Russia-Ukraine Crisis Reflected on the Waters of the World

Photo: Russian vessel at the completion of the Russian-Chinese exercise Maritime Interaction 2021. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense
Photo: Russian vessel at the completion of the Russian-Chinese exercise Maritime Interaction 2021. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense

Russia’s land-based military build-up continues along Ukraine’s borders; the Kremlin is now also mobilizing more than 140 warships around the globe.

Naval maneuvering has a direct impact on the credibility of Russia’s current military threats and also illustrates the global nature of the showdown. From the Black Sea and immediate capability building, to the Mediterranean, the north-eastern Atlantic, and the Indian and Pacific oceans, the Kremlin is displaying its maritime power. These exercises both highlight Russia’s greater ambitions inherent in demands regarding Ukraine and demonstrate the Russian Federation Navy’s resurgent ability to deploy across the world’s trade routes and littoral areas.

While Russia’s army and air force deployments in ever-greater strength close to Ukraine have been well-documented, there is a less-observed naval build-up too. In March and April of 2021, Russia augmented the Black Sea Fleet with amphibious landing craft from the Caspian Sea Flotilla (moving through the river and canal networks) and from the Baltic and Northern Fleets.

As with the ground forces, these amphibious assets remained in the theater after Russia’s nominal standdown — reportedly tied to the September ZAPAD-2021 exercise. The Baltic Fleet and Northern Fleet ships eventually exited the Black Sea in November-December, but the Caspian Sea ships remained in place in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.

Now, six Baltic Fleet and Northern Fleet landing craft are in the Mediterranean, and are expected to steam into the Black Sea. The addition of these amphibious ships and embarked naval infantry further increases the options available to the Kremlin if the decision is taken to use military force. This would allow scalability from gray zone activities to smaller, targeted incursions, to a wider multi-axis attack in a largescale further invasion.

Geographically, Russia’s potential noose around Ukraine now expands to nearly 360 degrees. With increased forces in Belarus in the wake of the Union State exercise “Allied Resolve”, the additional amphibious capability allows Russia to threaten gas/oil platforms, expanding the threat axis to the north, the east, the Russian forces in occupied Crimea, and all along the Black Sea littoral to Odesa. Previous actions to dominate the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov enable an attack on the port of Mariupol.

NATO has responded with its own naval deployments. Spain announced the dispatch of two frigates to the Black Sea, highlighting the value of a naval presence, even in a crisis dominated by ground combat power. This deployment shows the flag in the area, but remains less provocative than troop deployments to Ukraine.

At the same time, the NATO exercise NEPTUNE STRIKE 2022 has begun in the Mediterranean. This drill includes the US Navy aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman and her Strike Group, which is under NATO command for the exercise – the first time since the Cold War that a US Navy Carrier Strike Group has been under NATO command. It is important to note that while this exercise was previously planned, and is not a reaction to Russia’s buildup around Ukraine, it amplifies the Western message of unity, and represents a tangible commitment to Europe and European defense.

Elsewhere, NATO is monitoring Russia’s other deployments. Russian Northern Fleet units will conduct a live-fire exercise 240 km off of Ireland from February 3-8. This will take place in international waters but within Ireland’s Economic Exclusive Zone, leading to vocal protests by Irish fishermen, who threatened to disrupt the drills.

It is worth noting that these exercises are occurring in the immediate vicinity of underseas cables which carry a significant portion of transatlantic internet traffic. This is unlikely to be coincidental — Britain’s most senior military officer recently warned of the threat posed by Russia to global communications.

Russia, China, and Iran also announced January joint naval exercises in the Northern Indian Ocean. These are more indicative of a partnership of convenience than a deeper strategic alliance. But as Russia’s demands on the West have evolved to encompass a new global security architecture, this cooperation perhaps paints a picture of the multi-polar power structure — with Russian global relevance — that would suit Putin’s view of a world where the US and Europe grant Russia deserved respect. China also seeks to re-adjust the global rules-based order.

Tactically, any further Russian invasion of Ukraine will be air-ground focused, but increased Russian Navy activities in the Black Sea are an important element of Russia’s capabilities build-up. Along with other forces, naval deployments increase the scale and the scope of military options available to Putin. Russia’s navy, which reached a nadir after the collapse of the Soviet empire, is continuing its resurgence, just as the country’s new leader pursues a more assertive foreign policy.

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.

February 3, 2022