To Win the Battle of the Black Sea
Ukraine and maritime strategy in focus
No country is an island. All wars that have ever been fought in Ukraine disrupted the existing global food system. The first step in restoring Ukraine’s links to the world economy and reducing worldwide inflation in grain prices is to reopen their Black Sea ports. Vladimir Putin knows perfectly well how food insecurity drives famine and conflict worldwide. Indeed, he is counting on it.
Diplomatic buzz about a potential international peacekeeping force — something akin to the 1980s Tanker War in the Persian Gulf — has taken shape in recent weeks, with American officials now signaling this move in the open. Maritime access campaigns, both blockade and counter-blockade, are well-developed instruments of international law, centuries old. A mulilateral mission to the Black Sea has happened before (see: the Crimean War) and would perhaps be easier to organize than a no-fly zone has proven to be, at least in theory.
Turkey holds the key position in this power game. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has invoked the 1936 Montreaux Convention, closing the Black Sea to Russian warships that might otherwise relocate there to replace recent losses. Taking a clearer side in this dispute is not outside of Erdoğan’s zone of acceptability, though his recent statements echo the leaders of Germany and France, expressing concern for Putin’s potential humiliation. Rather, we should ask what price Erdoğan will demand for allowing western surface ships to pass through the Bosphorus.
All of this movement, however glacial, started with Ukrainian successes. Although there is a long way to go yet, the Ukrainian Navy has made good progress. A lull in operational tempo during the last month belies the intensity of their May campaign against Russians on Snake Island and the damage inflicted on the Russian Navy.
Zmiinyi, as the Ukrainians call it, is just a small rock poking out of the water. Nevertheless, it is both a potent symbol and a point of control over the main sea lane through the Gulf of Odessa.
First, Ukrainian Navy drone strikes eliminated Russian antiaircraft weapons on Snake Island, allowing the Ukrainian Air Force to destroy every remaining target with impunity. Watch this video and observe the secondary fires of ammunition and fuels. Casualties were reportedly quite high and the damage was extensive.
Matters got confusing subsequent to these events. Reports that the Ukrainian Navy struck a Russian frigate, the Admiral Makarov, with a Neptune anti-ship missile (ASM) proved to be erroneous. Rather, Baraktyar TB2 drones destroyed at least one the smaller Serna-class landing craft used to resupply Snake Island as the boat was trying to rescue injured Russians following that pounding from the air. The one success created the next success.
However, the Admiral Makarov apparently did sortie during this episode, and then retreat to Sevastopol under a protective barrage of radar jamming, possibly with some superficial damage. When she showed up at her slip on the wharf in Sevastopol two days later, the Admiral Makarov’s hull numbers were missing, as though someone had ordered a quick paint job to cover up the scorching of oilsmoke.
Blockading Ukraine has become vastly more expensive since the Moskva sank in April, and these successes all cascade from that one. Russia has now relocated $25 million SA-15 Tor surface-to-air missile systems and cruise missiles to Snake Island.
Ukrainian activity apparently subsided after this flurry of events. Yet every Russian sortie creates “more opportunities” for damage at low risk to Ukraine — an attritional strategy similar to the one that Ukrainians have resorted to on land — while the increased operational tempo also puts wear on tear on everything and everyone Russian.
For example, if Russia has three ships of a certain type in the Black Sea, it might sound like enough to do the job. But that is not how blockades work on a practical level. Naval mobilization requires that one of the three ships should normally be in port refitting and training a new crew at any given time, so if Ukraine sinks or damages just one of the three, it is a serious blow to Russian capabilities.
As things stand, no insurer will underwrite shipping in the Gulf of Odessa. It seems there are only two ways to stop the Russian blockade without a hostage negotiation. Either Ukraine must finish the long march to Sevastopol, liberating Crimea along the way, or else western warships must come into the Black Sea and restore maritime access.
As mainstream media sources have started reporting in the last few weeks, the United States has shared real-time intelligence with Ukraine from the beginning of the war. Combined with their own sources and methods of intelligence, the Ukrainians have a clear command and control advantage over Russia. This arrangement has played a central role in the air defense of Ukraine. It has helped Ukraine find, track, and kill Russian generals. We can safely assume it is part of the war on the Black Sea, too, and like as not, underneath the surface as well.
During the mysterious events surrounding the Snake Island battle with the Admiral Makarov, NATO had its own aircraft in the sky. British and American drones flew over the Gulf of Odessa, while Romanian jets and American antisubmarine aircraft were quite active inside Romanian airspace. It is not clear what this means. The worse things are for Russia, though, the bolder the West gets.
More to the point, if Ukraine is receiving sonar information on Russian submarines, it becomes possible to take countermeasures. Ukraine lacks antisubmarine platforms, so they would have to import or develop responses to the subsurface threat in utter secrecy. There are precedents to consider for that possibility. In 1915, for example, the German Navy transported u-boats to Austria by rail and reassembled them in the Adriatic, slipping through the allied blockade to reach the Mediterranean and even the Black Sea. Call this the “Clive Cussler” scenario: a plucky Ukrainian Navy builds their own submarine to give Russia a nasty surprise. At the very least, submersibles and divers can be useful in de-mining efforts.
Let us not get too far ahead of ourselves, though. All sorts of practical challenges will have to be overcome. Nevertheless, give the Ukrainian Navy their due: if breakout is impossible — for they have no ships to fight their way out — they can just keep hitting the Russian Navy creatively instead, clearing a way for some sort of international response to lift the blockade at last.