Ukraine’s land counter-offensive this year has made only slow progress. Crimea and much of the south and east of the nation remain in Russian hands. But at sea, the story is hugely more positive: the once powerful Russian Black Sea Fleet has been essentially driven out of the western Black Sea and the port of Odesa has been opened up to international trade, in defiance of Russia’s attempts to blockade it.
The recent downing of a Russian Su-24M tactical bomber near the famous Snake Island – the site of the now-legendary defiant refusal by Ukrainian troops to surrender to a Russian warship – illustrates quite effectively Ukraine’s ability to secure its airspace from Odesa to the Romanian coast.
It’s not just in the air that Ukraine is standing firm. Recent reports from the Ukrainian Navy Command have detailed a significant shift in the naval dynamics of the Black Sea. As of this month, the Russian naval presence in the area has been notably reduced out of fear that Ukrainian forces will continue to successfully strike Russian vessels. The presence of just four Russian warships in the Black Sea, none equipped with the formidable Kalibr cruise missile, is a telling contrast from the earlier show of force Russia sought to maintain in the region.
The Kalibr missile system’s notoriety stems from its advanced technology, capable of precision strikes at long distances. These missiles have the capability to strike targets up to 2,500 kilometres away, depending on the variant, which allows ships and submarines to engage targets deep within enemy territory while remaining in safer, distant waters. Their ability to be launched from various platforms, combined with a high degree of accuracy and substantial payload, make them formidable instruments of war. Some versions of Kalibr make their final attack at supersonic speed, too, which makes them much more difficult to shoot down.
The absence of these strategic weapons from the Black Sea not only signifies a Russian tactical retreat but also a significant reduction in the direct threat to Ukraine’s coastal defences, infrastructure, and urban centres, which had been under the shadow of the Kalibr’s reach since the conflict’s beginning. Russian naval dominance in the western Black Sea, a domain where they once sought to exert unchecked control, has now ended.
The strategic deployment of unmanned maritime drones, coupled with an expanding array of long-range anti-ship missiles, has been pivotal in achieving this. These weapons, in conjunction with crucial surveillance intelligence from Western allies and their aircraft, as well as concerted strikes by Ukraine’s Air Force and special operations units, has enabled Ukraine to effectively counter the might of the numerically superior Russian Navy.
Such a scenario was unimaginable just months ago, considering the strategic importance of Odesa. Vladimir Putin continues to assert that Odesa is a “Russian city”, but hne couldn’t be more wrong. Far from succumbing to Russian control, Odesa has emerged as a bastion of Ukrainian defiance and a potent symbol of hope in the ‘Battle of the Black Sea’.
Ukrainian progress in the Black Sea is not an isolated success but part of a broader strategy that has seen significant achievements in recent months. The retreat of Russian warships from their central base in Sevastopol, limping away with their tails between their legs to safer Russian ports, is a significant shift in the naval balance of power in the Black Sea.
The unforeseen success of Ukraine in reviving trade through its Black Sea ports – vital arteries for its war-stricken economy and international trade – has taken even veteran analysts by surprise. This development is particularly significant considering the circumstances. The establishment of a free maritime trade corridor is only possible thanks to Ukraine’s growing defence capabilities. The steady stream of merchant vessels traversing this corridor, laden with indispensable commodities such as grain and metal, has emerged as a critical lifeline for the beleaguered nation. This commercial traffic not only revitalises Ukraine’s economy but also instils a sense of hope across a country besieged by conflict. The people of Ukraine should be proud that they’ve managed this despite the best efforts of a once-feared military superpower.
As of Monday, according to the US ambassador in Kyiv, no less than 200 vessels carrying more than 7 million tons of grain, metals and other cargoes have passed through the new maritime corridor, despite all Russia’s efforts to interdict it since Putin pulled out of the deal which had previously permitted grain exports during the summer.
The current state of affairs in the Black Sea region is testament to Ukraine’s tenacious determination. Amidst the protracted and arduous conflict, Ukraine has demonstrated a formidable capacity to safeguard its airspace, effectively counter Russian naval dominance, and sustain vital trade conduits. This display of resilience, especially when juxtaposed with the overwhelming might of Russian forces, is nothing short of remarkable. It not only asserts Ukraine’s unyielding commitment to its sovereignty but also sends an unequivocal signal regarding the evolving power dynamics within the region.
This remarkable turnaround in the Black Sea is symbolic of the broader trajectory of the conflict. At the onset of the war, Russia’s naval forces exercised their capabilities without fear, and the world took their capabilities very seriously. However, Ukraine’s effort to fight back against the Russian bear has not only damaged Russian ships but also significantly dented the once-vaunted reputation of the Russian naval forces.
From the sinking of the Moskva to ensuring the flow of trade, Ukraine has effectively shifted the balance of power in the Black Sea in its favour. This transition of Ukraine from a position of urgent, seemingly doomed efforts to defend Odesa to one of growing strength in the air and at sea marks Ukraine’s ascent as a formidable naval force in a region once dominated by Russian power.