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Russia's invasion of Ukraine: What are the maritime implications in the Black Sea?

The war on Ukraine explained: Hear from our experts
Deborah Sanders

Defence Studies Department, King’s College London

02 March 2022

The decision by President Putin to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine marks an effective return to a Cold War relationship with Russia. Notwithstanding the recent fashion for hybrid warfare, in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and in terms of the wider regional political and strategic ramifications, conventional maritime power will play a key role. Two key questions emerge from Russia’s attack on Ukraine: what effect will this have on maritime security in the Black Sea; and what should be the maritime responses by NATO members and partner states?

So, turning to the first of these questions – how will Russia’s invasion affect maritime security in the Black Sea? While the Black Sea Fleet is unlikely to be front and centre in any invasion, it will nonetheless play an important role in protecting the rear and southern flank of the campaign. Maritime superiority gives Russia flexibility, and the opportunity to stretch Ukraine’s forces through the threat or actual conduct of amphibious landings to seize key ports and to prevent the Ukrainian navy or any other navies from interfering in the land campaign. Ukraine’s terrain, with steep cliffs along its coast, makes this a difficult, but not impossible, task for a determined and significantly augmented Russian force. In the longer-term, the loss to Ukraine of its coastline in the Sea of Azov in particular would impact on the building of a Ukrainian naval base (supported by the UK) and would essentially give Russia control of the whole of the Sea of Azov affecting Ukraine’s ability to use its two key ports of Berdyansk and Mariupol.

A Russian attack on Odesa will also have a profound effect on the security of two NATO members - Bulgaria and Romania particularly, as the latter shares a maritime border with Moscow. The seizure of Odesa in Ukraine would also give Russia additional control over the western side of the Black Sea, in essence giving it complete dominance in the region. 

In a worst-case scenario Russia could also effectively turn Ukraine into a landlocked country.– Dr Deborah Sanders

For NATO, the significant build-up of Russian maritime forces, including the deployment of Bastion and Kalibr missiles in occupied Crimea and aboard the sizeable Black Sea Fleet, will provide Russia with a formidable anti-access/area (A2/AD) denial capability that essentially threatens to make the Black Sea a no-go area for NATO ships.

Lastly, while non-traditional security challenges have already slipped down the agenda in the Black Sea, a war between Russia and Ukraine, would effectively reduce what are important collective maritime security issues to white noise, hampering the ability of littoral states to address collectively ongoing softer maritime security challenges.[i][1]

Given the creation of a Russian controlled Black Sea, what should be the maritime response by NATO members and partners? There are three key ways in which navies can make an important contribution to security after the Russian attack on Ukraine. The first two involve a recalibration of tasks already performed: maritime presence operations; and naval capacity building. The third, engaging in counter maritime security training exercises and presence operations in the Mediterranean and Baltic Sea, involves more risks but would send a clear message.

The first response would be to make maritime presence operations smarter through increasing the tempo and demonstrating more ‘teeth’, although this approach is not without its risks and its critics. Since the annexation of Crimea, NATO members, in particular the US, have essentially stepped-up maritime presence operations in the Black Sea. Maritime presence operations, which include naval patrols, military drills and port calls are widely seen as critical in sending a deterrent signal to Russia and providing reassurance to NATO members and partners in the Black Sea. Presence operations have, however, been criticised as a flawed and destabilising approach that have so far failed to deter Russian aggression in the Black Sea and beyond. While this is an interesting observation given Russia’s recent actions, the failure to deter Russian action could be explained by many other factors, including the decline in the number of US presence operations last year and the failure of other NATO members to plug the gaps and ensure continual deployment to the Black Sea. A constant patrol of the Black Sea by NATO navies as well as the adoption of much more robust and meaningful NATO maritime operations that feature demonstrations of high-end warfare and interoperability between NATO members and partners, could also elevate presence to more credible deterrence. This would of course necessitate not only expanding the number of NATO members and partners participating in presence operations in the region, but also the use of more obviously high-end warfare platforms and capabilities in training exercises with littoral states.

Navies can also make an important contribution to security in the Black Sea by adopting a more creative approach to maritime capacity building. This could include a two-pronged approach which focuses on the forces most at need - the Ukrainian coastguard and Ukrainian navy (if they still exist and Ukraine has a coastline) - and which would also look to provide NATO members and partners with effective coastal defence systems. In the context of the ongoing threat posed by the Russian Black Sea Fleet in the Sea of Azov, Ukraine’s coastguard is in urgent need of training in how to effectively conduct their core maritime roles while operating in a highly contested and challenging environment. Training in how to operate drones and to counter drone activity has been cited as a key training objective for the Ukrainian coastguard and would go some way to allowing them to use innovative solutions to deal with both hybrid and more conventional maritime challenges. Capacity building can also include selling or donating maritime equipment. The UK, for instance, has signed a Memorandum of Intent that focuses on developing Ukraine’s naval capabilities. Other, perhaps more radical, solutions might include working closely with NATO members, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey to shape the maritime battlespace by enhancing their coastal defence systems and their ability to counter Russian sea control with overlapping Coastal Defence Cruise Missile coverage.

In addition to developing smarter maritime engagement, NATO members could also adopt a much more direct approach to transform presence into credible deterrence and send a very clear message to the Russian Federation.– Dr Deborah Sanders

This could include the deployment of a much larger and more powerful NATO force in adjacent theatres. The infrastructure to support a naval ‘show of force’ already exists. NATO has two permanent NATO forces, Group 1 which focuses on promoting peace and stability in northern Europe, and Group 2 which mirrors its activities throughout the Mediterranean region. Group 2 currently comprises only three ships, one of which is HMS Trent (a small offshore patrol vessel). This is clearly not a show of force. If NATO is serious about deterring Russia and sending a clear message to allies and partners, then it needs to up its game and demonstrate unity and resolve though deploying a task force that is made up of more assets with much more significant capabilities.

As the developing crisis in Ukraine illustrates, it is conventional military strength, at sea as well as on land, that is the real currency of deterrence when dealing with hostile powers such as Russia. Despite the emphasis placed on hybrid warfare, by the UK and other Western governments, it is clear that conventional military capabilities, including powerful, flexible and adaptable navies are vital in the future if NATO is to effectively ensure the maritime security of members and partners in the region.

[1] Deborah Sanders, ‘Rebuilding the Ukrainian Navy’, in Europe, Small Navies and Maritime Security, Robert McCabe, Deborah Sanders and Ian Speller, (Routledge, 2020), 168-184.

This article was originally published on the Defence In Depth blog.

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Deborah Sanders

Deborah Sanders

Reader in Defence and Security Studies

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