War at sea is critical to Ukraine’s survival against Russia

Black Sea Fleet flagship Moskva
Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP, File
FILE – In this photo provided by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, Russian missile cruiser Moskva is on patrol in the Mediterranean Sea near the Syrian coast on Dec. 17, 2015.

Public focus on the Russo-Ukrainian war remains fixated on the conflict’s ground operations. This is reasonable, considering the frightening images of Russian airstrikes throughout Ukraine, Russian brutality in Bucha, Mariupol and elsewhere, and the developing battle for the Donbas region. 

However, the long-term strategic situation suggests that the naval balance will decide the war, and in turn, Russia’s future position in Eastern Europe. As it provides military assistance to Ukraine, the U.S. and its allies must ensure that Kyiv wins the war at sea. 

Russia’s initial offensive failed in a fundamental respect: Its attempt to psychologically terrify Ukraine’s military and political system did not work. Ukrainian resistance did not collapse; Ukrainian units retreated into urban areas and bloodied Russia when it attempted to take those, while Russia’s unjustifiably bold air assault against Hostomel did not open a road to Kyiv. Most critically, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, his cabinet and Ukraine’s parliament did not flee. After several weeks of continuous combat, Ukraine counterattacked decisively, forcing Russia to abandon its Kyiv assault or risk encirclement of its forces. 

In turn, Russia refocused on the Donbas, attempting to envelop the main body of Ukrainian forces in a triangle between Izyum, Severodonetsk and Horlivka, and driving to the borders of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, or districts. Russia launched its offensive without sufficient preparation, throwing exhausted units into brutal frontal assaults and hoping its mass of artillery would break Ukrainian lines. Russia attacked without preparation in part for political reasons, but also for military ones.  

As NATO supplies have increased, so has Ukraine’s combat power. Western-supplied artillery will increase Ukrainian lethality and enable it to counterattack again. Russia hoped to preempt this and moved early; again, it failed. 

Over the past two weeks, Ukraine has consolidated around Kharkiv and held between Severodonetsk and Izyum. Earlier last week, it began counterattacking north of Kharkiv and now is in position for a broader offensive towards Russia’s lines of communication and supply supporting Izyum. If Ukraine presses this attack home, it can cut off some 40,000 Russians, an event that may trigger an operational collapse, or at least a strategic repositioning. 

However, Ukraine’s successes on land have masked Russia’s relatively strong theater strategic position moving forward. Assuming Russia can respond to Ukraine’s counterattack, which it has the capacity to do if it reduces the pace of its Donbas offensive, it can consolidate a line in eastern Ukraine and hold it over the summer. Behind this line it can mobilize its population, equipping and training another 100,000 or more conscripts for a renewed offensive in the fall and winter. 

Moreover, Russia’s position in the south gives it a long-term strategic advantage. Except for Odesa, it holds every major Black and Azov Sea port — Mariupol, Berdyansk, Kherson. With a land bridge to Crimea, Russia can bolster its missile forces on the peninsula and better support the Black Sea Fleet, reducing Odesa’s commercial viability. 

Ukraine is the world’s eighth-largest wheat producer; its economy relies upon wheat, steel and petroleum exports to survive. Without its major ports, Ukraine must develop new export routes to keep its economy moving, especially if it is to survive a long war, even with Western financial support. 

There are some limited workarounds. Ukraine has increased its rail exports to Romania’s Constanta Port. It has turned to smaller ports along the Danube Basin to supplement Odesa’s capacity. And it has maximized its rail links with Central Europe to expand capacity. But the smaller Black Sea ports cannot replace the infrastructure of Mariupol, Berdyansk and Kherson; railway capacity is finite and limited by gauge differences between Ukraine’s post-Soviet network and that of its neighbors. Thus, there is no substitute for Ukrainian port access. 

As long as Russian warships patrol the Black Sea, Ukrainian shipping remains at risk. Thus, if Russia retains control of Ukraine’s south and the Black Sea, it can squeeze the Ukrainian economy. A peace agreement will not remedy this. Only the liberation of Ukraine’s occupied south will. 

In the short to medium terms, this liberation may be impossible. A counteroffensive in the Donbas is already a tall task. Like its Russian adversary, Ukraine’s military is approaching combat exhaustion despite the constant influx of Western supplies and its soldiers’ high morale. Ukraine, moreover, would need to double its maneuver forces to conduct a multi-axis offensive against Russia that recaptured Kherson Oblast, Berdyansk and Mariupol while still defending the Donbas. Barring an unlikely Russian capitulation, Ukraine cannot guarantee the use of all its ports in the next eight months. 

However, if Ukraine breaks Russia’s sea control, it can expand capacity in Odesa and its smaller surrounding ports while increasing its output to Constanta, and perhaps to Varna in Bulgaria.

Destroying the Russian Black Sea Fleet and carving away Russian strike capacity on the Crimean peninsula would secure this objective. Additionally, absent maritime strategic depth and the ability to project power from Crimea, Russia would be more vulnerable in southern Ukraine, enabling a future counterattack. 

Ukraine has demonstrated significant competence at sea despite being outmatched. The 2014 Annexation of Crimea destroyed Ukrainian naval power. When the Russian invasion began, the Ukrainian navy fielded only a handful of secondhand Soviet-era and American patrol craft, and four indigenously built gunboats.   

Ukraine has leveraged its nascent anti-ship cruise missiles to outsized effect, using Western intelligence support and creative tactics to sink the Slava-class cruiser Moskva, the Black Sea Fleet’s flagship and its most potent air-defense system. It repurposed a short-range ballistic missile to hit a Russian amphibious assault ship in port; it has attacked Russian patrol craft with Multiple Long Range System artillery, an unorthodox but effective use of the bombardment system, and it has mined areas that Russian warships frequented. 

Nevertheless, these capabilities are grossly insufficient if Ukraine is to tip the naval balance, attacking the Black Sea Fleet and destroying Russian strike capacity in Crimea. Four steps are necessary. 

First, the U.S. should prioritize sending anti-ship missiles and launchers to toughen Ukraine’s naval capabilities. Ukraine is likely to receive British-supplied Harpoon and Brimstone anti-ship missiles and may obtain Norway’s Naval Strike Missile and Israel’s Blue Spear. The Brimstone has only a 40- to 60-km. range, making it useful for coastal defense, but not for longer-range strike.   

The Harpoon is more effective. Its 120-km. range would cover the northwestern Black Sea, from Crimea to the Ukrainian-Romanian coastline. The Naval Strike Missile and the possible introduction of Israel’s sea-skimming anti-ship missile, Gabriel, by contrast, have around a 200-km. range, which would give Ukraine the ability to strike western Crimea. All four should be rushed to Ukraine, and the U.S. should help smooth the transfer process. 

Second, the U.S. should consider offering longer-range cruise missiles to Ukraine, including even the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM), the backbone of American and Allied tactical missile capabilities. However, its extended range would allow it to destroy targets throughout Crimea, pressuring Russian basing and logistics. 

Third, the U.S. should consider expanding its Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (drones) support to Ukraine, including deployment of older MQ-1 Predators. The U.S. could not sell most of its retired Predator fleet once it transitioned to the Reaper, partly because of implicit requirements that the Missile Technology Control Regime (MCTR) created. However, both the U.S. and Ukraine are party to the MCTR and, as the arrangement is informal, it could be circumvented. Ukraine has shown significant skill operating Turkish TB2 drones, and likely could transition to the Predator quickly. Providing Ukraine with Hellfire missiles alongside Predator drones would, at minimum, boost Ukrainian land-attack capacity. But the Hellfire has been tested in a naval capacity — and Ukraine’s operational creativity would adapt it to this circumstance. 

Fourth, in the long-term, the U.S. should manage a technology-sharing agreement between Ukraine and NATO’s Eastern European members — Poland, Romania and Bulgaria — that allows those countries to produce Neptune ASCMs for Ukrainian use. The Neptune’s 300-km range allows it to strike targets well into the Black Sea, giving Ukraine the combat edge and range it would need to contest Russian sea control. 

Command of the Black Sea is critical to Russia’s objectives: reinforcing its grip on Crimea, cutting off Ukraine’s seaborne links to international markets, guaranteeing Russia’s uninterrupted access to year-round ports, intimidating NATO members Romania and Bulgaria, and assuring secure communications with Russia’s naval base in Syria.  

Ukraine’s geography and fight for survival illustrate the often-mutual dependence of war at sea, on the land and in the air. Turning back Russia’s invasion requires that U.S. and allied assistance to Ukraine act on this fact. U.S. policy should support Ukraine’s naval defense and enable its victory at sea. 

Seth Cropsey is founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of “Mayday: The Decline of American Naval Supremacy” (2013) and “Seablindness: How Political Neglect Is Choking American Seapower and What to Do About It” (2017).

Tags anti-ship missiles Black Sea Fleet Crimea Donbas drones military aid to Ukraine Military equipment Moskva Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian Navy Ukrainian victory

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