From the beginning of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expanded invasion of Ukraine, Moscow, the West and Ukraine have viewed the conflict primarily as a land war rather than a naval contest.
But as Ukrainian, Western and Russian analysts are increasingly pointing out, from the beginning, the Russian invasion has had a key naval component. And recent Ukrainian successes on land have only elevated the importance of the fight between Russian and Ukrainian forces for the Black Sea (see EDM, June 20; Ru.krymr.com, July 24; Voennoedelo.com, July 25). That trend seems certain to continue because Moscow is expanding its tasks for the Black Sea Fleet in supporting its land-based efforts, through targeted strikes on critical infrastructure and the Port of Odesa, as well as cutting off Ukraine from trade with the outside world. Perhaps, more importantly, the fleet will need to keep itself in a position to avoid losing Crimea and thus negotiate a better settlement for itself in the broader conflict.
Kyiv recognizes this threat and is seeking to counter it, both by stepping up its harassment of Russian shipping and naval facilities on land due to its limited capacity at sea—it lost most of its ships to Russia in 2014—and by purchasing and building more ships to use against Russian forces. Ukraine has been seeking more assistance from the West, which will allow it to challenge Moscow’s sea bastion strategy and make it more difficult for the Kremlin to achieve its goals of advancing on land and cutting Ukraine off from world trade.
Yet, despite some highly publicized Ukrainian victories, including attacks on Russia’s Sevastopol naval base and the sinking of the flagship Moskva of the Black Sea Fleet and other vessels, including an attack on July 24, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet retains its dominant position for the time being. Russian analysts fear and Ukrainian analysts claim, however, that the situation could change if Ukraine receives new anti-ship weapons systems from the West, or if Moscow spreads its navy too thin by adding to the tasks it already has set while continuing to suffer losses that Russia’s own shipbuilding and ship repair facilities would have a difficult time making up (Ru.krymr.com, July 24; Profile.ru; Kp.ru;T.me/mod_russia; Vz.ru, July 25).
Russian military experts are increasingly worried about the possibility that their fleet could lose its overwhelming position, even though most continue to suggest that there is little danger of that for now. Moscow analyst Konstantin Sivkov, for example, says that Kyiv already has the ability to inflict serious damage on the Russian fleet even as the Kremlin blockades its ports, seeks to defend the Crimean Bridge and Crimea more generally, as well as supports the Russian army on land (Chto-proishodit.ru, July 25). Sivkov points to three threats in particular: land-based missile systems supplied by the West that can strike at naval vessels more than 250 kilometers from shore, what he calls “kamikaze drones” that can hit Russian ships even further afield, as well as Ukrainian ships and mines that can limit the ability of the Black Sea Fleet to move at will. If there are significant improvements in Ukraine’s capacity in any or all of these areas, the Russian analyst suggests, then Russia’s fleet and Moscow’s goals for it will be put at risk.
However, both he and other Moscow experts argue that Ukraine will hardly be able to challenge Russia’s predominance at sea anytime soon unless significant Western naval assistance comes to the Ukrainian side. They suggest that, even if such aid is forthcoming, Russia’s provision of new and more advanced vessels for the Black Sea Fleet may counter any such threat (Fedpress.ru, May 13; Ukraina.ru; Zvezdaweekly.ru, July 24; Vrubcovske.ru; Giport.ru, July 25).
Not surprisingly, Ukrainian officials and analysts are more optimistic about the Western assistance their navy may receive and about Kyiv’s ability to challenge Russia’s position in the Black Sea—at a minimum by increasing Russian concerns about the security of their ships and by forcing Moscow to pull back in ways that Ukraine can then exploit.
Eventually, some even say that Ukrainian forces will be able to disrupt all the goals the Kremlin has set for its navy, including blockading Ukrainian ports, preventing Kyiv’s export of grain and supporting Russian forces on land. Volodymyr Harylov, Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, speaks for many of them when he says that the Ukrainian military already has the ability to force Russia’s Black Sea Fleet out of its most forward positions and even suggests that “the longer the war drags on, the fewer chances [Russia’s] Black Sea Fleet will have to survive.” He points to the relocation of some Russian ships to protect them from attack as evidence of this looming danger (T.me/Voenkor_rusvesnaa, July 22; Ont.by, July 24). Other Ukrainian politicians and analysts are equally upbeat, though many of those most optimistic about the future acknowledge that they are not military analysts (Ru.krymr.com, July 24).
Ukraine is naturally encouraged by the successes its forces have had against the Black Sea Fleet, but Kyiv does not yet have the capacity to follow up on its photogenic triumphs, such as the sinking of the Moskva last year and the more recent attacks on Russia’s Crimean Bridge. They could gain this opportunity due to the combination of two factors: The first is the Kremlin’s increasing reliance on the navy as its land forces suffer defeat—a reliance that may lead the Black Sea Fleet to be assigned more tasks than it can fulfill simultaneously, thus opening the way for Ukraine to gain victories at sea that it might not otherwise achieve. And the second would involve Western provision of more anti-ship weaponry to Ukraine’s navy and land forces, systems that Moscow has been working hard to counter but not always with success.
The Russian war against Ukraine is taking place as much at sea as it is on the land; those who want to see a Ukrainian victory and a Russian defeat must not only pay attention to that reality but also act on it, lest Putin win at sea what he is currently losing on land.
This article was published by The Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 119