian-controlled areas on the Black Sea coast.

At present, Kim said ships must sail close to the Kinburn Spit when they leave the port.

“Geographically, our ships should sail a kilometre from the Kinburn Spit, which is dangerous now,” he said.

There are more than a dozen ships currently trapped in the port of Mykolaiv, mostly handysize bulk carriers, including the 25,900-dwt Mallard S (built 2010), 53,100-dwt Filia Joy (built 2009) and 29,100-dwt Oceanic Island (built 2009).

There are several tankers also in the region, including the 46,600-dwt MTM Rio Grande (built 2007) and 38,000-dwt Harald Maersk (built 2009).

The only way for ships to leave Ukraine’s Black Sea ports is via the grain initiative. The current agreement only includes the ports of Odesa, Chernomorsk and Yuzhny.

There was hope that the port of Mykolaiv — a major Ukraine grain export terminal — might be included when the grain initiative was recently renewed. But it was left out of the deal, which simply automatically renewed as it was for a further 120 days.

Fierce battle

The infrastructure in the region, which has been at the centre of a fierce battle between Russian and Ukraine forces, is close to collapse following the fighting and targeting of Ukraine’s power generation, and the port of Mykolaiv is likely to have been severely damaged.

Ukraine has been forced to order the evacuation of the recently liberated Kherson and Mykolaiv region in response to heavy Russian artillery fire and the onset of winter.