Ukraine has invested heavily in carrying out complex operations to strike at targets across Crimea including Russian naval vessels, ports, as well as striking at civilian infrastructure including the Crimean Bridge. According to Kiev, this is all part of a strategy meant to first isolate the peninsula, then seize it from Russia.
The Western media, for its part, has invested heavily in convincing the world that Ukraine is “winning” in the Black Sea, and is building on these victories not only toward seizing Crimea but also toward defeating Russia altogether.
In reality, Ukraine’s operations in the Black Sea are a distraction away from Ukraine’s growing crisis amid what is fundamentally a land war, a crisis that if left unaddressed will inevitably lead to Ukraine’s defeat.
A Heavy Investment
Ukraine’s desire to isolate and seize Crimea has manifested itself as a long-term long-range strike campaign using everything from naval and aerial drones, to the most sophisticated and capable long-range strike capabilities transferred by the West to Ukraine.
Air-launched cruise missiles fired by what remains of Ukraine’s air force have targeted ports, military bases, and civilian infrastructure across the peninsula. Ukrainian warplanes are sometimes targeted and destroyed while launching salvos of air-launched cruise missiles, reducing even further Ukraine’s combat power. The salvos of missiles are met with Russia’s formidable air and missile defenses as well as electronic warfare capabilities, resulting in the loss of the vast majority of the munitions.
The remaining missiles, along with an equally sparse number of drones able to bypass Russian defenses have destroyed naval vessels, damaged buildings and infrastructure, including in one attack, damaging the Crimean Bridge. However, these successes are few and far between, occurring about once every 2–3 months.
The long-term campaign has nonetheless forced Russia to relocate the majority of its Black Sea Fleet further east along the coast of mainland Russia. This relocation in and of itself has been billed as a major victory for Ukraine in the Black Sea.
However, as recently as late last year, Ukraine itself warned of a persisting danger from the Black Sea Fleet and its use of Kalibr cruise missiles. With a range of up to 2,500 km, Kalibr cruise missiles can hit any target anywhere in Ukraine, even from the Black Sea Fleet’s new location.
Despite Ukraine’s occasional success in targeting Russian naval vessels, the vast majority of the Black Sea Fleet remains intact and continues to play a supporting role in Russia’s Special Military Operation (SMO), a military operation primarily taking place on land.
Another aspect of Ukraine’s Black Sea “victory,” is the supposed opening of shipping corridors.
While it is true that Ukrainian shipping has resumed from levels close to zero following the opening phase of the SMO, it remains at a fraction of pre-war levels, according to an article published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in November 2023. Considering the damage the protracted conflict has caused Ukraine’s economy, even if shipping were to return to pre-war levels as a more recent Reuters article claims, it is unlikely to even help sustain Ukraine’s economy, let alone aid in economic recovery.
The premise that Ukraine has reopened the Black Sea despite Russia’s best efforts to blockade Ukrainian shipping is highly flawed. Analysts may assign many reasons as to why Russia is not stopping renewed Ukrainian shipping, but an inability to militarily do so is not among them. If semi-irregular forces in Yemen are capable of significantly disrupting shipping in the Red Sea, Russia’s much more advanced anti-shipping capabilities which include long-range anti-shipping missiles and diesel-electric attack submarines are more than capable of significantly disrupting shipping in the Black Sea.
Despite Western governments and the Western media claiming the term “Special Military Operation” is a euphemism for full-scale invasion, Russia has demonstrated significant restraint, including in terms of escalation in the Black Sea.
What is left, after separating headlines from actual strategic success, is an expensive Ukrainian and NATO investment for what amounts to a series of public relations victories. While Russia finds itself embarrassed by the necessity to relocate the Black Sea Fleet, the fleet’s role in launching cruise missiles continues uninterrupted. While Russia sought to block Ukrainian shipping through the Black Sea, primarily as a means of blocking arms shipments, considering the depletion of Western arms stockpiles, there is little left to send regardless of how it arrives in Ukraine.
The fundamental problems Ukraine faces, in terms of arms, ammunition, and trained manpower, cannot be overcome by an expensive investment in generating headlines in the Black Sea. All such headlines serve as distractions from Ukraine’s fundamental problems.
Ukraine Wins Headlines at Sea as it Loses the War on Land
The Hill in a January 17, 2024 article titled, “The Black Sea is now the center of gravity for the Ukraine War,” would claim:
While Ukraine may have failed to achieve a decisive breakthrough on land in 2023, the war at sea was a resounding success. Ukraine was able to inflict major punishment on the Russian Black Sea Fleet thanks to a relentless sea and air campaign, using a combination of sea drones and British-made Storm Shadow cruise missiles, forcing the Russians to retreat into their naval bastion in Sevastopol. After the recent destruction of the Novocherkassk landing ship in late December, British Defense Minister Grant Shapps lauded the success of this campaign by announcing that Russia has lost 20 percent of its Black Sea Fleet in just the past four months.
Here, the Western media admits that Ukraine’s 2023 offensive was decisively defeated by Russian defenses.
The article then explains:
The next step in the Black Sea is for the West to help Kyiv target Crimea — illegally annexed by Russia in 2014 — and sever Russia’s logistical lifeline to its forces operating in southern Ukraine.
The article claims that this logistical lifeline consists of the Crimean Bridge and the landbridge connecting Crimea to the rest of Russia via Kherson, Zaporozhye, and Donetsk. The ultimate goal of isolating Crimea is to eventually force Russia to “rethink its posture there,” The Hill reported.
Forcing the Black Sea Fleet to relocate is unrelated to achieving any of these objectives. The means by which Ukraine has achieved this “victory,” infrequent drone and missile attacks, are otherwise incapable of isolating Crimea or forcing Russia to rethink its posture on the peninsula.
Even if Ukrainian missiles and drones succeeded in destroying the Crimean Bridge, the landbridge would remain very much intact. As Ukraine’s 2023 offensive demonstrated, cutting the landbridge is beyond Ukraine’s capabilities. But even if a future Ukrainian offensive somehow did sever the landbridge, Crimea would still not be isolated.
This is because Crimea hosts a number of airports and airfields, as well as a number of major ports capable of moving millions of people and millions of tons of cargo to and from the rest of Russia. In fact, it was this network of air and seaports that allowed Russia to sustain the economy and Russian military presence on the peninsula from 2014-2018 as the Crimean Bridge was under construction and long before the landbridge was established in 2022.
Thus, to actually isolate Crimea, not only would Ukraine have to cut the landbridge and destroy the Crimean Bridge, but Ukraine would also be required to disrupt operations at the multiple airports and seaports scattered across Crimea for an extended period of time. This would require launching attacks with hundreds of missiles and drones each month at a rate not only large enough to overwhelm Russian air defenses and electronic warfare capabilities, but also to inflict more damage on the targeted logistical infrastructure than Russia could repair in between attacks.
Nowhere across the collective West do enough missiles and drones exist, or will exist in the foreseeable future, to achieve a campaign of this tempo. No where among even the most fantastical discussions regarding the expansion of Western military industrial production are plans to produce missiles and drones in the quantities required to achieve this tempo. This reality, regarding the disruption of logistics across the Crimean Peninsula alone, exposes a much greater problem for Ukraine, the necessity (and absolute inability) to disrupt logistics connecting Russia’s massive military industrial base to the battlefield in Ukraine.
Russia’s ability to generate more trained manpower, weapons, and ammunition than both Ukraine and its Western sponsors has resulted in a war of attrition Ukraine and the collective West cannot win.
Russia’s strategy of avoiding costly breakthrough offensives while building up its combat potential, all while destroying Ukrainian manpower and equipment faster than it can be replaced, has an accumulative effect. This effect will result in the eventual collapse of Ukraine’s fighting capacity, all while Russian fighting capacity continues to expand. What is written off as a “stalemate” by Western analysts because of a current lack of “forward motion” by Russian forces, is actually a deliberate choice by Russian commanders to increase the tactical and strategic advantages Russian forces have on the battlefield ahead of any potential future offensive. Each day this “stalemate” persists, Russia’s prospects, relative to Ukraine, improve.
Nothing about Ukraine’s “successes” in the Black Sea address this fundamental problem and the inevitable outcome it leads to. Ukrainian “successes” simply distract attention away from this inevitability, but cannot prevent it. Russia’s “inaction” in response to these Ukrainian “successes” interpreted as “weakness,” may instead be interpreted as indifference, recognizing that time is on Russia’s side and winning public relations battles is far less important than winning the actual war.
Brian Berletic is a Bangkok-based geopolitical researcher and writer, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.