While much attention is allotted to the success (or otherwise) of the Ukrainian counter-offensive on land, events in the Black Sea periodically remind us of its strategic importance in this ongoing conflict.
On 13 September, Russia’s repair yard for the Black Sea Fleet, Sergo Ordzhonkidze, came under attack from ten Storm Shadow cruise missiles fired from five Sukhoi Su-24 Fencers. Some were intercepted, but three hit the drydocks there, crippling the warship Minsk and submarine Rostov-on-Don. The Russians retreated a few miles to their backup command post at Verkhnesadovoe which was then hit on 20 September. Storm Shadow is the British name for the SCALP cruise missile, a French weapon with a British supplied warhead, used by the air forces of both nations and supplied by both nations to Ukraine.
One explanation for why some of the missiles made it through is because Ukrainian special forces and Neptune missiles had destroyed Russian S-400 air defence radars some weeks before. These are classic multi-domain shaping operations, very well delivered.
We got a glimpse of Ukraine’s ability to coordinate across domains early on with the sinking of the missile cruiser Moskva. A drone flying close to the ship distracted its crew sufficiently to miss the Neptune missiles coming from the other direction.
Whilst not as totemic as the Moskva, the hit on the drydock on 13 September has perhaps a deeper significance to the war overall. We can identity five strategic and tactical reasons why.
First, there is the removal of a landing craft/logistics vessel and a very capable Kalibr-armed submarine from the Russian order of battle for the foreseeable future. The Black Sea Fleet ‘losses list’ gets longer.
Second is the inability to use the dry docks whilst they work out what to do with the damaged vessels. Insufficient docking facilities is an issue most maritime countries face, even in peacetime. Russia now has two fewer options.
Third is what to do with the vessels. The Russians have declared that they will repair them. However, in the case of this submarine in particular, analysts suggest that there may not be left inside the pressure hull to work with. The warhead went in through the shoulder and out through the back, causing carnage in-between. It’s not dissimilar to what happened to Admiral Lord Nelson – and there was no repairing him that time.
When it comes to warships, however, there is no such thing as beyond economical repair: there is only political will to repair, or a lack of it. Stinging pride can overcome financial prudence, and has done so many times in the past. The Russians may have to leave the nameplate in place while basically sliding a new submarine in underneath it. Regardless, it will cost them an awful lot of money.
If they don’t repair the sub, then they’ll still want the dock back. That means patching up the boat, flooding up the dock and towing it somewhere. I’m not sure I’d volunteer to be on duty for any of those evolutions. All will necessitate more time, more resources and more public embarrassment.
The loss of the Minsk is less significant as that vessel was more of a logistic asset than a warfighting one. With that said, its sister ship Olenegorsky Gornyak was taken out of action on 3 August by another USV attack – again pointing to mounting losses. And the repair or tow conundrum is the same as for the submarine.
Fourth is the ongoing viability of Sevastopol as a naval base. With the docks out of action and the alternative HQ now levelled, can it continue to be used? The answer is probably ‘yes’, but at the high cost of replacing and increasing its defences. If the Russians do abandon Sevastopol and move their fleet back to Novorossiysk then this impacts on one of three major supply lines sustaining Russian forces in the Crimea, the other two being the besieged land bridge and the Kerch Strait bridges.
More broadly than ‘just’ Sevastopol is the almost mythological importance of Crimea to Russia, with Putin referring to it as Russians’ “holy land akin to Jerusalem”, much though Russia has only controlled it since 2014. As confusing as that analogy is, getting punched repeatedly in one’s holy land is not a good look.
Finally, what is all this doing to the balance of power in the Black Sea? Logistically it is hampering the Russians. At roughly the same time as the Storm Shadows or SCALPs were wreaking havoc in Sevastopol, three Uncrewed Surface Vessels (USVs) were targeting the tanker Yaz and the arms ship Ursa Major.
The timing was sufficiently concurrent for early reporting to suggest that this was part of the attack on Sevastopol. This is now considered incorrect, but either way, it is another demonstration of Ukraine’s concerted push to regain control of the Black Sea in order to ship grain through it. The USV attacks were unsuccessful this time but I would be surprised if anyone in the Russian Navy was queueing up to serve aboard the Yaz or the Ursa Major anytime soon.
As you read this, two significant events are occurring. The first grain ship to depart Odesa since the end of the grain deal with Putin has now reached the Bosphorus, taking a route as close to Nato members Romania and Bulgaria as possible. The aptly-named Resilient Africa is carrying 3,000 tons of wheat bound for international markets: if the increasing pressure on Russian maritime forces diminishes in any way their ability to weaponise hunger, then it is a good thing. This is even more important given Ukraine’s emerging spat with Poland, Hungary and Slovakia over overland grain exports.
The second is President Zelensky’s discussion with President Biden. Whatever your view on the pace of US support, this visit is vitally important. I would imagine a request for the US made Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) will be near the top of the agenda. This would be a game-changer, and everyone in Sevastopol will want to know the outcome of that discussion.
Overall, the morale effect these attacks will be having on the Black Sea Fleet will be huge. Ships hate being docked in a high-threat environment – it takes from you nearly every method you have of repelling an attack, turning you into a sitting duck. So you go to sea: but rather than heading east to safety, the grain runners and other activities demand you head west, towards the threat.
The Russian navy isn’t exactly known for its high morale and fighting spirit even at the best of times. It’s hard to imagine it could get much worse, now.
Tom Sharpe is a former Royal Navy frigate captain, with operational experience in contact with the Russian navy
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