The Crimean deep water Sevastopol port is according to Moscow rhetoric critical to Russian national security and an inseparable piece of national naval strategy – but that’s not where the Kremlin is keeping most of its Black Sea warships these days.
The last submarine of the most potent attack element of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet (BSF), formerly a six-boat flotilla of modern missile-carrying Kilo-class submarines, set sail from Crimea’s Sevastopol port on Tuesday probably not to come back any time soon, Ukrainian naval information platforms reported.
In Russia’s worst naval defeat since the sinking of the BSF’s flagship, the cruiser Moskva, in April 2022, a Ukrainian cruise missile strike hitting Sevastopol’s naval facility on Sept. 13 destroyed the Kilo submarine Rostova-Na-Danu tied up in dry dock, reducing the BSF’s 4th Independent Submarine Brigade by one $300 million dollar modern vessel.
The raid carried out by high-tech British/French Storm Shadow missiles also struck and destroyed the Russian navy’s amphibious assault ship Minsk and demolished a massive empty dry dock as well.
The long-term loss of the only three major dry docks available to the BSF in the Black Sea has left Russian naval command with the unpleasant choice of either risking warships in action and having no place to repair them if hit by the Ukrainians or keeping its large vessels well out of harm’s way but unable to help out in the war against Kyiv.
BSF naval command by Sept. 17 arguably demonstrated its decision by evacuating, along with all its missile submarines, all seven heavy assault Ropucha class landing vessels out of Sevastopol harbor’s confined waters, Ukrainian Navy spokesman Dmytro Pletenchuk said in a national TV broadcast.
The BSF’s Ropucha assault ship flotilla, now reduced to seven vessels, is Russia’s main means of launching amphibious assaults in the Black Sea basin. There was no official acknowledgment of the landing ships’ departure or their destination(s), but, one day after they exited Sevastopol, US open-source analyst Tom Bike spotted three of the landing ships deployed defensively, in the enclosed and closer-to-Russia waters of the Azov Sea.
Look what I´ve found! TODAY 3 vessels almost at Kazantip Bay. All same class, about 110 m long. Prob. those Russia Ropucha landing ships, now sailing Azov Sea safer waters. Wonder with what kind of cargo.— Tom Bike (@tom_bike) September 18, 2023
Bay beach is a kitespot, but I don´t think they are into kitesurfing... pic.twitter.com/zzcRszR2nY
A key component of Russia’s 11-month-long bombardment of Ukrainian homes, businesses, grain-handling facilities and energy infrastructure has been missiles fired from BSF warships, from both surface combatants and submarines, along with waves of kamikaze drones often launched in Russia’s Krasnodar Oblast’ or from the Crimean Peninsula, and crossing the entire Black Sea to hit targets across Ukraine.
The complex strike campaign, coordinating with missiles fired from Russian ground launch sites or strategic bombers, has placed a premium on Russian command and control facilities, and air force bases in Ukraine’s occupied south.
The wisdom of the BSF command decision to shift movable Russian naval assets in Crimea out of the reach of Ukrainian retaliation, if it indeed was the case, was evident this week, with a pair of Ukrainian raids on Sept. 20 punishing Russian naval and naval support facilities in Crimea. According to Ukrainian official statements, cruise missiles, by many accounts air-launched Storm Shadows, punched through the some of the densest Russian air defenses anywhere to level a portion of the BSF’s field command center near the village Verkhnosadove.
The heavily defended facility, known locally as the 744th Center of Communications is, per open-source reports, the BSF’s main communications and data transfer node connecting warships at sea with land-based commanders. Per satellite images published by Radio Liberty, Ukrainian missiles flattened one of two main buildings and damaged the second badly. According to official Ukrainian sources the strike badly damaged “very expensive communications equipment.”
Unconfirmed Russian social media reports from the area said the site was hit by between two and six major explosions and, according to some accounts, at least 30 Russian service personnel operating the communications center were killed or injured.
Russian followed by Ukrainian media the same day reported multiple explosions at two Russian military airfields in the vicinity. Ukrainian drones and missiles were the most commonly reported cause, but it wasn’t clear what damage Russian ground facilities or aircraft had suffered.
Unconfirmed reports said multiple Russian Su-24 bombers and Su-35 fighters, both critical for Russian air support on the southern front, were hit.
The Ukrainian news agency UNIAN, citing “partisans” operating in the Sevastopol area, said that a shift of Russian warships out of the harbor had been in progress for several days and appears to be accelerating.
Images sourced to a little-known partisan group identified as ATESH showed ground and satellite images documenting, purportedly, formerly busy military wharves in the bay empty or almost empty of warships.
Military analysts told Kyiv Post Ukrainian pressure on Russian naval facilities in and around Sevastopol would probably help reduce the volume and intensity of Russian missile strikes against targets in Ukraine, but it was unlikely to stop it.
“I think there will definitely be an impact on ability to hit targets,” said Dmitry Gorenburg, Senior Research Scientist in the Strategy, Policy, Plans, and Programs division of CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization based in Arlington County, Virginia.
“While they can definitely hit targets from Novorossiysk, it’s farther away, so the more distant targets are out of reach. Plus, the number of missile carriers has been reduced somewhat with the elimination of the Kilo sub. So not a game-changer in terms of capability, but definitely a reduction,” he said.
Gorenburg and other experts agreed that increasing Ukrainian capacity and will to hit Russian naval targets in Crimea is unlikely to affect the ground war quickly, and none predicted a weaker Russian warship presence in the Black Sea would lead to greater NATO involvement. Romanian military analyst Florian Blanaru told Kyiv Post that even actual military action threatening NATO citizens and property would, at the very least in the naval context, be ignored or interpreted as an accident.
The most recent high-profile incident, a Sept. 20 sea mine strike by a Togo-registered cargo en route to a Ukrainian port, 40 km off the coast of Romania, was without question a direct result of Russian military action in the Black Sea, but Romania and NATO will avoid any response that might be interpreted as moving to confront Russia.
“They (Brussels) will absolutely do everything they can to avoid a naval incident. It doesn’t matter how weak the Russian navy is or is not, there is just no will across the alliance to take on Russia directly, period,” Blanaru said.
“I think NATO is really going to bend over backwards to avoid getting involved unless there is a major Russian action that they can’t just dismiss,” Gorenburg said.
Russian journalist Sergei Aslanyan on the anti-Kremlin information platform Khordkovsky Live said the Ukrainian strategy of pressuring Russian naval facilities in Crimea was part of a strategy to recover the region by, effectively, making it untenable for Moscow to hold.
The Ukrainian objective is less to sink every ship in the BSF, than it is to force a strategic defeat on Russia by making Crimea and Sevastopol political and public relations liabilities that would be better gotten rid of.
“Crimea will return to Ukrainian control, it is unavoidable. Right now, they are concentrating on military targets, which makes sense, it’s their (the Ukrainians’) territory and they don’t want to harm their own infrastructure and people,” Aslanyan said.
“At the moment we can see that Russia isn’t planning to leave there. That means the Ukrainians haven’t yet gotten the pressure high enough. But now the Ukrainians are telling the (Russian high command) staff: ‘Perhaps you might prefer to leave Crimea voluntarily?’
“Were that ‘voluntary’ decision to become an actuality, the infrastructure and the warships of the Black Sea Fleet are being destroyed,” he said.
On Friday afternoon, Sept. 22, at least two missiles plowed into the Black Sea Fleet’s main headquarters in the center of Sevastopol. According to unconfirmed reports, the weapons entered the building through the roof and detonated deep inside the structure, inflicting heavy casualties on Russian service personnel.
Some reports identified the missiles as British/French Storm Shadows, and others said it was Ukraine-manufactured Neptune missiles. Multiple Russian social media channels associated with medical volunteers, and operating in Sevastopol, called for blood donations.
News reports from Sevastopol have widely confirmed the fact of the Ukrainian missile strike on the BSF's primary command and control center at the Black Sea facility.
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