Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has had two profound geopolitical consequences for frontline naval strategy. By driving Finland and Sweden into NATO, the Kremlin has turned the Baltic Sea into an alliance lake. Equally, it has highlighted Russia’s strengths (and limitations) in making the Black Sea a Russian lake.
Clearly, the first is good news for the alliance, and the second is a problem. It’s one that NATO needs to fix.
None of this is to diminish the Ukrainian armed forces’ wartime campaigning in the Black Sea. They have done an extraordinary job armed with very little, and have cleverly exploited new technologies to force the Russian navy into a defensive posture. While the key port city of Sevastopol in occupied Crimea remains in Russian hands, the navy’s operations from there have been curtailed.
Nonetheless, its recapture by Ukraine is a central element in loosening the Kremlin’s grip on the Black Sea. As Lt-Gen (rtd.) Ben Hodges has explained, Ukraine’s path to victory runs through the peninsula. Its liberation should begin by targeting lines of communication and logistics infrastructure to isolate Russian forces. Once expelled, the Russians would lose a critical strategic port.
Sevastopol was long the headquarters of the Soviet Union’s Black Sea Fleet. When Ukraine gained independence in 1991, the Russian Navy was forced to move its headquarters about 200 miles eastwards to Novorossiysk. Moscow continued to lease naval facilities in Crimea, a presence that enabled the 2014 annexation of Crimea, after which Russia returned its fleet to Sevastopol.
Russia’s militarization of the Black Sea from that moment highlighted the peninsula’s commanding position for maritime superiority. The Kremlin quickly moved air and coastal capabilities to the peninsula, including S400 surface-to-air missiles and the Bastion coastal defense system. The stationing of these advanced long-range weapons systems expanded Russian anti-access and area denial to almost the entire Black Sea, compared to just the eastern third when they were based to the east in Russia proper.
This change of the Black Sea into a “Russian Lake” delivered mixed results in Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine. Russia had a clear advantage in naval combat capability, enough that Ukraine scuttled its flagship at the start of the war, and Russian ships launched Kalibr cruise missiles from the first night of the conflict. Naval guns also provided supporting fire from Odesa to the Sea of Azov, and Moskva, the Black Sea Fleet flagship, famously participated in the initial seizure of Snake Island.
However, shore-based missiles sank the Moskva in April, and a raid on Sevastopol in October using uncrewed surface vessels (USV) emphasized that, despite clear advantages, the Russian Navy could not operate with impunity. While Black Sea Fleet ships are still launching Kalibr missiles in Russia’s strikes on Ukrainian population centers and energy infrastructure, a lot of Moscow’s capability has shifted back to Novorossiysk, and the fleet has largely operated south of the Crimean peninsula and further east to avoid asymmetrical threats from Ukraine.
If Ukraine is able to liberate Crimea, driving the Black Sea Fleet out of Sevastopol in the process, and re-establish its sovereignty across the rest of the country, what is next for the Black Sea?
In all scenarios, maritime security will be tenuous. Russia’s Novorossiysk-based fleet will still be the strongest among the six states that border the Black Sea, and the Kremlin’s strategic view of the region is unlikely to change.
So what can be done? To counter the imbalance, Ukraine must rebuild its Navy with Western help, using support and relationships from before and during the war. In addition to supplying the Ukrainian Navy with Bayraktar TB-2 uncrewed aerial systems (UAS), Turkey struck a deal in 2020 with Kyiv to build two corvettes; the first launched in October 2022 and is scheduled for delivery by the end of 2023. UK shipbuilder Babcock also has a contract with Ukraine to build a frigate, eight missile boats, and to supply naval armaments.
In the interim, and facing a large Russian fleet that it cannot challenge with conventional means, Ukraine has innovated. Despite having no ships at sea, it has innovated (see above) and carried out a range of successful attacks on Russia which demonstrated the value of uncrewed vehicles and anti-ship missiles such as Harpoon, Brimstone, and the indigenously produced Neptune.
But Western supporters will need to go further and commit to a more substantial rebuilding of Ukraine’s Navy, providing modern command and control, and fusion centers to maximize the value of UAS/UAV alongside missiles and ships.
NATO’s approach to the Black Sea Region in the aftermath of the war must begin with a coherent strategy for security in the region and a re-established deterrent naval presence. All foreign naval vessels — both Russian and alliance — were blocked from entry to the sea when Turkey applied the provisions of the 1936 Montreux Convention when the war began.
There are, nonetheless, three NATO members with Black Sea borders. Turkey, Romania, and Bulgaria must find common ground on which to build a significant alliance presence. Romania and Bulgaria will need to continue to improve their naval capabilities to do so credibly, and the US, UK, and other allies need to act as “lead contributors” to NATO’s presence there.
With forethought and planning, NATO could provide a significant presence despite the limitation of the Montreux Convention. The lead contributors, supported by all allied navies, could provide significant steaming days despite the treaty restrictions.
In addition to national deployments, the alliance’s Standing NATO Maritime Groups should also provide a presence in the Black Sea, flying the flag while supporting Ukraine, for example, by offering protection for energy infrastructure or its globally important grain exports.
As with Ukraine’s future navy, it is not all about ships. Maritime patrol aircraft from alliance nations, such as the P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, should rotate through the three NATO Black Sea states, while Alliance Ground Surveillance RQ-4D Phoenix drones, which have the range to fly from their main operating base in Sigonella, Italy, should be regularly utilized to add to surveillance coverage.
National contributions of Uncrewed Surface Vehicles (USVs), UAVs, and even subsurface uncrewed sensor platforms can be a force multiplier for a smaller number of ships in the Black Sea. To back this up, the alliance needs to place a fusion center, or even a NATO Center of Excellence for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, alongside uncrewed sensor platforms in the region.
A coherent strategy and tangible commitment to naval security would help protect Ukraine from future hostility and create opportunities for Western allies to engage with other friends in the region, particularly Georgia and Moldova, to ensure a joint approach from all countries around the Black Sea to counter the Russian threat.
Steven Horrell is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Transatlantic Defense and Security Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). He is a former US Navy Intelligence Officer, retiring as a Captain in 2021.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.