For me, we have witnessed one of the most major events in military history: the strategic defeat of the powerful Russian Black Sea Fleet (BSF) and its withdrawal from its deep-water port at Sevastopol. This single event, no matter how momentous, won’t end the war tomorrow but it will directly affect the course it takes and likely have implications for security within the Black Sea and surrounding regions for decades to come.

In other operational areas of the war things may not be so clear cut but the fate of the BSF will have long term implications on them.

The ground situation

It’s pretty clear that currently the front lines are basically static, with little ground movement.

While Russian forces are definitely trying to advance along the Kupiansk-Svatove sector they are suffering badly as a result. Their attempts to mount large-scale armored attacks have foundered because, as it turns out, Ukrainian forces have retained sufficient stocks of artillery and the expertise to accurately target and decimate these Russian formations.

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In the Bakhmut sector, my read is that Ukrainian troops are still grinding forward and rotating its forces, either by sub-units or through individual reinforcement. It seems the Ukrainian intent here is to keep moving forward a tree line at a time until they are in a position to make the Russians pay through the nose if they try to hold on to what’s left of the city.

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It is a similar situation in the Orikhiv/Tokmak sector, but here Moscow’s forces are better dug in and are in the process of reinforcing the rear areas behind their original entrenchments. My assessment is that here Ukraine is content to fight a battle of attrition, not as a precursor to making a breakthrough, but to wear the enemy down. Both sides are rotating troops here but the Russians are waiting longer to replace units which, as a result, means they are taking higher casualties in men, weapons and equipment.

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The air situation

Overall, the most significant front-line activity is that of the Russian air force, which has and is using large quantities of guided bombs. Air sorties consist of 20 or more aircraft which seem to be conducting pre-planned rather than directed strikes. Fortunately, unless there is a lucky direct hit, the accuracy of the glide bombs being used is low. Ukrainian forces are taking casualties from near misses but the main issue is the psychological impact of being pounded with limited capability to respond.

It is clear that Russian pilots fully understand the limited envelope covered by Ukrainian tactical air defense systems and are launching attacks beyond it. These air operations, from what I can see, are taking place pretty much with impunity

Western air defense assistance has largely enabled Ukraine to protect some of its big cities while at the front it prevents Russian helicopter gunships from operating effectively much of the time.

There are unconfirmed reports of Russia deploying MiG-31 interceptor aircraft into the Belbek area of Crimea, to be able to intercept Ukrainian Su-24s carrying Storm Shadow cruise missiles. This will free up Russian Su-27/35 multi-role aircraft to conduct increased ground attack or conventional air cover missions.

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It should be possible to work out which would be more cost-effective - to provide Kyiv with sufficient air defense systems to close all of Ukraine’s air space or to provide F-16 or other Western fighters. In any event, so far, Western assistance to Ukraine has not halted Russian air strikes or its ability to launch long-range missile and kamikaze drone attacks. Recent statistics show the number of air and drone strikes are actually increasing, not going down.

The artillery situation

Here there are multiple reports that the Russians are attempting to counter the Ukrainian range/accuracy advantage through the use of 203mm heavy artillery and 300mm Smerch multi-barreled rocket systems, the latter supposedly retrofitted with GPS/Glonass guidance, for more accurate counter-battery work. This is because their smaller caliber howitzers have insufficient range to reach Ukrainian firing positions while these larger weapons shoot further than Ukraine’s NATO howitzers.

There is credible video evidence and reports, however, that in response Ukraine is hitting Russian heavy artillery with US HIMARS rockets. The use of HIMARS for this counter-battery work, is a shift in previous Ukrainian tactics. Previously, HIMARS was reserved to attack high value targets such as ammunition dumps and HQ complexes far in the Russian rear area. Now, Ukraine’s forces are dedicating drone, fire support and control facilities and the valuable HIMARS/M270 guided rockets to keep on beating on the Russian artillery.

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HIMARS rockets firing in Ukraine. PHOTO: Ukrinform

Over time, this will likely result in Ukrainian artillery dominance on the battlefield because it seems clear the Ukrainians i destroying key Russian artillery systems faster than Moscow can replace them. If the US and its allies continue to supply HIMARS rockets - which can never be guaranteed - sooner or later we will reach a situation where Ukrainian artillery can strike with impunity, and the Russian artillery will mostly be in hiding.

But this could be months off and only as long as Uncle Sam continues to be the “Arsenal of Democracy.” This applies even more so for 155mm artillery ammunition, but I am seeing reports that make me fairly confident that eventually it will be delivered in the necessary quantities.

Russia’s Black Sea fleet

While I have my fair share of inaccurate predictions, I started speculating during the dark days of April-May 2022 that it was going to get to a point where Ukraine’s use of anti-ship missiles would make it increasingly difficult for Russia to maintain warships in Sevastopol. It sounded irrational at the time, but it was pretty clear even then that the Black Sea Fleet (BSF) wasn’t going to be able to sustain itself in its normal hunting grounds, if the war went on for any length of time and the West provided even moderate assistance to Ukraine.

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That day actually arrived during the last week of September as reported in Kyiv Post on Sept 23 and Oct. 5.

How significant is this? What are the implications? While this may not be a war-ending, game-changer, no matter how you look at it exiling the Russian navy from Crimea is, in my book, a very big deal. Let’s examine the implications.

Russia has lost the ability to project amphibious forces anywhere that can affect the war, along Ukraine’s coast. NATO, Georgia and especially Turkey and Bulgaria don’t even have to worry about Russian naval infantry landing, even theoretically, for the indefinite future. In particular Turkey can withdraw much of its own Black Sea naval forces, and commit them elsewhere: such as Syria, Georgia or Greece. This is another example of Kyiv having done their job for them.

Russia’s ability to threaten shipping in the western half of the Black Sea, has been severely degraded, as signified by the effective restart of the grain corridor. This damages both Russia’s reputation and economic interests, because sooner or later Ukraine will be in a position to halt Russian commercial traffic.

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An aerial view of the city of Sevastopol after a missile attack struck the headquarters of Moscow's Black Sea fleet in annexed Crimea on Sept. 22. PHOTO:Planet Labs/AFP

The threat to Ukrainian grain exports would theoretically be totally eliminated by placing anti-ship missiles in hard bunkers on Zmiiny (Snake) island, which would also mean that Ukraine could effectively close the Black Sea to Russian civilian shipping – which might conflict with the US obsession with freedom of the sea if Ukraine was actually to blockade parts of the Black Sea’s international waters.  It would be the ultimate irony for a country without a navy to be in that position.

Russia has seen its ability to project-force-with-a-powerful navy strategy in the Black Sea basically devastated. The only drydocks designed to handle warships under Russian control, are all in Sevastopol. Two are blocked in the medium term by the hulks of a submarine and an amphibious assault ship and the third has been badly holed. This means that if a Russian warship gets hit anywhere below the waterline, they have no way to fix it. Having no dry docks capable of repairing serious damage to ships will shut down most navies in practical terms. This is absolutely what has happened with the BSF, for which Turkey should again be thanking Ukraine.

Russian capacity to bombard Ukrainian cities with sea-launched missiles is also effectively at an end. Missile -loading facilities in Sevastopol are at the end of a very long supply chain and now within range of Ukrainian precision strikes while the storage, lifting capability and security needed to load Kalibr missiles does not exist in Novorossiysk.

At the start of the war the BSF had about five frigates and maybe six or seven missile boats capable of striking Ukraine in total, some of which have been damaged by kamikaze sea drones. Russia’s ability to launch sea-based cruise missile strikes against their favorite civilian and infrastructure targets got worse, because the missile carriers now have to sail through more disputed waters, to get to a safe launch point. Launching further from Ukraine, gives more time for the early warning systems to kick in, for air defense to get ready and for people to take cover.

The removal of the Russian fleet from Sevastopol has also removed the air defense capacities provided by its warships. Under normal circumstances that would not be such a big deal because Russia planned for Crimean air space to be really well protected by ground-based air defense systems. In recent weeks Ukrainians have taken out, or seriously degraded, two of the three S-400 “Triumf” air defense systems thought to be based in Crimea – at Sevastopol, Simferopol/Saki and the Kerch Bridge. In such cases useful back up for those air defenses would come from ship-based systems – which are now protecting Novorossiysk and the Kuban region.

Ship-based Fregat air defense watch radars are no longer in Sevastopol and their 300-kilometer range won’t reach. This has put a greater workload on Russian aircraft borne early warning S-300 radars. Without question the withdrawal of the BSF from Sevastopol has made future Ukrainian air and missile strikes on Crimea potentially much easier.

Politically this has set the scene for even more embarrassing developments: sunken ships, raids by special forces, aircraft destroyed on airfields, etc. This in turn will be an extremely powerful counter-argument, within Russia, against the narrative that the war in Ukraine continues to serve and protect Russian security.

Whether or not Russia admits it publicly, the war has led directly to the loss of Crimea as a naval base, has emasculated the BSF, and measurably and substantially reduced the Kremlin’s naval influence in the Black Sea region. This a serious naval defeat, while not on the scale of Britain’s victory at Trafalgar, it is certainly on a par with the strategic result the Japanese achieved against the Russian navy at Port Arthur harbor on Dec. 5 1904.

This is not just good news for the regional members of NATO but must have a huge influence on Russia’s decision makers when considering what to do next - be it to remove Putin or make him President for life, expand mobilization or raise taxes. Those considerations will take place against a background of “We invaded Ukraine to make Russia safer, more secure and more militarily powerful.” Right now, one of the outcomes of “the special military operation” is that Russia has lost its Crimean naval base  – a place it had uninterrupted control of, except for periods in 1854–5, 1941–3, since 1784.

On the military side, I see this as further exposing the cracks in Russian military infrastructure in support of the war that have become increasingly evident and that Ukraine will keep on attacking, depriving Russia’s military of resources elsewhere. This will surely further degrade the Russian military’s logistics capability across the board over time. This will be analogous to the 1944 US air campaign against the German rail network in France - it won’t bring about a defeat, but it will make it clear to those being attacked which side is going to win and eventually destroy what morale still remains.

Reprinted from Stefan Korshak on Substack. You can subscribe here.

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