The biggest impact of the loss of the cruiser Moskva is that the northern Black Sea is a safer place for Ukrainian aircraft. Particularly for the Ukrainian Navy’s TB2 drones. This tactical loss could have strategic implications.
The focus has become Snake Island, a small rock in the south west corner of Ukraine. It was captured by Russia in the opening hours of the war. Moskva herself played a visible role in the capture.
Now, with the failure of Russia to advance west from Crimea, Snake Island finds itself an isolated outpost. It is the only Russian-held territory west of Crimea. And it is increasingly defenseless.
The High Cost Of A Tiny Rock
Moskva’s role was largely air defense, being a floating double-battery of S300 missiles. In the void left by Moskva, Ukrainian drones have been able to operate effectively against Russian targets. This has had dramatic effects.
Ukraine’s first major move appears to have been to take out the air defenses on the island with a drone strike. A potent SA-15 Tor missile system provided local air defenses, at least in theory. The removal of that system allowed the Ukrainian Navy’s TB2 drones to loiter nearby. The first Russian Navy victims were two Raptor assault boats on May 2.
The Pr.03160 Raptor is modelled on the influential Swedish CB-90 design. It has many uses, including insertion and extraction of special forces. But it has only limited air defenses and even when maneuvering hard, has proven an easy target for the TB2.
On May 7 Russia attempted to land a replacement SA-15 missile system on the island. A TB2 drone caught the Pr.11770 Serna Class landing craft in the act, hitting it as it was about to unload. The attack was devastating and the shipwreck blocked the landing spot.
With the air defenses degraded the Russian garrison was subject to successive air strikes by drones and fighter jets. Soon most of the buildings on the island were reduced to rubble. Russia was still operating Raptors in the area but two more were eliminated by a TB2 on May 8. Along with a helicopter landing troops on the island. The island seems unlivable.
But it isn’t over, Russia appears determined to hold the tiny piece of strategic real-estate. On May 9 another landing craft, a slightly larger Pr.21820 Dyugon class, was observed next to Snake island. We assess that this was likely attempting to deliver yet another SA-15 Tor air defense system.
See You Later, Alligator
Naval News, together with Independent defense analyst Benjamin Pittet, have been observing Russian Navy amphibious forces in the Black Sea. A shift in the patterns of operations can be seen.
Something we haven’t seen operating around Snake Island in recent weeks are the large landing ships. In the first couple of months of the war one or two of Ropucha Class landing ships were frequently observed near the island.
Going back, during the build up to the invasion Russia sent additional landing ships to the Black Sea. These came from the Northern and Baltic fleets, and included Ropucha Class landing ships, the backbone of the force, and a newer Ivan Gren class ship. Smaller landing craft were transferred from the Caspian Sea. There were also signs that more were being sent from the Pacific but these turned around.
More Than Double The Landing Ship Capacity
The influx of landing ships more than doubled the amphibious capability in the Black Sea. Initially the bulk was concentrated on the western side of Crimea, facing Odesa. They were frequently staged of the Crimean coast and performed ‘demonstration’ missions near the Odesa. That expected landing didn’t come, possibly aborted.
In late April, after the Moskva sinking, there was a change in the patterns however. We stopped seeing the Ropucha near Snake Island. While we cannot be certain, with open sources, that they have entirely stopped, all indications are that they have. Instead we have seen Raptor class assault boats and smaller Dyugon and Serna class landing craft used.
The straightforward interpretation is that with Moskva gone, it became too dangerous for them. The Ropuchas do have anti-aircraft guns but they are still juicy targets for Ukrainian missiles and drones. So the landing ships have been concentrated in port. They have still ventured to sea, but in a much more restricted way. The original Black Sea Fleet ones have remained at Sevastopol, and additional ones from other fleets in Novorossiysk.
What Next For The Cursed Isle?
Russia appears determined to keep the island, even at a high cost of troops and equipment. It’s location is strategic. It can provide surveillance, and it prevents Ukraine from benefiting in the same way. And may be important in any peace agreements or end-game territory grabs. And also its defense could become symbolic, in the same way as the Ukrainian hold-out in Mariupol.
It has yet to be seen whether Ukraine will attempt to retake the island. Emotionally there may be a strong motivation to do so. And it could make political and strategic sense.
But if it does the situation could be reversed with Russia free to take pot shots at the Ukrainian garrison. The island is essentially indefensible without effective area air defense. And right now neither side looks like it could achieve that.