Ukraine Restoring Security to the Black Sea

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 37

(Source: Ukrainian Military)

Executive Summary:

  • Ukraine has disabled roughly one-third of the Russian Black Sea Fleet since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion, relying on “sea drones” and other unmanned capabilities.
  • Kyiv’s offensive measures in the Black Sea have allowed it to deliver larger volumes of grain to global markets than under the Black Sea Grain Initiative, nearing pre-war levels.
  • Moscow’s attempts to shift the balance at sea have mostly failed, however, it has the potential to threaten Ukrainian sea lines and ports despite the danger of Kyiv retaliating similarly. 

Since the beginning of Moscow’s full-scale invasion, Ukraine has disabled about one-third of the Russian Black Sea Fleet (, February 6). Ukrainian forces have pushed the enemy’s superior naval forces away from Ukraine’s littoral waters and consistently crushed Russia’s maritime potential. The Russian military had tried to conduct an amphibious operation near Odesa, but this is no longer possible since only five of the initial 13 large Russian landing ships remain in the Black Sea (, February 14). Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy assured that “step by step we will cleanse the Black Sea of Russian terrorist sites” (, February 14). These words have been confirmed by actual results achieved without the impact of warships and other traditional naval means. Ukraine’s strategy of dozens of “minor cuts,” like dozens of asymmetric mosquito bites, has become rather effective in this arena.

The Ukrainian military has emphasized “mosquito” tactics in liberating its seas from Russia (, February 23). The strategy has relied on the widespread use of various unmanned systems such as sea drones. Commercially available technological advances, the cost-effectiveness of drone swarms, and Moscow’s limited options for countering Ukrainian attacks by traditional naval means make this approach possible. War is the mother of innovation, and much of the drone creation story consists of small teams committed to development working with low-budget and commercial off-the-shelf technology (, January 16). Drones, however, are not a new paradigm in naval warfare, as some claim. They are not a “wonder weapon,” and additional naval means, both offensive and defensive, are needed.

A new and distinctive aspect of the Ukrainian approach is the use of small sea drones operating under remote control from a significant distance. Kyiv uses these small sea drones in swarms (called “wolf packs”) in combination with other stand-off weapons. Ukraine’s sea drones demonstrate cost-effectiveness in protecting its sea lines and disrupting the enemy by interfering with Moscow’s ability to carry out the necessary movements of warships, manpower, munition, and goods by sea.

Ukraine’s asymmetric measures in the northwestern and central parts of the Black Sea have turned the Russian naval blockade of Ukraine into a sea of mutual denial, in which Russia has a tendency to suffer disproportionate losses (, March 3). This allowed Ukraine to resume the operation of its maritime grain corridor in August–September 2023 without the participation of Russia, which unilaterally terminated the Black Sea Grain Agreement. Initially, these transports were carried out by single vessels and—after the improvement of the security situation at sea thanks to Kyiv’s asymmetric actions and the support of partners—by groups of vessels (Radio Svoboda, December 3, 2023).

The one-way sea corridor has allowed Ukraine to deliver larger volumes of grain than under the Black Sea Grain Initiative. More than 660 ships have already passed through the new grain corridor, transporting about 20 million tons of cargo to 32 countries. In January, Ukraine reached the pre-war volume of exports by sea, and in terms of the total volume of exports, it came close to the indicators it had before the Russian full-scale invasion (, February 6). This route also works in the interests of humanitarian aid to African countries within the framework of the Grain from Ukraine program and the UN World Food Program (, February 8). Ukraine intends to expand its grain corridor. Zelenskyy expects that Türkiye will help unblock Mykolaiv’s sea ports at the diplomatic level (, February 25).

Moscow still seeks to change the situation at sea. Russia has already created new sea drones—Alfina and Oduvanchik—to counter Ukrainian innovation (Izvestiya, November 28, 2023; RIA Novosti, December 4, 2023;, February 22). These new Russian sea drones will do little to reset the balance in the Black Sea, as Ukraine does not have large warships stationed there. With enough asymmetric means, however, the Kremlin can create a threat to Ukrainian sea lines and ports despite the danger of a symmetric reaction from Ukraine aimed at disrupting Russia’s Black Sea transit of oil and gas supplies. In these conditions, US military-technical assistance is vital for Ukraine, including long-range drones, anti-drone capabilities, kinetic and non-kinetic convoy and harbor protection systems, fast patrol boats equipped with Hellfire-like missiles, ATACMS, cruise missiles, and F-16s. Tightening the sanctions regime will be crucial in denying Moscow’s access to Western parts and chips that are used in Russian drones and long-range missiles. These developments would give Ukraine powerful leverage to counter the Kremlin’s Black Sea strategy, protect freedom of navigation, and ultimately win the war at sea.