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Ukraine Pursues Black Sea Dominance On The Warpath To Crimea
By creating a 'humanitarian corridor'
Two bulk carriers, Resilient Africa and Aroyat, reached the Ukrainian port of Chornomorsk on Saturday to load 20,000 tons of wheat bound for markets in Egypt and Israel. Merchant shipping never dares to sail in waters where insurance does not cover their potential losses, so we can take this development as a clear sign of highly-managed risks in the Black Sea and a definitive end to Russian pretenses of blockading Odessa. Ukraine has created a ‘humanitarian corridor’, but it is functionally the same as military control of the sea.
Russian naval logistics became a primary target of Ukrainian operations one month into the invasion when a Tochka-U missile destroyed an Alligator-class LST (landing ship tank) and damaged two Ropucha-class landing ships tied alongside it at Berdyansk. Long-range fire, reportedly cruise missiles provided by western partners, destroyed the Minsk, another Ropucha-class vessel, in drydock alongside a Kilo-class submarine last week.
However, naval drones are the emerging technology in the Black Sea. A surface drone apparently damaged the Ropucha-class ship seen limping into port in the photo above. Video from the control camera was released a short time later. According to Ukraine, a second ‘Sea Baby’ drone also damaged the Samum, a Bora-class hovercraft-catamaran Wunderwaffen armed with missiles and cannons, last week.
Ukraine says they also used the Sea Baby in the recent Kerch Strait bridge strike. It carries a powerful, but omnidirectional, warhead. Anyone who has piloted a remote control motorboat across a choppy pond will understand the difficulty of bringing a shaped, directional charge to bear against a ship’s hull with such a device. These weapons are not actually great at sinking ships, just damaging them.
Russian naval logistics are a historical weakness of Black Sea operations. For example, the Tsar had abundant armies in the region during 1915, and his navy outgunned the Ottomans. Russia could not contribute to the Dardanelles campaign at all, however, because they lacked the troop ships needed to carry them anywhere useful. Aware of history, Russia built up lift capacity in the Black Sea prior to the 2022 invasion. Ukraine is now picking that force apart.
Establishing sea control required spectrum dominance. Although Ukraine liberated the famous Snake Island last summer, Russia had seized the Boyko Towers, a series of gas and oil rigs in the Black Sea, during 2015 and converted them into reconnaissance outposts. Simple addition of Neva-B surface scanning shore radars, which acted as repeaters to extend the range of Russia’s radar picture in the Black Sea, made this infrastructure strategic. Russians warehoused ammunition and fuel for helicopters, but the stations were lightly staffed and defended.
Russian naval command presumably relied on radar warning for protection of these assets. Ukraine took advantage of this reliance by attacking with rubber boats that do not reflect radar. In an extensive and dramatic operation that reportedly involved an epic 14-hour search and rescue mission for a single man overboard, the Boyko Towers were successfully ‘demilitarized’ and Russia lost sensor reach into an area of operations protecting the shipping lane which got used in the ‘humanitarian corridor’ on Saturday.
Neva-B has a range of 55 km, or about 34 miles. Unable to see all the way into Odessa, this network still gave Russia control of enough water to restrict Ukrainian movements. Radar coverage of this zone was a major reason why the Ukrainian Air Force could not sortie combat air patrols over the ‘humanitarian corridor’ and now the depletion of air defense assets in Crimea and the Black Sea has enabled them to do it. Remember this every time an S-400 system goes kaboom somewhere near Sevastopol.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s subsurface drones have begun targeting Russian maritime traffic. Russian sources reported one week ago that a group of five UUVs (unmanned underwater vehicles) attacked the tanker Yaz and a suspected arms runner, the Ursa Major, on their way to the Mediterranean. This attack on the two ships during their “sea crossing” was thwarted by a patrol ship, the Vasily Bykov, and aircraft, according to the same Russian sources.
Color me skeptical. The relatively slow speed of what is essentially a remote-controlled torpedo suggests that detection by sonar, and evasive navigation, were the principle countermeasures used in this scenario. Not being an expert I await better-informed opinions. More to the larger point, Ukraine must have expanded their ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) well into the Black Sea in order to attempt the intercept at all.
“These ships are the sisters of the tanker Sig, which was holed by a Ukrainian USV [unmanned surface vehicle] in August, and notorious arms runner Sparta-IV,” maritime affairs analyst H.I. Sutton observes. “Yaz is used to supply Russian forces with fuel,” he also notes. Logistics return as the Achilles’ heel of the black Sea Fleet. Now that the drydocks of Sevastopol are blocked for weeks at least, probably months, maintenance becomes a second issue. Blockading Russia is only a third-order objective — and really, it is about blockading Crimea.
Developed separately from the drydock strike, at first the UUV attack on the two Russian ships last week was reported as a simultaneous attack on the port at Sevastopol. This was erroneous, but it points to how rapid innovation in naval drone warfare has allowed Ukraine to consider strategies for Crimea that approach the ‘close blockade’ of yore. Ukrainian missile range has also increased.
In theory, Ukraine can make all Russian naval operations in the Black Sea untenable by glutting it with USVs and UUVs and covering it in a missile envelope. Much as Lloyd’s of London decides on risk before insuring a cargo ship, when every sortie is a risk for Russian ships, calculations change. Furthermore, by making it impossible to support a fleet on the Black Sea, Ukraine can force Russia to withdraw from the western shore of Crimea altogether. Novorossiysk is hardly safe, but it is at least further away from the threats Ukraine now presents.
Rather than interfere in Russia’s foreign trade in arms, the objective here is to unlock Crimea. The reader may recall that Ukrainians conducted a demonstration landing near Sevastopol four weeks ago to raise the national flag. Made possible by the long-range destruction of an S-400 air defense system covering the promontory, this joint operation of special forces and the Ukrainian Navy was a foretaste of Kyiv’s strategy in the peninsula. A similar amphibious operation unfolded last week in support of the cruise missile strike on the drydock.
The next phase of operations to retake Crimea should resemble these events in outline, though with increasing intensity. As seen in counterinsurgency operations, when every point that proves vulnerable to enemy raids must be manned and defended, commanders soon run out of resources. Insurgency doctrines seek to exploit this asymmetric effect to impose costs on an occupying power. Given this context, Crimea is an extension of the larger Ukrainian plan to stretch Russian air defense until it breaks. A spectacular drone campaign deep inside Russia has done relatively little damage to Moscow’s industrial or human resources. Embarrassing Putin is nice, sure, but the actual target of this campaign has been the Russian air defense. Every surface-to-air (SAM) system and radar defending Russian cities is unavailable to replace losses in Ukraine. Landings in force are unlikely. Hit-and-run tactics that degrade Russian coastal defenses are very likely.
Isolate the peninsula, make it vulnerable from air and sea, and the resource costs of maintaining control will become so heavy that Russian logistics cannot bear it: this seems to be the plan, and it may even work, since Ukraine now dominates the Black Sea. A year ago, they were begging the world to create a humanitarian corridor for them. Now they have made one of their own and it empowers them to act boldly.
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