Espreso. Global
Review

Battle for Crimea and Black Sea: Outcomes of 2023 and prospects for 2024

24 January, 2024 Wednesday
13:15

The past year will be remembered for the turning point in the battle for the Black Sea, during which the Ukrainian Armed Forces, despite not having their own navy, achieved a series of strategic victories that brought them closer to ending the war and de-occupying Crimea

While at the beginning of the full-scale war, the Russians had plans to conduct amphibious operations from the sea and capture Odesa, by the end of 2023, they lost control of the waters west of Crimea and are hesitant to carry out regular patrols off the Crimean coast. Most significant ships have been relocated from Crimean ports to Novorossiysk. Crimea, which initially served as a stronghold from which Russian occupying forces seized parts of southern Ukraine, is gradually becoming a trap for them, with the Crimean bridge being the only viable exit route.

The strategy of asymmetric warfare

If the Armed Forces of Ukraine barricaded themselves on the coasts of Odesa and Kherson and used anti-ship missiles to drive away amphibious assault vessels, both the liberation of Crimea and the unimpeded operation of commercial routes from Odesa or Izmail would remain unrealistic. Hence, a groundbreaking solution was needed to alter the course of naval warfare, and this solution came in the form of maritime drones.

The inaugural drone attacks occurred in October 2022 when the maritime drones operated by Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) targeted Russian ships in Sevastopol Bay. Consequently, the flagship frigate Admiral Makarov and three other vessels sustained critical damage.

In 2023, Ukrainian drones have evolved to become more advanced and dangerous.

The SeaBaby drone boasts a payload capacity of 800 kg of TNT and a travel range exceeding 800 km, all while navigating through four-point storm waves. What makes this drone particularly exceptional is its unique communication system, enabling remote control from Kyiv at a distance exceeding 1000 km. Designed specifically for targeting the Crimean Bridge, the SeaBaby underwent its inaugural test on July 17 in a specialized operation tailored to its purpose. Two out of five drones successfully reached their target, causing damage to one section of the highway and destroying another.

In addition to the bridge, the SeaBaby successfully neutralized two missile carriers, Samum and Pavel Derzhavin, along with two landing ships of the Serna and Akula projects. Notably, the drone achieved a major breakthrough by breaching the fairway of the large amphibious assault ship Olenegorsky Gornyak in Novorossiysk. Following the relocation of the majority of the Russian Black Sea Fleet to Novorossiysk after Sevastopol lost its strategic significance, the SeaBaby has dramatically altered the naval dynamics in the Black Sea. The ships of the Russian Black Sea Fleet no longer maintain dominance, frequently sailing in its eastern part with heightened caution. The advent of the Mamai drone, the fastest maritime object, has transformed them from predators into vulnerable targets.

Ousting the occupiers from the western part of the Black Sea

To secure its coastline and facilitate the transportation of grain and other goods through the Black Sea, Ukraine aimed to expel Russian forces from the waters west of Crimea and establish control over these areas. 

While not officially declared, this objective has effectively been achieved. Minister of Infrastructure Oleksandr Kubrakov highlighted the success of the Ukrainian "grain corridor," which exported nearly 15 million tons of products in the last five months, reaching pre-war levels.

This was preceded by three brilliant operations. On September 11, reports stated that Ukraine had recaptured four gas production platforms, known as the Boyko Towers. These platforms, situated 100 kilometers off the coast of the Odesa region and 150 kilometers from Crimea, had been converted by Russia into reconnaissance outposts after their seizure in 2014, enabling control over this part of the sea.

After that, the western coast of Crimea became vulnerable. To exploit this vulnerability, the Defense Intelligence of Ukraine (DIU) conducted two successful amphibious operations on August 24 and October 4. The missions achieved their objectives and returned without harm. Hints from DIU representatives and authorities suggest that these two operations in Crimea are just the beginning, with more to be revealed after the war.

Safe havens in Crimea are no more

The Russians still manage to handle drones, both in the air and at sea, to a certain degree; however, Storm Shadow missiles and their French counterpart, Scalp, have emerged as weapons that the invaders find themselves powerless against. The damage inflicted by these missiles is significantly greater than that caused by drones.

Sevastopol, Feodosia, and Kerch, once considered secure locations by Russians in Crimea, have undergone a notable shift. On September 13, seven missiles struck ships under repair at the Ordzhonikidze Naval Shipyard in Sevastopol, including at least two vessels in the process of being repaired—the Rostov-on-Don submarine and the large amphibious assault ship Minsk. Additional missiles targeted infrastructure facilities in Pivdenna and Korabelna bays.

On November 5, a series of missiles targeted the maritime and port infrastructure of the Zaliv shipyard. The attack coincided with the final stages of construction for one of Russia's most advanced ships, the Askold, equipped with Kalibr missiles. Originally scheduled to set sail in December, the Askold sank, and its completion by the war's end seems unlikely. This strike underscored that while the Ukrainian Armed Forces possess the capability to reach the Crimean Bridge, they refrain from doing so as the current missiles lack the potential to inflict critical damage to it.

On December 26, the last defended fortress of Crimea fell: several missiles of the Ukrainian Armed Forces sank a large landing ship Novocherkassk in the port of Feodosia.

In the summary of 2022-2023, British Defense Secretary Grant Shapps acknowledged that Ukraine successfully neutralized 20% of the Russian fleet in the Black Sea. Nevertheless, it is important to highlight that Russia retains the capability to maneuver small missile ships through river channels, enhancing the potential for a concentrated salvo. Conversely, as Ukraine advances its sea and air drone capabilities, it is poised to significantly bolster its offensive capacities, transforming the Black Sea into a hunting ground for the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

Liberation of Crimea is a "crab trap"

Creating a maritime threat to ships and pushing them away from the Crimean coast represents the initial phase of a broader objective that Ukraine aims to achieve in the next two years – the de-occupation of Crimea and the elimination of the threat from the south.

By 2022, Russia had transformed Crimea into a military stronghold, saturating it not only with missile-equipped ships but also deploying aircraft, air defense systems, and electronic warfare capabilities. The extensive array of targets complicates their defense, providing the Ukrainian Armed Forces with greater flexibility in target selection. Since February 2023, marked by the detonation on the railway in Bakhchysarai, Ukrainian forces have successfully executed attacks on military targets in the peninsula at least twice every month. The focus has been on logistics centers, bridges, command posts, airfields, and seaports.

In addition to the Crimean Bridge, which was targeted by missiles and drones at least three times during the year, other logistical targets included the bridges in Henichesk and Chonhar, connecting Crimea to the Kherson region. Railway junctions in Dzhankoy, Sovietske, Kirovske, Hvardiyske, and Simferopol were also struck. Throughout the year, airplanes and helicopters were successfully destroyed at all six major airfields. The Saki airfield in Novofedorivka, in particular, stood out as a vulnerable target for drones.

Special efforts by all units of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and intelligence were directed towards the elimination of the leadership of the Black Sea Fleet and the occupying forces in Crimea. The "Crab Trap" operation involved a series of Storm Shadow missile strikes on Sevastopol, including one that hit the headquarters during a meeting. Another significant blow was dealt to the control center of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in the early days of the current year.

Furthermore, successful missile strikes targeted the secret base of the occupiers' main intelligence directorate near Sevastopol, the FSB base in Soniachnohirske, and the Center for Long-Range Space Communications in the village of Vityne. In each instance, the strikes were not only precise but also highly effective. For instance, at the Special Forces base, 24 Special Forces soldiers were eliminated, and an additional 29 were hospitalized.

How the window to Crimea was opened

Meanwhile, the air defense of Crimea stands as one of the most formidable in Russia. Alongside numerous air defense systems, the skies over the peninsula, and consequently the occupied south of Ukraine, are patrolled by more than one fighter squadron. To liberate our territories, this defense must be overcome. A significant stride in this direction occurred with the destruction of Russia’s most advanced air defense system, the Triumph, on August 23. At that time, intelligence sources predicted that this event would have far-reaching consequences. As evident from the developments above, those predictions have materialized.

The subsequent phase in reclaiming control of the airspace involved the activation of the Patriot system, which declared its operational effectiveness on December 22 by downing three Su-34 fighter jets 60 kilometers from the frontline. This unexpected and impactful strike prompted a temporary cessation of Russian flights over the left-bank Kherson region. The frequency of daily drone activities plummeted to zero, and even upon resumption, the flights were no longer as extensive. Currently, Russian aviation operates cautiously, with guided bomb attacks becoming infrequent.

However, the biggest and undoubtedly historic victory was the shooting down and "landing" of two strategic aircraft in the sky over the Sea of Azov near Berdyansk: an A-50 long-range radar reconnaissance aircraft and an Il-22 air control point. This event is likely to mark a pivotal moment in the war. Firstly, it establishes an absolute precedent, challenging the belief that such an interception was impossible. Following this incident, the Russians are expected to exercise greater caution, thereby limiting their intelligence capabilities. Secondly, the Russian advantage of total air superiority, predominantly derived from aerial reconnaissance, has now been completely nullified. With the acquisition of the F-16, the Ukrainian Armed Forces are poised to become the dominant force in the skies over the Black Sea and subsequently over Crimea.

The availability of A-50s is limited in Russia, with only 3 to 5 remaining. It is uncertain whether all these aircraft will have qualified crews, which are also in short supply. The downed A-50 had a crew of 15 members, including the lieutenant colonel commander and two deputy majors, all of whom were killed. Additionally, the commander of the Il-22 was among the casualties. According to Russian reports, only a few professional pilots of this caliber are left.

Just a week later, a similar A-50 aircraft was reportedly seen at a civilian airfield in Sochi. This location is approximately 900 kilometers from Odesa, where our new drone could easily reach through the open space in the Black Sea. As it did recently in St. Petersburg.

De-occupation of Crimea is a goal for 2024

Following the successes in the sea and air battle over the Black Sea, Crimea, and Kherson region, President Zelenskyy and several military leaders have stated that the goal for 2024 will be to de-occupy Crimea.

For example, the head of the SBU, Vasyl Malyuk, has already said that his agency and naval drones are tasked with completely destroying the Russian Black Sea Fleet. In addition, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has made it clear that in 2024 Crimea will become the epicenter of the war, and the Crimean Bridge will be target No. 1.

Yuriy Ihnat, spokesman for the Air Force Command of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, has announced another quite achievable goal – the destruction of missile launchers in the Black Sea and a substantial reduction of the missile threat to both the southern regions and the entire Ukraine.

Two additional tasks in which our allies are ready to help us are the full resumption of the transportation of goods, primarily food, from Ukrainian ports, and the demining of the Black Sea. Both goals already have reliable partners. In the first case, it is the United Kingdom and Norway, and in the second case, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania.

Obviously, the complete de-occupation of Crimea is closely linked to successes on the fronts in the left-bank Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. Without their liberation, it is impossible to drive the Russians out of Crimea. Conversely, developments on the southern front are closely linked to the destruction of logistics, air and sea military components in Crimea. Therefore, the world will focus on this part of Ukraine this year. And the events of 2024 will answer whether Ukraine will be able to de-occupy Crimea in the near future or whether this conflict will remain frozen for a long time.

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