Russia has turned much of the Black Sea into a buffer zone against Western powers and, simultaneously, a power projection platform against Ukraine. Acting from seemingly impregnable positions in the Black Sea basin, Russia uses its air power to support its land war against Ukraine—in effect, an extension of the left flank of Russia’s frontlines. By the same token, the Russian Black Sea Fleet effectively enforces a full naval blockade of Ukraine while restricting the freedom of navigation and commerce of the other Black Sea littoral countries.
Without much of a navy of its own and with only a small residual air force, Ukraine must use asymmetric countermeasures to Russian power, demonstrating a great deal of creativity in this effort. Almost 20 months into the war, Ukraine lacks adequate means of protection against Russian air and missile strikes originating in the Black Sea basin and is facing Russia one-on-one in the naval domain. Ukraine’s tactics therefore are to harass the enemy fleet; circumscribe its freedom of movement by creating asymmetric threats, thus keep it away from Ukrainian waters; and constantly chipping away at the Russian fleet’s size and threat level.
Naval drone warfare has become Ukraine’s primary method of asymmetric defense against Russia in the Black Sea basin. Ukraine has conducted several successful drone campaigns in recent months, capitalizing on a strong production base of uncrewed surface vessels (USVs) to harass the Russian fleet (see EDM, November 8, 2022, August 18). Ukraine has most recently added an air dimension to the naval component thanks in large part to the receipt of modern air-launched missiles.
The operational tempo has thus risen to maximum intensity in recent weeks:
- On August 23, Ukrainian Su-24 bombers destroyed a Russian S-400 air defense system at Olenivka on the Tarkhankut Peninsula (northwestern Crimea). The fighter jets used, possibly for the first time in combat, British-supplied Storm Shadow cruise missiles. By suppressing the Russian air defense system, the strikes cleared a flight path for attacking Russia’s main naval base, Sevastopol, in short order (Ukrinform, August 24; Naval News, September 14).
- On September 11, Ukrainian special forces regained control of four inactive offshore oil and gas drilling platforms (including the notorious “Boyko Towers”), all located between Odesa and Crimea. The Ukrainian Navy and special troops intend to use those “lily pads” for boat and helicopter stations, intelligence collection and naval drone warfare (Gur.gov.ua, September 11).
- On September 12 and 13, five Ukrainian Su-24s struck Sevastopol’s naval yard with Storm Shadow missiles. The attack severely damaged the Rostov-on-Donsubmarine (Kilo-class, armed with Kalibr missiles) and the large Minsk amphibious landing ship, both laying in dry dock for maintenance. Of the ten missiles launched, three made it through the Russian air defense to hit their targets. Both ships will likely be out of action for the foreseeable future (Ukrainska Pravda, September 13; Naval News, September 20).
The badly damaged Rostov-on-Don submarine is one of the four upgraded Kilo-class units in the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s inventory. They relentlessly fire long-range Kalibr missiles at the Ukrainian mainland as Kyiv does not possess the capabilities to attack submerged submarines. With this submarine laying in dry dock, Ukraine used the opportunity to wreck it. The Minsk amphibious landing ship is the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s third unit of this type to be knocked out of action. (One of its sister ships was disabled by Ukrainian naval drones in August; see EDM, August 18.) Following the latest attack on Sevastopol, the Russian fleet has relocated its three remaining large amphibious landing ships from the Black Sea to the Azov Sea for safety (Ukrainska Pravda, September 16).
With these successes, Ukraine has kept the pressure up:
- On September 13 and 14, the Russian Defense Ministry asserted that its corvettes Vasily Bykov and Sergey Kotov were being targeted by Ukrainian naval drones. The Vasily Bykov was located in the vicinity of Sevastopol, while the Sergey Kotov was positioned in the southwestern part of the Black Sea. Moscow said that both corvettes had defended successfully against multiple Ukrainian drone attacks (TASS, September 13, 14).
- On September 14, a Ukrainian “Sea Baby” USV struck and damaged the air-cushion ship Samum, a class of fast boats armed with anti-ship missiles. Video images appeared to show the Samum listing and having to be towed to port. The Russian Black Sea Fleet has two units of this class in its inventory (Ukrainska Pravda, September 14).
- That same day, a joint operation by the Ukrainian Security Service and Navy destroyed an S-400 air defense system near Yevpatoria (western coast of Crimea). Ukrainian forces reportedly used signals from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to mislead the system and a Neptune anti-ship missile modified for land attack to destroy it (Ukrainska Pravda, September 14).
- On September 20, the Ukrainian special forces command claimed responsibility for drone strikes on the Russian naval command post in Verkhnesadove, near Sevastopol (Ukrainska Pravda, September 20).
- On September 20 and 21, Ukrainian UAVs targeted several Russian military bases in Crimea, including Saky and Gvardiiske. The Ukrainian military did not publicize its assessment of the operation. The Russian Defense Ministry reported that 19 UAVs had been repelled or destroyed (Defence-ua.com; TASS, September 21).
- On September 22, Ukrainian Su-24 planes struck the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s main headquarters in downtown Sevastopol with Storm Shadow missiles. Apparently, an inter-service senior staff conference was taking place in the building at the time of the air attack. According to Ukrainian military intelligence chief, Lieutenant-General Kyrylo Budanov, the air strike killed at least nine Russian officers and injured another 16. Included among the casualties was Colonel-General Aleksandr Romanchuk, commander of the Russian grouping of forces in the Zaporizhzhia region, and Lieutenant-General Oleg Tsekov, commander of the coastal troops attached to the Russian Northern Fleet. Satellite images appeared to show the headquarters building on fire (Ukrinform, September 22, 24; Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, September 24). Three days after the attack, Sevastopol’s Kremlin-installed governor, Mikhail Razvozhayev, ordered that the ruined sections of the headquarters be demolished with explosive charges (Ukrainska Pravda, September 25).
Ukraine’s efforts have achieved clear results. The potential threat of Russian amphibious landings in the Odesa region has receded beyond the horizon. Russia`s large amphibious ships are currently being used as transport ships. Russia has been denied full control in the northwestern part of the Black Sea. Due to drones and the other asymmetric Ukrainian defenses, Russian warships increasingly tend to maneuver in the northeastern part of the Black Sea, closer to Russia’s own coast. This shift is becoming more pronounced in the wake of Ukrainian USV and air strikes on Sevastopol (see above). Russian warships launching missile strikes into mainland Ukraine tend to do this from the safety of port roadsteads or from submarines.
Ukraine’s efforts, however, will not lift Russia’s naval and commercial blockade by themselves. Nor will they end Russia’s war against Ukraine on the maritime front, let alone offset Russia’s hegemony in the Black Sea basin. Only the return of Western naval powers to the Black Sea can achieve these objectives.