As the month of March came to a close, Russia conducted a series of unprecedented land, air and sea drills at the “Opuk” combat training area, located near the city of Theodosia, in annexed Crimea. These coordinated exercises, involving thousands of troops, notably marked the first time that the Russian military “simultaneously alerted” its three large airborne units—the 7th Mountain Airborne-Assault Division (Novorossiysk), the 11th Airborne-Assault Brigade (Ulan-Ude) and the 56th Airborne-Assault Brigade (Kamyishin). During the exercises, these airborne units worked out joint actions in close interaction with the 801st Marine Infantry Brigade, the 126th Coastal Defense Brigade, aviation, ships of the Russian Black Sea Fleet (RBSF) as well as units of the Russian Aerospace Forces (RASF). In total, more than 2,500 troops and up to 600 combat and auxiliary vehicles, artillery, combat ships (including large landing vessels), and more than 45 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters took part in these land-air-sea exercises (Dsnews.ua, March 24).
The commander in charge of the Russian exercises, Colonel General Andrei Serdyukov, said the drills were prompted by an “increased terrorist threat” in the region. He declared that the aim of the exercises was to practice anti-amphibious defense in conjunction with units from the RBSF and RASF (RIA Novosti, March 20). This explanation was later contradicted by the deputy commander of the Russian airborne forces, Lieutenant General Alexander Vyiaznikov, who characterized the paratroopers’ actions as “counter strikes against the enemy from the sea and the depth of the peninsula, with support from aviation” (Interfax, March 22). The commander of the 7th Mountain Airborne-Assault Division, Major General Roman Breus, similarly described the exercise as involving an amphibious operation to seize and retain coastal areas (Interfax, March 21). As a continuation of Russia’s late-March military drills in Crimea, RBSF units practiced combat-related tasks at sea, in the air and on land, including firing missiles and artillery. During fire training, the participating units used unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to provide target acquisition (RIA Novosti, April 2).
Assault drills to seize coastal areas, simultaneous amphibious landings and airdrops, firing drills, the massive involvement of airborne units traditionally trained to carry out offensive airborne missions, naval and air forces training to gain sea and air superiority—all these factors characterized a high-readiness, joint-forces preparation for offensive amphibious operations (Dsnews.ua, March 24). Such land-air-sea exercises in Crimea should be taken seriously, particularly considering that the Kremlin’s so-called Novorossiya project originally envisioned occupying the southeastern littoral Ukrainian territories to create a land bridge between the Crimean peninsula and mainland Russia (see EDM, May 27, 2014).
In 2014, Ukraine lost 70 percent of its naval assets in Crimea after its annexation (UNIAN, July 3, 2016). The Ukrainian Navy currently has only three combat ships, several artillery gunboats and one minesweeper to protect the country’s 1,350 kilometers of coastline, 30,000 square kilometers of territorial waters and 70,000-square-kilometer exclusive maritime economic zone (UNIAN, July 25, 2015). Most of these naval platforms were designed and built in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They are outdated and cannot adequately face the challenges of modern naval warfare (see EDM, March 9, 2017). Only one ship (the Krivak III–class frigate, commissioned in 1993) has anti-submarine and missile- and air-defense capabilities. Ukraine’s outdated maritime aviation also has limited competences. As a result, in naval terms, Ukraine can neither protect its offshore oil and natural gas rigs located in the country’s exclusive maritime economic zone captured by Russia in 2014 (Tsn.ua, July 26, 2016), nor can it provide effective defense against a possible invasion from the sea.
Numerous historical examples—such as Nazi Germany’s Atlantic Wall during World War II—indicate that a costal defense strategy based solely on land capabilities without an established superiority at sea is not sufficiently effective to repel an amphibious attack. And yet, during 2014–2016, the Ukrainian Naval Forces worked mainly on developing their land component. During this time, the Ukrainian Marines formed new infantry and artillery units and equipped them with tanks, armored vehicles as well as various artillery systems, including multiple rocket-launched systems (MRLS). Whereas, the Navy’s sea component was only expanded with the commissioning of two Giurza-class small gunboats, which are limited to operating only in territorial waters and rivers. Moreover, this imbalanced, land-centric approach resulted in a reduction of sailors as a proportion of the Navy’s overall personnel to just 6 percent (Cacds.org.ua, March 31). Moreover, the Ukrainian Navy’s development was further complicated by ongoing confusion over the country’s optimal naval concept (see EDM, March 9) as well as a lack of balance in the triangle of tasks, capabilities needed, and available resources.
Thus, the current state of the Ukrainian Naval Forces seriously hamper their ability to deter and defend against the types of sea threats that the Russian military is apparently currently practicing. The years of pause in Ukrainian naval shipbuilding has left a large capability gap. Moreover, a lack of modern equipment precludes Ukraine from conducting effective anti-surface, anti-submarine and air-defense warfare; mine-countermeasure missions; or Ukrainian harbor protection operations. The Russian military buildup in the Black Sea and Azov Sea (Obozrevatel, April 4), its ambitions to permanently secure regional maritime supremacy, as well as Moscow’s willingness to deploy forces to settle international disputes further highlight Ukraine’s vulnerabilities. In this situation, Kyiv urgently needs a clear conceptual vision for its naval capabilities. In particular, it will need to quickly build up the capacity to defend its littoral waters. A potentially promising naval concept currently being proposed is the creation of a so-called “Mosquito Fleet,” which would allow Ukraine to promptly acquire a large number of small naval assets that could provide adequate and affordable maritime deterrence, littoral waters protection as well as effective costal defense (Cacds.org.ua, March 31). A successful naval concept would also stress developing the Ukrainian Naval Forces’ interoperability with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), boosting the Navy’s influence within the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, as well as increasing transparency measures in the defense acquisition process—especially for buying ships and naval equipment/weapons. All of these measures will require the Ukrainian political-military authorities to adequately support the state’s industrial capacities; it will also depend on assistance from Ukraine’s foreign partners, first of all the United States (see EDM, March 9).
The growing threat of Russian capabilities in the Black Sea affect not only Ukraine, but all littoral countries in the region. From this perspective, the US and other NATO members’ naval efforts could play an important role in providing adequate deterrence in the Black Sea.