On Monday, British military intelligence issued an update on the situation in the Black Sea. According to this, the Russian Black Sea Fleet is “struggling to deal with concurrent threats on the southern flank of the Ukraine war” and “fleet activities are likely relocating to Novorossiysk in the face of threats to Sevastopol”. Russia is now “attempting to use naval air power to project force over the north-western Black Sea”.
This is quite big stuff. It would seem that the Ukrainians have more or less pushed the Black Sea Fleet out of Sevastopol, its primary base, away to Novorossiysk on the other side of the Azov in pre-2014 Russia. Being able to use Sevastopol as a naval base is one of the main military reasons Russia needs Crimea. Another is to use it as a logistics hub, shipping in munitions and materiel for the land battle to the north.
It would seem, in the judgement of the British intelligence staff at least, that recent heavy strikes on Sevastopol – in which headquarters were blown up and docked warships damaged, perhaps beyond realistic repair – have made the port city untenable as a naval base.
That matters, because if the Black Sea Fleet can’t operate from Sevastopol its reach into the northwestern Black Sea, bordered by the Ukrainian southern coast with its still-Ukrainian harbours, is reduced. And that means that the Russian ability to blockade Ukraine, to keep ships from taking cargoes to or from those harbours, is degraded. Russia has withdrawn from the previous agreement which permitted Ukrainian grain exports, and is now attempting to cut them off.
In theory, Russian warships could simply operate to the south, and interdict traffic between Ukraine and Turkey’s Bosphorus strait, thus cutting Ukraine off from the wider world. But even on the high seas, warships can only legally interfere with ships of another flag state under certain circumstances (piracy, for instance). And Russian warships have no right to interfere at all with any ship inside another nation’s territorial waters.
This means that a ship staying within 12 miles of the coast is pretty safe all the way up the western Black Sea, as it is inside the territorial limits of Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania. Military action by Russia in their waters would be an act of war against a Nato nation.
It’s only when the ship is north of the Romanian border that it’s in Ukrainian waters, and considered fair game by the Russians. But it’s become clear that the warships of the Black Sea Fleet, understandably, don’t want to operate close to the Ukrainian coast: the fate of the cruiser Moskva, sunk last year by shore-based Ukrainian missiles, still stands as a warning.
Last week, the first grain ships reached the Bosphorus from Ukraine, travelling down the coastal corridor: their captains no doubt emboldened to make the run by Ukrainian attacks on Sevastopol.
Now, with British intelligence assessing that not only can the Black Sea Fleet not operate close to the Ukrainian coast, it cannot even operate in safety from Sevastopol … it might seem that Russia is well and truly driven out of the western Black Sea.
But the same British update also sounds a note of caution. Russian warships may not be able to operate in the northwest, but the Black Sea Fleet also has its naval aviation units. In the Russian navy, these include shore-based aircraft as well as shipborne ones.
Most advanced militaries have long-ranging maritime patrol aircraft (MPAs), big planes able to range far over the ocean and detect (and in some cases, attack) shipping and submarines beneath. Russia has its powerful Tupolev Tu-142, the MPA version of the Tu-95 “Bear” heavy bomber. Nato calls the Tu-142 “Bear F” or “Bear J”, which means that in Western news reports it is often called a “bomber”, but it’s actually quite different in its weapons and capabilities. The Tu-142 dates from the 1960s, but a limited number of the big planes were overhauled and updated just a few years ago.
Just last month, British fighters scrambled to intercept a Bear-F and a Bear-J passing British airspace north of Scotland. The Tu-142s belong to the Northern and Pacific fleets, and are mostly based far from the Black Sea. In 2021, however, three of them were brought to the region as a response to the Black Sea Incident, in which Russia claimed the British destroyer HMS Defender had encroached on Crimean waters. Tu-142s had visited the Black Sea and conducted patrols previously.
But this time it seems there are no Tu-142s to spare. The Bear J has a crucial role in communications with Russian nuclear submarines, and as such probably fully employed at the moment. It would seem that there aren’t any Bear Fs that can be sent as reinforcements on this occasion either.
Thus the only MPAs the Black Sea Fleet has are a handful of ancient Beriev Be-12 flying boats dating from the 1950s. According to British intelligence, these are now carrying out maritime patrols from Crimean bases: but probably staying close to home focused mainly on incoming Ukrainian drone boat attacks, rather than probing dangerous Ukrainian airspace to the north and west.
The intelligence update also says that the Black Sea Fleet also has old but effective Su-24 Fencer and somewhat more modern (late Cold War vintage) Su-27 Flanker jets available for maritime strike missions, and that these have recently made a strike on the “strategically located Snake Island”.
Snake Island is strategic, among other reasons, because it sits in the western Black Sea just about at the top of the safe corridor where Romanian territorial waters begin. Russia seized it early in the invasion – the tiny Ukrainian garrison’s uncompromising reply on being summoned to surrender by Russian ships has now passed into history – but Snake Island is a place which has been described as “easy to take, difficult to hold” and the Russians have since pulled out in the face of determined Ukrainian attacks.
If Russia still held Snake Island, it would be a bold merchant captain indeed who would sail past it to reach Romanian waters: but Russia doesn’t. Russian jets have proved they can hit targets in the vicinity, but not that they know when or where there is a ship to be hit. It’s most unlikely that the rickety old Be-12 flying boats are patrolling far enough west to provide useful intelligence.
If there were Tu-142s operating above the Black Sea as they are at the moment above the North Atlantic it would be a different matter. But it would seem that there are only enough of the big planes for the unseen, silent battle which is fought all the time in North Atlantic and Arctic waters. In that battle, Russia tries to get its submarines – including its nuclear missile submarines – in and out of harbour without them being tracked by Western forces, and the Western forces – particularly our submarines – try to avoid being located by prowling Tu-142s.
These are not times to relax about things like having one’s nuclear deterrent at sea, ready to use, and undetected by the enemy. The most recent British nuclear missile submarine to come back off patrol two weeks ago had been out for a record-breaking six months, evidently having had to wait for problems to be fixed with her replacement.
A supposed “peer adversary” like Russia should be able to spare some resources from the deterrent struggle for the Black Sea, however. Western planes and drones are and have been very active there, which suggests that the West probably has a good picture of maritime comings and goings in the area.
But this is one of the many cases brought up by the Ukraine war, in which Russian paper strength, particularly in advanced air assets, has turned out to be an illusion. It’s unlikely that Russia has a good picture of what’s happening between Odesa and Snake Island.
We may see more grain ships making the run to and from Ukraine in coming weeks, as the Black Sea Fleet pulls out of Crimea to lick its wounds in Novorossiysk.
Lewis Page is a former Royal Navy officer