Thanks to its warmer climate compared to northern Russia, the Black Sea littoral area is much more conducive to building larger vessels quickly and free of construction defects. Russian naval shipbuilding in the Black Sea occurred at different times in the history of the Russian and Soviet empires, until the collapse of the Soviet Union and the restoration of Ukraine’s independence in 1991, when Moscow lost control of crucial shipyard facilities in Crimea and around the northern Black Sea coast.
But in 2014, Russia forcibly re-annexed Crimea, immediately setting in motion an active military industrialization of the peninsula. As a result of eight years of occupation, the most striking Russian “success” in Crimea is, thus, the “military development” of its territory. This “development” is aimed at creating a giant Russian military base—a so-called unsinkable aircraft carrier—a process that has included building up reliable industrial, transport and logistics, energy and water infrastructure. One of the key elements of this policy was the expropriation of Ukrainian shipbuilding enterprises in Crimea, their integration into the Russian military-industrial base and the issuance of exclusive targeted military orders to enterprises on the peninsula.
According to the Russian state weapons program designed until 2027, fourteen warships intended for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet were laid down at Crimean shipyards in 2016–2020, including Karakurt-class cruise missile corvettes, modular patrol ships, and perhaps most notably, two 40,000-ton Project 23900 helicopter-carrier amphibious assault ships (LHD). LHDs are unique in naval warfare because they have an unparalleled capability to carry out surprise, blitzkrieg amphibious missions as well as perform fleet command-and-control (C2) management—a capability Russia lacks in the Black Sea since the sinking of the fleet’s capital ship, Moskva, back in April. At the same time, they can operate beyond the reach of coastal artillery and even some missile systems. In the Black Sea or the Mediterranean, those capabilities can significantly change the regional balance of forces by giving Russia more military options than it has had until now. They will dramatically enhance Russia’s power projection capabilities and decrease the time window for amphibious operations from several days down to hours.
Due to Western sanctions and Russian naval planners’ earlier focus on building frigate-class ships, the LHDs under construction in Crimea are likely to be delayed beyond 2028, the year both vessels were to be fully operational, according to officials. A key stumbling block for Russia is a lack of high-quality gas turbine engines. Though Russian domestic arms manufacturers finally began producing them in 2020, they are underperforming, few in number and needed for frigates, which are supposed to form the backbone of the modern Russian navy. Prior to 2014, the Russian military-industrial sector would purchase gas turbines from Ukraine’s Mykolaiv production facilities, which also have the capabilities, dating back to the Soviet era, to build large, nuclear-powered ships and carriers. The pearl in the crown of Soviet naval construction, the massive Mykolaiv shipyards thus represent a critical target for Russia to try to capture during its broader aggression against Ukraine.
Since occupying Crimea in 2014, Moscow has turned the peninsula into an enormous military base—a so-called unsinkable aircraft carrier—facilitating the projection of Russian military forces throughout the Black Sea basin and into the Eastern Mediterranean. But perhaps just as importantly, occupied Crimea has been built up as a regional industrial center for warship construction.
Immediately after the Crimean annexation, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced his intention to enlist the entire production capacity of the local arms industry into fulfilling the state defense order of the Russian Federation. In mid-April 2014, the Ministry of Defense, thus, compiled a list of 23 Crimean enterprises, including 10 shipbuilding and ship-repair companies, that should be redirected to producing military arms and equipment for Russia. All of these enterprises were duly commandeered by Moscow in the first months after Crimea’s illegal seizure.
The following study analyzes the militarization of the shipbuilding industry in Crimea but also identifies problems that Crimean shipyards have faced since the occupation began in 2014. Moreover, it assesses the outcome of the shift in production from commercial construction to naval projects at Crimean shipyards, executed to meet Moscow’s regional naval strategy, which has included laying down new Russian warships. Finally, the study outlines the policy implications for Ukraine and the West of these Russian actions in Crimea, including their impact on Russian naval power projection capabilities in the Black Sea region and beyond.
Historical Background of Russian Shipbuilding in the Black Sea
Following the Russo-Turkish War (1768–1774) and the signing of the Peace Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca, the Black Sea coastal territories between the Dnieper and the Southern Bug rivers became part of the Russian Empire. By gaining access to the Black Sea, Moscow soon undertook the task of creating a Black Sea Fleet and built new ships for this force. This led to the creation of the Kherson Admiralty on the Dnieper Estuary in 1778, the goal of which was specifically to build sailing warships. This Admiralty included a shipyard, management and support services, workshops and warehouses. In the same year, the city of Kherson was founded on the site of a military fortification that protected the construction site of the harbor and shipyard.
In 1784, after Tsarist Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the Akhtiarskoye (later—Lazarevskoye) Admiralty was formed on the Akhtiarska Bay (present-day Sevastopol Bay). In the 20th century, this Admiralty was restructured exclusively to handle the Soviet Black Sea Fleet’s warships and repair its auxiliary vessels.
In 1788, the Mykolaiv Admiralty was created on a plot of land along the Inhul River, at its confluence with the Southern Bug River. In 1790, the city of Mykolaiv was founded on this site, with the main purpose of ensuring the construction of large warships for the Russian Black Sea Fleet and to host the fleet’s headquarters. However, despite the serious shipbuilding capabilities of the Mykolaiv Admiralty, its facilities still could not satisfy the growing ambitions of the Russian Empire on the eve of the Russo-Turkish War of 1828–1829; Russia needed ships of the line with more than a hundred guns on board, but the narrow Inhul River in Mykolaiv as well as the shallow Dnieper Estuary in Kherson did not permit the construction of such sizeable vessels. Instead, Russian authorities looked to the deep-water Bug Estuary of Mykolaiv to build larger warships. The Spassky Admiralty was consequently created there in 1826. The Kherson Admiralty’s services, teams and shipyard equipment were transferred from to the Mykolaiv Admiralty in 1829.
Mykolaiv became the de facto center of naval shipbuilding in Tsarist Russia by the middle of the 19th century. The indicators of intensity for ship of the line construction at Mykolaiv far exceeded the expectations of the shipyards in St. Petersburg, founded by Peter the Great. The Mykolaiv yards commissioned six ships annually, on average, whereas St. Petersburg built almost half that number. One of the main reasons for this gap in labor productivity was the cold and humid climate of St. Petersburg. Researchers note that the working conditions at the St. Petersburg’s shipyards were difficult, especially during severe winter frosts, which led to a high mortality among workers and numerous cases of personnel fleeing the area—sometimes in massive numbers.
The growing appetite of Tsarist Russia regarding the size and number of warships led to the creation, in 1897, of a new Mykolaiv shipyard facility on the deep-water part of the Southern Bug: the Naval Shipbuilding Plant (hereafter—the Black Sea Shipbuilding Plant).
The advantages of southern shipyards over those located in the north became even more obvious beginning in the 1930s, with the introduction of manual arc welding to Soviet shipbuilding. This is due to the fact that low air temperatures had a significantly negative effect on the welding process—namely, the formation of hot and cold cracks in the metal seam. Because of this defect, the welded seam of a vessel hull could collapse and the metal would break. The influence of temperature on the quality of a ship’s welded seam remains relevant to this day. For example, automated submerged arc welding of a large warship’s hull made from heavy-plate low-alloy steel grades can be performed at temperatures no lower than –10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit).
Two new shipyards were built in Crimea in 1938: the Zaliv Shipyard in Kerch, specializing in the assembly of torpedo boats, minesweepers, tugs and fishing trawlers, as well as and the Yuzhnaya Tochka shipyard in Theodosia, for the production of torpedo boats (later this shipyard was named the Theodosia Production Association “Sea”).
Yet Mykolaiv continued to strengthen its leadership position in the serial construction of large-tonnage warships for the Soviet navy, the Military Maritime Fleet (Voyenno-Morskoy Flot—VMF). By the middle of the 20th century, this city’s shipyards complex included:
- The Shipyard named after 61 Communards (now Mykolaiv Shipyard), which in terms of shipbuilding facilities was approximately equal to the Baltic Shipyard in Leningrad (today’s St. Petersburg), and concentrated on the production of frigates, destroyers and cruisers;
- The Black Sea Shipbuilding Plant—a supergiant facility that began to build aircraft-carrying ships in the 1960s, constructed the VMF’s first anti-submarine helicopter carriers, and then built heavy aircraft-carrying cruisers. In the early 1990s, plans called for building nuclear-powered aircraft carriers at this plant. No analogues to this shipyard exist in modern-day Russia;
- The Southern Turbine Plant (now the Zorya-Mashproekt plant)—the only navy ship gas turbine builder in the former Soviet Union. The Russian Federation also has no analogue for this production facility.
At the same time, Crimean shipyards were divided into several sectoral areas:
- Sevastopol would concentrate on carrying out all types of repairs of warships and auxiliary vessels;
- Kerch would be engaged in large-tonnage civil shipbuilding and also became a pre-commissioning base for small warships destined for the Black Sea after being built at shipyards on the Volga River; it was expanded in 1970 to be able to construct several models of patrol ships (frigates);
- Theodosia would build high-speed warships and civilian vessels constructed from light alloys, including hydrofoils (1956) and an air cushion vessel (1980).
In general, the shipbuilding developments in and around the Black Sea that occurred at different times over the course of the history of the Russian and Soviet empires were enabled by a number of favorable factors. First and foremost was the warm Black Sea climate, which is especially important for the construction of large surface warships with sophisticated electronics and also to meet the technical construction requirements in open areas (slipways). Second was the shipyards’ proximity to the Mariupol factories producing metal for warship construction. The third key enabler was the deep-water area of the region’s shipyards (except Theodosia), which allowed Moscow to build large-tonnage warships, including heavy aircraft carriers. And finally, the northern Black Sea coast had developed infrastructure for the training and accommodation of shipbuilding personnel. In short, the areas around and proximate to Crimea were for centuries the lifeblood of Russian ambitions to become a major naval power.
Moscow’s Theft, Curatorship and Militarization of Ukrainian Shipbuilding Companies in Crimea
Moscow lost control of the shipbuilding facilities in Crimea and around the northern Black Sea littoral areas when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991 and Ukraine became independent. However, for the next two decades, the now-Ukrainian-controlled shipyards continued to supply the Russian Federation’s naval arms producers with much-needed components, such as gas turbine engines. This arrangement lasted until the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity (EuroMaidan), in 2013/2014.
Immediately after Russian annexed Crimea in early 2014, the peninsula was divided up into two “entities of the Russian Federation”—the Republic of Crimea and the federal city of Sevastopol—which were subordinated to central power in Moscow. But over time, the status of occupied Crimea and Sevastopol were reduced and the Crimean Federal District was eliminated; instead, Russia reassigned all of Crimea to the Southern Federal District, administered by officials in Rostov-on-Don. This act, among others, unified the civilian structure on the peninsula with a regional military organizing structure—specifically, all elements of the Russian military forces in Crimea were included in the important Southern Military District, headquartered in Rostov-on-Don.
As part of this process, promoting the military industrialization of Crimea became the key aspect of Moscow’s southeastern policy as well as the main driver of the peninsula’s economy. And after eight years of occupation, the most striking Russian “success story” in Crimea is, therefore, the “military development” of its territory. This “development” has effectively meant building up Crimea into an extensive Russian military base, supported by reliable industrial, transport and logistics, energy, and water infrastructure. Among of the central elements of this policy were the expropriation of Ukrainian shipbuilding enterprises in Crimea, their integration into the Russian military-industrial base, and the issuing of exclusive targeted military orders to enterprises on the peninsula.
Evidence of the general trend of the militarization of the Crimean economy is Russian economic activity code 84.22: “Activities related to ensuring military security.” For example, Sevastopol, the main base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, has received up to $2.5 billion for military facilities development, equipment and weapons since 2014. Military activity, therefore, accounts for 70 percent of this Crimean port city’s entire economy.
In May 2015, the Ministry of Industry and Trade of the Russian Federation introduced a so-called “curatorship” over the Crimean enterprises of the military-industrial complex. Under this system, the curators had to share orders with the Crimean shipyards and control their shipbuilding activities. Striking examples of such “curatorship” included:
- The Open Joint Stock Company Leningrad Shipyard Pella curating the Sea Shipyard (Theodosia), before the Pella yard changed its status to become a tenant of the Theodosia facility;
- The Joint Stock Company Zelenodolsk Plant named after Gorky (Zeleinodolsk), part of the Ak Bars Shipbuilding Corporation, seizing the Zaliv Shipyard (Kerch) in August 2014 and then becoming the curator of this shipyard.
The curatorship scheme was officially suspended in August 2017, when the United Nations launched its Crimean package of sanctions. But de facto it continues up to the present time in the form of the absorption of Crimean shipyards by Russian shipbuilding holdings. In the course of this transformation, the Zaliv Shipyard, for example, was “reorganized” into the Shipbuilding Plant named after B. E. Butomy as part of the Ak Bars Shipbuilding Corporation. While, the Theodosia-based Sea Shipyard, initially operated by the Leningrad Shipyard Pella, eventually became part of the Joint Stock Company Kalashnikov Concern. In 2018, it was subordinated to the Russian State Corporation Rostec and was later transferred to the United Shipbuilding Corporation of Russia. It is important to note that, under occupation, the Crimean shipyards have no foreign shipbuilding orders—only Moscow’s orders via Russian shipbuilding corporations are being commissioned.
According to the Russian state weapons program designed until 2027, fourteen warships intended for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet were laid down at Crimean shipyards in 2016–2020, including:
- Eight Project 22800 Karakurt-class missile corvettes (small missile ships in Russian classification), which are equipped with Kalibr long-range cruise missiles or Oniks (SS-N-25 Switchblade) anti-ship missiles. Three are being built at the Sea Shipyard; and three are still under construction at the Zaliv Shipyard, with one corvette commissioned in December 2021 and the final one still undergoing sea trials. This class of warships is intended to be a more seaworthy, blue water complement to the Buyan-M class corvettes, which had been designed for the littoral zone and are currently serving in the Russian Black Sea Fleet.
- Four Project 22160 patrol ships, under construction at the Zaliv Shipyard, capable of carrying various module armament and equipment packages tailored to different missions. This warship class is primarily intended for duties such as patrol, monitoring, and protection in open and closed seas.
- Two Project 23900 amphibious assault ships (LHD), designed by the Zelenodolsk Bureau of Ak Bars Corporation. This class is intended to operate both in warm and northern seas, including in the frozen waters of the Arctic.
Moscow is additionally building nine auxiliary vessels at the Crimean shipyards. Under construction at the Zaliv Shipyard are: Volga and Vyatka, twin Project 15310 icebreaker cable-laying vessels; two Project 23131 complex supply vessels; a Project MPSV07 rescue vessel; three Project 19910 small hydrographic vessels; and a Project CNF22 cargo ferry. The Sea Shipyard was involved in building different auxiliary boats in cooperation with the Yaroslavl Shipyard and the Nizhnenovgorodsky Teplohod Plant. Crimean enterprises belonging to Ukraine’s armaments-production concern Ukroboronprom became partners and suppliers of 59 enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex after their illegal seizure by Russia in 2014. Those Crimean entities include, among others, Sea Shipyard (Theodosia), Zaliv Shipyard (Kerch), Design Technological Bureau Sudokomposit (Theodosia), Shipbuilding Enterprise Skloplastik (Theodosia) and Fiolent Plant (Simferopol). Crimean ship repair plants were also integrated into the Russian military-industrial complex; the Sevastopol Sea Plant, alone, as of January 2019, repaired 38 different Russian warships.
How Russian Warship Construction Affects Black Sea Security
Amphibious Assault Warships
Russian navy officials first expressed interest in building amphibious assault ships, or LHDs, one year after the Russian-Georgian war of 2008. “If during last year’s conflict with Georgia we had a Mistral-class [French-built amphibious-assault helicopter carrier] ship in the Black Sea Fleet, we would have completed the task in 40 minutes and would not have needed 26 hours, as was the case,” Russia’s then–Chief Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky said at the time.
Russia signed a contract with France in 2011 for the supply of two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships at a cost of 1.2 billion euros. The construction of these vessels, under the names Sevastopol and Vladivostok, began in 2012 and 2013, respectively. The transfer of the first of these to the Russian Federation was scheduled for October 2014, and the ships even completed several trials at sea as part of the on-site tests with Russian sailors on board. But after the annexation of Crimea in the spring of 2014 and a further imposition of Western sanctions against Russia, the agreement on the Mistrals was terminated; the ships were instead sold to Egypt.
After the collapse of the Mistral deal with France, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov publicly announced (at the Heli Russia-2017 helicopter industry exhibition) that Moscow would unilaterally build its first-ever LHD helicopter carrier, which would be commissioned in 2022. Notably, Russia only gained the ability to build such a warship following its annexation of Crimea, with the expropriation of the Kerch Zaliv Shipyard—one of Europe’s largest shipbuilding docks (364 meters long and 60 meters wide). No such analogues exist inside Russia.23 Two of these advertised ships were laid down at the Zaliv shipyard on July 20, 2020, in a ceremony officiated by President Vladimir Putin. Though originally the pair of vessels was supposed to receive the names Sevastopol and Vladivostok—the names previously assigned to the Mistrals Russia never obtained—in the end, they were christened Ivan Rogov and Mytrofan Moskalenko. According to sources in the Russian shipbuilding industry, the first of these helicopter carriers is expected to be commissioned in 2025, and the second in 2027. According to a statement from the Zaliv shipyard’s administration, both will be ready for operation in 2028. The total price of the construction contract for these two amphibious assault vessels is reportedly 100 billion rubles ($1.4 billion).
Each will presumably be able to carry up to 1,000 Russian marines and 75 combat vehicles, up to 20 helicopters, as well as unmanned aerial vehicles (strike and reconnaissance). Their sterns will be built with a well deck capable of transporting up to six Project 11770 Serna landing boats.29 The LHDs’ displacements will be up to 40,000 tons, and they will measure more than 220 meters in length. They will be designed to operate autonomously at sea for up to 60 days, and their planned top speed will be 22 knots. These warships are supposed to be equipped with missiles, artillery and anti-torpedo weapons, electronic warfare (EW) systems as well as a “command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance” (C4ISR) system to manage multiservice missions involving amphibious assault forces, combat ships, strike aviation, and mechanized and other troops. The Kremlin does not hide the fact that Ivan Rogov and Mytrofan Moskalenko are intended for expeditionary assault actions—a fact Russian media outlets themselves frequently refer to when describing the progress being made on the vessels’ construction.
The Kremlin does not publicly speak about the LHDs’ destinations upon completion. One of these ships could be deployed to the Russian Northern Fleet, ensuring the ability to project amphibious assault forces in the Arctic.29 However, the use of LHDs in northern latitudes will be limited because these warships are not built with steel alloys designed for operations in difficult ice conditions. Moreover, Moscow would need at least four such ships in the Arctic Ocean (one at sea, one in reserve under immediate readiness, the third in a state of combat readiness recovery after repair, and a fourth that would inevitably be undergoing long-term repair/modernization), as well as an outfit of escort forces.
The Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean as an operational zone for LHDs looks more preferable due to the proximity of Russian warm-water naval bases as well as the possibility of being covered by coastal air-defense systems (S-400, S-300, coastal-based fighters). It is also important to note that the LHD is designed as an operational-level command-and-control (C2) center, and since Russia lost its missile cruiser Moskva to a Ukrainian missile attack on April 14, 2022, there is no warship in the Black Sea Fleet that can currently perform the functions of the fleet’s C2 management center. Finally, it is worth considering the technical aspect: modern-day Russian shipyards have heretofore never built a warship with a displacement of more than 5,000 tons. This means that it is likely the new LHDs will require technical fine-tuning and maintenance near the construction site even after their commissioning.
Further support for such plans comes from the fact that in 2014, Russia considered Sevastopol or Novorossiysk ports as the home base for the French Mistrals; and Moscow now appears to be modernizing its naval bases in Novorossiysk and Tartus (Syria) for the purpose of accommodating and providing for the deployment of these types of large warships. Moreover, Russia began modernizing the Black Sea Fleet’s main base in Sevastopol in 2019. Finally, as a sign of its strategic significance, only the Black Sea Fleet, from among the four Russian fleets, received the above-mentioned Russian federal resources specifically for this type of naval base modernization. Thus, it is a near guarantee that at least one of the amphibious assault helicopter carriers currently under construction will join the Russian Black Sea fleet, which would dramatically alter the naval balance of power in the Black Sea and beyond.
LHDs are unique in naval warfare because they have an unparalleled capability to carry out surprise, blitzkrieg amphibious missions. At the same time, they can operate beyond the reach of coastal artillery and even some missile systems. In the Black Sea or the Mediterranean, those capabilities can significantly change the regional balance of forces by giving Russia more military options than it has had until now. Namely, Russian naval forces will be able to jointly operate their LHDs in combined arms operations with other naval assets and the Russian air force, permitting highly maneuverable amphibious assault operations from the air and sea against a potential adversary. Generally, such operations can include:
- The rapid seizure of a coastal foothold along with two to three strategically important state objects (ports, hydro-electric dams, nuclear power plants, etc.) by an amphibious battalion tactical group. This unit would hold the territory for up to a couple days, until the main amphibious forces land.
- The deployment of several air and sea amphibious echelons (up to three to four airborne/marine brigades) together with landing ships and military transport aircraft.
- The deployment of amphibious forces with live fire support, jointly using a combination of combat aviation and naval forces.
- The extension of C2 management and control of different combat operations (amphibious and airborne, strike, anti-submarine and others).
Russian LHDs should not be seen primarily as defensive assets. They were designed to conduct active offensive amphibious operations.
Missile Corvettes and Patrol Ships
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, in 2017, defined multi-role frigates as the main class of Russian warships. However, it is revealing that after this statement was made Moscow had not placed any new frigates in the Black Sea, even though the Black Sea Fleet is significantly ahead of the Northern, Baltic and Pacific fleets in terms of the number of new ships being deployed and laid at its shipyards. In fact, the VMF leadership has decided to focus not on frigates, but on corvette building—such as the Project 22800 Karakurt-class missile corvettes equipped with long-range Kalibr missiles as well as the Project 22160 small patrol ships (OPV class). These vessels were the main platforms ordered by Moscow for the Black Sea Fleet since 2014. According to Russian General Staff plans, the Karakurt-class corvettes, together with already-deployed Project 21631 (Buyan-M) missile corvettes, would form a powerful mobile naval strike force in the Black Sea region and beyond.
Russia’s Naval Dilemma: Diesel Engines Versus Gas Turbines?
Undoubtedly, Moscow’s long-term naval construction plan prior to 2014 was based on the presupposition that Ukrainian gas turbine supplies would continue into the next decade. But after the invasion and annexation of Crimea, this critical supply was interrupted and indefinitely postponed, causing Russian strategic planners to postpone Russia’s frigate-building program. It is worth noting that since Soviet times, gas turbine engines for Moscow’s warships were produced in Mykolaiv (Ukraine), while diesel engines were built in St. Petersburg (Russia). Mykolaiv’s turbines were installed on all large Soviet and Russian warships (frigates, destroyers, cruisers), and the diesel engines from St. Petersburg plants were designated in particular for smaller vessels (corvettes, missile and torpedo boats, as well as diesel submarines).
After 2014, Ukraine ceased the supply of gas turbines to Russia, which consequently froze the construction of large warships in the Russian Federation—first and foremost virtually all of its frigate program. In other words, the Russian navy since 2014 has had to become a corvette-centric, diesel navy, and any great power ambitions to build a blue water fleet were held hostage to the loss of Ukrainian gas turbine engines. This fact partially helps explain why Ukraine matters so much to Russian imperial planning for Putin’s “Reconquista.”
Russian diesel engines are built according to the “monoblock star” (aviation scheme) design and are viewed largely as insufficient and highly unreliable for Russia’s requirements. For this reason, in the first decade of the 21st century, Moscow primarily bought German diesel engines for its corvettes, but the supply of these crucial components was also halted after the occupation of Crimea, due to Western sanctions. Moscow instead tried to replace the German engines with Chinese ones, but has faced problem with the latter’s low reliability. Due to this experience, all newly built Russian corvettes are now using Russian diesel engines.
The Rise of the Project 22800 Karakurt Class and the Kalibr Cruise Missile
In light of Russia’s gas-versus-diesel engine dilemma, Moscow opted for a construction program in Crimean shipyards to give the Russian navy greater punch and striking power in the northwestern part of the Black Sea, where its short-term military objectives lay. Namely, Moscow decided it needed greater striking power against Ukraine’s coastal defenses in the Sea of Azov as well as to guard Crimean sea flanks near the occupied peninsula’s isthmus in order to block the smaller Ukrainian Navy in its bases and provide freedom of movement for Russian forces in the northwestern part of the Black Sea. In such conditions, Romanian naval bases and forces may be at risk as well. Moscow’s defense orders for a dozen corvettes (eight Project 22800 Karakurt-class corvettes equipped with Kalibr long-range cruise missiles and four Project 22160 OPV-class patrol ships) for the Russian Black Sea Fleet were placed at the Crimean shipyards in Kerch and Theodosia in 2016–2019. It is worth noting that there were plans to equip the Project 22160 OPVs with modular container weapons, including Kalibr cruise missiles and/or Oniks (SS-N-25 Switchblade) anti-ship missiles. Such a modular system was tested in the Northern Fleet, onboard the OPV vessel Vasiliy Bykov, in August 2020, but no such modules have been deployed to the Black Sea up to now.
Once the entire corvette program is implemented, the total missile salvo of the Russian Black Sea Fleet will be doubled compared to just before the 2022 full-scale war against Ukraine. It will be increased to 124 Kalibr missiles with a range 1,500–2,000 kilometers against coastal targets and up to 76 anti-ship missiles with a range of 80–300 kilometers against naval targets. The formation of this offensive naval group of forces is driven by Moscow’s desire to build a multi-directional system for projecting military power across three frontiers: 1) Ukraine’s littoral waters in the northwestern part of the Black Sea and in the Sea of Azov; 2) a possible confrontation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the Black Sea basin; and 3) in the Eastern Mediterranean, where the Russian naval task force has maintained a constant presence since 2010.
An assessment of Russian Black Sea fleet naval exercises and operational deployments in recent years indicates the likely main tasks and areas of operation for Russia’s corvette-class warships in various theaters. In the Black Sea and Sea of Azov: 
- During peacetime conditions, to maintain a naval presence, sea control and sea denial capabilities in the northwestern part of the Black Sea and in the Kerch Strait maritime zone, where these Russian naval ships may carry out periodic combat duty in a high degree of readiness for missile strikes.
- In the event of a renewed local armed conflict, to actively participate in naval strike operations as part of a group of multifunctional strike forces involving the Black Sea Fleet to bolster Russian A2/AD bubbles in and around Crimea. This would include two of its mobile components (one of these bubbles is centered on the seized Ukrainian offshore natural gas platforms, which Moscow captured in 2014 and which extends between the Tarkhankut peninsula and Serpent Island; the other is near the approaches to the Kerch Strait).
- When a local armed conflict develops into a regional war, to take part in the fight for domination in the northwestern, central and eastern parts of the Black Sea by launching missile strikes on designated coastal and maritime targets, blockading other Black Sea littoral countries’ naval assets, as well as preventing non–Black Sea countries’ warships from gaining access to the Black Sea via the Turkish Straits.
In the Mediterranean:
- During peacetime, to engage in combat duty from Tartus (Syria), in a designated level of readiness; moreover, to put to sea and to carry out missile strike exercises.
- In the event of a local armed conflict in the Middle East and North Africa, to deploy on combat patrols and take part in stand-off firing positions in the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea as well as in the Eastern Mediterranean, carrying out missile strikes on coastal/maritime targets as part of Moscow’s support for Russian-backed authoritarian regimes.
Thus, taking into account the capabilities of Russian corvettes laid at Crimean shipyards, Moscow is forming a serious group of strike naval forces capable of a wide range of offensive threat projection missions covering the whole Black Sea region and beyond.
Problems of Implementation of Russian Shipbuilding Projects in Crimean Shipyards
One of the major results of Western and Ukrainian sanctions imposed on Russia after the 2014 annexation of Crimea was the interruption in the transfer and supply of military and dual-use components critical to Russian shipbuilding efforts.
First of all, as referenced above, among the biggest challenges for Moscow concerns the propulsion systems needed for the aforementioned amphibious assault helicopter carriers being built at the Zaliv Shipyard in Kerch. The twin LHDs are being fitted with M55R diesel-gas turbine units. The M55Rs were originally developed for Russian frigates but, to date, there are no other propulsion systems available for large Russian warships. Until 2014, gas turbines meant for Russian frigates were supplied from the Ukrainian plant Zorya-Mashproekt, located in Mykolaiv. But since then, following the rupture of Ukraine’s military-technical cooperation with Russia, Russian planners were forced to attempt to reestablish domestic gas turbine production. Deadlines for these crucial components’ deliveries to the Russian navy were repeatedly postponed—a clear indication of the difficulties the domestic military-industrial complex has had with developing and building this technology. Only in November 2020 did the Russian company ODK-Saturn prove able to manufacture the first gas turbines for the Russian frigate Admiral Isakov. Similar engines are expected to be equipped for at least eight more Russian frigates of this type, which Moscow plans to build by 2027.
As already noted, frigates were supposed to become the basis for the Russian fleet35 and are a major priority for the Russian shipbuilding program. Given this and the low rate of gas turbine production, the LHDs being built in Kerch are likely to face serious delays.
At the same time, the Russian navy has a shortage of fast landing boats and attack drones, which are part of the planned arsenal of weaponry that will be deployed on the LHDs. Indeed, Russian industry does not produce any heavy deck-landing helicopter models, and only a couple dozen Soviet-era Ka-29TB deck transport-landing helicopters are in service in the VMF. A possible candidate to fill this role is the Ka-65 Minoga, but this helicopter is only just now being developed. According to the most optimistic scenario, the first Ka-65s will not be ready earlier than 2025–2026. Moreover, this newly developed system will require lengthy test trials. Consequently, only the Ka-52K reconnaissance-attack deck helicopters and Ka-27 anti-submarine (search and rescue) deck helicopters can be considered for placement on board Russia’s first natively built amphibious assault carriers. And with an absence of heavy deck helicopters and a shortage of fast landing boats, this LHD pair will initially not be able to carry out amphibious missions in the air and sea domains simultaneously.
Moscow is also experiencing difficulties with building corvettes and OPVs at its Crimean shipyards. In 2019, under the threat of sanctions, the Leningrad Shipyard Pella, owned by J. J. Sietas Shipyard (Germany), stopped the construction of three Karakurt-class missile corvettes at the Theodosian Sea Shipyard and transferred the unfinished hulls to the St. Petersburg region. Commenting on the impact of Western sanctions, Oleg Zachynyaev, the director of the Theodosian facility stated, “We lose out in state procurements due to logistics and sanctions restrictions, which are associated with the inability to directly purchase various equipment. It is no secret that more than 50 percent of the components and equipment of the vessels and warships under construction are imported production. We have to buy all this using certain schemes, losing out to our partners who make purchases directly. In turn, no one is willing to participate in competitions that we initiate, because they do not want to fall under sanctions for cooperating with Crimean enterprises.”
Another case of Western sanctions affecting Russian naval production relates to the Project 22160 Offshore Patrol Vessel, which Moscow originally planned to build using German-made diesel units. However, prior to the imposition of EU sanctions, Russia only managed to import enough diesel units for one OPV—Vasily Bykov. The remaining contracted OPVs had to be redesigned to use diesel units manufactured by the Russian Kolomna plant, which caused significant production delays.
It is also important to note that prior to 2014, Crimean shipyards were primarily oriented toward the construction and repair of merchant vessels, as well as tankers, container ships, and maritime platforms for the Ukrainian oil and gas sector. To cite one example, commercial projects made up 70 percent of the Zaliv shipyard’s annual production capacity before the plant was appropriated by occupying Russian authorities. This shipyard built 3-4 multi-ton merchant ships and repaired up to 35 various commercial vessels every year. But after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, international commercial contracts were canceled and the facility came under sanctions rom the EU, the US and Ukraine. All Crimean shipyards began to stagnate, leading to outrage among their workforces. This is confirmed by the words of Serhii Aksyonov, the so-called “head of Crimea,” who stressed at the end of 2019 that Crimean enterprises on average were working at only 40 percent capacity.8
In May 2020, the Zaliv shipyard was paralyzed by a major strike caused by workers’ dissatisfaction with falling salaries. Employees participating in the strike stated that, “The staff started to leave. The vessels are in an unfinished state. The money has been squandered, and the vessels will not be commissioned.” Due to the above-mentioned halt in construction, the deadlines for Russian warship completion at Crimean shipyards have been repeatedly postponed. To date, only two out of five of the Karakurt-class corvettes laid at the Zaliv Shipyard in 2016 have been commissioned and only one OPV, Pavel Derzhavin, was built and transferred to the Russian Black Sea fleet in 2020.
In accordance with the “The Fundamentals of the State Policy of the Russian Federation in the field of naval activities for the period up to 2030,” the Russian navy bet heavily on its forces being equipped with high-precision long-range missiles, which, for Moscow, would enable a qualitatively new naval objective: destroying the enemy’s military and economic potential by hitting its forces and vital objects from the sea. At the same time, the buildup of the Black Sea Fleet’s operational and combat capabilities—one of Russia’s main tasks up to 2030—hinges on the development of an inter-service grouping of forces (troops) on the territory of Crimea as well as ensuring a permanent naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea.30 Moscow is pursuing this goal by inter alia involving the shipbuilding enterprises of occupied Crimea in its rearmament program.
The Russian government’s decision to introduce the so-called “curatorship” of Crimean shipyards by other Russian defense industry enterprises, followed by the full acquisition of those facilities by Russian shipbuilding corporations, attests to the level of importance Moscow attaches to its goal of turning Crimea into an unsinkable aircraft carrier. In this scheme, Crimean shipyards execute Moscow’s strategy by fulfilling military orders coming from the federal center. In fact, this means a full management of Crimean shipyards according to the former Soviet concept of “big northern brother,” which causes justified dissatisfaction within the Crimean shipyards’ labor force.62
What is most significant, however, is the impact of sanctions and their restrictions on the industrial capabilities of the Crimean shipyards. All of these facilities are under sanctions from Ukraine and the United States, while the Zaliv Shipyard is targeted by EU sanctions as well. In addition, the US and EU bans on the export/import of military and dual-use goods, technologies and services to/from occupied Crimea have adversely affected the development opportunities for shipbuilding on the peninsula. In light of these conditions, Moscow’s increased state military orders to Crimean shipbuilding enterprises do not so much strengthen the Black Sea Fleet as simply keep these confiscated enterprises fiscally afloat. Military orders alone are not sufficient to keep the Crimean shipyards running at full capacity; they used to rely predominantly on international commercial contracts. Unless Moscow can increase these shipyards’ production levels or find them new civilian orders, labor unrest or attrition within the workforce may become inevitable.
At the same time, it would be wrong to underestimate or discount Moscow’s military-industrial efforts in illegally annexed Crimea. Due to the absence of free market alternatives for the Crimean shipyards, the Kremlin is able to actively exploit their full potential, including access to the warm waters of the Black Sea, crucial to modern-day shipbuilding methods, as well as a robust labor pool. And this intertwining of Moscow’s regional military policy with Crimea’s industrial sector is driven by the higher-level Russian goal of transforming the peninsula into an outpost for military power projection in the Black Sea region and beyond.
In the final analysis, financing limitations and technological gaps could be the Achilles heel for Russian efforts to modernize and rearm its navy since both could affect the timing and commissioning schedule for warship construction—already repeatedly postponed. Eventually, Russia will replenish the Black Sea Fleet with a number of missile corvettes and patrol boats being built in its Crimean shipyards, but this is unlikely to occur before the 2025–2027 timeframe.
What should concern the United States and its NATO allies the most when it comes to Russia’s naval construction program in Crimea are the two amphibious assault helicopter carriers, or LHDs, being built in Kerch. Moscow will continue the work on these two warships at the Zaliv Shipyard despite the ongoing problems with engine production, labor strikes and a lack of experience with building such large naval vessels at this particular shipyard. Indeed, the Zaliv facility has never built a warship larger than a 4,500-ton frigate. Therefore, the expected commissioning of these vessels may not come before 2028–2029. However, once completed, the capabilities of these warships will significantly reduce the time it takes for Russian marine infantry to move swiftly and capture vast coastal areas or critical shoreline infrastructure. Based upon the current capabilities of the Black Sea Fleet, it could take several days to achieve such an objective at present, but once Moscow puts the LHDs in service, it would reduce the mission time to a matter of hours. In fact, the mere presence of such a warship steaming near the territorial waters of Ukraine, Georgia or even Turkey could add another arrow to the quiver of Putin’s coercive diplomacy, which he uses to intimidate regional neighbors.
The sight of one or both Russian amphibious assault ships heading toward the Mediterranean would also raise the threat beyond the Black Sea. This is why at least one or even two of these warships would likely be deployed outside the Black Sea basin. At the same time, however, LHDs make for tempting potential targets. The Russian helicopter carriers would be quite vulnerable to attacks from the sea and air, and even possibly from Turkish-made attack drones, necessitating escort vessels to provide air defense and ensure their combat resilience.
But once Russia is fully ready to deploy the aforementioned naval strike and assault capabilities, probably no power will be able to challenge Russia in the Black Sea other than the United States and the United Kingdom. The latter two countries’ naval presence in the Black Sea would, however, be limited to 21 days, due to the constraints imposed by the 1936 Montreux Convention.
Within the next decade, Moscow will be close to fielding a powerful naval grouping of offensive forces thanks to the direct participation of its seized Crimean shipyards. This will not only strengthen the Kremlin’s military power in the Black and Mediterranean seas but also significantly increase Russian naval capabilities by allowing the VMF to conducting high-intensity mobile offensives from the sea and air against ground targets and troops. The addition of these naval assets will permit Moscow to use its expanded military capabilities for coercion and blackmail—as well as to carry out naval blitzkrieg missions to seize coastal territories, ports and islands if needed.
That said, it would be a mistake to think that Kremlin military planners will be happy to limit themselves to solely utilizing occupied Crimea’s shipyards. Nearby is the jewel in the crown of Soviet naval construction—the massive Mykolaiv shipyard, which still retains much of its Soviet-era infrastructure. Topping the Kremlin’s list of ambitions are its long-cherished plans to build nuclear-powered warships, including a heavy nuclear aircraft carrier. Ukrainian shipyards located in Mykolaiv played an important role during the Cold War of fulfilling Soviet goals to build such vessels. And Putin sees this area of Ukraine as “historically Russian territory,” referred to by the Kremlin leader as “Novorossiya.” That is why, on February 24, 2022, a significant number of Russian troops were thrown in the direction of Kherson-Mykolaiv. The Kremlin managed to temporarily occupy districts of the Kherson region and reach the outskirts of Mykolaiv, where fierce attempts by Russian troops to occupy this city and gain access to its shipyards proved unsuccessful. Ukrainian troops are repelling the enemy and, as of early June, the northwesterly Russian advance has stopped.
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