The Russian Navy is on paper the second most powerful on the planet, thanks to its nuclear submarine fleet. Yet it appears to have retreated in its war with Ukraine. It has dialed back its presence off the Ukrainian coast near Odesa. Much of the northern Black Sea is now a defacto no-go zone for its ships. This likely contributed to the decision to retreat from Snake Island, a strategic gain it made early in the war.
A major factor will have been the arrival of Harpoon anti-ship missiles in Ukraine. But like so many things in the defense sphere, it is more complicated than that.
The naval aspect of the war, in the northwest Black Sea between Crimea and the Odesa coast, can be separated into phases.
The Initial Phase, The Russian Navy Established Dominance
In the early days of the Ukraine Invasion, the Russian Navy dominated the northern part of the Black Sea, between Crimea and Ukraine. They quickly captured the outpost at Snake Island, near the Romanian border in the southwest corner of the zone. A blockade on merchant ships was quickly effected. Several were attacked, sending a clear message. This threat has kept merchant vessels at bay.
There were strong indications of planned amphibious landing near Odesa. Or possibly aimed at creating a land bridge to the Russian-aligned breakaway state of Transnistria in Moldova. Although the landings haven’t happened, Russian landing ships sailed in repeated ‘demonstrations’. The threat was very real.
Russian warships, including two Admiral Grigorovich class frigates, patrolled close to Odesa. As well as the occasional bombardment mission, and its intrinsic intelligence value, this was intimidating. Russian warships, even those with limited defenses, could operate unimpeded within sight of the city’s beaches.
Unarmed hydrographic vessels were sailing safely off the Odessa coast. These were possibly providing weather information and general intelligence.
Key to Russia’s dominance was its large and imposing flagship, the Slava class cruiser Moskva. Operating around 30 nautical miles offshore, her S-300F missile system provided an air defense umbrella to the other ships and Snake Island.
There was never any serious suggestion that the Ukrainian Navy could go toe-to-toe with the Russians. Recognizing that they did not stand a chance, they generally did not engage in a direct fight with the larger aggressor. Much of Ukraine’s small fleet was sunk, captured or scuttled. This war was not to be a traditional navy-to-navy fight. Out-numbered and out-gunned, Ukraine has had to fight back in asymmetrical ways.
Ukraine is believed to have laid anti-invasion mines along parts of its coast, which may have denied Russia some areas. Russia responded by deploying minesweepers ahead of its landing ships and arranging them in line astern. But Russia continued to operate freely.
One Of The Most Dramatic Naval Losses In Memory: Moskva
The situation dramatically changed less than two months into the war, on April 13. Two Ukrainian made Neptune anti-ship missiles, a derivative of the Russian Kh-35, hit her amidships. The missiles, possibly pre-production examples, were launched from land. By a combination of factors, perhaps including some bad luck and some training gaps, the ship sunk the next day.
The sinking of Moskva will be in case studies for years to come. A ship which, on paper, had respectable anti-ship missile defenses (ASMD), was caught off guard. David had defeated Goliath.
But the impact was bigger than the loss of a single ship. In an instant it swept away the Russian Navy’s sense of invulnerability. They immediately became more risk adverse. Forays nearer the coast continued, possibly to send the message that Russia was not afraid, but the pattern shifted. Routine patrol areas contracted, generally shifting to the Crimea side of the northern Black Sea.
Ukraine for its part found that it’s Turkish supplied TB-2 drones could operate near Snake Island. The point air defenses there, the famous Tor and Pantsir systems, could not keep them at bay. TB-2s picked off Russian assault boats and air defense systems. Their biggest coup was hitting a landing craft just as it attempted to disembark a Tor missile system. The sunken landing craft blocked access to the island until it could be salvaged.
The Arrival Of Harpoon
But the TB-2s could also act as reconnaissance for other, harder hitting, weapons. Starting in May there were reports that Denmark would supply Harpoon anti-ship missiles. These were felt by the Russian Navy on June 17 when a valuable support vessel, Vasiliy Bekh, was hit by two. This was despite having a Tor system strapped to its deck. It was sunk.
On June 20 Harpoon were again used to neutralize a Russian controlled gas platform in the Black Sea. These platforms were being used for surveillance.
Russian ships became even more cautious, and the supply line to Snake Island even more strained. Ukrainian drone strikes and missile attacks were beginning to wear down the defenses. And Harpoon kept vital resupplies at bay.
The Tide Has Turned
Dramatically, at the end of June, Russia abandoned Snake Island. It was a victory for the artillery systems being used to bombard the exposed island. But it was also a victory for Harpoon, which made resupply so risky.
The Russian Navy is sailing much less. Patrol areas tend to be well away from the Ukrainian coast. The amphibious ships are increasingly kept in port, and offensive operations are limited to cruise missile launches. These are often from right outside the home port entrance.
Submarines are now being used for some of the cruise missile launches. Possibly they can operate more safely closer to the Ukrainian controlled coast. Even the Admiral Grigorovich class frigates are operating well away from the threat. This does not speak of confidence in their ASMD capabilities.
Much further away from the action, Russia has suddenly started increasing defenses of the Kerch Bridge. This is out of range of most Ukrainian weapons, but unusual decoys have been deployed. It suggests a heightened sense of risk.
On the other hand, Russia still imposes an effective blockade. It has been doing this with missile corvettes and patrol boats operating much further south, near to Romania. We should not think that Russia is no longer the stronger navy. But the threat of Harpoon and other systems has pushed it into an almost passive role.
In war it is difficult to predict what tomorrow will bring. But for today, Russia appears much less in control of the northern Black Sea.