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DefenseBlack Sea will be the next frontline in the war in Ukraine

Black Sea will be the next frontline in the war in Ukraine

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The Ukrainian fleet seems significantly weaker than the Russian navy

At first glance, Ukraine’s small fleet – only 5,000 active sailors and a handful of small coastal boats – looks significantly weaker than Russia’s navy.

The Kremlin’s Black Sea Fleet consists of more than 40 front-line warships. The Russians appear ready to cut off Ukraine’s access to the sea – essentially recreating the Anaconda strategy used by 19th-century US President Abraham Lincoln to stifle the Confederacy.

But Russia’s success is unlikely to be guaranteed, as Ukrainians are as surprisingly resilient at sea as they are on land, having already carried out several successful attacks on Russia’s navy, James Stavridis, a former commander-in-chief, told Bloomberg. of NATO in Europe.

What does the naval component of the Ukrainian war look like in the coming months?

A little over a decade ago, I visited the Crimean port of Sevastopol and had lunch with the Ukrainian chief of naval operations, Viktor Maximov. We were able to observe the Russian fleet, which was located a little further inland.

This was before the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, but even then the Ukrainian admiral rightly said: “Sooner or later they will come to this port. And their fleet is much stronger than ours. “

At the time, I rejected the idea of ​​a full-scale invasion, but Russian President Vladimir Putin has twice proved me wrong. Sevastopol is in Russian hands and gives them a clear advantage in potential battles at sea.

The Russians have more than three dozen combat-ready warships with direct access to key waterways in the northern Black Sea and at least partial control of 60 percent of Ukraine’s coastline from Crimea through the Sea of ​​Azov to mainland Russia. Ukraine has lost its main warships, which were captured or destroyed in 2014, and must take a guerrilla approach. So far, she is playing her weak cards very well.

Last month’s shocking sinking of Russia’s flagship in the Black Sea, the cruiser Moscow, was a good example of how Ukrainians will approach the war off their shores. They used a locally produced short-range cruise missile, Neptune, and caught the Russians unprepared. A malfunction of the Russian air defense system, combined with poor damage control, led to the loss of the ship, its heavy cruise missile battery and (according to Ukrainians) hundreds of about 500 crew members.

Last week, Ukrainians announced that they had used Turkish drones (which are increasingly appearing on battlefields around the world) to sink two Russian patrol boats.

The result of both the strike on Moscow and the sinking of the two boats is that the Ukrainians intend to fight for control near the coast. Of course, Western hardware will be essential – the UK has promised to supply hundreds of Brimstone anti-ship missiles this month – but real-time reconnaissance and targeting will also be important. In a war at sea, where ships cannot hide behind the characteristics of the terrain, this is crucial. The Battle of Midway during World War II, for example, turned to the United States almost entirely because of the ability of American intelligence to lead Japan’s superior US navy.

The Russians will have to come up with new strategies. This could include using the sea as a “flank zone” to bypass Ukrainian defenders’ lines on land, similar to General Douglas MacArthur’s bold move to land in Incheon on the Korean Peninsula in 1950.

Another option would be to block Ukraine’s most important port, Odessa, in an attempt to detach the Ukrainian economy from global markets. Third, the Russians are likely to try to provide intense support fire from the sea against Ukrainian targets on shore – they have recently demonstrated the ability to launch cruise missiles for a ground attack from a submarine, for example.

To counter, Ukrainians can use the experience of their ground forces, which destroy hundreds of Russian tanks and armored vehicles, using relatively cheap weapons provided by Western allies. Special units of the US Navy have a good set of options for deactivating shipping, and some of these systems must be provided to Ukrainians.

President Joe Biden’s proposed $ 33 billion aid package for Ukraine includes coastal defense hardware. Other NATO members, such as Norway, have very good coastal systems that they could provide.

It is worth considering an escort system for Ukrainian (and other national) merchant ships that want to enter and leave Odessa. This would be similar to the Ernest Will escorts provided to ships in the Persian Gulf during the War Iran and Iraq in the 1980s.

The West could also conduct anti-ship training for the Ukrainian navy outside the country, possibly in nearby Constanta, Romania. (Romanians have recently started providing access to Ukrainian goods from this port.)

At the highest end of the confrontation / risk spectrum, the Allies may consider a humanitarian naval mission to evacuate civilians (or even Ukrainian military forces) from the doomed city of Mariupol. Defining this as a humanitarian effort would make it difficult for Moscow to attack the participating ships, but they must be properly armed and prepared to defend the mission.

The vast Black Sea is predominantly international. NATO warships are free to travel almost anywhere they want, including in Ukraine’s territorial waters and its 200-mile exclusive economic zone. Giving up these waters to Russia does not make sense. Instead, they are likely to become the next major front in the war in Ukraine.

Photo: Graffiti in Sevastopol after the annexation of Crimea, depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin / Bloomberg

Source: Bloomberg TV Bulgaria

Note: James Stavridis is a columnist for the Bloomberg Opinion. He is a retired admiral of the US Navy and a former Supreme Allied Commander and Honorary Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also Chairman of the Rockefeller Foundation and Vice President of Global Affairs at the Carlyle Group.

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