Ukraine has hobbled Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Could it turn the tide of the war?

Ukraine has hobbled Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Could it turn the tide of the war?

Russia’s Black Sea Fleet was once considered central to Vladimir Putin’s attempted conquest of Ukraine.

But that fleet and its accompanying air wing have been battered by innovative Ukrainian missile and drone attacks, turning the once-feared force into something of an afterthought in Europe’s largest war in seven decades.

When Putin launched his all-out invasion of Ukraine in February, the Crimea-based fleet was at the center of the action, launching Kalibr cruise missiles at military and civilian targets deep into the country, blocking access to the country’s ports, and threatening an amphibious landing on Odesa.

Since those early days, however, Kyiv has seized the initiative as missile strikes and mysterious explosions have wreaked havoc on the Russian fleet, sinking several vessels — including its flagship cruiser the Moskva — and devastating its Crimea-based air wing in a dramatic attack this month.

While the Black Sea Fleet has been strong enough to hold the small Ukrainian navy at bay, it has never been the pride of the Russian navy. The Northern Fleet, based in Severomorsk, is by far the Kremlin’s largest and most modern force, and had sent some of its own vessels to help just before the Russian invasion.

But the Crimea-based fleet was expected to play a large role in holding Ukrainian forces in the south to defend against an expected amphibious assault that never came, while shoring up the occupied peninsula. While Russian submarines do fire into Ukraine from time to time, the fleet hasn’t lived up to the expectations set at the start of the war and has settled into what amounts to a defensive crouch either in port or well offshore to avoid Ukrainian attack.

Since the spring, the Black Sea Fleet’s problems have added up, the result of poor leadership, aging equipment, and a hubris the Ukrainians have been only too happy to exploit.

The string of military disasters led to the firing of the fleet’s commander, Adm. Igor Osipov.

That resistance has been fierce. Ukraine’s domestically developed Neptune anti-ship missile, which sank the Moskva, and Harpoon missiles donated by Denmark that sank a Russian resupply ship this spring, have forced the fleet to stay well offshore, and out of the fight, for months.

Oleksandr Turchynov, the former acting president of Ukraine and former secretary of the country’s National Security and Defense Council who jump-started the Neptune project, told POLITICO that he was proud of the missile.

“An hour after the cruiser was hit, I exchanged pleasantries with Oleg Korostylev, the general designer of the Ukrainian design bureau Luch,” he said in an interview from the southern frontline, where he is deployed as an officer. Korostylev was key to the Neptune program’s development. “We congratulated each other on the fact that this is a very serious result.”

Turchynov said a Neptune missile also struck the frigate Admiral Essen in April. But Russia was able to shoot down the second missile targeting the ship because of the time between launches.

Ukraine took that as a lesson, firing two missiles simultaneously when attacking the Moskva. “They broke through the air defense and were able to sink the target,” Turchynov said.

Both on land and at sea, “Russian forces are much more vulnerable than they thought they were,” before the war, a senior Defense Department official told reporters this month. This person, like others quoted in this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the war.

Not only is the cruiser Moskva sitting at the bottom of the Black Sea, but days of Ukrainian drone and missile strikes on the Russian-occupied Snake Island in May and June damaged or destroyed several smaller landing and transport ships the Russians had docked on the strategic island 22 miles off Ukraine’s southwest coast. The strikes also took out several modern air defense and radar systems, essentially ending Russia’s dominance of the sea and air and returning a key piece of land to Kyiv’s control.

The battle for Snake Island showed that the Russian fleet had no answer to the Ukrainian attacks, and the Russian abandonment of the island left its ships at sea even more vulnerable to Ukrainian attacks.

“The losses to Russian amphibious ships are arguably more important than the Moskva,” said Rob Lee, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who tracks the militaries of Russia and Ukraine. The losses impede Russia’s ability to move troops and equipment around Crimea by sea, and have made the Russians more hesitant to use the modern landing ships it transferred from the Northern and Baltic fleets just before the war.

The reluctance to actually use its ships as a fighting force means the fleet has been rendered virtually impotent and “hasn’t been a thing for several months” a second DoD official told POLITICO.

One Western diplomat agreed with that assessment, telling POLITICO “the Russian Black Sea Fleet is broken, and is now only used as a defensive force with occasional cruise missile strikes.” Keeping the fleet well out at sea “severely limits Russia’s campaign options” in southern Ukraine. The fleet itself — made up of small missile-laden corvettes and frigates, landing craft and six submarines — still has over 30 ships at sea or in port, but their effectiveness and ability to maneuver has been severely hampered after Moskva’s air defenses and the radar screen provided by Snake Island were eliminated.

The Russian fleet is “not really doing much,” the Western official said. “Snake Island gave them a bit more flexibility, and now they’ve been stripped of that. Losing it just reduces their tactical capabilities even more.”

The Black Sea Fleet’s aviation regiment, based at Saki air base in Crimea, was also hit hard this month in a night of airstrikes that wiped out about half of the unit’s aircraft, the Western official said, confirming other officials’ assessments.

Elsewhere, a drone is reported to have attacked the fleet’s headquarters in the port city of Sevastopol in July and again last week.

The attacks and the publicity they have received in the West haven’t gone unnoticed by Putin. The replacement of the Black Sea Fleet’s top admiral was covered in Russian state media, an almost unheard-of move by a regime that prioritizes the projection of power and competence, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

“Poor preparation, apparent carelessness, and a general lackadaisical attitude of the Black Sea Fleet likely led to the firing” of the admiral, Kofman said.

After a drone attack on the Black Fleet headquarters in Sevastopol, Crimea during the Russian Navy Day celebration, “they didn’t seem to change their operating procedures,” leading to a second drone strike on the building this month. Overall, the fleet’s leaders since the start of the war “failed to adjust and revealed the structural deficits in the fleet in terms of training, professionalism, adherence to safety procedures, and ability to adapt.”

Those same failures have plagued the Russian war effort from the start, first when elite forces and heavy armored units were repulsed in their initial disjointed lurch toward Kyiv, and later when troops were pushed out of Bucha and Irpin in the north, where they were unable to hold onto early gains.

Sloppy communications encryption has also led to near-constant strikes on Russian command and control and headquarters locations, resulting in the deaths of top officers, including generals.

In recent weeks, military analysts have been stunned by the Russian insistence on stockpiling ammunition in large depots not far from the front lines, into which the Ukrainians have fired U.S.-supplied precision rockets and artillery shells, turning the depots into balls of fire, night after night.

The Ukrainian attacks on what amounts to stationary targets on both land and sea has in some ways frozen the conflict, the Western diplomat said. After six months of fighting, the Russians and their moribund logistics and command structure have worked against the Kremlin’s early ambitions to conduct a short, sharp war.

“What they appear to be doing is just trying to limit losses, as opposed to maneuvering and having impacts” on the battlefield and in the Black Sea, the diplomat said.

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