Once a symbol of Kremlin’s military might, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet (BSF) is now capable of little more than threatening cargo ships attempting to use Ukrainian ports and lobbing the odd cruise missile – which these days seem to get shot down about half the time.
Six months of war have devastated the ability of the Russian Federation’s destroyers, frigates, missile boats and submarines operating in the Black Sea to affect the land battle in any meaningful way. For the most part, all the Russian navy can do in the Ukraine war is keep a safe distance and avoid getting sunk, military observers told Kyiv Post.
“Their navy (the BSF) can’t really do much right now to influence the course of the ground fighting,” said Dmitry Gorenburg, Senior Research Scientist for the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA), a nonprofit research and analysis organization in Arlington, VA.
The probably most ignominious marker in the downfall of the BSF’s reputation came on Apr. 14, when Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) gunners fired a pair of domestically-developed Neptune anti-ship missiles at a RF warship plowing the seas about 60 kilometers off the Odesa coast.
The Ukrainians also launched a long-range Bayraktar drone to distract Russian air defense radar operators and so, unhindered, the two missiles slammed into the cruiser Moskva, sinking her. The Kremlin’s embarrassment was layered: Not only was the Moskva the BSF’s flagship, she was, by a substantial margin, Russia’s biggest warship south of Murmansk, and worse, she was designed specifically to shoot down anti-ship missiles and drones.
BSF headquarters first denied the cruiser was even damaged and then claimed – photographs taken by a civilian cargo ship of the sinking Moscow and her crew abandoning it notwithstanding – that the warship foundered due to an accidental on-board fire and a broken tow rope.
“The Russian military still has the Soviet mentality,” said Oleksiy Izhak, Senior Researcher at the Kyiv-based National Institute for Strategic Research. “The way they run their navy is basically obsolete.”
A Russian fleet leadership prone to strategic miscalculations and bonehead errors has, over the past six months, been exploited by UAF naval commanders thinking outside the box, observers said.
The strategically important Zmiinyi Island, in the northwest Black Sea, was captured by Russian Marines in late February and quickly crammed with naval and anti-aircraft weapons, including the supposedly highly effective S-300 missile system. Russian state propaganda for the next four months boasted Zmiinyi was an unconquerable fortress giving Russia and the BSF total control of the sea and air, all the way to Bulgaria and Turkey.
In late June, Ukrainian military engineers and artillery troops dragged howitzers and hundreds of long-range shells through an Odesa region wetland, which heavy weapons theoretically were unable to cross, built firing platforms, and proceeded to walk high explosive rounds back and forth across the 1.5 square km. island. Russia abandoned Zmiinyi on Jun. 30. Kremlin spokesmen said it was “an act of good will.” Ukrainian special forces infantry reclaimed Zmiinyi a week later. They found the remains of two S-300 systems in the debris.
On social media and in intercepted telephone calls, Russian service personnel and their families paint a picture of usually sub-standard and sometimes deplorable BSF service conditions. Sailors are badly trained. Draftees by law banned from serving in combat, die in action and fleet headquarters denies it. Officers are drunk on duty. The sober ones care only about their careers. Junior sailors are denied shore leave. Equipment is poorly-maintained and generally operated until it breaks. The fleet is running low on cruise missiles. Because of western sanctions Russian industry can’t make more.
The lynchpin of Russia’s Black Sea naval challenges, experts said, is that along with the Neptune missiles Ukraine has now fielded between 20 and 30 US-manufactured Harpoon anti-ship missiles, giving the UAF an anti-ship salvo capable of sinking more than half the BSF’s surface warships in a matter of minutes. The Kremlin’s response has been to pull ships well out of range or to tie them up in Sevastopol port, stationary but relatively safe underneath the protective umbrella of the BSF’s shore-based anti-missile systems.
Naval observer Pavlo Narozhny, in a 30 Aug. interview with Channel 24 television, said: “The effectiveness of the BSF is seriously reduced. It factually is ‘cut out’ of the war on land.”
However, the real problem for Kremlin naval strategists is that the Ukraine war is heading towards the BSF. On Aug. 14, four (or six, or eight, accounts vary) heavy explosions hit Saky airfield, the heart of Russian naval aviation and the main base for Kremlin airpower flying over the Black Sea.
According to the Ukrainians, the blasts – the UAF still hasn’t stated how it managed them – excavated meters-deep craters in Saky’s runways, killed several pilots and dozens of ground staff; and per international satellite images destroyed or put out of action about half the Russian navy’s combat aircraft at the base.
Adding insult to injury, on Aug. 20 the UAF flew a Chinese drone modified to carry explosives into the roof of BSF headquarters in Sevastopol. This should not have happened: Russia guards Sevastopol’s skies with its top-of-the-line S-400 air defense systems. The drone blew a medium-sized hole in the building’s roof and set a fire. No one was hurt.
Within minutes, Sevastopol residents had posted on the internet not only images of firefighters and smoke at BSF headquarters, but HD video of a Ukrainian drone flying, slowly and unscathed – its engine putt-putting like a lawn mower – through perhaps the most heavily defended air space in all Russia.
“Crimea has already become a legitimate target for strikes by Ukrainian forces,” Izhak said. “(I)t has already been demonstrated that this ‘red line’ of the Kremlin – the untouchability of Crimea – does not exist.”
Gorenburg and other observers predicted that, if the reach of UAF weapons keeps growing, aside from threatening unarmed cargo ships the BSF will become more irrelevant to the war.
“They (the BSF) might be forced to evacuate Sevastopol, and operate from Novorossiysk,” Gorenburg said. “They probably will still be able to carry out some missions, but the more capable the Ukrainians become…the harder it is going to be for them (the Russian navy) to operate.”
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