The link between Anglo-French Storm Shadow cruise missiles slamming into Russia’s Black Sea Fleet headquarters on September 22 and a Ukrainian special forces operation to seize gas drilling rigs west of Crimea about 12 days earlier, is not immediately apparent. But it is intimate.
Over the past weeks, Ukraine has been waging a daring campaign of attacks aimed at softening Russian defenses and increasing its freedom of maneuver in the northern part of the Black Sea and the Crimean Peninsula. As a result, Russia’s control over the waters near Ukraine is now weaker than at any point in the 19-month-long all-out war.
It seems clear that planning for the operations now underway was begun early in the year when around 1,000 Ukrainian marines arrived in the UK for training by the Royal Marines and their Dutch counterparts. They returned home in August. The following month, Ukrainian marines using small boats, attacked the Boyko oil rigs. The Royal Marines’ Special Boat Squadron (SBS) specializes in such operations.
Russia had stationed radar and sensor equipment on the rigs, which according to Ukraine, had allowed them to monitor large parts of the northern Black Sea. With Russia’s military eyes blinded, Ukraine exploited the opportunity.
Soon after, a storm of attacks began against Russian military installations — including warships, radar, air defense systems, airfields, and command and communications centers. It has not yet abated. Special forces units and cruise missile-armed jets have taken part, but Ukraine has also used explosive maritime and aerial drones to strike patrol ships.
Many of the early shaping operations went largely unreported, but their importance has become evident this month. By breaching the network of surveillance and air defenses equipment dotting the Black Sea and Crimea, the Ukrainian military has expanded its area of operations. As a result, Ukrainian planes, among others, can safely operate in a wider region.
The effect has been significant. Ukrainian Storm Shadows hit two ships undergoing repair at the Sevastopol drydocks. Despite Russian claims that the Ropucha-class Minsk landing ship and the Kilo-class submarine, Rostov-on-Don, can be repaired, pictures of the aftermath show that is unlikely. The shipyard itself may be unusable in the medium-term, another significant achievement when considering Russia’s shortage of drydock space. Ukrainian sources say all Russia’s submarines have now left Crimea for safer ports further east.
While Crimea is critically important to Vladimir Putin, it is more than just a trophy. The deep water port is critical to controlling the Black Sea, and the Kerch Bridge to Russia is vital in resupplying Russian armies battling the Ukrainian counteroffensive further north.
Ukrainian operations seek to deny Russia its land bridge in Southern Ukraine between the Donbas and Crimea. Recently there has been skepticism as to whether Ukrainian forces may be able to do so, and perhaps a focus on a less ambitious objective, including the capture of Tokmak, which is now 16km (10 miles) south of the front line.
But even if Ukrainian forces only manage to secure this objective, such a success combined with regular attacks against key points in Crimea would make Russia’s military campaign extremely difficult. If the overarching goal of the counter-offensive is to make sure the Russian presence in southern Ukraine becomes untenable, then the two-pronged effort Ukrainian forces are carrying out — one on land, and the other at sea and by air — will have brought them much closer to this goal, and to another turning point in the war.
Michael Horowitz is a geopolitical and conflict analyst, as well as the head of the analyst team at Le Beck International. As such, he and his team advise multiple companies and NGOs operating in Ukraine following Russia’s invasions. Michael’s commentary and analysis can also be found in multiple international and regional outlets, including major publications like The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, BBC, NBC, AP, and elsewhere.
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.