Moscow Pulls Back Land Forces From Ukrainian Border but Not Its Navy in Black Sea

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 67

Russian ships in the Black Sea (Source: TASS)

Many observers are treating Russia’s pullback of land forces from the Ukrainian border as the end of the crisis—even some of those experts who acknowledge the Kremlin has not given up its aggressive posturing against Ukraine (Voennoe Obozrenie, April 25). Yet that belligerent stance may acquire a more immediate dimension than many currently recognize because Russia has conspicuously not reduced its naval presence in the Black Sea. Instead, Moscow has announced new maritime exclusion zones around Crimea until the autumn, beyond those it earlier imposed in the Sea of Azov (Voennoe Obozrenie, April 24; Ekho Rossii, April 25). Russia justifies this move by saying that it plans to conduct military maneuvers there this summer, but the naval ships it is keeping in the theater—ostensibly for those upcoming exercises—could easily be used to attack Ukraine from the sea. That reality fully justifies the conclusion of independent Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, who asserts that the situation in this part of the Black Sea remains “potentially explosive” (Novaya Gazeta, April 21; Voennoe Obozrenie, April 24; Ekho Rossii, April 25).

The Russian Military-Maritime Fleet (Voyenno-Morskoy Flot—VMF) has concentrated in the Black Sea naval vessels from the Northern and Baltic fleets as well as the Caspian Flotilla and manned them in many cases with marines whose training predominantly focuses on going ashore to project power (see EDM, April 13). This force, consisting of up to 25 ships, is capable of landing some 5,000 marines and then providing them with support both from the sea and via naval aviation. Moscow says that because of the size of its naval presence in the waters off Russian-occupied Crimea, it has no choice but to announce exclusion zones in order to prevents collisions with the ships of other countries. But instead of imposing restrictions during the times of specific exercises, Moscow has declared this area of the Black Sea off limits until October 31, an assertion of control far greater than international maritime law allows.

Some Russian commentaries, Felgenhauer notes, suggest that these Russian naval forces are directed primarily against potential involvement by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). At present, however, NATO countries other than Turkey and to a lesser extent Romania and Bulgaria (which, as littoral states, are not affected by Montreux Treaty limitations on entry), do not have any ships on continuing patrol there. Of course this could change. But it nonetheless makes the intention of the Russian force even more clearly about putting pressure on Ukraine and being in a position to launch an invasion. Western countries have protested and indicated that they may provide Ukraine with even more military assistance. Yet Russian writers have suggested that there is more talk than action in this and that the Russian fleet is in no way at risk from any outside force—a conclusion some analysts in the West have indicated may be justified (Komsomolskaya Pravda, April 26).

One prominent Russian military analyst, Vladimir Mukhin of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, argues that a focus on Russia’s naval operations in the Black Sea is important, especially in the wake of Moscow’s pullback of land forces, because, as he puts it, the land maneuvers have “ended but the red line in the Kerch Strait remains.” And Moscow has the naval forces available to block any challenge to that, he adds (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 22). Put more concisely, it means Russia may have taken one step back on land but has made another, possibly even more dramatic one on the seas.

Mukhin provides an order of battle in the Black Sea during the recent exercises and stresses that “for the first time,” this force had and retains a significant landing capability, suggesting Ukraine remains in Moscow’s crosshairs from the sea if not immediately from land. Consequently, even if land maneuvers have mostly been wrapped up, those on the water will continue, especially during the summer. Under cover of these maneuvers, Moscow can certainly keep tensions at the level it wants and act quickly in the event it decides to. The West may introduce new sanctions in response, but those by themselves will not be enough to prevent Moscow from insisting that it has put in place a new “red line” of its own, one that the Western countries and Ukraine will have little choice but to observe.

Another Russian security expert, Aleksandr Golts, agrees. In an article published in Yezhednevny Zhurnal, he says that the naval maneuvers are definitively part of the deepening cold war between Russia and the West (Yezhednevniy Zhurnal, April 26). He notes that he never believed the land forces Moscow pushed up to the Ukrainian border were sufficient for an invasion; rather, in his view, they were yet another move to intimidate Kyiv. And thus, their withdrawal does not mean the end of Moscow’s pressure campaign—a position Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist fully shares. Even as the Kremlin was being praised for withdrawing its land forces, Golts says, it was moving to declare three districts in the Black Sea “closed for the passage of foreign military vessels,” purportedly to avoid accidents in what Russia sees as its territorial waters.

But essentially no other country recognizes these waters as Russian, Golts points out; therefore, if NATO ships do pass through them as part of the ongoing Defender Europe 2021 exercises, “it is difficult to see what could happen.” That risk is just one part of the problem, however. Moscow is additionally making ever more expansive claims, and the West, not wanting to directly challenge a country with nuclear weapons, is unsurprisingly “blinking first” (Yezhednevniy Zhurnal, April 26). That puts Ukraine in an even more difficult position, perhaps especially because Moscow’s own actions have left the latter diplomatically isolated and, thus, more inclined to use military means. The Russian Black Sea naval group could easily be employed in anger, something that must be of concern not only in Kyiv but in Western capitals as well.