Russia-Ukraine Conflict: The Down End of the See-Saw
Lt Gen (Dr) V K Saxena (Retd), PVSM, AVSM, VSM
Premise

This work attempts to analyse the following premise:-

While much seems to be ‘advantage Russia’ at this point in time in the Russo-Ukraine war, the down under-belly of Black Sea is hurting them increasingly. Ukraine is going to play up this vulnerability in a big way as time rolls

Advantage Russia

Now in its third year and with no signs of early ebb in the tide, ‘Advantage Russia’ is visible on several counts in the on-going Russo-Ukraine war. Some points:-

  • In a complete role-reversal where the Russians are no more in the blitzkrieg mode of Feb-Apr 2022, their strong defensive lines, built in multiple layers of minefields, obstacles, extensive network of trenches, boots on ground, massed artillery support, lethal air defences both in air and on ground, strong Electronic Warfare (EW) weapons and lately, an anti-drone capability, all put together, is not only holding on firmly but also making steady gains. [1]
  • The reference is to the fall of Avdiivka on 17 Feb 2024 with some 17000 casualties of Russian soldiers (much higher than Bakhmut). [2]
  • Russia with nearly 17% of the Ukrainian territory in control exhibits a strong position while Ukraine is reporting ‘shell-hunger’ while the aid from US hangs in balance. (EU cannot make up what the US promised and failed on it) [3]
  • A hypothetical progression of this trend cycle into the future would show what could be expected in times to come.

So does that mean all over for Ukraine? No, far from it as long as it keeps on bleeding Russia in the warm waters of the Black Sea. A typical David vs Goliath duel (religious overtones not intended).

Why Black Sea is Important to Russia?

Black sea is of immense strategic, geopolitical and economic importance to Russia.

While the story of importance of Black Sea to Russia can be chronicled way back to 1783 when Catherine the Great annexed Crimea for the first time only to secure a warm water port for Russia, some recent arguments go like this:- [4]

  • The Mediterranean region has always been perceived (and it truly is) a NATO sphere of influence. The body of water called Black Sea provides Russia a strategic buffer between the Mediterranean and the Russian heartland. Domination of Black Sea is an imperative for Russia. This also puts in place their annexation of Crimean peninsula jutting into the Black Sea in 2014. [5]
  • The countries on the Black Sea rim also give no comfort to Russia [6] – Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Georgia and Ukraine. First three NATO countries, fourth well on its way ever since 1994 when it joined NATO run Partnership for Peace Plan [7] and the last one- its plan to join NATO became one of the major a root-cause of Russo-Ukraine war and as it stands now Ukraine’s path to joining the NATO does not even require the participation in the Membership Action Plan or MAP in short, the joining will be fast-tracked.
  • Black Sea provides Russia the entry point to the Mediterranean Sea, serves to secure its major economic interests in southern Europe and provides the capability to stymie Ukrainian maritime traffic to Europe. [8], [9]
  • Domination of Black Sea permits Russia to effectively blockade the entire Crimea, Odesa, Mariupol region.
  • From NATO’s viewpoint Black Sea is seen as a launch pad for Russian invasions which poses a grave danger to the allies on the Black Sea belt. It has therefore vowed to increase security readiness in the area around Black Sea. [10] The battle lines between the West (NATO) and Russia in the waters of Black Sea thus get defined.
Russian Assets in the Black Sea [11]

Russian Black sea fleet is as old as its rivalry with the west. Its active deployment dates back to 13 May 1783. The Black Sea Fleet is under the Southern Military District of the Russian Armed Forces.

At the beginning of the conflict the Russian Fleet consisted of one multi-role Corvette, five guided missile frigates, seven Diesel attack submarines, ten Missile Corvettes, four missile boats, six anti-submarine Corvettes, thirteen seagoing Minesweeper vessels, fourteen anti-saboteur boats, four Patrol Ships, twelve Landing Crafts (three high speed), four intelligence vessels and logistic fleet, hydro graphic survey vessels, tankers, and repair echelons. [12]

The fleet was headquartered at the Sevastopol base in the Black Sea. Other garrisons included Feodosia (in Crimea), Novorossiysk, Temryuk and Taganrog.

The naval fleet was duly supported by a strong element of naval aviation and air defence resources. The aviation strike assets included 18xSU 24 M all-weather tactical bombers along with 4x SU24 maritime reconnaissance aircrafts and some SU 30MKI multirole air superiority fighters (transport fleet not covered)

The air defence resources included two squadrons of SU 24 and SU 25 aircrafts, and a fleet of Mi8, Mi28, Mi35 and Kamov 51 and 52 attack helicopters.

The ground based air defence systems included five battalions of S400 long range air defence and anti-missile systems, S300 systems (quantum not known), 4 battalions of Pantsir S Medium Range Surface to Air Missile (MRSAM) systems, Buk M2 MRSAMs, three anti-aircraft rocket regiments.[13]

The details of the other ground forces are not covered.

A perusal of the above clearly indicates that Russia played it big and strong in the Black Sea and for good reasons.

An Early Discovery and its Exploitation

Early in the war Ukrainians discovered a chink in Russian armour and exploited it to the hilt. The events unfolded like this:-

  • The Russian Pre-emptive strike on night 22/23 Feb 2022 fell short to achieve its following two major objectives:- [14]
    • It could not destroy a major portion of the Ukrainian air strike assets on ground.
    • It was only partially successful in killing the Ukrainian air defences (Taking out its sensors; dismantling the Battle Management and Control Systems and crippling the communications that controls the flow of air defence battle).
  • Result; the Ukrainian skies remained contested which proved very costly to the Russian air power.
  • On the heels of the half-baked success as achieved above, as the Russian war machine rolled out its blitzkrieg type of operation headed towards the heartland of Ukraine, it took a great amount of beating at the hand of three weapons; Man-portable Air Defence Systems (MANPADS), Anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) and drones. [15]
  • In particular, why the drones played merry hell into the Russian tanks and mechanised columns was essentially due to the following reasons:- [16]
    • While the Russian air defences, both in the air, as well as, on ground had deadly arsenal (air defence aircrafts, towed and self- propelled guns, MANPADS and Short and Medium Range Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs) their inventory particularly lacked tailor-made weaponry to detect and kill small drone threat of the type posed by the Bayractar TB2 drones or the Switchblade Kamikaze drones.
    • The huge sensor systems of conventional air defence weapons could not detect small drones as these are designed and optimised for conventional air threat. Once these could not be detected, the SAMs/ radar controlled guns could not kill them.
    • What their inventory lacked was sensors based on electro-optics/ infrared / radio frequency to detect small drones and low-cost soft/hard kill measures to kill the drone threat.
    • Additional follies of not deploying air defence weapons tactically, instead moving these as convoy-serials (sic), lack of communications and connectivity, lack of precise target data etc., all added to the high volume of Russian tank casualties.
  • This counter-drone capability deficit was singled out for exploitation by Ukrainians who went on in a big way to build drone power. Spearheaded by its Deputy PM, Ukraine went on to form the ‘Army of Drones’ way back on Dec 2022, [17] This effort grew with time:-
    • On 06 Feb 2024, President Zelensky ordered the formation of an entirely new branch in the Ukrainian Armed Forces dedicated to drones. The President said that Ukraine will make a million drones in 2024. [18]
    • According to a recent report, Ukraine has put a lot of emphasis on domestic drone manufacture. As on date, there are some 200 domestic drone makers are at work. According to one report, Ukraine could be making a whopping 2 million drones per year if western support is provided. [19]
Drone Fury in Black Sea

Emboldened by a conspicuous lack of anti-drone specific weaponry in the Russian air defence, Ukraine turned the fury of drones on to the Black Sea fleet.

Strengthening the Black Sea Fleet by Russia

Well before the current operation, Russia increased its naval fleet strength in the Black Sea. Besides putting in place a strong counter against a possible vulnerability from the NATO on the sea front, it possibly eyed the opportunity of mounting amphibious operations in Southern Ukraine aimed at Odessa and Mariupol.

In Jan 2022, Russia transported Raptor assault Boats from Baltic to Black Sea. [20] In Feb 2022, six warships and a submarine were pulled from the Mediterranean into the Black Sea Fleet. [21]

Early Operations- Russia Heavy

The early operations in the period Feb-Mar 2022 weighed heavy in the favour of Russians as their superior Navy outgunned the Ukrainian Navy’s warships. Also during this period, a show of strength indicating intentions of a major amphibious landing for the capture of Odessa were showcased by Russian naval manoeuvres using an armada of Landing Ships and minesweepers.

Initial Successes by Ukraine

In the initial months of war Ukraine used Cruise missiles and anti-ship missiles to target Russian Fleet. Some details:-

  • In Mar 22 a Russian Frigate Admiral Essen was hit by Neptune, a Ukrainian subsonic cruise missile. [22]
  • A significant success came in Apr 22 when the Flagship of the Black Sea Fleet and the most powerful ship in the region SLAVA class guided missile cruiser sank upon being hit by a salvo of Neptune cruise missiles. [23]
The Bayraktars Turn on Heat on Black Sea

It was around May 2022, when the disproportionate successes of Drones (Bayraktar TB 2, switchblade and more), ATGMs and the MANPADS started to become visible on the ground offensive. Around this time, the TB2 joined the arsenal of Neptune, Harpoon (over-the-horizon anti-ship missile) and Brimstone missile (air launched ground attack missile) in the Black Sea. [24]

It was by Jun 2022, that UAVs along with cruise and anti-ship missiles started to attack the Russian Fleet in Black sea mostly in the Kamikaze mode. The initial success came on Jun 17 when the Russian ship Vasiliy Bekh with Tor air defence system on board, was hit by Harpoon and Neptune cruise missile.

Ukrainian Uncrewed Surface Vehicles (USVs) Make Appearance

By Jul-Aug 2022 Ukrainian USVs made an appearance in Black Sea operations. A USV is basically a remote control boat laden with explosives and capable of being guided to strike its target with deadly accuracy.

A typical USV is about 5-6 meters long with weighs in the range of 800-1000kg. It has a range from 800-100km with a battery life of 60-80hrs. It is capable of carrying a warhead of about 850-1000kg. Controlled remotely, a USV is navigable for a catastrophic collision with the target vessel. Upon collision the warhead explodes in the kamikaze mode. [25] Two models of these USVs initially used were the Sea Baby and Magura V5.

What are the Strengths of a Typical USV?
  • Both their physical dimensions, as well as, radar absorbent coats gives them a very small radar cross-section or RCS. Smaller the RCS more difficult for the drone to be detected by electronic sensors. If the target remains so undetected, radar-controlled guided weapons cannot be launched to kill them.
  • The USVs will become deadly if the defender lacks the typical weaponry to kill them. This includes EO/IR/RF based surveillance backed by instantaneous kill capability based on soft kill (RF/Electronic warfare based) and hard kill.
  • The dual punch of USVs + UAVs (i.e. Bayraktar TB2+ Sea Baby/Magura V5) makes even a deadlier combination forcing the defender to counter the threat simultaneously in two mediums.
First Major Success of Ukraine [26]
  • It was on 29 Oct 2022 that the first major attack on Russian Naval Fleet was mounted on the Sevastopol base in the Crimean peninsula.
  • The attack was led by the deadly combination of 6-8 UAVs + USVs Several of these successfully penetrated in the Sevastopol harbour and made catastrophic collusions with Russian Naval vessels.
  • The casualties reported in the open source were Natya Class Minesweeper Ivan Golubets; Admiral Grigorovich Class Frigate Admiral Makarov (this was one of the platforms used by Russian Forces to fire long range artillery as well as the Kalibur missiles) and a Barrage in the Yuzhnaya Bay. Ukrainians claimed that up to four warships may have been destroyed. None of the vessels however, sank. It also came to light that the Ukrainian’s used the Starlink network of Space X For communication and navigation support for this attack.
Successes in 2023 [27]
  • Early in 2023, Russia came up with its own explosive USVs capable of catastrophic collision with Ukrainian ships. By this time of the war all major Ukrainian vessels were nearly taken out by Russia.
  • In May 2023, Ukrainian USVs reportedly targeted Russian intelligence ships Ivan Khurs and in Jun 2023 Vishnya Class Intelligence Ship Priazovye was hit.
  • In Jul 2023 another important development took place in the running account of USV strikes. Three USVs were used to attack the Kerch Bridge damaging one section of the Bridge. [28] This Bridge provides the only road and rail link between Crimea and Russia. [29] The Bridge had a great prestige value for the President Putin who inaugurated it on 15 May 2018. [30]
  • Within hours of the attack, Russia announced its withdrawal from the UN brokered Black Sea Grain Deal (BSGD) that allowed Ukraine to export its grain via the 10 nautical miles corridor hugging the western coastline of the Black Sea. [31] Later in Sep 2023, another attack was attempted on the Kerch Bridge using the duo of UAVs and USVs. The same was thwarted.
  • Another development worthy of note happened in Sep 2023 when a major attack was launched on the Sevastopol port using Storm Shadow and SCALP cruise missiles damaging a number of vessels in the dry dock that included the Ropucha Class landing ship Minsk and Kilo Class Submarine Rostov-on-Don. On the heels of this attack, three USVs attacked a Russian tanker Yaz.
  • Forced by the continued damage to the fleet, Russian naval fleet was pulled inwards to the port of Novorossiysk. USVs attack continued around the Sevastopol base with a regular frequency claiming their prey; in Oct Russian Minesweeper Vladimir Kozitsky was destroyed by USV kamikaze explosion; in Nov two landing Crafts were struck- both survived.
Ukraine Adds a New USV to its Arsenal: Kozak Mamai

In Dec 2023, Ukraine added a new USV to its arsenal named Kozak Mamai. In the Class of typical USVs like the Sea baby and Magura V5, Mamai has a hull length of 6 m. The body-hardened USV is capable of resisting adversary’s machine gun fire. Mamai can cruise to 110 km/h and is capable of carrying 850 kg of explosive. [32]

2024 and Counting

Right through 2024, attacks are continuing at a regular frequency using the duo of USVs and UAVs and backed up with cruise and anti-ship missiles. A small glimpse:-

  • Early in 2024, Ukraine revealed that as part of its Project FURY (First Ukrainian Robotic Navy) a new autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) is under development. This submersible will have the advantage of surprise, stealth and hence added survivability. AUV will be able to carry stand-off weapons (mines, torpedoes, submarine launched missiles etc.). [33]
  • On Jan 31, Russian missile corvette Ivanovets was sunk due to strikes by USVs. In Feb there were reports of semi-submersible unmanned boats attempting to strike civilian transport ships. On Feb 14, a Russian landing ship Caesar Kunikov sank upon being hit by an USV.
  • On Mar 4 when three USVs struck the Russian Patrol ship Sergey Kotov. The vessel sank the next day. On Mar 23, three Russian landing ships Yamal, Azov and Konstantin Olshanskyi were hit by a combination of cruise and anti-ship missiles Storm shadow/SCALP and the Neptune. [34]
  • As recent as on 26 Mar 2024, Ukraine has claimed that a third of Russian warships in the Black sea have been destroyed or disabled. [35] That is indeed a big claim, if true.
Some Concluding Thoughts

Here are a few end thoughts:-

  • The geo-strategic importance of Black Sea for Russia cannot be over-emphasised.
  • Whether it means the strategic buffer in keeping the NATO powers at bay from its shores, or for securing its access to the warm water ports at the gateway of the Mediterranean or for keeping up the pressure to dominate Ukraine both through blockage of shipping or a firm base to mount missile and drone attacks on Ukraine – Black Sea is the key for Russia.
  • This fully justifies the prowess of the naval fleet maintained by Russia not now but from all the way back to 1783.
  • Actually the chink in the mighty Russian arsenal (read lack of appropriate counter) for the lowly kamikaze drones got exposed for the first time in Western Syria during an attack by 13 Drones on its Khmeimim air base and Tartus Naval base on 05 Jan 2018. In this attack, the all-powerful Pantsir-S SAM and other soft kill means could kill only kill 7 of the 13 drones. This deficit got corroborated in Feb 2022. [36]
  • Ukrainians realised that a trio of weapons, namely drones, MANPADS and ATGMs proved very heavy on the conventional Russian war-machine thrusting headlong in blitzkrieg operation.
  • The drone story was taken to Black Sea where the same capability deficit against drones (now combined with cruise and anti-ship missiles) showed up prominently. Soon the drones were to be joined by their brethren the USVs (now awaiting AUVs).
  • The rest is history.

Back to the caption. While the strong Russian defences may have battered the so-called Ukrainian offensive into a stalemate, their ‘down-end of the sea saw’ is floating on the waters of the Black Sea.

Endnotes

[1] “Making sense of a frozen war,” at www.vifindia.org. Accessed on 17 Mar 2024.
[2] “Battle of Avdiivka (2023-24),” at www.en.m.wikipedia.org. Accessed on 17 Mar 2024.
[3] “Ukraine’s Army is suffering artillery shell hunger,” at www.politico.eu. Accessed on 17 Mar 2024.
[4] “What is Russia doing in the Black sea?” at www.carnegieendownment.org. Accessed on 19 Mar 2024.
[5] “Crimea” at www.en.m.wikipedia .org. Accessed on 19 Mar 2024
[6] What makes the Black Sea so strategically important/” at www.defensenews.com. Accessed on 19 Mar 2024.
[7] Georgia-NATO relationship,” at www.en.m.wikipedia.org. Accessed on 19 Mar 2024.
[8] “Why is the Black Sea important for Russia?” at www/deccanherald.com. Accessed on 24 Mar 2024.
[9] ibid
[10] NATO Deputy Secretaray General discusses importance of Black Sea security,” at www.nato.int. Accessed on 24 Mar 2024.
[11] “Black Sea Fleet,” at www.en.m.wikipedia.org. Accessed on 26 Mar 2024
[12] ibid
[13] 11 ibid
[14] “ An year of air and air defence war,” at www.vifindia.org. Accessed on 28 Mar 2024.
[15] “The changing shades of Russian weapon deployment in Ukraine war,” at www.vifindia.org. Accessed on 28 Mar 2024.
[16] 13 ibid.
[17] “Inside Ukraine’s Drone Army” at www. spectator.co.uk. . Accessed on 28 Mar 2024.
[18] “Ukraine’s Zelensky orders creation of a separate military force for drones.” At www.reuters.com. . Accessed on 28 Mar 2024.
[19] “Ukraine says that it could make 2m drones a year with financial help from west., “ at www.theguardian.com. Accessed on 29 Mar2024.
[20] “Raptor class patrol boats,” at www.en.wikipedia.org. Accessed on 29 Mar2024.
[21] Timeline of 2022 Ukraine invasion: war in the black sea,” at www. hi sutton.com. Accessed on 29 Mar2024.
[22] “R360 Naptune,” at www.en.m.wiki[edia.org. Accessed on 29 Mar2024.
[23] ‘US intel helped Ukraine sink Russian Flagship Moskva.” At www.nbcnews.com Accessed on 30 Mar 2024.
[24] 20 ibid
[25] “Meet Ukraine’s small but lethal weapons..” at www.apnews.com. Accessed on 30 Mar 2024.
[26] 2022 drone attack on the Sevastopol Naval base ,” at www.en.m.wikipedia.org. Accessed on 01 Apr 2024
[27] 20 ibid
[28] “Explained why the Kerch bridge attack is significant.” At www.thehindu.com. Accessed on 01 Apr 2024.
[29] “Kerch Bridge : What is the significance of Crimea Bridge..” at www.economictimes.com Accessed on 01 Apr 2024.
[30] “Putin opens 12-mile bridge between Crimea and Russian Mainland,” at wwwtheguardian.com. Accessed on 01 Apr 2024.
[31] “Black Sea Grain Initiative,” at www.en.m.wikipedia.org Accessed on 01 Apr 2024.
[32] Ukraine reveals one more weapon of naval warfare,” at www.en.defense-ua.com. Accessed on 04 Apr 2024.
[33] “New Ukrainian underwater Drone Project ...” at www.navalnews.com. Accessed on 04 Apr 2024.
[34] “Ukraine war: Two Russian landing ships hit off Crimea,” at www.bbc.com Accessed on 08 Apr 2024.
[35] “Ukraine says a third of Russian warships in the Black Sea have been destroyed or disabled.” At www.pbs.org. . Accessed on 08 Apr 2024
[36] “Commentary: First ever swarm attack has happened,” at www.vifindia.org. Accessed on 09 Apr 2024.

(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 >>


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