The Russian navy is still hiding in its base in Crimea after a major Ukrainian drone attack last week.
On October 29, Ukraine launched 16 air and naval drones on Russian ships in Sevastopol Bay, damaging at least one ship and causing Russia to temporarily withdraw from the much-touted grain export agreement in retaliation. According to a recent analysis by the US Naval Institute, the Russian fleet in the Black Sea has been timid since the attack, the latest in a series of setbacks since the invasion in February.
The Russian Black Sea Fleet dwarfs the remnants of the Ukrainian navy and should in every way be able to launch missiles and amphibious landings off the Ukrainian coasts with relative impunity. But for all their strength on paper, the Russian Navy has gone from disaster to disaster since the beginning of the war.
In March, Ukraine hit a Russian landing ship in the port of Berdyansk with a ballistic missile, forcing the crew to sink the ship. Ukrainian forces also sunk Russia’s flagship Moskva with two anti-ship missiles in mid-April. While not as spectacular as the sinking of a flagship, Ukrainian missiles and drones destroyed smaller Russian naval vessels during the conflict.
Russia has a large navy, but the losses in the Black Sea are difficult to replace.
Moscow cannot just send more ships to the Black Sea, as Turkey controls the straits leading from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and has the legal right to restrict access in wartime. Turkey’s refusal to let naval ships through means that the ships that are currently there will have everything Russia has in the short term, which is why the October 29 drone strike was so damaging. Ukraine was able to place a large number of explosive drones near Russia’s prized ships, including a Kilo-class submarine. While it’s not clear how much damage was done, the fact that one of the drones was able to penetrate the Russian defenses makes it uncertain whether the Russian ships are really safe when they are not in port.
That drone strike was the first time air and naval drones had attacked simultaneously in this conflict, but both had been used separately in the area. Ukraine’s one-way drones, which have been infrequently used against Russian military and oil facilities since June, targeted the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in mid-August. In September, an unprecedented Ukrainian Unmanned Surface Vehicle (USV) washed up on a beach in Crimea. Using both at once was an attempt to overwhelm the Russian defenses and complicate future efforts to defend Crimea.
USVs, even if they don’t end up doing much damage, are a tricky problem for navies to deal with. In the Red Sea, Saudi Arabia is struggling to prevent Houthi rebel USVs from reaching their ports. The need to defend ships and ports from cheap USVs and other fast attack craft is one of the reasons why the US Navy has invested so heavily in directed energy weapons and why the UK has purchased Martlet missiles for its ships and helicopters.
To make matters worse for Russia, the Ukrainian navy is slowly starting to grow again. Ukraine receives patrol boats from the United States and the Royal Navy trains Ukrainian sailors. The patrol boats are small and lightly armed, but they can still assist Ukrainian Navy and Special Operations forces along Ukraine’s rivers and coastline. Given Ukraine’s unexpected successes at sea, its partners are likely to continue and increase their support. And given Russia’s struggle to adapt to new threats on land and sea, Moscow will struggle to cope with the growing threat from Ukraine’s missiles, drones and new ships.
Ukraine’s innovative use of missiles and drones in the fight against the Russian navy has made it challenging for Russia to operate at sea. The strategy has landed Ukrainian soldiers and civilians while preserving the grain export agreement. Without good options to prevent future attacks and an eroding hold on the Black Sea, the Russian navy is likely to remain cautious.
The US Naval Institute’s analysis shows that the smaller Russian patrol boats have recently been replaced by larger ships better able to deflect attacks, and some ships have been moved from Sevastopol to Novorossiysk, which is further from the fighting.
The naval war is far from being won. Russia still has a much larger navy and can still launch missiles like the Kalibr from its ships at Ukrainian cities. Ukrainian missiles and drones could potentially seriously damage Russian ships, but it will be difficult to sink Russian ships if Moscow decides to keep them out of reach of Ukrainian missiles at sea and defended against drones in the harbor.
Yet, for all of Russia’s advantages, Putin and his admirals are unlikely to find an easy response to the strikes in Ukraine any time soon.