The security situation in the wider Black Sea region is quickly deteriorating and growing more dangerous. Six large, fully loaded amphibious assault ships (three from the Baltic Fleet and three from the Northern Fleet) sailed through the Turkish Straits into the Black Sea “for exercises” several days ago (see EDM, February 10) and already arrived at the Sevastopol naval base in occupied Crimea (Mil.ru, February 10). Together with the Black Sea Fleet’s assets, Moscow has concentrated up to 14 landing ship in the Black Sea basin. Such a large grouping could collectively carry about 4,500–5,000 marines with weapons and equipment for a potential amphibious assault operation (see EDM, January 24). Russia has hastily transferred combat-ready Raptor-class fast assault craft to the Black Sea region as well. The rapidity of the redeployment is evidenced by the fact that one of these vessels was observed still painted in the white color intended for parades, implying that the Russians did not take time to repaint it before introducing the ship into the theater (Focus.ua, January 3). Using the landing craft of the Russian Black Sea fleet as well as previously deployed vessels from the Caspian Flotilla, Russian forces operating in the adjoining Sea of Azov could land up to a light Battalion Tactical Group (600–700 marines) even on a natural, unimproved section of coastline on this enclosed body of water.
Two Improved Kilo-class missile submarines and two missile frigates are expected to arrive in the Black Sea soon. Both naval platforms carry Kalibr long-range cruise missiles. Moreover, the newest Russian frigate Admiral Kasatonov, from the Northern Fleet, is among them; and it is equipped with the latest Tsirkon hypersonic missiles (Black Sea News, February 9). Two Russian Slava-class missile cruisers—Varyag (Pacific Fleet) and Marshal Ustinov (Northern Fleet)—have already deployed in the Mediterranean (Izvestia, February 9); while the missile cruiser Moskva (from the Black Sea Fleet) plans to join them on February 15 (Black Sea News, February 9). These cruisers are a key example of the former Soviet concept of the “aircraft carrier killer” (Inforeactor.ru, February 2; Army-today.ru, accessed February 14), and the Kremlin seems to be demonstrating a return to this concept.
At the same time, Moscow declared that three huge maritime areas in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov would be closed for shipping on February 13–19, for naval missile launch and artillery firing drills. The location of two of these zones completely blocked the possibility of all commercial navigation in the Sea of Azov and to/from Ukrainian seaports on the Black Sea (Black Sea News, February 9). The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine strongly protested against this move by Russia, and it called on Kyiv’s international partners to properly assess and respond to such provocative actions by the Russian side (Mfa.gov.ua, February 10). In turn, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense called on its allies to prevent Russian ships from docking at their ports (Black Sea News, February 10). Later, the Kremlin lifted the announced restrictions on shipping in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait, but it declared additional closed areas in the Black Sea and even increased the period of closure for some areas to March 11 (Black Sea News, February 11). The State Hydrographic Service of Ukraine issued an unprecedented warning: “In connection with the military exercises of the Russian Federation in the exclusive maritime economic zone of Ukraine against its will, when sailing in a limited area […] vessel masters should exercise extreme caution” (Black Sea News, February 12). Finally, today (February 14), around 6 PM (Kyiv time), all traffic in Sevastopol bay halted, with even fishing boats standing out at sea, suggesting navigation in the area was shut down for a massive naval deployment (Facebook.com, February 14).
Russian troops are also actively concentrating in Crimea. A new wave in the military buildup was observed at the Crimean Oktyabrske airfield on February 10: more than 550 military tents and hundreds of pieces of equipment have popped up there. Moreover, soldiers and military equipment appeared on the coast of Lake Donuzlav, in the northwestern part of the peninsula (Ukraynska Pravda, February 11). In Soviet times, the military maintained and equipped special areas in the vicinity of Lake Donuzlav to enable rapid amphibious landings and disembarkations of marines with weapons and equipment. Today, these facilities are apparently again in working order.
Moscow has already begun a massive movement of warships inside the Black Sea. At least 30 Russian warships left their naval bases on February 12 for live-fire training (RIA Novosti, February 12). And one day before, a Russian minesweeper in the Black Sea engaged in sea mine laying drills (Vesti92.ru, February 11).
The Kremlin is claiming that all of these activities are simply connected to previously announced large-scale naval exercises (RIA Novosti, February 1). However, spring 2021 convincingly showed how Russia uses the “exercising” excuse to mass offensive groupings of troops (forces) near Ukraine’s borders for the purpose of, for example, pressuring Kyiv (see EDM, April 27, 2021). In fact, under the guise of preparing for “naval exercises in all maritime theaters,” Russia is clearly concentrating its naval buildup in the Black Sea basin. And as of mid-February, it has practically completed the deployment of all operational elements it would need to carry out an invasion of Ukraine from the sea. Russian naval activities in the Black Sea will be supported by Russian missile cruisers, which will focus on neutralizing any heavy US naval force deployment in the Eastern Mediterranean. Those efforts, of course, will be buttressed by Russia’s previously installed regional anti-access, area denial (A2/AD) bubbles, namely in Crimea and eastern Syria (Ihor Kabanenko, “Strategy in the Black Sea and Mediterranean,” in Russia’s Military Strategy and Doctrine, Glen E. Howard and Matthew Czekaj eds., Jamestown, February 2019). All the maneuvers seen in this theater are presented as simply drills; but taken together, they increasingly resemble a pre-war reality.
Ukraine lost most of its navy when Russia annexed Crimea, and that sea-based capability has yet to be rebuilt. Kyiv hopes the United States and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) states will help it deter Russia’s military ambitions in the Black Sea. But that position looks illogical considering that now, amidst such a sharp period of aggravation, there is not a single military vessel of a non-littoral NATO member operating in the Black Sea (BBC News—Ukrainian service, February 7). The past month marks the first time since 2014 that the Black Sea has been entirely devoid of US warships. At present, it seems, the Ukrainian Navy is largely on its own.