Russo-Ukraine Conflict - View from the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean
Shashank Sharma

Background

On 24 Feb 2022, President Putin commenced a "special military operation" against Ukraine attacking airports and military headquarters. Tanks and troops rolled in from Russia, Russian-controlled Crimea and Belarus[1]. Three main thrusts[2] by the Russian army were over land into North Ukraine (from Russia/ Belarus) towards Kyiv, into north east Ukraine (from Russia) towards Kharkiv/Donbass and into southern coast of Ukraine from Crimea. The thrust from the south (Crimea) was leading west towards Odessa port and to the east towards Mariupol port to the east.

The military operation launched from the South i.e. Crimea, also has naval/ maritime aspects related to it. The naval action and maritime activities in the Black Sea may not appear significant vis-a-vis the military action over land but there are significant linkages between the two events. The events in the Black Sea appeared less tense compared to military action on land and in the air as Ukraine had lost the majority of its navy during Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014.[3]

Biggest advances have been made by the Russian forces in the South where they captured Kherson in the second week. [4] Heavy bombardment in Mariupol port indicates the strategic value Russia attributes to this port probably because it lies between the Russia-backed-separatist-held eastern Ukraine and the Black Sea Crimean peninsula which Moscow seized from Kiev in 2014. The thrust on Ukraine's southern front aims to strategically cut the country off from the sea and provide a land bridge between Crimea and breakaway Donbas Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk and onto mainland Russia. [5]

President Vladimir Putin has put his nuclear forces on “a special mode of combat duty” bringing a nuclear over hang over the conflict and an indirect warning to NATO to stay out of the conflict[6].

Russia's Bosphorous Dilemma

The Russian forces have not yet been able to capture a single major Ukrainian city and have been facing much stronger resistance than they would have expected. They are facing serious logistics and communications problems.

In the south, however Russia claims to have completely secured the Azov Sea coast[7]. This implies that Russian forces from Crimea have linked up with separatists in the east and isolated Ukraine's main eastern port, Mariupol from the seaward.

The Black Sea fleet is one of Russia's main fleets, the others being the North fleet based in the Kola Peninsula near the Arctic, the Baltic fleet in the Kaliningrad enclave in the Baltic Sea and the Pacific Fleet at Vladivostok. Black Sea fleet based out of Sevastapol naval port in Crimea, Russia’s only all year warm water naval port, does not have free and open access to the open seas (Mediterranean). Access to the Mediterranean Sea is through the narrow Bosphorous straits and Dardanelles straits in Turkey. Riverine connectivity does exist between the Sea of Azov in the north eastern part of Black Sea and the Caspian Sea (which again is landlocked) but is suitable only for transit of minor war ships.

Russian and NATO Naval Forces in the Black Sea and Mediterranean

Russian Naval Forces. Prior commencement of military operation against Ukraine on 24 Feb 2022, Russia reinforced its naval forces in the eastern Mediterranean to deter NATO involvement, especially from the US and French aircraft carriers. Russia also reinforced the Black Sea Fleet (BSF) with units from the Baltic, Northern, and Pacific fleets. [8]

Ukraine had lost most of its navy during Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014. One week before the present conflict, the Russian Navy issued Notices to Mariners and closed the Kerch Strait (passage between Black Sea and the Sea of Azov) as well as the south and west parts of the Crimean peninsula. The Russian navy controlled the north of the Black Sea prior to the operation[9].

Major Russian warships from the North fleet and the Baltic fleet came together in the Mediterranean sea as the Black Sea Fleet units deployed to support the invasion of Ukraine. These include, two Slava class cruisers, escorts and support ships as well two Kilo class conventional submarines (02 Slava class cruisers, 01 Udaloy class destroyer, 01 Adm Grigorovich class Frigate, 01 Adm Gorshkov class Frigate, 01 Buyan class Corvette, 02 Kilo class submarines). The Russian naval deployment in the Mediterranean is supported by Tartus, Syria, which is Russia's only overseas naval base. The base is approximately 60 nm from Cyprus. The Tartus base provides the Russian fleet deployed in eastern Mediterranean with AD cover using shore based fighters and air and ground launched anti-ship cruise missile capabilities[10].

NATO Forces. NATO Secretary General on 24 February stated that[11] NATO deployment in the Mediterranean Sea included over 100 jets at high alert and more than 120 allied ships at sea, from the High North to the Mediterranean. On 26 February, French Navy announced that its aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle and its air wing has started supporting NATO's enhanced Vigilance Activities in the Black Sea.[12] Its aircraft will be patrolling the Black Sea, and the French carrier strike group (CSG) is reinforcing the defence and dissuasive posture of NATO in Eastern Europe. The French CSG will contribute 3 Combat Air Patrols (CAP) of two Rafale-M each, E-2C Hawkeye flights from the carrier, as well as patrols by the two ATL2 Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) currently based in Cyprus. The patrol zones are the skies above Romania, Bulgaria and the Black Sea. To avoid escalating tensions and prevent risks of misunderstanding and misconception the French Navy has set up a direct line of communication between its Mediterranean Fleet Command (known as CECMED, in Toulon) and the Russian Forces command in Latakia, Syria.

Maritime Incidents in the Black Sea

Sea launched Kalibr cruise missiles. Russia is likely applying pressure on the Ukraine coast to facilitate linking Russia via land bridge to Crimea and take over Mariupol and other ports of Ukraine. US has reported that since the beginning of the military action, Russia has fired Kalibr cruise missiles from Black Sea ships and submarines[13] viz. Buyan-M class corvettes, Admiral Grigorovich class frigates, improved Kilo-class submarines, and Project 22160 patrol ships.

Blockade. The Russian Navy is attempting to blockade the Ukrainian ports probably in order to cripple the latter’s economy. There have been reports of Russian warships warning merchant ships to clear the Odessa and Danube areas in the northern part of Black Sea and proceed to the Bosphorus. This was done most likely to ensure that no third-party ships are present in the region as Russian forces press towards Odessa, the most strategically important port of Ukraine. [14]

Amphibious Operation near Mariupol? Russia likely launched an amphibious assault into southern Ukraine on 25 Feb[15] via the Sea of Azov, west of Mariupol. Thousands of Russian naval infantry have joined with other Russian ground forces to probably progress a thrust westwards towards the port of Odessa. [16] The number of troops landed is not clearly known. Ukrainians have not shared any information on the subject. However, the likelihood of such a complex amphibious operation having taken place is considered very low as the degree of risk involved would be very high for the number of troops that can be landed ashore.

Attacks on Shipping. There have been incidents of attacks on civilian shipping in the past two weeks. These could have been inadvertent targets during the reported firing of Kalibr cruise missiles by Black Sea ships of Russian Navy. This could also be a deliberate Russian strategy to clear off shipping from the region.[17] Ukraine also has coastal batteries of anti-ship missiles which could have also inadvertently hit the merchant shipping. But these have reportedly not been used till now.

  • On 24 February Turkey owned ship Yasa Jupiter was hit by a bomb of the coast of Ukraine's port city of Odessa. Turkey reported no casualties on board the ship. [18]
  • On 25 Feb Ukrainian Ministry of Defense reported that two commercial vessels, Panama flagged bulk carrier NAMURA QUEEN and Moldova flagged bunker tanker MILLENNIUM SPIRIT were hit by missiles off the coast of Odessa in southern Ukraine. Moldova authorities stated that the source of the missile is unknown while Ukrainian MoD blamed Russian forces in both incidents.
  • On 02 Mar a missile or bomb struck a Bangladeshi-owned cargo ship Banglar Samriddhi in the Black Sea port of Olvia, killing one crew member. It was not clear whether it was a bomb or missile or which side launched the attack. The ship was anchored off Olvia which is located 9 miles south of Mykolaiv and about 70 miles east of Odessa. [19]
  • On 03 Mar the "Helt," an anchored Estonian-owned general cargo ship, was sunk by a sea mine off the coast of Odessa. The crew comprised four Ukrainian nationals, one Russian and one Belarusian. There are unconfirmed rumours that Ukrainian ships placed mines as a deterrent to the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s amphibious assault threat. NATO’s Shipping Center had warned that there was “a high risk of collateral damage on civilian shipping in the north-western part of the Black Sea”, which included mines. [20]

Snake Island Incident. On 26 Feb the Slava-class cruiser RFS Moskva, the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet along with two other Russian warships captured a Ukrainian garrison on a tiny island near the Romanian border called "Snake Island" (Zmiinyi Island), located 50 nautical miles south of Odessa. The garrison manned by 13 soldiers did not have any missile/ gun batteries. But owing to its proximity to Romania, a NATO country, the island was probably captured to prevent its future use, against Russian ships or to provide Russian forces a staging facility for amphibious action on the Ukrainian coast off Odessa. The island can also support Russian A2/AD if coastal missile systems are ever deployed there.

Ukraine’s Neptune Coastal Anti-ship Missiles. [21] Surprisingly Ukrainian army has not used Neptune coastal anti-ship missiles (300 km, acquired in March 2021) against Black Sea Fleet units. Neither are there any reports of Neptune missiles brought down by Russian ships or the destruction of batteries by Russian air strikes.

Russian Marines Mutiny[22]. There have been reports in the Ukrainian and US media that on 01 Mar, marines from Crimea defied orders and refused to attack Odessa during an amphibious assault on Odessa. Ukrainian media claims a "riot" broke out on the warships based in Crimea. The ships then withdrew from the area. The mutinous Russians were marines from the 810th Brigade, according to Russian opposition politician Ilya Ponomarev.

Control of Turkish Straits. Invoking the 1936 Montreux convention[23] which deals with the regime for control of movement of commercial and military ships in and out of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles by Turkey, Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, on 28 February announced that the Turkish government has warned all countries (whether bordering the Black Sea or not) not to send warships via the straits to the Black Sea during the Russia-Ukraine war. He informed that no such attempt had occurred thus far. Turkey reportedly blocked the passage of the Russian Navy Northern Fleet’s Admiral Kasatonov (Project 22350) a Kalibr cruise missiles capable frigate to the Black Sea. [24] So as NATO has resisted Zelenskiy's appeals to impose a no-fly zone over his country and prevented escalation of the conflict outside Ukraine, so has Turkey displayed prudence by controlling movement of warships through the Bosphorous and Dardanelles straits.

Arrest of Russian Merchant Vessel. As part of the EU sanctions in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, French warships on 25 Feb arrested a Russian roll-on/roll-off (ro-ro) cargo ship the "Baltic Leader"25 nautical miles west of Camiers. This arrest raises a serious issue - during armed conflict, can neutral states seize belligerent merchant vessels on the high seas and retain their neutral status? With sanctions imposed on Russia having such unexpected outcomes, things may well spiral out of hand for Russia as far as its attempts to sustain independently are concerned and could also elicit drastic and retributive action by Russia. [25]

Russian Naval Strategy and further Outlook

In the southern theatre the Black Sea Fleet is mostly being used for blocking external support to Ukraine via its major ports and probably also to provide land attack from the sea using Kalibr cruise missiles against strategic targets.

It appears that Russian land forces will try to secure Mariupol and Odessa areas through thrust along the coast by army units or naval infantry from Crimea. Fire power from the sea will be deployed in support of the land forces. Russian Navy is unlikely to do an opposed landing in Odessa in the western coast of Ukraine until the land thrust secures the beachhead, particularly when the Ukrainian forces have not been degraded sufficiently. [26]The reason for deploying amphibious forces off Odessa could have been to conduct an operational manoeuvre to tie down the Ukrainian forces in Odessa region and preventing them from linking up or supporting the western Russian thrust from Crimea towards Kherson and Mykolaiv.[27]

The Russian Mediterranean naval force is securing the Black Sea fleet while deterring NATO naval forces, carrier strike groups and submarines in the eastern Mediterranean. The Russian base in Syria is capable of providing anti-ship capability by means of Kinzhal hypersonic missile of Mig 31 IK, Backfire bombers, Su 34 of Russian air force armed with anti-ship missiles, SSC-5-Stooge (Bastion) shore based anti-ship missile system, Iskander-M SRBM (which could be used as an AShBM).

Thus we see that, in addition to the two Slava class cruisers, the Russians have a formidable anti-ship missile capability for targeting NATO carriers in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Not to forget that the Kaliningrad enclave in the Baltic Sea and the Tartus base in Syria both serve as stationary aircraft carriers for the Russian Navy, increasing their targeting capability well into the Mediterranean and Atlantic. [28]

NATO, in the Black Sea does not have deployed forces although there are naval ships of Black Sea states that are members of NATO such as Romania, Turkey, and Bulgaria. NATO ships from other than these countries are not likely to enter the Black Sea particularly when Russia has not officially declared a war. Russia's Black Sea fleet therefore has a formidable presence in the Black Sea.

NATO has over 100 jets at high alert and more than 120 allied ships at sea, from the High North to the Mediterranean[29]. NATO forces in the Mediterranean heavily out do Russian naval forces in terms of numbers and firepower. However capabilities of the Russian Navy in the area pose a formidable presence and deterrence greatly augmented by its bases in Syria. The Tartus base in Syria is located approximately just 60 nm from Cyprus. Overland, the Russian and NATO land forces are separated from each other, being the closest at the Polish border albeit not in an offensive posture against each other. However at sea, confrontation between the naval forces in the eastern Mediterranean Sea is more likely as any misjudgement, inadvertent incident or misunderstanding between naval forces could lead to rapid escalation.

With the deployment of formidable naval forces of both NATO and Russia in the eastern Mediterranean as well as in the north seas and Atlantic, the risk of escalation at sea assumes grave proportions, probably more than that on land. It could lead to destructive consequences if the situation at sea is not handled with utmost care, maturity and a calm head.

Endnotes

[1]Paul Kirby, “Why has Russia invaded Ukraine and what does Putin want?”, 11 Mar 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-56720589
[2]Tayfun Ozberk, Russia-Ukraine Conflict: What Happened In The Black Sea So Far?, 27 Feb 2022, https://www.navalnews.com/naval-news/2022/02/russia-ukraine-conflict-what-happened-in-the-black-sea-so-far/
[3]Ibid.
[4] Pavel Polityuk, “Putin likens Western sanctions to war as Russian assault traps Ukrainian civilians”, Reuters, 06 Mar 2022, https://www.reuters.com/markets/europe/top-wrap-1-europes-largest-nuclear-power-plant-fire-after-russian-attack-mayor-2022-03-04/
[5]Aljazeera, “Russian forces lay siege to Ukrainian port city of Mariupol”, 03 Mar 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/3/3/russians-lay-siege-to-mariupol-as-conflict-intensifies>
[6] Aaron Stein, “Ukraine and aguide to avoiding World War III”, War on the Rocks, 03 Mar 2022, https://warontherocks.com/2022/03/ukraine-and-a-guide-to-avoiding-world-war-iii/
[7]Aleksander Vasovic, Russia bombards Ukraine urban areas as armed convoy stalls, Reuters, 02 Mar 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/russian-isolation-intensifies-ukraine-fighting-rages-2022-03-01/
[8]Tayfun Ozberk, 27 Feb 2022, N.2
[9]Ibid.
[10]HI Sutton,”Unusual Russian Navy Concentration Seen In Eastern Mediterranean”, 24 Feb 2022, https://www.navalnews.com/naval-news/2022/02/unusual-russian-navy-concentration-seen-in-eastern-mediterranean/
[11]NATO Press Briefing on 24 Feb 2022, NATO Website, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_192408.htm
[12]Tayfun Ozberk, 27 Feb 2022, N.2
[13]Dr James Bosbotinis; "Ukraine war-conflict at Sea and the nuclear spectre"; Warship Magazine Podcasts, 27 Feb 2022, available at https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/ukraine-war-conflict-at-sea-the-nuclear-spectre/id1583747522?i=1000552380142
[14]Dr James Bosbotinis; 27 Feb 2022, N.13.
[15]Heather Mongilio, “Russian Navy Launches Amphibious Assault on Ukraine”, USNI News, 27 Feb 2022, https://news.usni.org/2022/02/25/russian-navy-launches-amphibious-assault-on-ukraine
[16]Dr James Bosbotinis; 27 Feb 2022, N.13.
[17]Ibid.
[18]Reuters, “Turkish-owned ship hit by bomb off coast of Odessa, no casualties”, 24 Feb 2022, https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/world/turkish-owned-ship-hit-by-bomb-off-coast-of-odessa-no-casualties-turkish-authority/ar-AAUfTn8
[19]Aljazeera, “One killed as two cargo ships hit by explosions off Ukraine”, 03 Mar 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/3/3/two-cargo-ships-hit-by-explosions-around-ukraine-one-killed
[20]Tayfun Ozberk, “Estonian Cargo Ship sinks off the Coast of Odessa, Naval News”, 03 Mar 22, Naval News, https://www.navalnews.com/naval-news/2022/03/estonian-cargo-ship-sinks-off-the-coast-of-odessa/
[21]Tayfun Ozberk, 27 Feb 2022, N.2
[22]Anthony Blair, “It’s a Putiny! Russian marines mutiny on warship and refuse to fight in Ukraine”, The Sun, 01 Mar 2022, https://www.the-sun.com/news/4795768/russia-mutiny-army-ukraine-vladimir-putin/
[23]When Turkey is not a belligerent in the conflict, it has the authority to restrict the passage of the warring states’ warships across the straits. If the warship is returning to its base in the Black Sea, the passage is not closed. All governments, riparian and non-riparian, were warned by Turkey to not to send warships across the straits.
[23]Tayfun Ozberk, “Turkey Closes The Dardanelles And Bosphorus To Warships”, Naval News, 20 Feb 2022, https://www.navalnews.com/naval-news/2022/02/turkey-closes-the-dardanelles-and-bosphorus-to-warships/
[24]Tayfun Ozberk, “Turkey Closes The Dardanelles And Bosphorus To Warships”, Naval News, 20 Feb 2022, https://www.navalnews.com/naval-news/2022/02/turkey-closes-the-dardanelles-and-bosphorus-to-warships/
[25]Pascan Rosignol, “France, enforcing sanctions on Russia, seizes ship in Channel”, Reuters, 26 Feb 2022, available at https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/france-seizes-ship-suspected-violating-russia-sanctions-official-2022-02-26/
[26]Dr James Bosbotinis; 27 Feb 2022, N.13.
[27]Ibid.
[28]Ibid.
[29] NATO Press Briefing on 24 Feb 2022, NATO Website, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_192408.htm

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


Image Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/20/Soviet_and_Russian_Black_Sea_Fleet.jpg/799px-Soviet_and_Russian_Black_Sea_Fleet.jpg?20120826144019

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