Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Russian Black Sea Exercises Raise Specter of Naval Blockade

Blocking Ukraine’s ports for an extended period could “suffocate” the country’s economy, experts say.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Ukrainian border guards patrol the Sea of Azov
Ukrainian border guards patrol the Sea of Azov
Ukrainian border guards patrol the Sea of Azov off the city of Mariupol on April 30, 2021. Aleksey Filippov/AFP/Getty Images

KYIV, Ukraine—Russian military exercises in Belarus and in the Black Sea began on Thursday as Ukraine and its Western allies fear that Moscow may be finalizing preparations for a renewed military assault on Ukraine.

As part of its exercises in the Black Sea, Moscow has declared large swaths of the sea around the Crimean peninsula and the Ukrainian port of Odessa unsafe for navigation during its drills next week, as well as the southern half of the Sea of Azov, the Ukrainian Naval Forces Command said in a post on Facebook on Thursday. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba condemned the move, describing it as a tactic of “hybrid warfare.”

“Unprecedented coverage of maneuvers makes navigation in both seas virtually impossible. In essence, this is a significant and unjustified complication of international shipping, especially trade, which can cause complex economic and social consequences, especially for the ports of Ukraine,” he said in a statement issued Thursday.

KYIV, Ukraine—Russian military exercises in Belarus and in the Black Sea began on Thursday as Ukraine and its Western allies fear that Moscow may be finalizing preparations for a renewed military assault on Ukraine.

As part of its exercises in the Black Sea, Moscow has declared large swaths of the sea around the Crimean peninsula and the Ukrainian port of Odessa unsafe for navigation during its drills next week, as well as the southern half of the Sea of Azov, the Ukrainian Naval Forces Command said in a post on Facebook on Thursday. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba condemned the move, describing it as a tactic of “hybrid warfare.”

“Unprecedented coverage of maneuvers makes navigation in both seas virtually impossible. In essence, this is a significant and unjustified complication of international shipping, especially trade, which can cause complex economic and social consequences, especially for the ports of Ukraine,” he said in a statement issued Thursday.

The blockade has underscored the vulnerability of Ukraine’s southern coastline and its ports, as well as the inability of Ukraine and NATO to deter Moscow in the Black Sea.

“Unfortunately Ukraine doesn’t have a proper navy yet, and NATO doesn’t have a proper strategy on how to deal with Russia. That’s why Russia is dictating the strategy in the Black Sea,” said Mykhailo Samus, director of the New Geopolitics Research Network.

Ukraine is no stranger to efforts by Russia to limit freedom of navigation in the Sea of Azov, the body of water between the Crimean peninsula and the Ukrainian and Russian mainland. In 2018, Russian ships backed by warplanes and helicopters fired on three Ukrainian vessels traveling to the Port of Mariupol in eastern Ukraine. Russia detained 24 Ukrainian sailors for several months.

But the number and type of Russian ships dispatched to the Black Sea for exercises this week is much greater than anything that has been seen in recent years, Samus said.

According to the news site Naval News, six large Russian amphibious landing ships, with a collective ability to carry dozens of tanks and up to 2,000 troops, entered the Black Sea this week. For the first time in eight years, Russia has left no corridors to allow commercial vessels to pass safely through the sea in which it will be exercising, Andrii Klymenko, the editor in chief of Black Sea News, wrote on Facebook on Wednesday. “We don’t want any panic, but this is very similar to preparations for a ‘naval blockade’ of Ukrainian ports,” Klymenko wrote.

Andrii Zagorodniuk, Ukraine’s former minister of defense, said he considers a maritime crisis to be one of the more likely scenarios Russia may pursue as part of an effort to destabilize Ukraine.

“They can simply suffocate Ukraine from the sea,” Zagorodniuk said. Some 70 percent of Ukrainian imports and exports pass through the country’s ports, and much of that is concentrated in the ports around Odessa. Any blockade would have profound impacts for the country’s economy and could in turn destabilize the country politically, potentially creating openings for Russia to increase its leverage, Zagorodniuk said. A blockade would also be a significantly less risky strategy for Moscow than an all-out invasion of Ukraine. “They don’t need to kill people for that. So they’re not going to be denounced as war criminals and they don’t even need to announce it, they can just do it,” he said.

Ukraine’s naval capabilities were decimated following the Russian seizure of Crimea in 2014, which was previously home port to the country’s navy. Efforts to rebuild have been slow, hamstrung by indecisiveness over which approach to take. In 2018, the country adopted a “mosquito fleet” strategy, developing a fleet of small, nimble patrol boats and attack vessels intended to maneuver quickly around larger warships.

The United States has shipped retired Coast Guard patrol boats to Ukraine to help boost its fleet, and, this past November, Kyiv signed a deal with London to help finance the purchase of British warships. But the force still has a way to go. “The Ukrainian navy is the most problematic branch of the Ukrainian armed forces,” Samus said.

The Russian exercises in the Black Sea coincide with joint exercises in Belarus to Ukraine’s north, which also began on Thursday. An estimated 30,000 Russian troops have been dispatched to Belarus for the drills in what NATO has described as the largest Russian military deployment to the country since the Cold War. European officials fear that Russian troops may remain in Belarus following the exercises, giving Moscow a potential new line of attack on Ukraine via the country’s poorly defended border with Belarus and putting Russian troops all that much closer to nervous NATO members along the alliance’s eastern flank. Moscow has denied that it has any plans to leave troops in Belarus following this week’s exercises.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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