The Battle of the Black Sea: Ukraine's drone warfare shifts balance of power as Russia retreats from Sevastopol

The Battle of the Black Sea: Ukraine's drone warfare shifts balance of power as Russia retreats from Sevastopol
President Zelenskiy by the Sea / Ukrainian Presidential Press Service
By bne IntelliNews October 9, 2023

Russia's Black Sea Fleet has retreated the majority of its ships from its main base in Sevastopol, Crimea, following a number of Ukrainian missile strikes and drone attacks that have threatened Moscow’s grip on the strategically important body of water.

The retreat is both a strategic and symbolic setback for Russia, which seized control of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, and two centuries after the port of Sevastopol was formed in 1783 following the region’s annexation by Catherine the Great.

The frigates Admiral Essen and Admiral Makarov, as well as three submarines, five large landing ships and several small missile ships are now moored in Novorossiysk in Russia’s Krasnodar Region. Meanwhile, a smaller fleet of boats has been repositioned in Feodosia, a town on the eastern side of the Crimean Peninsula.

The key trigger for the retreat of the Black Sea Fleet was a strike against the fleet's headquarters building in Sevastopol. On September 22, precision-guided Storm Shadow missiles, supplied by the UK, were launched from Ukrainian Su-24 bombers, hitting the building with pinpoint accuracy, rendering it irreparably damaged. Kyiv said that the attack killed 34 officers – a claim that was denied by Moscow. This strike came on the heels of another strike on September 13, which inflicted severe damage to a submarine and a landing ship.

This strategic setback for the Black Sea Fleet coincides with Ukraine's ongoing challenges on the battlefield, where the front lines against Russian land forces have barely shifted since the beginning of the year.

However, most impressively, Ukraine’s success in reclaiming control over parts of the Black Sea comes despite Kyiv having almost no navy, relying almost completely on the strategic use of drones and missiles.

In April 2022 Ukraine achieved its first significant naval victory, two months after Russia's full-scale invasion had been launched. Two R-360 Neptune cruise missiles were fired at the cruiser Moskva, the flagship vessel of the Black Sea Fleet, sinking it. According to Russia, the strike set fire to munitions on board the ship, causing them to explode. In the summer of the same year, Ukraine managed to reclaim control over Snake Island, a small landmass near the Danube Delta, partially attributed to Harpoon anti-ship missiles. These developments ultimately paved the way for the pivotal yet short-lived "grain corridor" agreement, brokered by Turkey and the United Nations, facilitating the smooth transportation of goods to and from Ukrainian ports. Most importantly, this allowed Ukrainian grain to be transported to Africa.

However, in 2023 drones have taken over from missiles as the most significant technology in Ukraine's naval resurgence. Ukraine's substantial investments have been directed towards the manufacturing of a diverse range of unmanned aerial vehicles, specifically tailored for maritime and underwater missions. These drones, whether operating independently or in co-ordinated groups, have been deployed to target Russian naval vessels, resulting in disruptions to their activities and prompting them to seek safer harbours.

Ukraine's use of sea drones filled with explosives has proved highly effective and cost-efficient. These unmanned underwater vehicles, with construction costs ranging from $10,000 to $100,000, have been deployed in large numbers against Russian vessels valued at hundreds of millions of dollars. This form of asymmetric warfare has provided Ukraine with a significant advantage, considering the difficulty of building expensive new warships in a swift timeframe.

The movement of Russian ships from Sevastopol is ultimately a result of sustained Ukrainian attacks on the port and the Russian navy's need to safeguard its assets. While this dispersal serves as a defence against missile strikes, it also highlights a significant shift in strategic control within the Black Sea. The withdrawal of these ships essentially signifies that the Black Sea Fleet is relinquishing its claims to dominance in the western portion of the sea. Consequently Ukraine now enjoys greater freedom for both trade and military movements in its own territorial waters and within Nato waters. This means that the former grain corridor agreement, which fell apart in July, is no longer needed – Ukrainian ships can operate without being concerned about potential Russian attacks.

International support for Ukraine's efforts to enhance its naval capabilities, including the provision of reconnaissance tools and drone technology by its allies, has been crucial. Analysts are now considering the potential for a modern-day "Treaty of Paris," reminiscent of the 1856 agreement that marked the end of the Crimean War and diminished Russia's influence in the region. This prospective treaty would prevent Russia from establishing a new naval presence in Sevastopol, leading to significant changes in the dynamics of the Black Sea region.

In response to Russia’s struggles in the Black Sea, Moscow has reportedly signed a deal for the construction of a new naval base in Abkhazia, the breakaway republic that is internationally recognised as a part of Georgia.