Russia unleashed aggression nine months ago against Ukraine. Kiev’s latest military advances have allowed the country to reclaim some of its invaded territory, justifying Western efforts to deliver military equipment and weapons to Kiev to stop Russian intentions. In response, Russia has launched a partial mobilisation to succeed in retaining the four territories, which President Putin has promised to defend by any means necessary. While it is difficult to predict how the war will end, it is possible to estimate how Russia’s forces may adapt beyond the threat of escalation. One such area concerns Russia’s naval forces in the Black Sea, the Sea of Azov (and why not the influence of Caspian Sea support), where despite successful Ukrainian attacks, Moscow still retains critical advantages.
These advantages could allow Russia to pursue a strategy whereby the Russian navy operates from relatively safe coastal areas, well-defended from outside attack, and uses these areas to launch long-range attacks on critical infrastructure in Ukraine. If Ukraine is able to push Russian occupation forces further out of the Herson, Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions, Moscow could step up its use of the Black Sea as a strategic buffer to protect Crimea. As things stand, naval strategy can be reduced to a simple concept, control of the sea and then use that control for blockade, bombardment or maritime desegregation.
Despite its failures, the Russian navy can still hit targets in Ukraine and continue its blockade. Russia may well use the Black Sea to avoid a total military defeat and use its naval power to coerce Ukrainian leaders and avoid making concessions during peace talks that might favor Ukraine.
Russia still enjoys relative military dominance in the Black Sea, based also on enforcement of strait restrictions, which gives them a sense of security despite the attack in Crimea on the Russian Black Sea fleet with a mixture of air and sea drones. Russia still has frigates, corvettes and submarines to launch cruise missile attacks on Ukrainian forces and civilian targets, as it has done throughout the war.
Russia has also used the Black Sea as a base to export various forms of aggression to the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean.
For its part, Ukraine has no maritime forces to seriously challenge Russia’s naval forces, relying largely on a small fleet of four or five patrol ships, which are used for reconnaissance and protection missions, indigenous and Western-supplied coastal missiles, aerial drones and newer maritime drones. These ships limit the Ukrainian navy’s ability to strike Russian naval capabilities and key military targets in Crimea, but at the same time succeed in limiting Russia’s access to the Black Sea’s Northwest basin.
As the war continues, the West must reconsider how it will support Ukraine’s naval strategy. In the long term, the West should help Ukraine develop its conventional naval capabilities, with the ultimate goal being to help Ukraine restore the naval balance against Russia in order to consolidate its territorial gains on land and stop Russia from consolidating a maritime posture in the Black Sea from which it can strike Ukraine, disrupt maritime exports, and have a launching pad for future offensive operations.
Despite notable successes in sinking Russian ships, Ukraine remains at a comparative disadvantage to the Russian navy. The Biden administration has pledged to provide Ukraine with river patrol vessels, but these are largely designed to protect waterways rather than engage in naval warfare. Turkey has already launched the first of four Ukrainian ADA-class corvettes. It is also unclear when such ships will physically arrive in Ukraine, given Turkey’s closure of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles to all warships in February 2022, including those from NATO members. Either way, it is clear that Russia has suffered major losses in the Black Sea, notably with the sinking of the flagship Moskva in April 2022, the destruction of at least four other ships and an attack on ships in Sevastopol in late October 2022.
Ukraine has also used other means to strike targets in Crimea. For example, the long-term hitting and damaging of the Kerch Bridge in October affected naval supremacy in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov.
Russia continues to view the Black Sea as a major environment in the war against Ukraine, and Moscow has previously planned and carried out landings and strikes on Ukrainian cities and military targets. Ukraine has used mines to defend itself against amphibious landings near large coastal cities such as Odessa. It is also the area where Russia has managed to slow or stop grain and fertiliser exports from Ukraine to strangle Ukraine’s economy. One figure shows Ukraine’s grain exports down 46% from last year, with Ukraine’s overall GDP estimated to fall by about 35% this year.
Russia’s Black Sea fleet could be used to support the defence of inland areas currently under threat. Herson, the now liberated city, is within range of Russia’s naval missile strike capabilities. Using its navy in this way is an effective way to launch strikes on Ukrainian targets and ensure Russian lines don’t collapse.
Russia has also demonstrated that it does not hesitate to strike civilian targets as a way to terrify Ukrainian citizens, power and distribution systems, and prepare cities for Russian military land invasions.
Ukraine has sought to counter Russia’s naval dominance, and its leadership understands that investment in naval assets is a necessity if the country is to combat and deter Russia in the Black Sea, as evidenced by the January 2022 agreement with the UK to purchase warships. In 2014, following Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea and the naval base at Sevastopol, Ukraine lost up to 75% of its naval fleet. By 2024, Ukraine will take over the Hetman Ivan Mazepa corvette, which is the one built in Turkey, with the next 3 or 4 to be built in Ukraine, according to the Navy Development Strategy of the Armed Forces of Ukraine until 2036. Ankara and Kiev have finalised a defence agreement in 2020. Furthermore, although there have been reports that these Ada-class corvettes will be equipped with Harpoon anti-ship missiles, rapid-fire guns and torpedoes, little is known about the exact suite of technologies these ships will be equipped with.
There are indications that Russia is increasingly fearful of Ukrainian attacks on its Black Sea fleet. Ukraine has repeatedly managed to hit Russian ships in port – along with successful drone strikes on the Black Sea Fleet Command and Russian naval aviation in Russian-occupied Crimea – with missiles. Following these strikes, Russia moved its Kilo-class submarines away from Crimea to Novorossiysk. For Russia, not having free access to the Ukrainian coast is a major deficit because, even if Russia has no Ukrainian ships to fight directly, its Kalibr cruise missiles pose a threat to Ukraine. Russia’s withdrawal of submarines from Sevastopol to Novorossiysk was a remarkable achievement for Ukraine, especially as it has few anti-submarine capabilities. However, Russia may face a shortage of cruise missiles, given pre-war reports of precarious stocks of these weapons and the high expenditure on them during the invasion. Although estimates vary, Russia may still have more than 50% of its pre-war inventory, which would allow continued attacks from naval platforms in the Black Sea. On the other hand, Russia faces a basic geographical challenge: it does not control access to the Black Sea. Under the 1936 Montreux Convention, Turkey has blocked access to the Dardanelles and Bosphorus Straits since the start of the invasion in February. However, Russia has found ways around Turkey’s closure of the Straits. For example, it has used civilian ships to transport supplies and equipment to and from Syria. In August 2022, reports indicate that civilian-flagged ships moved an S-300 surface-to-air missile system from Masyaf, Syria, to Novorossiysk in the Black Sea. In any case, Russia’s goal at present is to maintain heavily protected areas where the Russian navy can operate in relative safety. These zones can then be used to maintain control of the sea, deter foreign naval interference, and make any political settlement or end to war more difficult for Ukraine. Russia’s presence in the Black Sea gives leaders political and military flexibility if they agree to a ceasefire or are defeated. If the Black Sea remains a fortified maritime zone for the Kremlin, the military can use surface ships and submarines for cruise missile attacks at any time in the future. Moscow has also taken steps to defend its navy against Ukrainian attacks, even if this has proved difficult because of seaborne vehicle attacks. In addition, the Black Sea has seen a proliferation of sea mines since the outbreak of the war, making it difficult to safely handle commercial and military vessels.
Russia can also create significant political and economic problems in the Black Sea. For example, in response to the October 2022 attacks on its fleet at Sevastopol, the Kremlin suspended an export agreement to allow grain and cereal exports from Ukraine. The Kremlin eventually relented and rejoined the grain deal, but the original text was written to give Moscow flexibility. The Kremlin can use the terms of the agreement to suspend implementation and then rely on the navy to threaten shipping. This allows the Russian navy to be used to economically coerce Ukraine. In sum, Russia has the means and equipment to use naval force to support current operations in Ukraine and to be able to coerce Kiev even if hostilities end. The West should consider how to keep Russian naval targets at risk when debating the types of weapons it offers to the Ukrainian armed forces. Ukraine has demonstrated a high degree of pragmatism and ingenuity on the battlefield and has used drones and improvised anti-ship missiles to keep the Russian navy at bay. Its attack on the Kerch bridge is an example of the strategic depth Ukrainian forces are willing to go, even without naval capabilities. Depending on how far Ukraine pushes back Russian forces, the West should reconsider its delivery of ship-relevant weapons to Kiev. This could start with larger influxes of anti-ship missiles such as Harpoon, but may also mean preparing the Ukrainian armed forces to use very light torpedoes for the patrol ships they are likely to receive in the future. Today, there are repeated calls for more drones, fighter jets and tanks, but serious consideration needs to be given to the naval dimension here, as patrol ships alone will not be able to shift the naval balance against Russia.
Russia’s naval strategy in the Black Sea cannot be separated from its wider military objectives. A major defeat of Russian forces on Ukrainian territory could force the Kremlin to retreat to its defensive bastion in the Black Sea, from where it can try to use its relative naval power to maintain a military status quo, stall a frozen conflict, or buy enough time to rearm for future attacks on Ukraine. Russia still feels it has some degree of strategic depth in the Black Sea.
Maritime Security Forum, 20 November 2022