The Russian Armed Forces have been preparing for a full-fledged war against Ukraine. The military buildup at the borders and in Belarus has been one of the most hotly debated topics in the last months. One of the most important aspects of Russia’s preparation was the reinforcement of the Black Sea Fleet (BSF) from the Baltic, Northern, and Pacific fleet, as well as some of the BSF’s other assets tasked in the Eas-Med.
While the majority of the media focused on other aspects of the conflict, let’s focus on what happened in the Black Sea.
Black Sea Fleet’s assistance from the sea
The events at the sea appeared less tense compared to combat happening on land and in the air. As Naval News previously analyzed, Ukraine had lost the majority of its navy during Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet didn’t encounter resistance at sea.
One week before the conflict, the BSF issued NOTAMs and practiced a possible blockade by closing the Kerch Strait as well as the south and west parts of the Crimea Peninsula. It would not be incorrect to say that the BSF controlled the north of the Black Sea prior to the operation.
On February 24, Russia launched a massive bombardment over Ukraine’s capital cities. Although the Russian Defense Ministry did not specify which missiles were used in the massive attack, it is believed that BSF units assisted in the bombardment with Kalibr missiles, which are installed on the BSF’s Buyan-M class corvettes, Admiral Grigorovich class frigates, improved Kilo-class submarines, and Project 22160 patrol ships.
Snake Island incident
BSF’s action against Ukraine’s tiny island near the Romanian border, dubbed “Snake Island,” (Zmiinyi Island in Ukrainian) was one of the most significant events at sea. The Slava-class cruiser RFS Moskva, the flagship of the BSF, and Project 22160 patrol ship RFS Vasiliy Bykov used naval gunfire to attack the Ukrainian garrison on Snake Island, which is located about 50 nautical miles south of Odesa.
The 13 soldiers defending the island refused to surrender and were killed with Russian fire. The soldiers are now known as the “heroes of Zmiinyi Island”. The Russian warships captured the island still patrol in the vicinity of the area.
The capture of the island by Russia may appear to be a minor detail, but the island’s location is very close to a NATO country (Romania), and it may support the Russian A2/AD if BAL/Bastion P coastal missile systems are ever deployed there. In the event of an amphibious operation to Odessa, it can also serve as a logistical station.
Freedom of Navigation in Black Sea
Several incidents occurred in the Black Sea that was damaging to the freedom of navigation, which is the most important rule for the sustainability of shipping worldwide.
The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense announced on February 25 that two commercial vessels had been hit by Russian fire off the coast of Odesa in southern Ukraine. Panama flagged bulk carrier NAMURA QUEEN (IMO: 9841299) and Moldova flagged bunker tanker MILLENNIUM SPIRIT were both reportedly hit by missiles. For the SAR operation, several vessels, including Ukrainian Coast Guard vessels, were dispatched. At 2:15 p.m. local time, the bunker tanker was secured and anchored. Moldova authorities stressed that the source of the missile is unknown while Ukrainian MoD blamed Russian forces in both incidents.
On February 26, a Turkish ship spotter reported on Twitter that the Russian Navy had used VHF channel 16 to notify all merchant vessels of a so-called “counterterrorist operation” and demanded that all vessels from the Odesa and Danube areas proceed immediately to the Bosphorus.
Ukraine’s Request to Turkey to close the straits
Ukraine’s ambassador to Turkey requested from Turkey to close the two straits to Russian ships in order to prevent Moscow from bolstering its Black Sea Fleet. Turkey manages the movement of commercial and military ships in and out of the Bosporus and Dardanelles under the Montreux Convention. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated that Turkey cannot prevent Russian warships from returning to their homeport — this means that Turkey can prevent Russia from sending ships into the Mediterranean, which is a non-issue right now, but it cannot prevent Russia from sending more ships to the Black Sea in the name of returning them to their home port.
On 26 February, Ukraine’s President Zelensky repeated this request on Twitter, saying, “The ban on the passage of the Russian warships to the Black Sea and significant military and humanitarian support for Ukraine are extremely important today.”
Turkish officials have yet to respond to this request.
Amphibious operation near Mariupol?
According to the USNI, Russia launched an amphibious assault into Ukraine via the Sea of Azov west of Mariupol. Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby told reporters that the Pentagon didn’t have “perfect visibility” on the assault and couldn’t provide specific numbers for how many troops Russians landed via landing ships.
The UK Ministry of Defence touched on this subject in an intelligence update feed via Twitter on February 26, and said that Russia has likely conducted an amphibious landing in southern Ukraine between Melitopol and Mariupol.
However, no photos or videos of landing forces on the Mariupol coast have been released, and Ukrainian officials have not shared any information on the subject.
The Russian BSF has carried out its operations as assessed prior to the conflict. It was determined that the BSF would control the entrance to Ukraine’s major ports in order to prevent any support via these ports and would provide missile attack support by hitting strategic targets from the sea. Despite the fact that many analysts emphasized the possibility of an amphibious operation, we viewed such an action as an unnecessary risk. Because there is no resistance to the BSF in the region.
The USNI reports were based on Pentagon officials’ statements about a landing operation to Ukraine’s coast to the Sea of Azov. The nature of amphibious operations generally implies a complex operation carried out by a combination of surface ships, air assets, special forces, and so on. There is no proof of such an operation and a challenging fight. Assuming the reports are correct, it is truly surprising that an amphibious force landed on such narrow beaches with no casualties. There must be no resistance on the coast side for such a comfortable landing operation, allowing the ships to land just like berthing a port. Additional information gathered in the coming days will provide a better understanding of how this operation was carried out.
According to the most recent reports, another amphibious operation near Odesa is still a possibility. In our previous analysis, we claimed that Russia’s decision to launch an amphibious operation is solely based on how much loss it can bear. The Russian Armed Forces had a bad day on the third day of the conflict because the invasion slowed. As a result, an amphibious operation to Odesa may appear as a viable option for opening a new southern gate.
Because of the size of the BSF’s amphibious force in the region, as well as the distance from Sevastopol where the ships reload their cargo of troops and mechanized vehicles, a Ukrainian amphibious assault could be disastrous for the BSF. Because the distance between Sevastopol and Odesa is about 150 nautical miles, it will take the landing ships about 24-30 hours to get to Sevastopol and back to the amphibious operation zone after the first landing. During this time, Russian forces who have successfully landed on the Odesa coast must fight without reinforcement from the sea. The operation would be aided by naval gun and missile firing support, as well as an airborne brigade.
Another surprise was that the Ukrainian army did not use their Neptune coastal anti-ship missiles, which have a range of approximately 300 kilometers. These missiles are capable of deterring BSF and preventing them from operating easily off the coast of Ukraine. There is no information available about the Neptune missiles, such as whether they were shot down by Russian ships’ air defense systems or whether the batteries were destroyed by the Russian air strike. The lack of use of these missiles raised the question of whether they are currently operational, despite the fact that the Ukrainian media reported that the Ukraine Armed Forces acquired the first batch of the missiles in March 2021.
If Ukraine would be successful in engaging and neutralizing a few Russian naval ships with Neptune missiles, it will have an impact on the Russian Navy’s determination to fight. Because losing a warship is not the same as losing any other asset. As a result, using these missiles to defend Ukraine’s coasts is critical.