Following the illegal invasion and land annexation against Crimea in 2014, NATO and some non-NATO military forces were involved with the training of that country’s military, including the 73rd Maritime Special Operations Centre combat divers. Following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 the training and equipping has continued, as their special forces have been engaged in numerous operations, details of which remain largely secret. However, the Ukrainians allow us occasional glimpses into operations that have involved their combat divers, including the attack to retake the Ukrainian Island of Zmiinyi, which lies south of Odesa and close to where the mainland of Ukraine borders Romania. The island is the guardian of the sea routes for merchant ships carrying cargo to and from the Odesa area.

On 24 February 2022 Russian warships ships approached Zmiinyi Island (also referred to colloquially as Snake Island) and demanded that the Ukrainians from the border detachment stationed there surrender. Although out gunned and outmanned the border guards responded with colourful language to the effect that the Russians should clear off. The Russians decided not to and, following a short bombardment, landed their troops and took over the island, capturing the defenders who were soon released in a prisoner exchange.

The Ukrainians were not about to give up the island so when the opportunity arose they bombarded the island to such a level that on 30 June the Russians withdrew, although they labelled their withdrawal a “good will” gesture. What the Ukrainian military planners could not determine was whether all of the Russians had gone or if some remained to await any returning Ukrainians and ambush them.

On the night of 7 July 2022, combat divers from the 73rd Maritime Special Operations Centre of the Special Operations Forces (Ukraine) approached Zmiinyi Island covertly using underwater vehicles to transport the divers. The particular vehicles have not been specified, but could be any of the diver propulsion craft or swimmer deliver vehicles in service around the world, but as the unit had been trained by both the US and British special forces it is likely that they were provided with craft in use by these forces. Indeed, there have been numerous media reports that the British SBS travelled to Ukraine to help train the Ukrainian 73rd Naval Special Purpose Centre combat divers in the use of Diver Propulsion Devices. Officially the MoD will not publicly discuss such activities. These vehicles are open to the sea so the divers would use their combat diving equipment while underwater (See Combat Divers –for information about these types of vehicles).

Certainly, it is generally assumed that the Ukrainians did not have access to a submarine, so the operation would have been carried out from surface vessels that transported the divers to an operational distance from the onshore landing zone. Then under cover of darkness the divers would have used inflatable boats to get closer to shore before taking to the water with their propulsion vehicles for the final leg of the approach. Reaching the island they would have been prepared for any defenders who might have been left behind, and not wanting a full-scale confrontation it would have been a cautious move from water to land. With the immediate landing zone safe they would have inspected the shoreline for the presence of anti-landing mines or other obstructions and marked any to be dealt with. Out at sea the follow up troops would be ready, and once the landing zone was confirmed clear the divers would signal to the main landing force that they could proceed. The press service of the Ukrainian Special Operations Forces revealed that those involved included engineers of the 59th Separate Motorised Brigade, soldiers from Defence Intelligence of the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine, and the 801st Centre for Combat against Underwater Incursion Forces and Devices and Mine Disposal.

The main force would have landed and moved tactically to check the area for any defenders and gather any items of military equipment, including weapons, communication devices, and documents that had been left behind when the Russian occupying force fled. To make a point the troops installed Ukrainian flags at different points of the island and the flag of the 73rd Naval Centre of Special Operations of the Ukrainian Navy was also raised over Zmiinyi. However, the raid was planned to be short lived and as Russian warships were spotted sailing in the direction of the island and with their tasks completed, the raiding force withdrew from the island so as to avoid the missile and artillery attack that was launched by the Russian warships. The force returned to its base with no casualties.

While only snippets of special forces operations such as these are reaching the public, and rightly so, more information about the possibility that Ukrainian 73rd Naval Centre of Special Operations combat divers were involved in the sinking of a Russian landing ship can be found in Combat Divers – An illustrated history of special forces divers.

Kinburn Spit

As the Russian military fled across the River Dnipro, the Ukrainian military consolidated before launching an operation to push Russian forces from a strategic peninsula on the country’s Black Sea coast. A commando assault on the Kinburn Spit, a strip of land jutting into the sea south of Mykolaiv that was occupied by Russian forces, occurred on 23 November 2022. The approximately 5km-long Kinburn Spit is located on the western tip of the peninsula at the mouth of the Dnipro River into the Black Sea. A successful operation would stop the shelling of Odesa and reopen the port of Mykolaiv for grain export and move to a position to threaten Russia’s main logistical supply line to Crimea, some 140 miles to the east. This would be a big ask, but with the Ukrainian military nothing seemingly can be ruled out.

If the Ukrainians were able to control the Kinburn Peninsula, they would be able to effectively blockade the River Dnipro and deny Russians access to the ports of Kherson and Mykolaiv, and it would be a first step towards eventually retaking Crimea. Natalie Humeniuk, a spokeswoman for the Southern Ukraine Operations Command, announced that the Kinburn Peninsula was “a zone of active military operations” but has declined to elaborate. Nataliia Humeniuk, the spokeswoman of Ukraine’s Operational Command South on 8 January 2023 said that ‘no critical changes occurred on the southern front, where the Ukrainian military is working towards the “destruction of the Russian combat capabilities” almost along the entire left (eastern Russian-controlled) bank of the Dnipro, i.e. is carrying out attacks on the Russian rear facilities.’

A maritime assault would have involved the Ukrainian 73rd Naval Centre of Special Operations combat divers as the lead amphibious elements, who would deploy with other special forces using inflatable boats. The details of the mission are not released, although there are unconfirmed reports that Ukrainian special forces landed using small boats to travel the two-and-a-half miles from the coastal town of Ochakiv to the peninsula.

Crossing the River Dnipro

Ukraine’s Pravda media describes how Special Operations Forces combat divers crossed the Dnipro River to reach the occupiers of a village on the opposite bank. Special Operations Forces combat divers entered and swum across the bottom of the river to Russian-held territory in advance of a raiding group who followed in inflatable boats. Their task was to recce an area where the boats could land unopposed and once a safe area was established the unit crossed and moved towards the occupied village.

The Russian invaders had created forward observation posts in the village so as to identify any Ukrainian activity on their side of the river but when the unit, comprising members of the Ukraine’s 73rd Maritime Special Operations Centre and the International Legion, crossed the river in inflatable boats and moved to clear each damaged house they found that the enemy occupiers had gone. During the operation there was enemy machine gun fire, but it was unclear as to any impact that it had, but it appears that the unit did not remain at the village for long as the Russians could use artillery to shell them. The purpose of these limited actions will have been to probe the enemy’s lines for intelligence gathering with outcomes that remain secret.