Ukraine’s Naval Resurgence: Lessons from the Black Sea

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As Ukrainians are ready to mark the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale aggression, the news from the front lines is increasingly miserable. After the defeat of last year’s counteroffensive, the Ukrainian military has now traded to active defense and is working to prevent fresh Russian advances. This task is being further problematized by delays in Western military aid that are leaving Ukrainian units outgunned and pushing them to ration ammunition.

Amid this mounting dismay, Ukraine’s remarkable victory in the Black Sea continues to serve as a welcome source of motivation. The most recent success came in the early hours of February 14, when a prominent Russian warship was reportedly caught off the coast of Crimea and plunged by a mosquito fleet of five Ukrainian maritime drones. The Caesar Kunikov dock ship is the latest in an expanding list of Russian warships harmed or destroyed during the past two years. Ukraine has now disabled one-third of the whole Russian Black Sea Fleet since the start of the full-scale invasion.

The Battle of the Black Sea started on the eve of the full-scale invasion, with Vladimir Putin instructing his navy to inflict a blockade on Ukraine’s Black Sea ports more than a week before Russian tanks moved across the border on February 24, 2022. 

Ukraine’s first naval victory was the April 2022 sinking of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet flagship, the Moskva, which was smashed by a brace of Ukrainian Neptune anti-ship missiles. Two months later, Ukraine liberated Snake Island, a small but strategically significant Black Sea island that Russia had occupied on the first day of the attack. By late summer 2022, Ukraine had started drone strikes on the Russian fleet and connected naval facilities in Russian-occupied Crimea.

Recent attack on Caesar Kunikov is the second victorious naval operation in February 2024 alone. It comes after observing the reported destruction of the Russian warship Ivanovets at the start of the month. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg hailed it a “great victory for Ukrainians” and noted that the country has been able to “inflict heavy losses on the Russian Black Sea Fleet.”

The sinking of Russian warships will not be decisive in a land war. Nevertheless, Ukraine’s success in the Battle of the Black Sea is no mere confidence boost and is already shaping the course of the wider war. Ukrainian seizures have made it difficult for the Russian navy to maintain a presence in the northwestern Black Sea. They have pushed Putin to withdraw the bulk of his fleet from Crimea to the comparative safety of Russian ports. This is deterring Russia’s ability to bomb Ukraine using the Black Sea Fleet’s missile-carrying warships while also disrupting the logistics of the Russian army in Crimea and southern Ukraine.

Crucially, plunging so many Russian warships has allowed Ukraine to break the blockade of the country’s Black Sea ports and continue maritime exports to global markets. The reopening of merchant shipping routes for the country’s vast agricultural industry means a financial lifeline for Ukraine, working to keep its battered economy afloat and fund the war effort. 

In addition to limiting the role of the Russian navy and strengthening the domestic economy, Ukraine’s victories at sea are also essential lessons for the future conduct of the war. The effective use of British and French cruise missiles has highlighted Ukraine’s ability to deploy sophisticated Western weapons systems while also emphasizing Russia’s vulnerability. The success gained over the past year in Crimea and the Black Sea with somewhat limited supplies of cruise missiles offers a glance at what could be possible if Ukraine’s allies finally agree to deliver long-range missiles in anything like the quantities Kyiv is asking for.

Perhaps the most crucial lesson to take from the Battle of the Black Sea is the need for the West to overwhelm its crippling fear of escalation. For the past two years, risk-averse Western leaders have invariably demonstrated excessive caution in their reaction to the Russian invasion while cautioning against anything that might potentially prompt Putin. 

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