Russia struggles to turn Black Sea rule into amphibious attack

·4-min read

Russia may rule the Black Sea but any amphibious assault on the Ukrainian coast seems risky so long as Kyiv's defences threaten any warships that venture too close, experts say.

According to British intelligence sources, Russia operates around 20 warships in the Black Sea, although the numbers are static as Turkey, which controls the Bosphorus, blocks any access by vessels belonging to a warring party.

"It's their 'Mare Nostrum'," said Captain Eric Lavault, a spokesman for the French navy -- a reference to the Latin term meaning "Our Sea" used in ancient Rome to describe the Mediterranean.

Apart from Russia, all the other Black Sea countries already belong to NATO or hope to join it, but this has not cowed Moscow's claim on supremacy.

On paper, Russia's recent capture of the Ukrainian port of Mariupol and its control of the entire Sea of Azov should underline its dominance, Lavault said.

These gains should allow Moscow's troops to establish a direct logistical link between its fighters in the Donbas region and the eastern port of Novorossiysk.

- 'Bayraktars are working' -

But whether the Kremlin can lever this advantage to attack the Ukrainian-controlled coast between Odessa and Romania is in doubt.

The threat comes not from Kyiv's navy, which has been destroyed, but from land-based sea-skimming missiles and drones.

Last month, Russia dramatically lost its flagship in the Black Sea, the missile cruiser Moskva, while on Monday, Kyiv said it had sunk two Russian Raptor patrol boats.

Ukraine says it hit the Moskva with Neptune missiles -- a weapon that will be joined by Britain's Harpoon -- and used Turkish-made Bayraktar drones to sink the Raptors near Snake Island.

Snake Island became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance after a radio exchange went viral at the start of the war, in which Ukrainian soldiers used an expletive in rebuffing a demand by the Moskva to surrender.

The threat from land-based assets may well prevent any attempt by Russia to land near Odessa to the west, with the aim of surrounding the Ukrainian heartland and linking up Russian forces with separatists in Moldova's Transnistria region.

"That zone presents a threat that the Russians must take into account," said defence expert Igor Delanoe at the French-Russian Monitor, a political analysis body based in Moscow.

Any such landing is currently "out of reach" for the Russians, said Delanoe.

Russian progress in the Donbas region could open up new options, he said, "but they will have to neutralise the coastal defences," he cautioned.

- 'Not Russia's any more' -

Russian forces have had great trouble locating and destroying Ukrainian surface-to-air missiles because of their mobility, said Michael Petersen, director of the Russia Maritime Studies Institute and an associate professor at the US Naval War College.

"I suspect that would also be the case for any mobile coastal defense cruise missile system that Ukraine may have," he said, adding that the exact number of Neptunes -- which have a range of some 300 kilometres (200 miles) -- available to Ukrainian forces was unknown.

Russia's failure to establish air superiority, and its apparent inability to precision-target missiles, are not helping its efforts to knock out Ukraine's coastal defences, added French navy spokesman Lavault.

He said this had allowed the defenders to create "a maritime cordon sanitaire" and threaten Russian southern supply lines between Kherson and Nikolayev.

In addition, Ukraine has deployed mines, and is expected to take delivery of naval surface drones promised by the US, although it is not certain that they will be armed.

"More likely, if Ukraine is provided with unmanned systems, they would be used to provide surveillance and reconnaissance for weapon systems," Petersen said.

British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace meanwhile went as far as contesting Russia's centuries-old supremacy in the Black Sea altogether.

"The Russians can't control the Black Sea," he told Sky News. "It's not theirs anymore."

Whatever the outcome of the Ukraine war, Russia will not give up its Black Sea role quietly, experts agreed.

But as other Black Sea countries, notably Romania and Turkey, deploy their own coastal missile systems based on Ukraine's example, Moscow's role will become harder to maintain.

"Certainly Russia will be less secure in the Black Sea than they were before the war," said Petersen.

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