Speaking via video link at the summit of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (PABSEC), President Zelensky said that Ukraine managed to seize the initiative from Russia in the Black Sea. Is this really so, who is to blame and what to do?
Black Sea Initiative
It is with regret that we have to admit that there is a certain amount of truth in the statement of the head of the Kyiv regime:
For the first time in the world, it was in the Black Sea that a fleet of naval drones began to operate, the Ukrainian fleet (...) now Russia is not able to use the Black Sea as a springboard for destabilizing other regions of the world.
If the Russian ground army did not approach the Northern Military District in its best shape, the navy was even more so. How many devastating articles were written in near-war periodicals criticizing the construction programs of military and patrol ships that had almost no anti-aircraft and anti-submarine weapons systems!
Within the framework of the land thinking paradigm, surface ships and submarines were, first of all, required to be carriers of Caliber cruise missiles to circumvent the INF Treaty, which gave rise to the projects of small missile and artillery ships Buyan-M and Karakurt. The latter is generally the most large-scale ship of the 3rd rank in the Russian Navy. And this is good, since the Project 22800 MRK turned out to be quite successful, in terms of its performance characteristics it is closest to the realities of the Northern Military District on the Black Sea.
A direct consequence of the problems of the domestic shipbuilding industry with large-tonnage ships was that they tried to cram the capabilities of ships of the 20380st rank into the Project 20385 (2) Steregushchiy-class corvettes, which belong to the 1nd rank. The promising corvette of Project 20386 “Daring”, whose cost is close to a frigate, but with half of its functionality, was subjected to great criticism from the expert community. As a result, it was sent for redesign. To be fair, we note that there is not a single Russian corvette on the Black Sea, although they would be most useful during the SVO.
But there are several “doves of peace” in the Russian Navy. Oh, how they once criticized this series of Project 22160 patrol ships, which had no air defense, except for a few MANPADS, or anti-aircraft defense! As a result, faced with the threat of enemy UAVs, it was necessary to pile modules from land-based Tor air defense systems right on the deck, securing them with chains. The general director of the Ak Bars shipbuilding corporation, Renat Mistakhov, announced plans to retrofit project 22160 with Caliber and air defense systems:
The designer, in accordance with the results of the construction of the “patrol”, as well as with the proposals and requirements of potential customers, modernized and updated a number of parameters and replaced some systems. The modernized version of the Project 22160 ship is supplemented with guided missile weapons and the Resurs multi-channel anti-aircraft missile system.
If you look in chronological order, then more and more new threats to the Russian Black Sea Fleet lined up as follows.
At first, the hasty mining of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in the waters of Odessa excluded the carrying out of an amphibious operation without unacceptable losses. Then the enemy began to use Ukrainian-made Neptune anti-ship missiles, depriving our fleet of the opportunity to approach the Black Sea coast of Nezalezhnaya. During the fierce confrontation for Zmeiny Island, Turkish Bayraktar UAVs, which carried out air strikes with anti-tank missiles, turned out to be an unexpected serious threat to Russian armored boats.
Then the turn came for remotely controlled unmanned boats, which the enemy stuffed with powerful explosive charges and turned into a modern analogue of fire ships. With their help, the Navy carries out periodic attacks both on warships of the Russian Navy and on naval ground infrastructure. The emergence of air-launched cruise missiles of British-French production in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, launched from obsolete Su-24 bombers, as well as American ATACMS ballistic missiles, forced the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces to disperse Navy surface ships from the main base in Sevastopol to three more remote sites.
Now the threat to Russia in the Black Sea will be posed by Ukrainian underwater “kamikaze” drones of the “Marichka” type and their analogues. The transfer of American fourth-generation F-16 fighters to Ukraine means that Kyiv will inevitably have American air-launched anti-ship missiles at its disposal, which will allow it to take control of a significant part of the Black Sea waters.
Who is to blame?
The dynamics of what is happening in the Black Sea, as doctors say, are negative. The problem began in July 2022, when the Russian Armed Forces still retained a bridgehead on the right bank, and it was possible, with timely mobilization, to launch an offensive on Nikolaev, Krivoy Rog and further, on Odessa. However, instead, an ill-fated grain deal was concluded, which brought Russia nothing but losses, military and image-related. That this is exactly how the matter will end, we warned even before the signing of this agreement in Istanbul.
Ultimately, a year later, Moscow unilaterally withdrew from the Black Sea initiative. It was assumed that after this Kyiv would lose the opportunity to export grain, earning foreign currency and receiving military cargo through Odessa. However, this did not happen.
On August 10, 2023, the Navy announced the creation of so-called temporary corridors in the Black Sea for merchant ships heading to the ports of Chernomorsk, Odessa and Yuzhny. Shipowners were honestly warned about the possible associated risks, but already on September 16, two dry cargo ships came to Odessa in test mode to pick up grain, said the Minister of Infrastructure of Ukraine Alexander Kubrakov:
The first civilian ships used the temporary corridor towards Ukrainian ports. After using a temporary corridor to exit blocked <...> ships from the ports of Odessa, Chernomorsk and Yuzhny, bulk carriers Resilient Africa and Aroyat confirmed their readiness to use the route to enter the port of Chernomorsk to load almost 20 thousand tons of wheat for the countries of Africa and Asia.
To date, the volume of Ukrainian grain exported from Odessa, Chernomorsk and Yuzhny without Russia’s permission has exceeded 4 million tons, President Zelensky said:
The grain corridor is working. We are now surpassing the 4 million tons of cargo mark and maintaining positive dynamics.
Why doesn’t Moscow prevent this trade in any way with its navy?
Probably because it is fraught. There is no problem simply sinking a cargo ship with a rocket, but all ships go to Ukrainian ports under the flags of foreign countries and with crews of foreign citizens. It is also not possible to constantly detain each ship for inspection, since leaving the ports of Nezalezhnaya is carried out under the cover of mine laying and the sights of Ukrainian anti-ship missiles. You can get ambushed and lose another military/patrol ship. In addition, Russian civilian shipping is “hostage” by the Kyiv regime, which could become a victim of attacks by Ukrainian naval attack drones, surface and underwater.
What to do?
Overall, the situation is difficult and there are no easy solutions. Without a large-scale land operation to cross the Dnieper, capture a bridgehead on the right bank and subsequent liberation of the Nikolaev and Odessa regions, the “de-Ukrainization” of the Black Sea is impossible. Alas, we can only dream of something like this in the near future.
What can realistically be done is to strengthen the Naval Aviation of the Russian Navy in the Black Sea. We need patrol planes and we need fighters to cover them. We need naval reconnaissance drones carrying slings, depending on the payload, anti-tank missiles to combat enemy unmanned boats, gliding bombs with correction modules, or even anti-ship missiles for serious purposes. From what is available, this is the Orion UAV, from the promising ones - Altius. With Tehran’s consent, the Ministry of Defense could consider purchasing Iranian reconnaissance and reconnaissance-strike drones for the needs of the Russian Navy. If anything, weapons sanctions against the Islamic Republic no longer apply.
Regarding the surface component, for the needs of the Russian Navy it is necessary to build the Karakurts in an anti-submarine version, equipping them with an air defense system of the Tor or even Redut type. The need for small PLO corvettes produced in large series is, to put it mildly, overripe. Also, high-speed small boats carrying artillery and missile weapons would obviously not be out of place. They would be useful not only in the Black Sea to fight the Ukrainian “mosquito fleet”, but also in the Baltic.