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Down, but not out (Comment)

10th May 2022 - 13:35 GMT | by Harry Lye in London

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Screenshot from a Ukrainian Navy video apparently showing a Bayraktar TB2-launched missile strike on a Russian Raptor-class patrol boat near Snake Island in the Black Sea. (Image: Ukrainian Navy)

The sinking in April of the Russian Navy’s Black Sea flagship, although not evidence of a major change in the naval domain, is a far cry from the pre-emptive scuttling of Ukraine’s own flagship. The donation of increasingly advanced materiel demonstrates increased faith in Ukraine’s ability to resist the Russian invaders.

Much has changed in the theatre of the Russo-Ukrainian war in recent weeks – not least the sinking of the Russian Navy’s Black Sea flagship, the cruiser Moskva, by a pair of Ukrainian Neptune missiles.

The sinking of the Moskva is, at the very least, a significant propaganda coup for the embattled authorities in Kyiv as they seek to ward off threats to their blockaded Black Sea cities, towns and shores.

Speaking in the UK parliament on 25 April, UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said: ‘Last week, Russia admitted that the Slava-class cruiser Moskva had sunk. That is the second key naval asset that the Russians have lost since invading, and its loss has significantly weakened their ability to bring their maritime assets to bear from the Black Sea.’

Further east, the Sea of Azov is now effectively a mare clausum under sole Russian control, with only the last desperate pockets of Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol remaining.

Moskva has not been Ukraine’s only success, with the country’s forces successfully hitting the Russian Alligator-class landing ship Saratov while it was docked at the Russian-occupied port of Berdyansk.

In early May, the Ukrainian Navy also released footage apparently showing Bayraktar TB2 strikes on multiple Raptor-class (Project 03160) patrol boats in the Black Sea.

However, the Russian Black Sea Fleet continues to maintain the capabilities to strike Ukrainian forces, cities and towns. Even before the conflict, Russia had undoubted naval supremacy. This has only grown with the losses it has afflicted on what was already a fledgling Ukrainian Navy before the invasion.

According to the latest UK MoD Defence Intelligence assessments, 20 Russian Navy vessels, including submarines, are operating in the Black Sea. Yet the Turkish-controlled Bosporus Strait remains closed to warships, limiting Russia’s ability to replace the capability lost with the sinking of the Moskva.

With Ukrainian cities such as Odessa, the so-called ‘Pearl of the Black Sea’, remaining under threat, foreign partners have sought to assist Ukraine in its coastal defence. Notably, the US is sending Ukraine uncrewed systems.

Materiel donation

The US has been somewhat aloof about the exact nature of the uncrewed coastal defence vessels it is sending to Ukraine. While coy about the specific USVs it is providing, it has said the systems would help Ukraine address the threats facing coastal areas.

Rendering of a maritime Brimstone missile fired from a fast attack craft. (Image: MBDA)

On the anti-ship missile (AShM) front, speaking to the Ukrainian parliament on 3 May via a video link, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed that Brimstone AShMs would be delivered ‘in the coming weeks’.

While there had been some speculation the UK would give the Ukrainians Harpoon missiles, this option is not feasible as the UK’s entire stock of the weapon is sea-launched from canisters.

Under the Ukrainian Naval Capabilities Enhancement Programme, the UK was already committed to selling Kyiv new fast attack patrol craft equipped with maritime Brimstone. However, the planned eight ships have not yet been purchased.

While Brimstone may not do catastrophic damage to a heavily armoured large combatant such as a cruiser, frigate or destroyer, its capabilities would undoubtedly complicate any hopes for further Russian amphibious approaches and harass smaller vessels.

Speaking to Shephard before the confirmation of the supply of Brimstone, University of Bath defence and security expert, NATO analyst and ex-British Army officer Dr Patrick Bury said the supply of AShMs ‘may prove very significant’.

He added that the threat of AShMs would raise the risk for Russian ships in the Black Sea.

‘Indeed, the significance of not just the anti-ship missile systems but also the supply of (admittedly older) German tanks and AFVs, US antitank drones and more capable anti-aircraft missile systems is that the West is now arming Ukraine for a full-blown conventional war, rather than the insurgency it likely originally planned for, given its assessment of the Russian likelihood of victory within weeks,’ Bury noted.

While Ukraine is down, as it scores small victories and increasingly powerful Western weapons continue to flow, it is not out.

This article is also published in the latest issue of Naval Warfare magazine. Click here to see more.

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