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Ukraine’s strategic resurgence: redefining power dynamics in the Black Sea

While reports from Ukraine have remained focused on the land war, the fight at sea continues with little respite. The country’s successes in the naval battle have come against all the odds and should only encourage allies to beef up support for Kyiv’s victory.

April 9, 2024 - Leon Hartwell - Articles and Commentary

Ukrainian flag on the Black Sea coast near Odesa. Photo: Shutterstock

Ukraine’s achievements in the Black Sea speak to the country’s ability to MacGyver solutions on the battlefield and punch above its weight. Over the past two years, despite limited naval capabilities, Ukraine has destroyed nearly a third of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. As such, Ukraine has neutralized key Russian assets in the Black Sea, including the flagship Moskva and the Tsezar Kunikov. This leaves Russia with just five remaining landing ships in the Black Sea, the replacement of which will require years. The Moskva alone was valued at 750 million US dollars.

The Kremlin’s response to Ukraine’s strategic prowess has been telling, with Russia’s defence ministry taking proactive measures to safeguard its vital maritime interests. The necessity for such defensive manoeuvres underscores Ukraine’s capacity to disrupt and defend against a larger adversary, compelling Russia to reassess its naval strategies.

Positioned at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, the Black Sea holds pivotal importance for both Ukraine and Russia, serving as a linchpin that shapes their military doctrines, economic aspirations and geopolitical trajectories.

For Ukraine, the Black Sea is a vital artery not only for facilitating trade but also for orchestrating military operations. Throughout the ongoing war, Russia’s dominance in these waters has presented a formidable obstacle, empowering the Kremlin to enforce naval blockades that disrupted Ukraine’s valuable trade routes and undermined its energy security.

Prior to the full-scale invasion launched by Russia in February 2022, Ukraine ranked among the top five grain exporters worldwide. Approximately two-thirds of its output found its way to international markets, while 70 per cent of Ukraine’s exports and imports travelled via maritime routes in the Black Sea. Odesa, its premier Black Sea port, handled nearly three-quarters of Ukraine’s exports during peacetime, thereby facilitating access to markets spanning Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

However, Russia’s full-scale invasion compelled Ukraine to reroute a significant portion of its exports through land-based channels within the European Union. This strategic realignment not only eroded profit margins but also sapped Ukraine’s financial resources, thereby constraining its ability to defend itself on the battlefield.

Furthermore, the Black Sea assumes critical importance as a reservoir of offshore oil and gas reserves vital for Ukraine’s energy security. Consequently, Russia’s belligerent actions have also deprived Ukraine of access to these invaluable resources, exacerbating its dependence on external energy suppliers. However, near the end of last year, Ukraine successfully recaptured several Black Sea oil and gas platforms from Russian control.

For Russia, the Black Sea serves as a significant conduit for projecting influence across key regions encompassing the Mediterranean, Middle East and Europe. Central to Russia’s maritime strategy in the area is its formidable Black Sea Fleet.

Despite Moscow legally possessing only a fraction – approximately ten per cent – of the Black Sea coastline, its occupation of Georgian and Ukrainian territories has effectively extended its sway over nearly a third of the shoreline, thereby bolstering its naval presence. Russia has also capitalized on its extensive network of Black Sea ports to facilitate the export of essential commodities such as grain, fertilizer and various goods, thereby solidifying its economic foothold in the region.

Nevertheless, the resurgence of Ukrainian control over its Black Sea territories heralds a pivotal shift in the balance of power, affording Ukraine enhanced capabilities to safeguard its sovereignty while concurrently curtailing Russia’s strategic military and economic advantages.

Notably, as Ukraine asserts greater authority over Black Sea waters, it effectively limits Russia’s manoeuvrability, particularly in terms of amphibious assaults and other offensive operations along the Ukrainian coastline. This strategic recalibration underscores Ukraine’s determination to reclaim its territorial integrity while strategically undermining Russia’s regional ambitions.

In recent months, Ukraine has harnessed the transformative power of maritime drones, specifically the MAGURA V5, to decisively alter the naval landscape in the Black Sea. These unmanned surface vessels (USVs), boasting an impressive operational range of approximately 500 miles, have emerged as game-changers, effectively neutralizing significant Russian naval assets.

USVs have been implicated in the sinking of prominent Russian vessels, including the Tsezar Kunikov and Sergey Kotov. This is a testament to the profound impact of Ukraine’s maritime innovations. The second vessel’s demise on March 5th proved to be the “final straw” compelling Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov, the commander-in-chief of the Russian navy, to tender his resignation.

Beyond their direct engagement with Russian naval assets, the mere presence of USVs has exerted a deterrent effect, dissuading further Russian encroachments into Ukrainian waters. This shift has necessitated the relocation of key military assets from the Black Sea Fleet’s headquarters in Sevastopol located in occupied Crimea, to less ideal outposts like Novorossiysk and other peripheral bases. Sevastopol’s strategic value lies in its deep-water port, facilitating year-round military operations.

Consequently, Ukraine has succeeded in disrupting crucial Russian supply lines traversing the Black Sea. This strategic manoeuvre is poised to not only impede Russian operations within Ukraine but also exert ripple effects across other strategically significant locations. This disruption holds the potential to introduce considerable delays into Russian supply chains, underscoring the efficacy of Ukraine’s asymmetric naval tactics in confronting a larger adversary.

Last month, Russia’s transport ship, Sparta-IV, and the tanker Yaz were en route from Tartus, Syria, reportedly to Novorossiysk, intending to pass through the Bosporus Strait, a vital passage connecting the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. However, upon approaching the Bosporus, they abruptly altered course, opting for a considerably longer route through the Baltic Sea to reach Russia. Such deviations could prolong the voyage by several weeks. Moreover, the Baltic route entails a substantial overland journey for Russia to transport military supplies to the theatre of war. In contrast, delivering goods to Novorossiysk would have meant a mere hundred-mile journey to the Kerch Bridge, a critical logistical supply link for Russian troops fighting in the south and east of Ukraine.

The impending destruction by Ukraine of the Kerch Bridge, emblematic of the Kremlin’s occupation, will further erode Russia’s ability to supply its southern regiments and brigades. Yet, it should be cautioned that the disruption of Russian supply lines remains a dynamic affair. Russia is constructing new railways linking Rostov in southern Russia to the Russian-occupied Ukrainian cities of Donetsk, and further south, Berdyansk and Mariupol. These new rail lines could significantly reduce the transit time for freight cars traveling from southern Russia to southern Ukraine, slashing the journey by several days.

Nonetheless, Ukraine’s ability to reassert itself in the Black Sea not only enhances its military standing but also export and import capacities, thereby bolstering its economic resilience. Following the full-scale invasion, Ukraine found itself reliant on Kremlin cooperation for grain transportation through the Black Sea Grain Initiative, established in July 2022. Despite several extensions, Russia opted not to renew the agreement in July 2023.

Amidst these evolving dynamics, Ukrainian farmers, in particular, have regained the ability to significantly increase grain exports via the Black Sea. This is a mode of transport that is both more cost-effective and expeditious compared to land routes, such as those traversing Poland where trucks laden with grain can languish in lengthy queues for days.

In September 2023, Ukraine’s grain exports totalled a modest two million metric tons. However, by December of the same year, this figure surged to an impressive five million metric tons. Should this upward trajectory persist, Ukraine stands to gain an additional 3.3 billion US dollars in export revenue this year, consequently bolstering economic growth by an estimated 1.2 per cent.

The recent flurry of activity in the Black Sea underscores the dynamic nature of maritime geopolitics, as Ukraine’s strategic innovations force a recalibration of traditional power dynamics, compelling Russia to adapt to an evolving security paradigm. The once-dominant Russian navy no longer operates in the Black Sea with the same impunity it enjoyed in previous years. The Black Sea Fleet now faces significant challenges and reluctance to operate in the region due to the risk of further losses to Ukraine. Furthermore, politically, Ukraine’s remarkable success against overwhelming odds may trigger heightened support from western allies, who should increasingly recognize its capability to repel the Russian occupiers.

Dr. Leon Hartwell is a Senior Associate at LSE IDEAS, London School of Economics (LSE), a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington D.C., and a Visiting Fellow at the European Leadership Network (ELN) in London. @LeonHartwell

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