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The Strategic Dimensions of the Sea of Azov

By Ridvan Bari Urcosta

Introduction

The Sea of Azov is a tiny and small sea that historically has not often earned much strategic attention from the countries that possessed it. However, history reveals that the strategic importance of the sea periodically rises when at least two countries possess the shores of this sea. The sea lends itself to regional geopolitical rivalry, and as a result of tensions both sides often create Azov flotillas. Such a contest existed during the Civil War in Russia and the Second World War when both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany had to establish special naval units in the Sea of Azov. In general, Russia’s historical expansion to the South had three main directions – the Northern Caucasus, the Sea of Azov, and Crimea. All of these three geographical directions are fully interrelated. First, the Russian Azov Flotilla appeared in 1768 in order to fight the Crimean Tatars and Ottoman Empire. Now the geopolitical situation again necessitates that both Kiev and Moscow urgently create Azovian geographical units drawn from their naval forces.

Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Russian Federation became a full-fledged hegemon in the Azov Sea because of how the annexation of Crimea greatly expanded Russian coastal possessions. The Kerch Straits made Russia the keeper of a strategic chokepoint where the Kerch Strait acts as a gate to free waters and to Ukrainian and Russian Azovian ports. Interestingly, Russian river waterways facilitate a connection between the Black Sea with Russian cities that are almost located in Siberia and even deliver goods directly to Moscow or to the Baltics. In these regards, the possession of the Kerch Strait and access to the Sea of Azov has strategic meaning to Russia. As tensions have been building in recent months in the Sea of Azov Russia and Ukraine find themselves poised for further escalation.

Russian Naval and Maritime Strategy in the Sea of Azov

It is crucial to view Russia’s general vision regarding naval strategy and its place in the Sea of Azov since 1991 in order to understand the current state in broader context. Before Vladimir Putin, Russia’s leadership did not pay much attention to the country’s naval forces. But in 2000, the same year Putin came to power, the situation changed. Russia introduced the “Naval Strategy of Russia” in which there was pointed attention from the Kremlin in the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. Putin personally participated in the drafting of the document. In the document it was clear that these seas, together with the Baltic and Caspian Seas, have serious importance to Russian national interests. With respect to the Sea of Azov Russia had proposed it be labeled as internal waters as the most suitable approach to national interests. Moreover, along with Moscow’s return to the old Soviet Union approach in trying to turn southern seas into “internal seas,” Russia wanted to establish a favored regime that would block every non-Azovian state warship from the entrance into the seas.

Next year in 2001, Russia introduced the “The Russian Maritime Doctrine” where again the Kremlin asserted that the Sea of Azov is a part of national interests. According to the document, the longstanding interests of Russia in the Black and Azov Seas were the restoration of the naval and merchant fleets along with the inland navigation system (Don-Volga canal system), ports, and other infrastructure. It emphasized the necessity of addressing with the Ukrainian government the legal status of the Black Sea Fleet and to ensure that Sevastopol remains the main base of the Fleet. And finally, it discussed the creation of conditions for basing and using the components of maritime potential that would protect the sovereignty as well as international rights of the Russian Federation in the Black and Azov Seas.

A map of the Sea of Azov and Crimea region. (European Council on Foreign Relations)

Next, the “Naval Strategy of Russia 2020” was issued in 2012 and neither of the seas were mentioned. However, it was clear that some aspects of the document were related to the Sea of Azov and that Russia was facing restrictions to full access to the global maritime domain, and faced disputed maritime claims from neighboring countries. After the alteration of the international environment and due to the annexation of Crimea, Moscow released the “Maritime Doctrine 2020” in 2015, and again paid full attention to the region and categorizes the Black and Azov Sea as a part of the “Atlantic Regional Priority Area.” It highlights the region as crucial for national interests partly because it is proximate to NATO.

Thus, according to the document, the following measures were provided:

  • To set more favorable (on the basis of the international law) international regimes for Russia in the Azov and Black Seas
  • Systems of using natural resources of these seas
  • Free use of the oil and gas fields and construction and operating pipelines
  • To set international and legal regulation regimes in the Kerch Strait
  • To enhance and to improve the structure and naval bases of the Black Sea Fleet and the development of its infrastructure in Crimea and Krasnodar Kray
  • Building the related vessels and ships, especially river-sea type, and development of port infrastructure in these seas
  • Creation of three huge regional economic and maritime zones (centers): Crimean, Black Sea-Kuban, and Azovian-Don zones
  • Further development in regional gas and oil pipeline systems. (For instance, according to the Ministry of Energy, in the production structure of the Russian Federation the share of offshore fields in the Azov Sea is 9.4 percent of Russian oil and 14.7 percent of gas.)
  • To provide a direct logistical connection between the Crimean peninsula and Krasnodar Kray. (Here at the moment of adoption of the document, it still was a theoretical scenario for a direct land connection through the territory of Ukraine, but now the recently completed Kerch Bridge has become the sole option.)
  • Exploration of minerals in the seas

On July 20, 2017 Putin signed “The fundamentals of the state policy of the Russian Federation in the field of naval policy for the period up to 2030.” Again, previously mentioned threats were indicated, but the language of the document changed gravely in that it became more antagonistic and aggressive. The Azov Sea was mentioned regarding the necessity of maintaining favorable legal regimes around the state border of the Russian Federation, the border area, in the exclusive economic zone, on the continental shelf, as well as in the waters of the Caspian and Azov Seas. Without the Crimean peninsula it is impossible to fully appreciate the security implications for Russia’s policy in the Azov Sea. In Crimea, according to the document, it was recommended that Russia pursue an increase of the operational and combat capabilities of the Black Sea Fleet by developing an interspecific grouping of forces on the territory of the Crimean peninsula.

A historic moment that sheds light on Russia’s strategic vision in the Sea of Azov is the Yeysk meeting in 2003. The Tuzla Island conflict started on September 29, 2003 when Russia initiated the construction of an artificial dam on the tiny island within the Kerch Strait, and the Yeysk meeting was conducted under Vladimir Putin’s supervision on September 17, 2003. On the same day before Yeysk, he had met with Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma where he clearly stressed that “the Sea of Azov must be the internal sea of Russia and Ukraine.” Already in Yeysk (an important Russian city on the Azov shores with heavy military presence), Putin held a historical meeting for Russian geopolitical ambitions in its southern region. All the most important ministers responsible for the state military, naval, and security policy were present.

During the meeting, Putin made strong commitments regarding the Black and Azov Seas. At the onset of the meeting he said:

“I would like to talk about the Azov-Black Sea basin as a whole. On military and environmental issues it is a zone that is very important for Russia. This is the zone of our strategic interests. The Black Sea region has a special geopolitical significance. The Black Sea provides Russia’s direct access to the most important global transport routes, including energy.”

In this phrase he outlined the key interests of Russia in this region without which Russian national interests could not be fulfilled. In order to impart this vision in the formal framework, Putin signed the document “Plan of cooperation of ministries and agencies to address the diplomatic and military missions in the Azov-Black Sea region.” The text of the plan was closed from publicity but its general aim was to provide a complex strategy of Russia to this Black-Azov Seas region and the modernization of port and naval facilities. The next point which was raised is the Azov Sea question; according to Putin, it is undergoing a difficult process of negotiations and painstaking efforts to resolve existing problems of the legal status of the borders, regimes of straits, and legal aspects of the use of the water area and resources of the Black and Azov Seas. Moreover, within the meeting he signed a decree “On the establishment of the Black Sea Fleet’s base in Novorossiysk.” Many western and Ukrainian experts and politicians regarded it as a retreat of Russia in the means of her ambitions in the region, but Putin directly stressed that it is not a sign of retreat and that Sevastopol will remain a main base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Furthermore, during the meeting Putin emphasized the crucial reason why the Kremlin did not pay attention to the Azov Sea because “For a long time, a large number of ministries and departments were focused on the Caspian Sea. I think that now it is time to come to grips with the problems of the Azov-Black Sea basin.”

A Longstanding Dispute

Negotiations regarding the status of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait began in 1995, and Russia steadily avoided finalizing them on Ukrainian terms. Only after the Tuzla Island crisis in September 2003 did Ukraine and Russia finally sign the agreement in December of the same year. At the same time, the biggest political disaster that Russia faced as a result of Tuzla crisis was the consolidation and hardening of the Ukrainian nation toward Russia. The Tuzla events were partly preconditions for the Orange Revolution in 2004. For the first time in many years it posed the possibility of a direct confrontation between the two nations.

After the Orange Revolution in 2004 new political leadership in Kiev called for a revision of this agreement and considered it a deal that had been imposed on Ukraine by the use of political and diplomatic pressure. Since then, negotiations were conducted many times but Ukranian President Viktor Yushchenko could not manage to settle the issue on Ukrainian terms. It should be taken into account that even the 2003 agreement did not satisfy Moscow, but it was definitely a victory for Moscow after years of contention. Ukraine was holding the largest and richest share of fish zones in the Sea of Azov and had total control of the Kerch-Enikale Canal. But for Russia, it secured the Sea of Azov from any possibility of foreign warships entering the sea, and Russia earned the ability to use the Kerch-Enikale Canal freely. Before, Russian vessels had to pay Ukraine for passage in and out of the Kerch Strait. Finally, the signed treaty that ended the dispute had a positive impact on Russia because Ukraine was forced to recognize the Sea of Azov as an internal sea. Thus the sea was sealed from third-party countries.

Unfortunately, Ukraine in 2003 did not effectively use international law and the influence of the West in order to settle the issue with Russia. NATO behaved in a very tempered manner and avoided taking sides. Ukrainian President Kuchma publicly asked the General Secretary of the NATO Lord George Robertson for an intervention into the confrontation before his departing to Moscow. Moreover, the head of the foreign office of the EU presented almost the same position of NATO and EU when he said the conflict “will be resolved and defused among themselves.” In 2010 when the regime of Yanukovich came to power, Russia made the status of Sevastopol a priority (the Kharkov Agreement), but negotiations about the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov never stopped because Russia wanted further expansion. Particularly in terms of favorable regimes, in the Kerch Strait they proposed the creation of a joint venture that would operate in the Strait. In 2013, Putin officially returned to the Sea of Azov question but he never returned to this topic very publicly. Even since the annexation of Crimea, he delegated the issue while he was silent about it himself. After the Maidan Revolution, the new Ukrainian political elite confronted the agreement but did not manage to revise it.

According to the 2003 agreement, Ukraine has legal control over 62 percent of Sea of Azov’s area and Russia only 38 percent, but since the annexation of Crimea, Russia possesses de facto three-quarters of the territory of the sea. It tries to impose this fact in relations with Ukraine. Plus, Russian proxies are possessing additional territories in the East of Ukraine that plays on Russian advances. The whole coastline of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic is approximately 45 km. In their territories, there are plans to erect a naval base in the Obryw village. It is more likely that Russia will be denying its involvement in the creation of the base. Therefore, in the Sea of Azov there are three major established naval centers in the zones of control under Ukraine, Russia, and the separatist republic of DPR.

Additionally, a great hindrance to the free navigation of international and Ukrainian ships was incurred with the opening of the Kerch Bridge in May. The bridge has an air draught of 33 meters and a water draught of eight meters which restricts the entrance of larger ships into the Sea of Azov. Notwithstanding the fact that Ukraine is reportedly eager to denounce the 2003 Agreement, Russia could go even further unilaterally – eventually sealing the free passage in the Kerch Strait to the Ukrainian merchant fleet. In this scenario Ukraine could have to pay for passage as Russia did before 2003.

The Sea of Azov after 2014 was more or less a tranquil place compared to the Donbas and Crimea, but the completion of the first phase of the Kerch Bridge required more decisive measures from Russia. Additionally, an incident with a boat arrested by Ukraine further escalated the situation. The Russian Federation still demands that Kiev return the boat and the captain as a main condition for returning to the status quo. Russia continues to use the following measures against Ukraine:

  • Increasing the time for permit issues for the passing to and from the Azov Sea
  • Undertaking additional controls of the vessels in the Azov Sea water going to Ukrainian ports and “luckily” facing one more control when they return after shipment
  • Russia is challenging Ukrainian naval forces when controls are happening very close to Ukrainian shores
  • Pushing Ukrainian fisheries to avoid going to sea
  • Since June until October, Russia inspected 171 vessels and it took on average three days
  • Ukrainian and Georgian vessels undergo more detailed inspections
  • Usually 10 Russian warships are patrolling the Sea of Azov and Moscow sometimes closes parts of the sea under the pretext of naval drills

The Ukrainian economic losses to date are obvious. For instance, only from January to July Ukraine lost 50 percent of fishing, 30 percent of the profit of ports, and most importantly, the share of the ports in metallurgical export deteriorated to 50 percent. This trend will only be broadening and it is even possible to say that in the long-term Russia may attempt to eventually halt commercial activities. This could lead to social and political protests against the current political elite in Kiev if the situation does not change. Furthermore, Russia has plans to extract and use Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar natural resources from Crimea and the Sea of Azov such as the Azov-Berezansky and Indolo-Kubnasky oil and gas fields. Estimated oil and gas deposits in the Sea of Azov are 413 million tons. As a result of the Ukrainian water blockade of Crimea, Moscow may also be desperately seeking the fresh water in the Sea of Azov.

Russia caught Kiev in three main geopolitical traps. First, if Ukraine is going to confront Russia and demonstrate principality in the Azov sea, she should take into account that economic and social deterioration will become a direct consequence of this confrontation. Even though Ukraine goes to a stiff political stance in confronting Russia, international maritime companies will be avoiding this region and will try to find alternative routes. It should be noted that a quite popular idea with Russia is that of mining the Ukrainian coastline. Definitely these kinds of measures do not attract foreign investments. Second, Ukrainian naval forces are incomparable with Russian forces. Moscow is the absolute naval hegemon in this sea. Third, it is a “denunciation” trap. In Ukraine, denunciation is quite popular but some voices are against the argument that Ukraine will be deprived of a free passage through the Kerch Strait for the Ukrainian merchant fleet.

Western Responses and Countermeasures

The Ukrainian answer is offered by several measures. First, is a “law binding” policy. In 2016 Ukraine filed a lawsuit against the Russian Federation to the Permanent Court of Arbitrations – “Dispute Concerning Coastal State Rights in the Black Sea, Sea of Azov and Kerch Strait (Ukraine vs. the Russian Federation).” Interestingly, Russia is actively engaging in the process. Second, it is the establishment of sufficient naval forces (an “Azov flotilla”) by using external and internal sources for naval enforcement – for instance, building additional gunboats “Gurza-M” (Project 58155). For instance, Capitan Andriy Ryzenko presented a strategy of a “Mosquitoes Fleet” as the best option to counter Russia expansion in the sea. Currently, NATO and Ukrainian specialists are engaged in preparation of the “Naval Strategy 2035” that will take into consideration the recent developments in the Sea of Azov. Ukraine is considering the possibility of convoying Ukrainian and European vessels into the Sea of Azov. Additionally some Ukrainian politicians are voicing the necessity of sanctioning Russian ports in the Black and Azov seas for Russia’s unlawful activities and to develop the coastal missile defense systems that could deter Russia from direct invasion of Mariupol and Berdyansk.

Western reaction to the developments in the Sea of Azov have not been prompt since the recent confrontation began in March 2018. On August 30, the U.S State Department issued a press statement “Russia’s Harassment of the International Shipping Transiting the Kerch Strait and Sea of Azov.” The State Department called on Russia to cease its harassment of international shipping. On October 24, the General Secretary of NATO Jens Stoltenberg stressed during a press conference NATO’s concern regarding the situation in the Sea of Azov and about importance of the freedom of navigation both for Ukrainian and NATO ships in this sea. Interestingly, on October 31 there was a regular official meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in Brussels where according to the press release both sides discussed the situation in Ukraine and the escalation in the Sea of Azov but without any public details.       

In Brussels, already in the middle of summer there were some discussions regarding the situation in the Sea of Azov.  For example, on October 9, the European Policy Center conducted the event “Occupied Crimea: The impact on human rights and security in the Black and Azov Seas” that has been dedicated particularly to the recent escalation in the region. Representatives of the European Parliament, Ukrainian Ministers, experts and former NATO officials took part in the event. In the European Parliament of Subcommittee on the Security and Defense (SEDE) a very effective hearing was held with a fruitful discussion and provided analytical grounds for the European Parliament’s Resolution. Additionally, the Chair of the SEDE, Anna Fotyga, together with the other MPs, visited the east of Ukraine on 16-20 September where they observed the security situation in the contact-line in Donbas and in the city of Mariupol. In the SEDE hearings on October 11, “On the Security Situation in the Azov Sea” in the EP there were officials from the European External Action Service responsible for the Eastern dimension of the EU foreign policy, including Ambassador Konstiantyn Yelisieiev who is now the Deputy Head of Presidential Administration to the President of Ukraine and NATO’s officials.

Ms. Fotyga stressed that the Russian approach toward the seas has some similarities and they are to be found even in the Baltic region, where Russia is using its geographical advantage over Poland in the Vistula Lagoon and Strait of Baltiysk. Russia, as she stressed, is seeking ways to establish internal lakes (with limited access) in those seas. The representative of the EEAS stated that in July the EU imposed individual sanctions against persons involved in the Kerch Bridge construction and condemned the deterioration of the situation in the Black and Azov Seas. Mr. Yelisieiev presented a comprehensive and full picture of aggressive Russian behavior not only in the Sea of Azov but also in Crimea and the Black Sea. According to him, Russia pursues the following aims:

  • A land corridor to Crimea
  • Militarization of the Sea of Azov thereby to outflank Ukrainian military positions in the East of Ukraine
  • Social and economic destabilization of the region
  • Total control over the Black and Azov Seas in order to have secure flanks for further expansion

At the same time Yelisieiev outlined the necessity of the technical and economic assistance to Mariupol and Berdyansk. Moreover, on behalf of Ukrainian government, he was asking for the extension of sanctions against southern ports of Russia. As he noted “lack of the common response instigates the aggressor’s appetite.” He reiterated that the best option to deter Russia is to be braver in Ukraine and to finalize the membership action plan.  

NATO representative Radoslava Stefanova, Head of the Russia and Ukraine Section, Political Affairs and Security Policy Division, stated that the case of the Sea of Azov is a much broader problem that is happening in the southern flank of the NATO. Three littoral states have access to the Black Sea together with strategic partners (Ukraine and Georgia) and since the Warsaw Summit NATO is trying to establish stronger presence in this region. During the last year and a half, NATO is actively involved in the assistance of the reconstruction of Ukrainian naval and maritime capability and the associated training. NATO, according to Ms. Stefanova, has reinforced the staff in Kiev and especially to those fields that are related to security and defense, and even sent to Kiev more experts to prepare a Ukrainian naval strategy.

Another event of interest is the Plenary Session in Strasbourg on October 23 “On the Situation in the Sea of Azov” together with the Vice-President of the Commission Federica Mogherini. In her speech, she outlined that the EU is concerned about the situation in the sea and its militarization and reiterated the EU’s support to Ukraine. She emphasized that militarization of the sea is threatening to undermine the wider Black Sea region and this is in no one’s interests. What is also of note is that she said that the Black Sea is a European sea – an idea that is not welcomed in Russia and is considered aggressive. In general, the discussion during the plenary session demonstrated full commitment and almost absolute majority to support Ukrainian sovereignty and asked for further development of sanctions against the Russian Federation.

The resolution adopted on October 24 appears to demonstrate that the European Parliament is firmly committed to reacting to emerging threats in this neighborhood. The resolution goes through crucial details of the confrontation and touches on the problem of the militarization of the Crimean peninsula and Sea of Azov as intertwined cases. Among its contents it also:

  • Condemns Russian violation of the freedom of navigation and construction of the Kerch Bridge
  • Highlights Russia’s plans to extract natural resources (oil and gas resources) from the legal Ukrainian territories
  • Goes through the unacceptability of such a policy not only in the Sea of Azov but in the Vistula Lagoon (Poland)
  • Calls for a more comprehensive EU foreign policy in this region and to appoint an EU Special Envoy to Donbas, Crimea, and the Sea of Azov
  • Underlines the necessity to send mission experts to Mariupol that will be assessing the damage to the region and look at alternative ways of maintaining regional, social, and economic sustainability.

Regarding the recent escalation in the Black Sea zone of the Kerch Strait the western reaction was again quite restrained. The U.S State Department issued a statement indicating that they are concerned with the dangerous escalation in the Kerch Strait and that it “condemns this aggressive Russian action.” Washington again called for both parties to “exercise restraint and abide by their international obligations and commitments. We urge Presidents Poroshenko and Putin to engage directly to resolve this situation.” It is possible to assume that such a vague statement holds little water with Ukraine. Something similar happened with the European Union’s reaction where it defined the situation as dangerous and called on both sides to exercise “utmost restraint” and called for de-escalation. The Turkish Republic also called for the peaceful resolution of the confrontation, and the Turkish Foreign Affairs Ministry stated that it is concerned that Ukrainian vessels were fired upon but it does not make any reference to Russia. Even so, Ukraine together with its allies, managed to conduct an emergency meeting at the UN Security Council but it did not had desired effect. The most lackluster reaction was the aftermath of the private meeting of the Political and Security Committee in Brussels that refrained to go tougher against the Russian Federation.

Thus we could see that the consequences of the incident remain unclear. The international reaction demonstrates to Kiev that it is not ready to escalate the situation. At the same time, it is more likely that both the European Union and the United States are going to provide more measures to deter Russian hegemony in the Sea of Azov and Black Sea.     

Conclusion

History rarely pays attention to the Sea of Azov, but it is always related to the strategic importance of Crimea. When the Russian Federation annexed the Crimean peninsula and further consolidated its military facilities, it became clear that the Sea of Azov will again be playing an important strategic role in East-West relations. After more than 20 years of strategic patience Russia resolved many of its longstanding problems about the Azov and Black Sea regions by annexing Crimea. It is not a mere coincidence when the Foreign Minister of Russia, Sergey Lavrov, on March 21, 2014 straightforwardly pointed out that since the annexation, the Kerch Strait “could not be the subject of negotiations anymore.”

Almost five years after the annexation of the Crimean peninsula it appears that Russia is again trying to impose a long-term strategy to deal a crucial blow in Ukraine via the Sea of Azov. In Moscow they count on strategic patience, and as Putin said “in long-run strategy we must win.” Western answers and reactions have to be strong and preventative. The case of the adopted EU resolution is direct evidence of how interested Western commitments are. But if the recommendations in the resolution remain on paper it means that aggressive Russian behavior is poised to deal another blow to Ukraine and the West.  

Ridvan Bari Urcosta is a research fellow at the Center of Strategic Studies, University of Warsaw.

Featured Image: Kerch bridge. (Wikimedia Commons)

Should the U.S. Arm Ukraine with Anti-Ship Missiles?

By Mykola Bielieskov

When it comes to U.S. military-technical assistance for Ukraine in the context of Russian aggression, sharing the Javelin anti-tank guided missile with the Ukrainian Ground Forces is what is typically mentioned. And at the beginning of March 2018 the U.S. State Department gave its approval for the provision of this kind of weaponry to Kyiv. There is nothing surprising in this, since the land forces of Ukraine bear the main burden of confronting and deterring further Russian aggression. However, today it is necessary to start talking about the needs of the other branches of the Armed Forces of Ukraine given the challenges facing them.

A Navy Adrift

The situation in the Ukrainian Navy is close to a catastrophic one. The Russian Federation’s occupation of the Crimea in 2014 especially negatively affected the fighting capabilities of the Ukrainian Navy as nearly 80 percent of the fleet was lost due to capture and defection. In fact, four corvettes (Lutsk, Khmelnitsky, Ternopil, Prydniprov’ia), two minesweepers (Chernigiv, Cherkasy), the large landing ship Konstantin Olshansky, and the submarine Zaporozhye were captured by Russian forces. In addition, Russian occupants captured and never returned up to 15 auxiliary vessels.

The urgent need for platforms in the Ukrainian Navy could be solved by Western country transfers to Kyiv of older ships, which are decommissioned or near retirement. Actually, from time-to-time this idea is voiced by certain American experts. The U.S. government, among other things, is ready to provide the Ukrainian Navy with two coastal guards ships of the Island class. They, in contrast to Ukrainian artillery boats of the Gyurza-M class, have better seaworthiness and greater autonomy. However, the simple transfer of platforms can only partly solve the problems the Ukrainian Navy faces today. Getting Western ships can solve the problem with minesweepers or auxiliary vessels. However, the main question remains unaddressed: how could the Ukrainian Navy counter attempts by the Russian Federation to use its domination of the Black Sea for further aggression?

As the result of Russian aggression Ukraine lost in Crimea ground-based anti-ship platforms, which were armed with Termit anti-ship cruise missiles. Similarly, after the Crimea occupation, the missile boat Pryluky was returned to Ukrainian authorities but lacked its two Termit anti-ship missiles.

Today the Ukrainian Navy is not able to properly counteract possible attempts by the Russian Black Sea Fleet to carry out an amphibious landing operation. In this contest it is necessary to recall that in 2014-2015 the Security Service of Ukraine exposed and broke down covert attempts to create the so-called secessionist Bessarabian People’s Republic. This fictional republic was going to be based on territories of a southern part of the Odessa oblast. In the event of the establishment of this illicit territory, the Russian Black Sea Fleet would have had the opportunity to freely land the necessary troops and to maintain sea lines of communication with a new pseudo-state bordering western Ukraine along with occupied Crimea. Ukraine in this case could not have prevented such contingencies, since the Navy does not have the necessary anti-ship capabilities to destroy combat and landing enemy vessels.

Although Ukraine is developing its own anti-ship cruise missile Neptune, the first public test of which took place in late January 2018, the system is still nascent. The relevant sea-based risks and threats for Ukraine still exist. In addition, the question is how many Neptune missiles Ukraine will be able to purchase annually for their Navy, given that the entire budget for modernization and procurement of equipment is only $600 million this fiscal year.

As a result, it is urgently necessary to start a dialogue on the possibility of transfer to Ukraine of American Harpoon anti-ship missiles with the necessary equipment for guidance and data exchange systems. The U.S. military budget for 2018 FY provides for the allocation of up to $200 million to enhance Ukraine’s defense capabilities, including the possibility of using these funds for purchase of coastal defense radars, minelayers, minesweepers, and littoral ships. This document captures a change in the paradigm of thinking and awareness in the Pentagon of Ukraine’s vulnerability to threats from the sea. However, as has been said above, only vessels or even radar systems will not be enough to remedy the shortfall.

The U.S. Navy is currently developing new generations of anti-ship missiles (LRASM, Tomahawk, and SM-6 anti-ship variants) that have much longer range than the current Harpoon anti-ship missile. However, in the context of a closed sea like the Black Sea, it will be enough for Ukrainian Navy to deploy the latest modification of the Harpoon missile – the Block II ER+. The radius of this modification is up to 134 nautical miles or 250 km. It is notable that the Ukrainian anti-ship missile “Neptune” will have a similar range. It is also indicative that Finland is considering the Harpoon Block II ER + as the main weapon for the future four frigates of the 2020 project, which will operate in the similarly constrained Baltic Sea.

An F/A-18 carries the new Harpoon Block II+ missile during a free flight test Nov. 18 at Point Mugu’s Sea Range in California. The Navy plans to deliver the Block II+ variant to the fleet in 2017. (U.S. Navy photo)

The transfer to Ukraine of Harpoon Block II ER+ anti-ship cruise missiles and related equipment, together with their installation on future fleet and land-based anti-ship platforms, will not only eliminate significant gaps in the country’s defense capabilities. It will also help secure the safety of maritime trade, on which the economy of Ukraine depends critically. This decision will allow the United States to solve several important security issues in the Black Sea region at once. All this happens when the U.S. Navy has the smallest number of ships in almost a century (283 ships), and it faces the need for a permanent presence in numerous parts across the world’s oceans, including the Black Sea Basin. Strengthening the capabilities of the Ukrainian Navy will reduce the need for such presence. In addition, strengthening the anti-ship component of the Ukrainian armed forces will make its Navy a truly important component in any joint NATO Black Sea Fleet, an idea which has been discussed for several years. Today, the Ukrainian Navy cannot actually be an effective contributor to the joint efforts of the littoral states to contain the Russian Federation in the Black Sea basin. Ultimately, the presence of Harpoon Block II ER+ missiles together with the necessary radars and information exchange systems with other NATO countries will enable, in practice, to enhance the interoperability of the Ukrainian armed forces with NATO partners. In this way, it will contribute to the Euro-Atlantic integration of Ukraine and the fulfillment of the tasks of the Strategic Defense Bulletin.

Conclusion

Ukraine today, given the need of countering threats from the sea, is in a situation where the need for U.S. anti-ship missiles is much more important than obtaining Javelin ATGMs. The U.S. Defense Department’s budget for 2018 FY records the understanding that Washington should help Ukraine counteract not only land-based but also maritime threats that are actually much sharper, given the current state of the Ukrainian Navy. However, only the acquisition of appropriate anti-ship missiles such as the Harpoon Block II ER+ will enable the Ukrainian Navy to effectively counter the growing capabilities of the Russian Federation in the Black Sea. Such a bold decision will strengthen security in this part of the world, reduce the need for the United States to be constantly present, and make Ukraine a true contributor to Black Sea security.

Mykola Bielieskov is the Deputy Executive Director at the Institute of World Policy.

Featured Image: Day of the Ukranian Navy Ceremony, July 2016. (Ministry of Defence of Ukraine)

Building an Asymmetric Ukrainian Naval Force to Defend the Sea of Azov, Pt. 2

The following two-part series will analyze the maritime dimension of competition between Ukraine and Russia in the Sea of Azov. Part 1 analyzed strategic interests, developments, and geography in the Sea of Azov along with probable Russian avenues of aggression. Part 2 will devise potential asymmetric naval capabilities and strategies for the Ukrainian Navy to employ.

By Jason Y. Osuga

Three Approaches to Building a Credible Deterrent

The primary job of any country’s military is to defend the nation from foreign attacks. The Ukrainian military must prevent further encroachment of its territory by Russia. Ukraine should consider three approaches to its nation’s defense. First, Ukraine should develop an effective asymmetric navy and coastal defense to counter the much stronger Russian conventional navy. An asymmetric navy can disrupt naval operations of a conventional fleet through the use of guerrilla tactics at sea. An asymmetric navy is also cheaper to build compared to a conventional navy which requires an enormous amount of resources and time to build. All these efforts could prove futile against a greater and stronger-willed adversary intent on defeating Ukraine in war. However, if Ukraine is able to raise the potential costs and increase enough risk, Russian leadership may think twice about conducting further encroachments on Ukrainian sea and land territories.

Second, the Ukrainian Navy and Army must adopt a joint strategy of conducting sea denial operations against Russian attempts to gain sea control. The Army and Navy must develop a joint sea denial doctrine and train together to prevent Russian forces from achieving sea control and chokepoint control of Kerch Strait. Ukraine’s sea denial strategy should focus on attacking the Russian center of gravity (COG) by weakening the functions that enable the COG to operate. Finally, the Ukrainian Navy should consider establishing a naval base in Mariupol and forward-deploying part of its fleet to the Sea of Azov (SOA). The patrol fleet would act as a deterrent against Russian encroachment in eastern Ukraine. Forward-basing cuts down on deployment time from Odessa, Ukraine’s only naval base of any significance following the loss of Sevastopol. Ukraine should also set up supply depots along the Azov coast to mitigate vulnerability of a singular dependence on Mariupol.

Asymmetric Naval Forces and Guerrilla Warfare at Sea

The backbone of an asymmetric navy is a sizeable fleet of small patrol crafts, missile boats, and mine-laying vessels. Small boats are necessary for speed and presenting a small target for the adversary. Hence, a large quantity of small boats is necessary to present a challenge through a swarm effect. During the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, Iran learned that large naval vessels are vulnerable to air and missile attacks from a conventionally superior foe, which confirmed the efficacy of small boat operations and spurred interest in missile-armed fast-attack crafts (FAC).1 Iran expanded the use of swarm tactics that formed the foundation of its approach to asymmetric naval warfare.2 Investment in an asymmetric navy composed of small craft is more cost-effective compared to building large surface combatants in addition to presenting a more elusive target. The shallow water environment precludes friendly or enemy deep-draft capital warships and submarines from operating in the SOA. It is the shallowest sea in the world with a mean depth of just 10 meters. Just as Iran developed asymmetric tactics to deal with a larger and more sophisticated U.S. Navy, so can Ukraine develop asymmetric tactics against a larger and more sophisticated Russian Navy.

For defense of the SOA, the Ukrainian Navy should consider investing in Anti-Surface Warfare (ASUW), Coastal Defense (CD), Mine Warfare (MIW), and military pay, housing, and training.  

Anti-Surface Warfare (ASUW)

The Ukrainian Navy should focus on building numerous anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM)-capable Patrol Boats (PB), Patrol Crafts (PC), and Guided-Missile Patrol Crafts (PTG). These small boats form the backbone of an asymmetric navy. Speed is a key requirement for these small boats to be able to employ shoot-and-scoot tactics. These vessels must be able to achieve minimum of 35 knots sustainable speed. In addition, these vessels must have long endurance to remain at sea for long periods of time. Frequent return to home-port to resupply makes the vessels more vulnerable. Therefore, vessels must have large storage capacity for provisions and fuel, relative to the size of the expected operating environment. To take on provisions, small crafts should be able to operate from inlets and small ports along the Azov coast. Therefore, another critical requirement is a low draft to operate in the SOA. Another potential solution could be small Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats (RHIB)-like crafts with powerful outboard engines. These 11-meter boats are capable of high speed, low draft, and are suitable for calm seas operations in the SOA. Under the Foreign Military Sales program in 2015, the US Navy delivered five 7/11-meter RHIBs produced by Willard Marine.3 This transfer fulfills speed and low draft requirements in the shallow littorals. Ukraine should continue to build a more robust surface patrol capability.

Maintenance, crew manning, and armaments are other important considerations. The future asymmetric fleet must be easy to maintain by using interchangeable parts that already exist in Ukraine’s defense infrastructure. Crew manning should be minimal to allow for crew rotation, training conducted on similar platforms, and manned by small increases to the overall manning level of the Ukrainian Navy. As for armaments, vessels should have 57-mm or 30-mm gun for self-defense and fire support, and perhaps .50 caliber (12.7mm) crew-served weapons for future interoperability with NATO.

These vessels’ main armament, however, should be ASCMs due to their longer range and lethality. The Ukraine Navy should incorporate the newly developed Neptune missile system on PCs, PTGs, and PBs when it passes all operational testing and evaluations.4 The two Gurza-M class armored patrol boats introduced to the Navy in 2015, with a further 20 planned by 2020, is a promising step in the right direction.5 However, these boats should have an ASCM capability. Otherwise, these new vessels risk being out-gunned and out-ranged. Such vessels would only be capable of conducting law enforcement operations in peacetime but inadequate in conducting sea denial operations in war.

Another area of needed attention is the modernization of C4ISR, strengthening cyber networks, and growing a professional cyber force in the Ukrainian military. All the investments in asymmetrical hardware would not be completely effective in combat unless they are tied to a modern, resilient battle network. Ukraine must elevate cyber to strengthen networks and the C2 of the fleet. The U.S. should provide training and support to standing up Ukrainian cyber defense efforts through rotational training, NATO exercises, and foreign military sales and support.

Coastal Defense (CD)

The Ukrainian Army, not the Navy, should develop and operate Coastal Defense Cruise Missile (CDCM) battalions. The Army has deeper funding and manning levels to be able to better integrate this additional mission. Other nations employ this model. Namely, the Japan Ground Self Defense Force is responsible for operating/employing CDCMs against enemy ships. Giving the coastal defense mission to the Army will lessen the burden on the Navy and allow it focus on sea denial operations while the Army supports these efforts from the littorals. Command and control between Army and Navy units is paramount to ensure target coordination. Modern C4ISR networks should aid target cueing. The Army can organize mobile battalions to employ shoot-and-scoot tactics from concealed positions against the enemy fleet at sea. If the new Neptune ASCM passes operational testing and evaluation, Ukraine can mass-produce these ASCMs to achieve economy of scale and equip Army CDCM battalions. Ukraine has a naval infantry arm which could also take on the coastal defense mission. However, the Army should operate the CDCMs over the naval infantry because the latter is a mobile strike fighting force, while the Army has broader experience and funding support for artillery and related mission areas.  

Helicopter-Based ASUW Capability

Helicopters should possess an air-to-surface anti-ship missile capability to complement the surface fleet and coastal defense ASCM capabilities. This strategy completes the triad of anti-ship missile forces operating from land, air, and sea. Helicopters can operate from unprepared airfields, an advantage over fixed-wing aircraft which require a longer, prepared runway. Helicopters can hover at low altitudes for longer periods of time – a suitable platform for conducting ASUW from the air. Ukraine should attempt to fit the indigenous Neptune missile on helicopters to field a formidable anti-ship platform in the SOA littoral.

Mine Warfare (MIW)

Ukraine should develop a defensive mine warfare capability to protect the Ukrainian coastline as well as to have the ability to conduct chokepoint denial operations. Bottom, moored, and influence mines should be adapted to the shallow operating environment of the SOA. In addition, the Ukrainian Navy should invest in mine-clearing capabilities to counter potential Russian mining of SOA and the Kerch Strait. An unmanned mine-clearing capability is likely more economical than sweepers with a crew of 30 personnel.  NATO countries should help Ukraine obtain an affordable mine-clearing capability. Such a defense-oriented system would not threaten Russia. Furthermore, providing this level of support does not cross the threshold that would require a NATO membership for Ukraine.

Pay, Housing, and Training

Finally, improvements in the morale intangibles are indispensable for building a modern navy. Ukraine must increase military wages and expand access to housing which cuts to the root of persistent low morale. Only then can Ukraine begin to turn the tide on poor job performance, recruiting, retention, and even defections. A robust training program is also necessary to be effective in asymmetric warfare. Old ammunition stockpiles should be renewed for safe training and operations. Above all, training should emphasize the Ukrainian joint force ability to defend the SOA with no help from other countries, in line with geopolitical realities. In addition, exercises with NATO provide invaluable interoperability and high quality training opportunities, and thus should be continued.

Joint Sea Denial Strategy

Ukraine should animate the above fleet investments with a cohesive joint doctrine to conduct sea denial operations. The goal of sea denial is to prevent sea control, and therefore, preventing Russia from using the sea to do harm through amphibious landings, blockade, and fires against shore defenses.7 Currently, Ukraine has local control only along its coast and cities such as Mariupol and Berdyansk. Patrols and coastal surveillance should ensure that no suspicious vessels operate near the littorals. Russian Special Forces may operate close to the littorals on civilian vessels feigning as fishermen or conducting commercial shipping. Through exercises that focus on interoperability, U.S. and NATO Navies can provide training on maritime interdiction and patrol operations to develop doctrines to help Ukraine defend its borders from the seaborne equivalent of Russia’s little green men.

A map of the Azov Sea (mapofukraine.net)

In wartime, Ukrainian forces should focus their attack on the Russian Special Forces, ground, and amphibious forces on military or commercial transports. Thus, the primary focus of effort for Ukrainian surface combatants, CDCMs, and helicopters should be concentration of fires on transports carrying Russian troops and Special Forces to deny seaborne invasion and infiltration. If Russian surface combatants are protecting the transports, Ukraine must threaten those combatants to strip away protection. The secondary target is to weaken enemy sustainment by attacking supply ships and commercial vessels carrying materiel. Tertiary targets should be enemy operational fires capabilities, i.e., ships with naval gun fire support, Russian air support, and artillery. Ukraine forces should jam enemy communications to prevent effective C2 and weaken enemy intelligence gathering efforts through operational deception.

Ukraine Chokepoint Denial Operations

Eventually in wartime, Ukraine must try to deny Russia’s ability to control the Kerch Strait through chokepoint denial operations. The Ukrainian Navy must use its asymmetric fleet with swarm tactics, surprise, and concentration of force against the Russian fleet when they are most vulnerable coming through the Kerch Strait. This will likely be a large missile engagement; therefore, the side with more firepower that presents the most elusive targets will win. If Ukraine is unsuccessful in preventing Russia from closing the Strait, Russia will be able to control the OPTEMPO in the SOA and isolate eastern Ukraine while threatening vital coastal cities such as Mariupol. Dividing Ukrainian forces will lead to a quick and eventual defeat, resulting in Russian dominance in the SOA. Russia’s commercial interests, sea mineral resources, and Crimea’s rear area will be secure from foreign threats. This is Russia’s desired end state, which Ukraine must prevent through sea denial and choke-point denial operations.  

Mariupol Naval Base

The last part of the strategy is to establish a naval base in Mariupol and forward deploy a part of its asymmetric fleet to help defend it. Mariupol is Russia’s ultimate operational objective in a scenario that seeks to connect Crimea and Russia. For Ukraine, Mariupol is its theater-strategic center of gravity in preventing Russia from annexing the Priazovye region. Since the loss of Sevastopol to Russia, the Ukrainian Navy has only one operational base in Odessa. Currently, there are no Navy bases east of the Crimean Peninsula. Therefore, Ukraine should consider establishing a naval base in Mariupol as it is the most favorable city with natural harbors, a sizeable population, and an industrial base to sustain a moderate naval and Sea Guard force. Establishing a naval base in Mariupol will enhance the ability to safeguard maritime rights in SOA during peacetime and conduct sea denial operations during wartime. The Sea Guard also already has a base in Mariupol. Co-location of the Navy and Sea Guard with shared use of repair and logistics facilities would alleviate resource constraints while investing in resilience in the form of resupply points and depots along the Azov coast and inlets to support replenishment. An over-reliance on Mariupol creates a singular vulnerability to attack, as seen in separatists’ offensives against Mariupol in 2014/15. Ukraine must diversify risk by spreading out resupply capabilities throughout the Azov coast.

Finally, Ukraine should station about one-third of the Ukrainian Navy assets in Mariupol. This balance would be favorable to have enough economy of scale and concentration of force to conduct effective patrols and have a deterrent effect against the adversary. Critics may point to the fact that forward-deploying a large percentage of Ukraine’s fleet in the SOA would be akin to trapping the fleet if Russia closes the Kerch Strait. That is the reason why Ukraine should not deploy more than one-third of its fleet to Mariupol. If Russia establishes control of SOA and closes the Kerch Strait, the SOA fleet would be trapped in; however, Ukraine would still possess two-thirds of its fleet in Odessa as an operational reserve for a possible future counterattack. Nevertheless, one-third of the Ukrainian fleet patrolling the SOA is a marked improvement from the current situation, which is a weak, sporadic, or virtually non-existent presence in the SOA. Forward presence would be a step in the right direction to show resolve and stave off potential encroachment of Ukrainian territory.

Counterargument

Why build an asymmetric fleet and position over a third of its force to the frontlines?  After all, this action may provoke a Russian reaction. In addition, an ill-conceived asymmetric navy will not deter a determined and capable Russia from further encroaching on Ukrainian territory. Western sanctions and fear of diplomatic reprisals have so far deterred Russia and separatists from taking over Mariupol. Russia will not be able to brook further sanctions on its already fragile economy. Thus, Russia will weigh the risk versus the rewards, and decide that it is not in Russia’s interest to take actions that would further result in crippling sanctions on its economy. Therefore, Ukraine should spend its precious resources elsewhere to help its citizens. Furthermore, any resources spent on the Ukrainian military should continue to prioritize the army and air force which are doing the lion-share of fighting in the Donbas region.

However, sanctions have seldom deterred Russian actions. Russia’s honor, prestige, and the importance of holding Crimea far outweigh the risks of sanctions and how the international community will regard such an action. If Russia cannot resupply Crimea adequately, the fear of potentially losing Crimea will force Russia to take measures to ensure Crimea’s survival by building a land corridor to Russia. Russia will factor the Ukrainian Army’s relative strength over the Ukrainian Navy’s weakness. If Ukraine takes no action to prioritize and strengthen its naval and coastal defense forces, the power vacuum left in the SOA will tempt Russia to regain its former territory via the sea. What would become of the Ukrainian government’s legitimacy when it cannot defend its country again from foreign attacks, including those from the maritime domain? The risks of inaction are greater than they appear.

Conclusion

Following Crimea’s seizure, Ukraine continues to face threats of Russian encroachment on its territory. Russian designs are based on geopolitical needs for resources, consolidation of gains, and resupply of Crimea via a land corridor linking to Russia. Supported by historical narratives of “Novorossiya,”8 Russia will time the invasion by hybrid forces when Ukraine is weak and the international community’s attention divided. As in the case of Crimea, seizure of the Azov coast will be swift, probably led by “little green men” using plausible deniability and supported by separatist forces from Donbas region.

Ukraine has three main ways to counter future Russian aggression in the SOA: develop an asymmetric force, conduct joint sea denial operations, and forward deploy forces to defend Mariupol. Ukraine must implement this strategy immediately. The risk of inaction is too great for Ukrainian territorial sovereignty. In the end, Russia’s overwhelming military power may be too much for a small, underfunded Ukrainian military. The idea, though, is to introduce enough risk to deter Russia from further aggression against Ukraine. The answer lies with the Ukrainian people which strategy they should pursue. 

LCDR Jason Yuki Osuga is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Europe Center and the U.S. Naval War College.  This essay was written for the Joint Military Operations course at NWC.

These views are presented in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views of any government agency.

References

1. Fariborz Haghshenass, “Iran’s Doctrine of Asymmetric Naval Warfare.” Washington Institute, December 21, 2006. Accessed October 1, 2016, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/irans-doctrine-of-asymmetric-naval-warfare.

2. Ibid.

3. “CCD Contracts and Technical Briefs,” NAVSEA Combatant Craft Division, August 15, 2015, 30.

4. “Ukraine Develops New ‘Neptune’ Anti-Ship Missile Complex,” Info-News. May 17, 2016. Accessed October 9, 2016. http://info-news.eu/ukraine-develops-new-neptune-anti-ship-missile-complexe/.

5. Eugene Garden, “Ukraine Plans for 20 New Patrol Boats,” Shephard Media, March 8, 2016. Accessed October 9, 2016. https://www.shephardmedia.com/news/imps-news/ukraine-plans-20-new-patrol-boats/.

6. “Ukraine Develops New ‘Neptune’ Anti-Ship Missile Complex,” Info-News.

7. Geoffrey Till, Seapower: A Guide for the 21st Century, (New York: Routledge, 2013), 152.

9. Kirill Mikhailov, “5 Facts About “Novorossiya” You Won’t Learn in a Russian History Class,” Euromaidan Press, October 17, 2014. Accessed 01 Oct 2016, http://euromaidanpress.com/2014/10/17/5-facts-about-novorossiya-you-wont-learn-in-a-russian-history-class/#arvlbdata.  

Featured Image: Gurza-M (Project 58155) small boat of the Ukrainian Navy. (Ministry of Defense of Ukraine)

Building an Asymmetric Ukrainian Naval Force to Defend the Sea of Azov Pt. 1

The following two-part series will analyze the maritime dimension of competition between Ukraine and Russia in the Sea of Azov. Part 1 analyzes strategic interests, developments, and geography in the Sea of Azov along with probable Russian avenues of aggression. Part 2 will devise potential asymmetric naval capabilities and strategies for the Ukrainian Navy to employ.

By Jason Y. Osuga

“The object of naval warfare must always be directly or indirectly to secure the command of the sea, or to prevent the enemy from securing it.”1 Sir Julian Corbett

Ukraine’s bid to join NATO, under the Partnership for Peace, and closer association with the European Union, have stirred Russian sensitivity and suspicion of Ukrainian and Western intentions.2 In 2014, Ukrainian President Yanukovych declined to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union to expand bilateral trade. Instead, he signed a trade agreement with Russia. Consequently, Ukrainians took to the streets of Kyiv in the Euromaidan protests, which led to the ouster of President Yanukovych. The new President, Poroshenko, refused to sign the 25-year extension on the lease of Sevastopol naval base in Crimea to the Russian Navy. Russia responded immediately by taking over Sevastopol and Crimea through Russian proxies clad in unmarked fatigues. To date, Russia has not returned Crimea and its naval base in Sevastopol. Ukraine must be able to defend its borders and sovereignty so that it can contribute to the stability of the Black Sea region.          

Current constrained budgets necessitate that Ukraine pursue a pragmatic maritime strategy grounded in the following geopolitical realities: it will not be a NATO ally, it will not have a great sophisticated navy, and it can no longer rely on Russia’s defense. If Ukraine continues on the current path, Ukrainian Navy’s weakness, Russia’s need to resupply Crimea, and Kerch Strait Bridge construction delays will tempt Russia to gain control of the Sea of Azov (SOA) to establish a land corridor between Russia and Crimea through the Donbas and Priazovye Regions. Therefore, a new Ukrainian maritime strategy must defend the SOA and deter Russian encroachment by building an asymmetric force, conducting joint sea denial operations, and establishing a naval base in Mariupol and forward-deploying a part of its fleet to the SOA.

Figure 1. Sea of Azov, Kerch Strait, and Crimea. (Google Maps)

Russian Motivations, Ukrainian Weakness, and Russian Operational Ideas

Since the Soviet Union’s dissolution, Russia and Ukraine have failed to agree on the demarcation of maritime borders in the SOA and Kerch Straits.3 In Ukraine’s National Security Strategy published in March 2015, President Poroshenko defined current security challenges that exist below the threat level, but could elevate into a more robust military threat. Specifically, it cited the unfinished border demarcation in the Black Sea and SOA as a potential flashpoint.4 Ukraine has responsibilities to protect its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the SOA and Black Sea under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea Treaty (UNCLOS).5 Ukraine has insisted on designating the SOA as an open sea under UNCLOS, as it links directly to the Black Sea and the world’s oceans.6 The Russian Government has, however, rejected Ukrainian claims. As an alternative, Russia called on Kyiv to abide by a 2003 agreement signed by the previous Ukrainian Government, which designated SOA as internal waters of Russia and Ukraine to be jointly owned, managed, and unregulated by international law.7 More recently, Ukraine has instituted arbitration proceedings against Russia under UNCLOS to adhere to maritime zones adjacent to Crimea in the Black Sea, SOA, and Kerch Strait.8 As a result, Ukraine asserts that Russia has usurped Ukrainian maritime rights in these zones. However, these legal actions have not halted Russian maritime aggression. In mid-September 2016, Russian vessels illegally seized Ukrainian oil rigs in the region and chased Ukrainian vessels out of the area.9 Tensions continue to mount as Russia solidifies its gains in Crimea, extending to offshore claims against Ukraine.

Resource Discovery

Russia and Ukraine’s relationship has shown no sign of improvement as more resources are discovered on its seabed. Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell and other major oil companies have explored the Black Sea, and some petroleum analysts say its potential may rival the North Sea.10 In addition, natural gas exploration has availed as many as 13 gas and dry gas deposits with a combined 75 billion cubic meters (bcm) of prospected resources discovered on the shelf, seven in the Black Sea and six in the SOA.11 Subsequently, three new gas deposits have been found on the southern Azov Sea shelf. Since taking over Crimea, Russia has made new maritime claims around Crimea in the SOA and Black Sea (see Figures 2 & 3 showing Russian maritime claims before and after Crimea’s annexation). President Vladimir Putin declared the “Azov-Black Sea basin is in Russia’s zone of strategic interests,” because it provides Russia with direct access to the most important global transport routes.12 In addition to commercial routes, keeping hydrocarbon resources from Ukraine is clearly among Russia’s interests.

Figure 2. Sea Claims Prior to Russian Annexation of Crimea (Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory13)
Figure 3. New Russian Claims following Crimea Annexation in Black Sea and SOA.14

Possible Russian Designs on a Land Corridor

In addition to having access to the sea, Russia could also seek a land corridor connecting Crimea to Russia through the Donbas Region.15 There are at least two primary reasons for Russian leadership’s desire to encroach further on Ukraine’s territory. First, Russia needs to protect new claims in the Crimea, SOA, Black Sea, and its maritime resources. Second, Russia needs to increase the capacity to resupply Crimea through a land corridor connecting Crimea to Russia. Since the occupation of Crimea, Ukraine closed the northern borders of Crimea and Ukraine. This forces Russia to supply Crimea with food and basic wares from the sea, mainly via ferries across the Kerch Strait from Krasnodar Region to Crimea. The reliance on a single ferry system could cause a bottleneck in traffic when it reaches a daily limit on supplies carried across the Strait. Crimea depends heavily on Russia to fulfill basic services, with 75 percent of its budget last year coming from Moscow, in addition to supplying Crimea with daily electricity rationing.16 A land line of communication (LOC) via a road between Crimea and Russia would alleviate the burden of supplying Crimea by sea only. The highway along the Azov coast is the shortest link.

Realizing the SLOCs are limited, Russia is building the Kerch Strait Bridge, which will connect the Crimean Peninsula to Russia. Until its completion in 2019, however, there is no land LOC to sustain the economy and bases in Crimea. Therefore, SOA carries significance for its sea line of communication (SLOC) from Russia to Crimea. Protection of this SLOC is Russia’s main objective to consolidate its gains and secure sustainment of Crimean bases. Only then would Russia be able to use Crimea as a lily pad for power projection into the Black Sea.

The Kerch Strait Bridge construction, however, is beset with delays. Due to sanctions placed on Russia by the E.U. and the U.S., Russia is in dire financial straits which puts the completion of the bridge at risk. The construction cost of the bridge is expected to cost more than $5 billion as construction delays mount.17 Unpaid workers are quitting the project in protest over dangerous working conditions.18 With uncertainty over the bridge’s construction and overcapacity of the ferry, the need for land routes to Crimea becomes even greater. Because Ukraine closed its borders to Crimea in protest against Russian occupation, Russia must forcibly establish a LOC. In order to establish a LOC corridor, Russia must control the SOA.

Kerch Strait Bridge construction footage (Sputnik/June 2017)

Ukraine’s Weak Navy

The Ukrainian Navy is old, chronically underfunded, and too small to effectively counter potential Russian aggression previously described. Ukraine’s land and air forces receive the lion-share of defense spending.19 Lack of spending on the Ukrainian Navy is a distinct disadvantage in maritime security of the SOA. The Ukrainian Navy consists of 15,000 sailors and 30 combat ships and support vessels, of which only six ships are truly combat capable while the rest are auxiliaries and support vessels.20 All in all, Ukraine lacks the capabilities to protect the now less than 350 kilometers of Azov coastline.21

Defections, low morale and training also plague the Ukraine Navy, decimating its end strength. Many sailors defected to Russia during the Crimea crisis.22 There is a systemic failure to invest in training and personnel, with housing shortages and low personnel pay depressing morale and retention.23 Old ammunition stockpiles adds to training issues. Ukraine will not win a symmetrical engagement on the open water against the Russian navy. As a result, Ukraine must seek comparative advantages in the asymmetric realm by addressing tangible and intangible issues in force structure, doctrine, morale, and training.

Theater Geometry and Interior Lines of Attack

 If Russia were to strike at the Ukrainian Achilles’ heel, it would attack from the sea taking advantage of Russia’s dominance in the SOA and Kerch Strait vice attacking on land. This is due to the Ukrainian Army being a more sizeable and proficient force compared to the Navy that is weak and underfunded.24 Russia’s control of Crimea shortens its line of operations (LOO) into eastern Ukraine. With uncontested control of SOA, Russian transports will have the freedom of maneuver to assemble forces in the SOA and utilize interior lines of attack along the [Ukrainian] coast.25 Russia will be able to maximize three enabling functions to increase combat power: sustainment using shorter SLOCs, protection of its transports and flanks by gaining sea control to then conduct amphibious landings, and establishment of effective command and control (C2) of forward-deployed forces through shorter lines of operations and an advantage in factor space. Consequently, Russia will be able to increase combat power of its limited “hybrid” troops to seize objectives ashore. Therefore, a strong navy is necessary to deny Russian forces from using the sea to seize the Azov coast.

Figure 4. Notional Russian amphibious attack vector using interior lines from assembly point in Sea of Azov. . Roads along the coast connect Crimea to Russia. Russia’s Ultimate Objective is Mariupol w/ Intermediate Objectives along E58. (Google Maps)

Seizing Opportunity and The Russian Operational Idea

Strategically, Russia will weigh the benefit of seizing more Ukrainian territory to establish a LOC between Crimea and Russia against the costs of likely Western sanctions or retaliations. Russia will seize the initiative upon any perceived Ukrainian or international weakness that presents an opportunity. Russian Op idea would be to reach objectives along the Azov coast with speed, surprise, and plausible deniability using amphibious crafts Ropucha and Alligator-class LSTs, LCM landing crafts, and LCUA/LCPA air cushion landing crafts or a combination with commercial ships/boats.26 Hybrid forces clad in civilian clothing will use speed, surprise, and plausible deniability to seize decisive points along the Azov coast maximizing the shortened LOO/LOC to seize the ultimate objective of Mariupol.

Russia will seize on Ukraine’s critical weakness—sporadic or non-existent naval presence in the SOA. The Russian Navy will assert sea control in the SOA, and attempt to close Mariupol port through a blockade. Russia’s critical strengths and operational center of gravity (COG) are its well-trained and commanded special and ground forces, which are key to seizing territory and linking the Crimean Peninsula to Russia by land. Separatist forces from the Donbas Region will support by encircling Mariupol from the north. The Russian Navy and Air Force will likely support the ground offensives through naval gunfire, land-attack missiles, and air support to attack defensive positions along beaches and cities. Russia will ensure unity of command between the special forces, navy, and separatist forces by maximizing functions of intelligence, C2, sustainment, fires, and protection combined with principles of war such as speed, initiative, surprise, deniability, and concentration of force to enable success.

Russia will complement the offensive using hybrid warfare techniques such as a strategic media blitz and cyber warfare to win the war of the narrative and global opinion. Various Russian media outlets such as RT will broadcast the Russian strategic narrative that it will protect Russian speakers in the near abroad and will reunite inherently Russian territory back to the motherland. Furthermore, Russia will use the cyber domain not only to carry out media warfare, but will use it to attack Ukrainian government websites and infrastructure through denial of service attacks and more sophisticated cyber-attack vectors. Thus, cyberspace will be a key domain of its main attack vector in addition to air, sea, and land.

Part 2 will devise potential asymmetric naval capabilities and strategies for the Ukrainian Navy to employ.

LCDR Jason Yuki Osuga is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Europe Center and the U.S. Naval War College.  This essay was originally written for the Joint Military Operations course at NWC.

These views are presented in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views of any government agency.

[1] Julian S. Corbett, Principles of Maritime Strategy, (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2004), 87.

[2] Janusz Bugajski, Cold Peace: Russia’s New Imperialism (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2004), 56.

[3] Deborah Sanders, “Ukraine’s Maritime Power in the Black Sea—A Terminal Decline?” Journal of Slavic Military Studies 25:17-34, Routledge, 2012, 26.

[4] Maksym Bugriy, “Ukraine’s New Concept Paper on Security and Defense Reform,” Eurasia Daily Monitor 13, No. 79. April 22, 2016.

[5] Deborah Sanders, “Ukraine’s Maritime Power in the Black Sea—A Terminal Decline?”, 18.

[6] Ibid., 26.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Roman Olearchik, “Ukraine Hits Russia with Another Legal Claim.” Financial Times. September 14, 2016. Accessed October 6, 2016. http://www.ft.com/fastft/2016/09/14/ukraine-hits-russia-with-another-legal-claim/.

[9] Ibid.

[10] William J. Broad, “In Taking Crimea, Putin Gains a Sea of Fuel Reserves.” The New York Times, May 17, 2014. Accessed 10 Oct 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/18/world/europe/in-taking-crimea-putin-gains-a-sea-of-fuel-reserves.html.

[11] “Ukraine to Tap Gas on Black, Azov Sea Shelf.” Oil and Gas Journal, November 27, 2000. Accessed October 7, 2016. http://www.ogj.com/articles/print/volume-98/issue-48/exploration-development/ukraine-to-tap-gas-on-black-azov-sea-shelf.html.

[12] Deborah Sanders, “U.S. Naval Diplomacy in the Black Sea,” Naval War College Review, Summer 2007, Vol. 60, No. 3. Newport, RI.  

[13] William J. Broad, “In Taking Crimea, Putin Gains a Sea of Fuel Reserves.” The New York Times.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Steven Pifer, “The Mariupol Line: Russia’s Land Bridge to Crimea.” Brookings Institution, March 15, 2015. Accessed 24 Sep 2016, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2015/03/19/the-mariupol-line-russias-land-bridge-to-crimea/.

[16] Ander Osborn, “Putin’s Bridge’ Edges Closer to Annexed Crimea despite Delays.” Reuters, April 18, 2016. Accessed 24 Sep 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-ukraine-crisis-crimea-bridge-idUSKCN0XF1YS.

[17] Daria Litvinova, “Why Kerch May Prove a Bridge Too Far for Russia.” The Moscow Times, June 17, 2016. Accessed 30 Sep 2016. https://themoscowtimes.com/articles/why-kerch-may-prove-a-bridge-too-far-for-russia-53309.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Amy B. Coffman, James A. Crump, Robbi K. Dickson, and others, “Ukraine’s Military Role in the Black Sea Region,” Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University, 2009, 7.

[20] Eleanor Keymer, Jane’s Fighting Ships, Issue 16 (Surrey, UK: Sentinel House), 2015, 642.

[21] Janusz Bugajski and Peter Doran, “Black Sea Rising: Russia’s Strategy in Southeast Europe.” Center for European Policy Analysis, Black Sea Strategic Report No.1, February 2016, 8.

[22] Sam LaGrone, “Ukrainian Navy is Slowly Rebuilding,” USNI, May 22, 2014.

[23] Deborah Sanders, “Ukraine’s Maritime Power in the Black Sea—A Terminal Decline?”, 25, 29.

[24] Amy B. Coffman, James A. Crump, Robbi K. Dickson, and others, “Ukraine’s Military Role in the Black Sea Region,” Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University, 2009, 7.

[25] Milan Vego, Joint Operational Warfare: Theory and Practice, (Newport, RI: U.S. Naval War College, 2009), p. IV-52.

[26] Eric Wertheim, Guide to Combat Fleets of the World, 16th edition, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press) 2013, 608-610.

Featured Image: Ukrainian Navy personnel on the day of Naval Forces in 2016 (Ukraine MoD)