A Blog by Jonathan Low


Sep 21, 2023

Ukraine Has Put Russia On the Defensive In the Black Sea

Drones and missiles, many of them designed and built by the Ukrainians, have targeted the Russian Black Sea fleet at anchor and under way, reducing the Russian threat to the outnumbered Ukrainians and giving Ukraine both commercial and military advantage in ways no experts anticipated. JL

Yaroslav Trofimov reports in the Wall Street Journal:

By imposing an asymmetrical war that relies on domestically produced naval drones and missiles, and that targets Russian ships in their own home bases, Ukraine has eroded Russia’s naval superiority. Ukrainian attacks in recent weeks targeted Russian warships in the open seas and in their main home ports of Sevastopol and Novorossiysk.Now, it is taking the battle to Russia itself. Commercial vessels have resumed using Odesa without asking permission from Russia for the first time since the war began—showing how much the balance of power has changed in the Black Sea. Ukrainian-made long-range naval drones provide offense at a time when Ukraine is unable to deploy conventional warships.

Commercial vessels have resumed using Ukraine’s main port of Odesa without asking permission from Russia for the first time since the war began—showing just how much the balance of power has changed in the Black Sea.

By imposing an asymmetrical war that relies on domestically produced naval drones and missiles, and that targets Russian ships in their own home bases, Ukraine has eroded much of Russia’s vaunted naval superiority. Now, it is taking the battle to Russia itself.

“To ensure our security, now and in the future, we must start the defense of our shore on the shore of the enemy,” the commander of the Ukrainian navy, Vice Adm. Oleksiy Neizhpapa, said in an interview. “This is an approach that we’re trying to implement little by little.” 

Current shipping routes and major attacks on marine infrastructure since July











Black Sea

The Russian tanker SIG

was struck by a drone

on Aug. 5.



Note: Russian-controlled areas as of Sept. 18; Shipping routes as of August.

Sources: Institute for the Study of War and AEI's Critical Threats Project (Russian-controlled areas); GlobalMaritimeTraffic.org (shipping lanes); Fleetmon.com (tanker location)

Outnumbered 12 to one by the Russian Black Sea Fleet, the Ukrainian Navy wasn’t considered a meaningful force when Russia invaded in February 2022. Ukraine quickly scuttled its flagship frigate, then undergoing repairs in Mykolaiv, so that the vessel wouldn’t fall to Russian forces.

In Odesa, port operations had ceased. Residents could see enemy warships with the naked eye. Massed on the horizon, the Russian Navy fired artillery at the city and maneuvered with impunity in preparations for landing troops ashore.

Today, Russian warships no longer dare to venture into the northwestern part of the Black Sea, deterred by Ukrainian coastal missiles and extensive minefields. The Russian Black Sea Fleet itself has suffered heavy losses as a result of a series of successful Ukrainian strikes, with no areas of the Black Sea safe for it anymore.

Ukrainian attacks in recent weeks targeted Russian warships in the open seas and in their main home ports of Sevastopol and Novorossiysk. On Wednesday, Ukrainian cruise missiles slammed into what Kyiv said was a command center of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in the outskirts of Sevastopol. Last week’s missile strike on a Sevastopol dry dock destroyed a Kilo-class submarine, one of only six that Russia operated in the Black Sea, and a Ropucha-class large landing ship that Russia had planned to use for an amphibious landing in Odesa.

Smoke billowed Wednesday after a Ukrainian missile strike on the city of Sevastopol. PHOTO: VIKTORIA SUKONNIKOVA/ZUMA PRESS
Novorossiysk, Russia, is another port that has been struck by Ukraine. PHOTO: PLANET LABS PBC/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

The damage to the dry dock itself is also bound to complicate Russian naval operations in months ahead, military analysts say. In addition to the navy, Ukraine’s air force and special forces of the HUR and SBU intelligence agencies are all heavily involved in Kyiv’s battle for the Black Sea.

Several types of Ukrainian-made long-range naval drones provide new offensive capabilities at a time when Ukraine is unable to deploy large conventional warships. “Clearly the drones are what forces the enemy to be tense, not to feel itself safe even in its home ports, let alone at sea,” Neizhpapa said.

The war for the Black Sea entered a new phase in July, after Russia ended a United Nations-brokered agreement that had allowed Ukraine to export 33 million tons of food using vessels inspected by Russia—but also constrained the Ukrainian military’s freedom of operations.  

Creating a bargaining chip, Ukraine in August used naval drones to strike south of the Kerch strait a Russian oil tanker, Sig, that had resupplied Russian forces in Syria, and declared all major Russian Black Sea ports a “war risk area.” The list included Russia’s biggest commercial port, Novorossiysk, a critical gateway for the country’s main revenue source, the export of oil.


Neizhpapa said that Ukraine has no intention to interfere with civilian shipping in the Black Sea. He added, however, that the 1994 San Remo agreement on international law pertaining to naval warfare allows his forces to target commercial vessels that are viewed as assisting the Russian military effort or that are escorted by military ships or aircraft: “Those are fully legitimate targets.”

With the grain deal dead, Ukraine’s military last month announced a unilateral corridor for civilian maritime traffic to and from Odesa. Six vessels have already left Odesa’s ports through that corridor in recent days, including one of the two bulk carriers under the flag of Palau that arrived here to load up with grain last Saturday.

Ukraine’s new ability to hit Russian ports has made this development possible, officials say.

“The Russians have to realize that it is not a one-way street here anymore, that two can play this game,” said Dmytro Barinov, deputy chief executive of the Ukrainian Sea Ports Authority. “If you don’t touch us, we will not touch you.”

In addition to naval drone strikes, such as one that disabled another Ropucha-class large landing ship in Novorossiysk in August, Ukrainian special forces using small craft have carried out a series of raids in recent weeks. They removed the critical electronic surveillance equipment that Russia had deployed on gas-drilling platforms west of Crimea to monitor the area. Another team also briefly disembarked on Crimea’s western coast, part of a mission that resulted in the destruction of Russian air-defense systems.

 “It’s very clear that the Russians no longer have the initiative in the Black Sea because of what has been a frankly ingenious approach by the Ukrainian Navy and Ukrainian special-operations forces. There’s a really important shift,” said Michael Petersen, founding director of the Russia Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College. “The Ukrainians have gradually taken back the initiative, and this series of small tactical victories has begun to add up to operational and even strategic success.”

Russia is in a uniquely vulnerable position in the Black Sea. Though a major naval power, it can’t replenish its losses there with vessels from its other fleets because Turkey, which controls the straits between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, barred transit for belligerent warships in February 2022, implementing the 1936 Montreux Convention on the status of the straits.

Currently, an area of some 9,650 square miles, bigger than New Jersey, in the northwestern Black Sea has become a no-man’s-land, where—apart from civilian vessels—only speedy craft that are too small to be targeted by missiles dare to venture, Neizhpapa said.

Russia, however, retains air superiority there, something that Neizhpapa said would end once Ukraine receives, as expected, F-16 fighter aircraft in coming months. Unlike Ukraine’s antiquated jet fighters, the F-16s possess the radars to identify Russian warplanes, and can carry missiles that could destroy them in air-to-air combat, he said: “I can assure you, if the F-16s simply patrol over Odesa, there won’t be a single Russian plane in the northwestern part of the Black Sea.”

A native of Russian-occupied Sevastopol, Neizhpapa keeps in his office a memento of the Ukrainian Navy’s biggest feat: a lid of the Neptune missile that sank in April last year the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s flagship, Moskva, one of the biggest warships to go down since World War II.

The Neptune is an indigenous Ukrainian missile that was supposed to complete predeployment testing as the war began. “We tested them on the real targets instead,” Neizhpapa quipped. Initially, Ukraine targeted a Russian frigate, Admiral Essen, but that ship’s electronic-warfare systems interfered with the missiles and the frigate sustained only minor damage, with some sailors injured, he said. “Despite that, Russia still didn’t really believe that we have real missile weapons and kept trying to dominate our areas,” sending the Moskva into the kill zone shortly thereafter, he added.

In addition to opening a corridor to and from Odesa, Ukraine has also developed trade through its seaports on the Danube Delta, on the border with Romania. In recent months, the three Danube ports—Izmail, Reni and Kiliya—have been repeatedly hit by swarms of Iranian-made Shahed drones, which according to Ukrainian officials have destroyed stores with some 270,000 tons of grain, alongside trucks and port infrastructure. Some of these drones fell on the Romanian shore of the river.

Still, Ukraine’s Danube ports continue operating at near-full capacity. “We’re under fire, but we keep exporting,” said Borys Yureskul, the owner of a farming business that employs 250 people in the area. “Technically, it’s not that hard to defend the Danube Delta. The sea is already defended, now all you need to do is to defend the sky. If we have proper air defenses here, we can work.”

In August, the Danube ports handled 3.2 million tons of cargo, said Barinov, with 2.5 million of them food exports. By comparison, the ports of Odesa were exporting as much as 4.2 million tons of food a month under the grain deal.

Unlike Odesa, Danube Delta ports are linked to the rest of Ukraine by one narrow road that skirts Moldova. On a recent day, hundreds of trucks were blocking it in either direction, waiting their turn to pass. In Izmail, ships and barges lined up to be loaded, as antitank barriers were arrayed on the sandy beach packed with local sunbathers. One of the truck drivers said that he, like many colleagues, is afraid to remain in Izmail after dark, when the Russian drone attacks usually occur. “Last time it happened, we were just hiding in the reeds,” he said. “It’s too scary.”

To avoid Russian interference, vessels using Ukraine’s Danube ports hug the coasts of Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey, all members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as they enter and leave the Black Sea. The low depth of the delta means that only relatively small vessels of up to 10,000 tons can ply these waterways, a fraction of the size of the carriers that berth in Odesa—making exports via the Danube much more expensive. “Logistics costs eat up everything,” Yureskul complained, saying that his farm won’t turn a profit this year.

That is why reopening the ports of Odesa is a priority for Ukraine—this time without having to abide by Russian conditions. Ukrainian authorities say that, while they cannot guarantee 100% protection from Russian attacks, they are negotiating with additional shipowners to bring in more vessels after the ones that arrived over the weekend.

“We will assure their safety with all the means of our armed forces. We know the routes, we know the situation,” said Neizhpapa, the Ukrainian navy commander.


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