Relative Dominance: Russian Naval Power in the Black Sea
Russia is struggling in its war on Ukraine. Kyiv’s military advances have allowed the country to seize back more of its territory, vindicating Western efforts to deliver military equipment and weapons to Kyiv to stem Russian advances and to enable Ukrainian forces to retake territory Russia had annexed. In response, Russia has gone into a state of mobilization and formally annexed four territories, which President Putin has vowed to defend with whatever means necessary.
While it is difficult to determine how the war will end, it is possible to estimate how Russia’s forces may adapt, beyond threat of escalation. One such area concerns Russia’s naval forces in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov, where despite successful Ukrainian attacks, Moscow still retains critical advantages.
These advantages could enable Russia to pursue a bastion strategy, wherein the Russian navy operates from relatively safe coastal areas, well-defended from outside attack, and uses these areas to launch long-range attacks into Ukraine on critical infrastructure. If Ukraine is able to push Russian-occupation forces further out of the Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, and Donetsk regions, Moscow may intensify its use of the Black Sea as a strategic buffer to protect Crimea. As B.J. Armstrong wrote in this publication, naval strategy can be boiled down to a simple concept, command of the sea, and then using that command for a blockade, bombardment, or putting boots on the ground. Despite its setbacks, the Russian navy can still bombard targets in Ukraine and to continue its blockade of the country. Russia may well use the Black Sea to avoid an outright military defeat and to use its naval position there to coerce Ukrainian leaders and avoid making concessions during peace talks that could favor Ukraine.
Russia still enjoys relative military dominance in the Black Sea, despite the attack in Crimea on Russia’s Black Sea fleet with a mix of flying and maritime drones. Russia still has the means to use frigates and submarines to launch cruise-missile attacks on Ukrainian forces and civilian targets, as it has throughout the war. For its part, Ukraine has no sea-based forces to seriously challenge Russia’s naval forces. Its flagship frigate, the Hetman Sahaidachny, was scuttled in March 2022 and the country has largely had to rely on a small fleet of four or five patrol boats, which are used for reconnaissance and protection missions. These ships limit the Ukrainian navy’s ability to strike Russian naval capabilities and key military targets in Crimea.
As the war rages, the West needs to reconsider how it will support Ukraine’s naval strategy. This begins with a need for greater supplies of anti-ship missiles and amphibious training for Ukraine’s armed forces. Over the longer term, the West also needs to help Ukraine build up its conventional naval capabilities such as frigates and submarines. The ultimate goal is to assist Ukraine in turning the naval balance against Russia in order to consolidate its territorial gains on land and to stop Russia from consolidating a maritime bastion in the Black Sea from where it can strike Ukraine, disrupt maritime exports, and have a launching pad for future offensive operations.
Naval Power in a Land War
Despite notable successes 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 riverways rather than engage in naval warfare. It is also unclear when such vessels will physically make it to Ukraine, given Turkey’s closure of the Bosporus and Dardanelles to all warships in February 2022, including those from NATO members. Either way, it is clear that Russia has sustained major losses in the Black Sea, most notably with the sinking of the Black Sea Fleet flagship the Moskva in April 2022, the destruction of at least four other vessels, and an attack on the latest flagship, the Admiral Makarov, at the end of October 2022.
Ukraine has used other means to strike targets in Crimea. Ukraine’s targeting of the Kerch Bridge in October, for example, may have been carried out with a truck bomb, although other explanations have not been ruled out. Despite the obvious benefits of the strike on Kerch Bridge, Russia still has naval supremacy in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.
Russia continues to view the Black Sea as a major domain in the war against Ukraine and Moscow has previously planned and conducted landings and hit Ukrainian cities and military targets. Ukraine has used mines to defend against amphibious landings near major coastal cities such as Odessa. It is also the location where Russia has been able to slow or halt grain and fertilizer exports from Ukraine to strangle Ukraine’s economy. One figure puts the loss of Ukraine’s grain exports at 46 percent compared to last year, with Ukraine’s overall GDP expected to drop by about 35 percent this year.
Russia’s Black Sea fleet can be used to support the defense of inland areas, currently under threat. Take Kherson: The city is now under threat, but it is well within range of Russia’s naval missile strike capabilities. Using its navy in this manner is an effective way of launching strikes on Ukrainian targets and ensuring that Russian lines do not collapse, as more men are sent to the front to reinforce positions. Russia has also demonstrated that it has no hesitation hitting civilian targets as a way of terrifying Ukrainian citizens and preparing towns or cities for land encroachments by the Russian army.
Ukraine has sought to counter Russia’s naval dominance and its leadership understands that investment in naval assets is a must if the country is to combat and deter Russia in the Black Sea, as its January 2022 deal with the United Kingdom for the procurement of warships attests. In 2014, following Russia’s illegal seizure of Crimea and the Sevastopol naval base, Ukraine lost up to 75 percent of its naval fleet. By 2024, Ukraine will take delivery of the Hetman Ivan Mazepa corvette, which is the first of two ships being built in Turkey. Ankara and Kyiv finalized a defense agreement in 2020, but, given the present situation, it is unclear whether the vessels will actually make the perilous crossing through the Black Sea. Furthermore, while there have been reports that these Ada-class corvettes will be fitted with Harpoon anti-ship missiles, rapid-fire guns, and torpedoes, little is known of the exact suite of technologies that these vessels will be equipped with.
Down, But Not Yet Out?
There are indications that Russia is increasingly wary of Ukrainian strikes on its Black Sea fleet. Ukraine has repeatedly been able to target Russian ships in port — along with successful attacks on the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea fleet and Russian naval aviation based in Russian-occupied Crimea — with missiles. Following these strikes, there are reports that Russia has moved its kilo-class submarines away from Crimea to southern Russia for protection. For Russia, not having free access to the Ukrainian coast is a major deficit because, even if Russia has no Ukrainian vessels to directly fight, its Kalibr cruise missiles are a menace for Ukraine. Pushing Russia’s submarines out of Sevastopol to Novorossiysk has been a remarkable feat for Ukraine, especially as it has little in the way of anti-submarine capabilities.
Russia, however, may face cruise-missile shortages, given the prewar reports about precarious stockpiles of these weapons, and the large expenditure of these weapons during the invasion. While estimates vary, Russia may still possess more than 50 percent of its prewar inventory, which would allow for continued strikes from Naval platforms in the Black Sea.
Russia also faces a basic geographical challenge: It does not control access to the Black Sea. Through the Montreux Convention of 1936, Turkey has blocked access to the Dardanelles and Bosphorus Straits since the start of the invasion in February. Russia has, however, found ways to circumvent Turkey’s closure of the Straits. It has, for example, used civilian ships to ferry 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 aim at present is to maintain a maritime bastion composed of submarine and missile silos and sea mines. A bastion is a heavily protected area of water, where the Russian navy can operate in relative safety. This bastion can then be used to maintain sea control, deter foreign naval interference, and make any political settlement or end to the war in Ukraine’s favor more difficult. Russia’s presence in the Black Sea also gives leaders political and military flexibility in the event that they agree to a ceasefire, or are defeated in this round of fighting.
If the Black Sea remains a maritime bastion for the Kremlin, the military can use surface ships and submarines for cruise-missile attacks at any point in the future. Moscow has also taken steps to defend its navy from Ukrainian attack, even if this has proven difficult due to unmanned sea vehicle attacks on the Russian navy at Sevastopol. It still maintains an extensive coastal defense system to protect more than 36,650 kilometers of coastline. Furthermore, the Black Sea has seen a proliferation of sea mines since the outbreak of the war, making it difficult for commercial and military vessels to maneuver safely.
Russia can also create significant political and economic problems in the Black Sea. For example, in response to 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 terms in 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.
Russia has the means and the equipment to use naval strength to support current operations in Ukraine and to be able to coerce Kyiv even if hostilities end. The West should consider how to hold Russian naval targets at risk, when debating the types of weapons it provides the Ukrainian armed forces. Ukraine has shown a high-degree of battlefield pragmatism and ingenuity and it has used drones and make-shift anti-ship missiles to keep Russia’s navy at bay. Its attack on the Kerch Bridge is an example of the lengths Ukraine’s forces are willing to go, even without naval capabilities.
Depending on how far Ukraine repels Russian forces, the West should reconsider its delivery of naval-relevant weapons to Kyiv. This could start with greater inflows of anti-ship missiles such as the Harpoon, but it can also mean training Ukraine armed forces to use micro-torpedoes from the growing stocks of patrol vessels they are likely to receive in future. Today, there are repeated calls for more drones, fighter jets and tanks but there is a need to seriously consider the naval dimension here as patrol vessels alone will not be able to shift the naval balance against Russia.
Russia’s naval strategy in the Black Sea cannot be divorced from its wider military objectives. A major defeat of Russia’s forces on Ukrainian territory is likely to force the Kremlin into its Black Sea bastion, from where it can seek to use its relative naval strength to maintain a military status quo, lock in a frozen conflict or buy enough time to rearm for future attacks on Ukraine. Russia still feels as though it has some degree of strategic depth in the Black Sea.
Daniel Fiott is an assistant professor at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and heads the Defence and Statecraft program at the Centre for Security, Diplomacy and Strategy at the Brussels School of Governance. He is also a non-resident fellow at the Madrid-based Real Elcano Institute. Follow him on Twitter @DanielFiott