By David Axe
The commanders of the Russian Black Sea Fleet are afraid to send their remaining ships near the Ukrainian coast.
It is not difficult to understand the reason. Remaining within 20 miles of Crimea, the Russian ships are under the protective umbrella of ground-based air defenses. If they move further west, they will be at the mercy of Ukraine’s anti-ship missiles, which are supplying more and more.
“The surface ships of the Russian Black Sea Fleet are taking an extremely defensive posture,” notes the British Ministry of Defence.
The only Russian Navy vessels that can safely venture to Ukraine’s uninhabited Black Sea coastline are four Kilo-class submarines.
But submarines, while perfectly capable of firing Kalibr cruise missiles and hitting Ukrainian cities, cannot replace surface ships in certain operations, such as pursuing cargo ships and blockade Ukrainian coastal cities by sea. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet “finds it difficult at this stage to exercise effective sea control,” the British Ministry of Defense observed.
By controlling the western part of the Black Sea, the Ukrainians have more troops and war equipment at their disposal to channel to other fronts, which they would otherwise have to commit to defending the coastline for fear of Russian amphibious assaults. This development was not expected by many analysts when Russia invaded the Ukrainian territory.
The Russian Black Sea Fleet, with its approximately 40 large warships, outnumbered the weak Ukrainian Navy, which would enter the war with just one lightly armed large ship: the frigate “Hetman Sahaidachny”.
Russia also had the advantage in the air. Several squadrons of Su-24 and Su-25 bombers as well as Su-27 and Su-30 fighters, flying from bases in Crimea, covered the Russian Fleet.
The naval “balance of power” was so one-sided that Ukrainian commanders did not even bother to engage in naval combat. In the early hours of the Russian bombardment on 23 February, the crew of the “Hetman Sahaidachny” were ordered to scuttle the frigate at its berth in Odessa.
For two months, the Russians dominated the sea. Sailing and flying undisturbed, they seized tiny Fidonisi, 80 miles south of Odessa, and—using the island and some natural gas platforms they had seized from Ukraine as bases for air defense and surveillance equipment—sealed Odessa, effectively blocking vital grain exports.
The Russian Black Sea Fleet was ready to land in the Odessa region. Seizing the port would mean the total conquest of the Ukrainian coastline, strangling Ukraine’s economy.
A turning point is March 23 – on that day a Ukrainian Tochka ballistic missile hit the Russian landing ship “Saratov”, which was at the pier of the occupied port of Berdyansk. The explosion sank the Saratov, damaged at least one other landing craft, and sent a signal to the Russians that an attack on Odessa… would be no cakewalk.
On April 13, a Ukrainian Navy gunnery hit the Russian cruiser Moskva with Neptune missiles, sinking it.
In one blow, the Ukrainians deprived the Black Sea Fleet of its air defense flagship, carrying long-range S-300 surface-to-air missiles. Russian Fleet commanders were forced to remove the remaining Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates 80 miles from the Ukrainian coast.
This move left the rest of the Black Sea Fleet exposed – especially the support ships that do not have sufficient means of defense – to missile attacks as well as drone strikes. “Russian supply ships have little protection in the western part of the Black Sea,” notes the British Ministry of Defence.
Meanwhile, Ukraine has beefed up its Neptune array with US-made Harpoon missiles, increasing the threat to Russian ships. A Harpoon sank the support vessel “Vsevolod Bobrov” on May 12, while en route to Fidonisi to resupply Russian forces. Ukrainian missiles also hit at least one of the natural gas platforms used by the Russians as lookouts. Ukrainian drones, fighter jets and artillery bombarded Fidonisi, forcing the Russian garrison to abandon it on 31 May. A week later, members of the Ukrainian Special Forces raised the Ukrainian flag on the island, effectively marking the western part of the Black Sea as safe for Ukrainian merchant shipping.
Odessa was still under blockade – and would remain until Turkey brokered an end to it at the end of July – but ships could now move grain from ports to Ukrainian rivers near the Romanian border.
Unable to replace the losses of the Black Sea Fleet while Turkey barred warships from passing through the Bosphorus, Russian naval commanders focused on protecting the ships they had left by “spreading” them along the coastline of Crimea.
And it was then that the Ukrainians began to attack the bases of the Russian Fleet in Crimea. Firing a yet-to-be-disclosed new type of ballistic missile – with a longer range than the Tochka’s 70 miles – Ukrainian forces on August 9 struck Saki Air Base, home to the 43rd Black Sea Fleet Regiment.
The fire caused by the explosions completely gutted eight Su-27s, four Su-30s, five Su-24s, six Mi-8 helicopters and an Il-20 telemetry aircraft, according to a Russian source.
A week later, a kamikaze drone blew up an ammunition depot at the Russian airport near Hvardiiske in Crimea. It is not clear if any of the warplanes – which use Hvardiiske as a base – were damaged.
The attack on Hvardiiske was combined with simultaneous strikes on other Russian facilities in Crimea, such as a raid by Ukrainian commandos on a Russian ammunition depot near Mayskoye.
The only “assets” of the Russian Black Sea Fleet that the Ukrainians have not “touched” are the submarines. But without enemy warships to pursue them, submarines have only one primary role: firing cruise missiles at targets on land.
After six months of war, Ukraine has decimated the Russian fleet and won the battle for the western part of the Black Sea. And she did it without having her own fleet.
“The limited effectiveness of the Black Sea Fleet to date undermines the Kremlin’s operational strategy in general, mainly because the threat of a Russian landing in Odessa has been largely neutralized,” the British Ministry of Defense explains. “This means Ukraine can divert manpower and military resources to other fronts to counterattack against Russian ground forces.”
* The Russian mistake that “betrayed” Wagner’s mercenary headquarters in eastern Ukraine
* How the Ukrainians hit the Russian military airport in Crimea
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