Although relations between Ukraine and Russia have always been strained, tensions in the region have risen year after year since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. The fact that the Zelensky administration’s clear statements revealing their desire to approach the West and officially declared its intention to join NATO intensified Russia’s protests and kept the arms flowing across the borders at a high level. Because, In 2019, a new constitutional amendment declared the government responsible for implementing Ukraine’s “strategic course” toward EU and NATO membership.
While much attention has been focused on the regional conflict and expanding militarization along the borders, the situation at sea is rarely highlighted.
Russia has pursued increased control over the seas that surround Crimea and eastern Ukraine, particularly the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait. This control and growth of the fleet create several obstacles for both Ukrainian naval action and commercial ships. If the crisis grows into a full-fledged war, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet will almost probably blockade the region, and the Black Sea will see its first true hot contact in a century if Ukrainian naval assets counter Russia’s presence.
Is the Ukrainian Navy, however, capable of countering the Russian Fleet? In terms of current navies’ volume, armament, experience, and training level, the picture looks bleak for Ukraine.
Ukrainian Navy Capabilities
Ukraine has a relatively minor naval force. Despite disagreements with Russia over the allocation of the Black Sea fleet following its independence from the Soviet Union, it retained a modest naval force in accordance with its needs and objectives. However, Ukraine lost a substantial chunk of its naval force when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Because the majority of the Ukrainian Navy’s bases and a large proportion of its personnel were stationed in Crimea. Russia seized control of 75% of Ukraine’s naval force, the vast majority of its helicopters, and the great majority of the country’s ship repair capabilities.
The Ukrainian navy today consists of 15 ships, one of which is a frigate, while the others are small combatants and landing ships. The country’s sole frigate is outfitted with limited armaments and does not have anti-ship missiles. The country’s anti-submarine warfare capabilities suffer as a result of a lack of significant naval aviation capability.
Following the initial shock, Ukraine began several procurement programs targeted at healing its wounds. As a result, it obtained limited sea denial capabilities by deploying ground-based Neptune anti-ship missiles with a range of 280 kilometers. The Ukrainian Navy’s surveillance and small-strike capacity were enhanced with the procurement of the Turkish-made TB2 Bayraktar armed UAVs.
The U.S., the U.K., and other NATO allies are aiming to help Ukraine in rebuilding its navy, as well as the land and special operations troops. In addition to sending four second-hand Island-class patrol boats, the U.S. approved the sale of up to 16 Mk VI patrol boats to provide the country a mosquito fleet. The U.K. is currently supplying Ukraine with two Sandown-class minehunters, which are being outfitted, and Babcock is building eight missile boats. There have been some discussions on acquiring Type-31 frigates, but the project’s progress remains unclear. The French OCEA shipyard is currently building 20 OCEA FPB 98 MKI for Ukraine. In December 2021, Ukraine and Denmark signed an MoU for “Danish ship design and technology”.
The Turkish RMK Marine Shipyard is building an Ada-class corvette for Ukraine, with the first (of maybe two) corvettes planned to enter service in 2023. The Ukrainian Navy will obtain ASW capability after delivery, though at a low level.
Russia’s Black Sea Fleet Capabilities
Since 2014, Russia has significantly increased its military presence in Crimea suppressed local dissent, and increased the size and capability of its Black Sea Fleet, headquartered in Sevastopol. According to open-source information the Black Sea Fleet currently has around 49 ships and 7 submarines.
Six new Project 636.3 (Improved Kilo) diesel submarines, three Admiral Grigorovich class frigates, one Buyan-M class corvette (totally three), and three Project 22160 patrol boats, all delivered between 2015 and 2020, are all capable of deploying Kalibr land-attack cruise missiles. Admiral Grigorovich frigates were declared to carry Tsirkon hypersonic missiles, but the current deployment is yet to be known. As a result, they outperform the fleet’s older Soviet combat ships.
Moskva, the Fleet’s flagship, is armed with P-1000 Vulcan supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles and 3M41 Fort long-range air defense missiles, among other guided weaponry. The amphibious fleet consists of seven aging Ropucha-class and Alligator-class amphibious warships, as well as a few small landing craft.
As clearly understood from the information above, comparing the two forces is a futile effort.
NATO and the U.S. cannot protect Ukraine from the sea
Ukraine is a promising candidate for NATO membership, but it has yet to submit an official application. While it was expected that NATO or the US would reinforce Ukraine against Russia, NATO General Secretary Stoltenberg stated that if a conflict erupts, NATO will not be involved in the military activity because Ukraine is not a NATO ally yet.
Despite Stoltenberg’s closing the door on military reinforcement, NATO announced that its allies were putting forces on standby and sending additional ships and fighter jets to NATO deployments in eastern Europe to strengthen deterrence and defense as Russia continues its military buildup in and around Ukraine. However, the picture is a little darker on the Black Sea side.
Even if NATO decides to intervene in the Black Sea, it will face a hurdle: The Montreux Convention, which governs the transit regime through the Straits, limits the maximum tonnage of ships to 40.000 tons, which equates to 3-4 destroyers and 1-2 frigates. Surface assets are unlikely to penetrate the Russian Anti Access / Area Denial (A2/AD) zone in the Black Sea, which is particularly empowered by BAL/Bastion missile batteries on Russia’s Black Sea shore and improved Kilo-class submarines underwater.
NATO requires submarines to penetrate this zone, however, the Montreux Convention prohibits non-riparian states from deploying submarines in the Black Sea. Turkey is NATO’s only submarine force in the Black Sea, but it would be reluctant to engage in an underwater battle with Russia in the meantime.
NATO is not intended to intervene in aggression at the time, but even if it changes its stance, the Black Sea would be a no-go zone for NATO assets.
Russian Black Sea Fleet’s possible course of action
If the fight is considered imminent, Russia will very probably mobilize its Black Sea fleet. Blocking marine traffic to Kerch Strait and Odesa port would be one of the Russian Fleet’s first steps in such a circumstance. Because a blockade of Odesa port, which is critical to Ukraine’s economy, would be a severe loss to Ukraine’s ability and will to fight on. As a result, it appears that an embargo operation supported by MIO (Maritime Interdiction Operation) is feasible.
Russian naval assets will most likely engage Ukrainian naval assets at the start of the aggression during the blockade. Russia will also need to neutralize the Neptune missile batteries, which pose a threat to naval combatants; thus, tense maritime-air coordinated actions are likely. Furthermore, surface and sub-surface units would most likely execute deep strike operations employing Kalibr land-attack missiles to destroy Ukraine’s key installations and forces, undermining the country’s resolve.
There is a widespread idea that Russia would perform amphibious operations, but this needs to be evaluated more closely since if Russia conducts landing operations, it should be prepared for huge casualties.
The 197th Assault Ship Brigade provides the Fleet’s amphibious lift, with three Alligator- and four Ropucha-class landing ships. With reinforcement from Russia’s Baltic Fleet’s Ropucha-class landing ships Korolev and Minsk, this gives an amphibious lift capacity of about two naval infantry battalion tactical groups.
There are certain drawbacks to Russia conducting landings on Ukrainian coastlines. Ukraine’s coast is marked by high hills and cliffs to the seashore, with few beach exits and few beaches suited for a mechanized amphibious assault force.
“The coastal areas not bounded by cliffs are urbanized, which means that it would be very difficult for the landing force if these places were defended toughly, and the fight could evolve into an urban combat with different outcomes.”
Colonel Philip G. Wasielewski, a retired US Marine Corps officer
Meteorological conditions would also be difficult for an amphibious army. Because the average temperature this time of year is around -3 or -5 degrees Celsius and can drop below -30 during operations. Another issue is the sea’s low salinity and shallowness.
Weather and water conditions, hydrography and terrain constraints, amphibious lift limitations, difficulty sustaining air dominance, and logistical issues all point to the dangerous nature of any Russian amphibious operation in the Black Sea. As a result, Russia’s decision to start an amphibious operation is solely dependent on how much loss it can tolerate.