Ukraine: What Happens at Sea Also Matters

Ukraine: What Happens at Sea Also Matters

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21 Mar 22

PROF GEOFFREY TILL (20 March 2022)

By the Editor – Sun Tsu advised: “Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.” The West declared its hand before hostilities commenced and removed the imponderables from Putin’s invasion equation. But from that start that promised much, perhaps in Putin’s eyes, Professor Till here reflects on the pursuit of the increasingly bogged-down Russian campaign and what opportunities now present themselves for the West, in build on the remarkable Ukrainian fortitude and intelligence in resisting the invaders of their sovereign nation.

Even though at the time of writing it is impossible for anyone to predict the future course and outcome of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, one thing became crystal clear from the first day. The world’s attention was inevitably going to be on the unfolding horrors of a major European land-war. Refugees, devastated cityscapes, destroyed hospitals, civilian casualties, wrecked Russian tanks would dominate coverage – as they should. But this should also not obscure the importance of the much less considered maritime side of things. The West’s short and long-term response to this terrible act of brazen aggression needs to reflect upon its maritime consequences and implications as well.

Of course, since this is a war between territorial neighbours, the land domain is likely to determine how maritime operations fit into the overall scheme of things, strategically and operationally. Strategically, it has already fundamentally changed the frame of reference for how Putin’s Russia is seen by the West.It has now become an enemy, not just a competitor. It is hard to see how all this can be reeled back in the foreseeable future, short of regime change. Because of the apparent scale of its strategic aspirations, Putin’s Russia is now, in American terms, a clear and present danger. The broad thrust of Western policies for Europe will reflect this. Already we are seeing major changes in the policies of the UK’s Continental allies, not least in Germany. Across Europe, defence spending is being ratcheted up, dependence on Russian oil gas and other commodities ratcheted down. The economies of the two sides are de-coupling, to the probable disadvantage of both. The policy of the UK and its allies towards the rest of the world will also be significantly affected. We could be barrelling into a dangerous re-play of the mid-to-late 1930s or the late 1940s. Inevitably, the UK’s maritime agenda at the level of high policy and strategy will reflect all these seismic changes.

The operational effects on that maritime agenda, are of course, more immediate. From the start it was clear that the Russians had committed a monumental blunder. Anticipating a quick and easy victory over a compliant adversary they did not do what they are best at, or at least most trained for – the conduct large scale combined-arms manoeuvre warfare. By dividing their forces between too many simultaneous axes of advance, they lost the concentration this style of war demands. Instead, the current operation was assumed to be essentially a re-run of the comparatively bloodless seizure of the Crimea in 2014.

As a result their troops were totally unprepared for the scale of opposition that they had to face – hence the initial scale of desertions and the widespread abandonment of often perfectly serviceable equipment. All too often, their infantry was unsupported, with ammunition, fuel and even food supplies grosslyinadequate for their immediate needs. Bizarrely they were often accompanied, even preceded in some cases, by the Russian National Guard (the Rosgvardia); a para-military force specialising in public order, crowd management and riot control. Even the basics of air support was inadequate. For an army that prides itself on its capacity for devastating firepower and rapid manoeuvre this was extraordinary. Hence also the bogging down of the advance on Kyiv. Hence the bluster and the desperate bloodcurdling threats that ranged from nuclear menaces to the crazy promise of bringing in Wagner mercenaries, Chechen and Syrian fighters and the like.[1]. All these calamitous failures derived from the same single cause, not Russian military incompetence as such, but planning based on the assumption of a weak and compliant adversary with too little attention paid to the possible need for a Plan B.

Although it will take them years to recover both militarily and politically from this initial set-back, they will adapt, or at least ‘tie knots’ as Napoleon said, ‘and carry on.’ This exactly what the Russians did after the catastrophic initial reverses of the Winter War with the Finns in 1939-40 and Germany’s Operation BARBAROSSA in 1941; which of course they went on to win, even if at terrible cost. In consequence the Ukrainians will face more airpower, more deadly artillery and long-range missile fire, much more ‘combined’ action by infantry, tanks and artillery. The Russians will try to return to their habitual emphasis on air reconnaissance and strike, on electronic and cyber-attack, on unmanned systems and on the properly integrated all round concept of war that we all thought to be the modern Russian way. They will make faster progress, possibly after some kind of ‘operational pause’ to sort themselves out before the second deadly phase of the war. The total destruction of Grozny in 1999-2000 in the Second Chechen War provides notice of what this could lead to.

A more unsettling prospect still, is that the campaign against Ukraine’s cities is a distraction, or at best a secondary objective, and that the real Russian operational aim is the encirclement and destruction of the bulk of the Ukrainian army in the east of the country. The West’s natural focus on the tactical successes of the gallant Ukrainians elsewhere may in part derive from its tendency not to take the Russian approach to the operational level of war as seriously as it should.[2]

Either way, there will still be constraints. There are limits even to Russia’s military capabilities. They will have to maintain a sufficient level of threat (and the West should not forget that this remains formidable) elsewhere in their strategic borderlands to deter the kind of NATO intervention that Russian military professionals, apparently genuinely, do not feel that they can totally rule out. Nor, at the time of writing, are there many signs of a significant decline in the Ukrainians’ continuing will and capacity to resist, very possibly even if Kyiv falls. If the war does indeed drag on, an attritional and potentially deadly conflict over logistics and supply will come more and more to the fore. Already, Ukrainian soldiers are being told to focus on blowing up bridges, destroying fuel trucks (of which, to judge by the Russian commandeering of civilian trucks, they have too few) rather than tanks, and attacking ammunition dumps if they can. A tank without fuel, sufficient shells and close air and infantry support is nothing but a potential roadblock, to be taken out at leisure, if not already abandoned. Worthwhile results in such a partisan campaign, though, depends on the delivery of sufficient weaponry to the fighters, plus food and humanitarian supplies to the civilian population. Both will be contested by the Russians, while they seek to keep their own supply chains working. Accordingly, a ferocious war of logistics and supply chains has emerged and will get worse the longer the war lasts.

For both sides, the safest way of delivering such supplies in sufficient bulk is by sea. In consequence, the Russians, accepted the need to close down Ukrainian ports either by bombing their facilities as in Odessa, attacking or capturing Ukrainian and neutral shipping or by occupation and encirclement, as in Kherson and Mariupol. Potentially the most serious of these possibilities would be the reduction of Odessa. The assumption is that ground forces will invade the city supported by an amphibious desant capability if needed, rather than the full-scale landing operation so much talked about in the press. Taken together, this will create another Great Patriotic War style ‘cauldron battle.’

If the Russians can exercise sufficient operational control over the country’s Black Sea coastline they will achieve three things. First, they will stop Ukrainian exports such as wheat, sunflower oil and even titanium. Sixty percent of Ukraine’s trade goes by sea and ninety per cent of its grain exports. This commercial blockade began before the fighting started when, on the pretext of holding exercises, the Russian navy closed off most of the Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea.[3]. Over 100 merchant ships are stranded in or near Ukrainian ports. This seriously damages the Ukrainian economy, but it will also have dire consequences elsewhere such as for the UN World Food Program in Africa which relies heavily on Ukrainian wheat. An inability to plant next year’s crop plus sanctions on the export of Russian wheat and fertilisers will exacerbate what is already a very serious global problem.

Secondly, by cutting Ukraine off from the sea, the Russians will prevent their adversaries being supplied with their weaponry and subsistence needs. This leaves only air and land supply. In the West’s rush to provide the Ukrainians with modern weaponry before a heavy Russian presence in the West of the country made that too difficult, Ukrainian transport aircraft have been picking up supplies from airfields in places like Estonia, while Ukrainian trucks collect supplies from railheads just over the border in Poland and Rumania. The Russians will respond with a determined campaign of strategic interdiction of this fragile logistic supply chain. By the third week of the war, long range air and missile attacks on supply bases closer and closer to the NATO border had already begun. Nor would it be entirely safe to assume that they will necessarily stop there, especially if partisan-like attacks continue to be successful. In the war’s second week, Moscow warned NATO of the risks of this means of supply. Their lethal interception of Ukrainian supply aircraft or trucks near or even just over the NATO border also should certainly not be ruled out. We should at the least expect surveillance drones in NATO airspace. In short, the denial of sea access gravely increases the risk of escalation on land. As discussed later, and as shown by Western hesitations about the supply of fighter aircraft, this is to the probable advantage of the Russians.

Thirdly, command of the coastal region may well provide the Russians, eventually, with faster, safer means of reinforcement and resupply of their own forces which reduces their reliance on the fixed overland routes and on the railway that have proved so vulnerable to partisan attack. There is no doubt that this kind of command of the coastal space would require a tremendous effort by the Russians but the long-term strategic advantage for them would be very considerable. The current dominance of their naval forces in the Black Sea gives them every advantage in this respect. Sadly, the Ukrainians had to scuttle their one frigate at Mykolaiv to prevent it falling into Russian hands. The wisdom of hindsight suggests that, before the war, the development of the Ukrainian navy’s sea denial capabilities should have been conducted with greater urgency. It also, in retrospect, seems to suggest that the slow decline in NATO ship visits to the Black Sea since 2014, and their complete absence in mid-February on the eve of war transmitted entirely the wrong message to Putin.[4]

By the third week, the Russians had also resorted to the kind of savage city-centred siege warfare characteristic of 17th Century European military operations. In this part of their campaign, the ultimate target was the Ukrainian state and its war economy while the means employed was the ruthless destruction of Ukrainian means of production (which also includes preventing the planting of next year’s agricultural produce) and the denial of the essentials of life to the citizens of its main cities. This will cripple the Ukrainian economy still further and its continued capacity to resist without material support from outside.

This multi-dimensional struggle between competing economic systems for logistics and supply, opens up an area where the West is better placed to make use of its maritime capabilities; namely in the sanctions campaign. Although the promise of this has manifestly failed to deter Russia’s aggression, it seems likely to inflict significant punishment that may deter further such acts; it may even, in the long run, threaten the longevity of the Putin regime. More immediately, Russia’s whole war economy is the ultimate source of everything the Russian army needs to fight and win in the Ukraine, or anywhere else. There is a tendency in the West to exaggerate the limitations of that economy and the West’s capacity to damage it. Also, for the past eight years, the Russians have been doing what they could to shore up its defences, most obviously by the building a war chest of more than $600bn. The high price of oil and gas will also help to top up that resource.[5]. Nonetheless, the Putin regime very evidently takes the sanctions campaign seriously, likening it to an act of war, while ominously pointing out that the oil and steel embargo of Japan in 1941 actually precipitated the war it was intended to deter.

Once again, Russia could be expected to retaliate, although it had not done so effectively by the third week of the war. There was speculation that, against the West, such an offence could take the form of tit-for-tat oil and gas embargoes, interference with the undersea cables essential to the global economy, or a resort to cyber-attacks such as the NotPetya episode of 2017 which inflicted $10 billion worth of collateral damage, not least on the Maersk shipping line. The Russians might well consider such actions as a particularly appropriate and technically feasible response to Western sanctions.

Defensively, the Russians will also seek to preserve their own trading links with by-standers like India and Vietnam whose material concerns led to their abstaining from the General Assembly resolution condemning Russian aggression and have so far resisted involvement in the sanctions campaign. Despite China’s abstention in the vote, the level of Chinese support, political, economic and military for Russia could well prove crucial. However Chinese trade with Russia at some three percent of the total is completely dwarfed by that with the US and the EU. Beijing is accordingly likely to take, for the Russians, a depressingly hard-nosed and pragmatic line in calibrating the degree of their support.

Even so, sanctions campaigns typically only have effect when sustained over substantial periods of time, and sadly often not much even then. They require constant servicing over the same time-frame and so do all the diplomatic arrangements and understandings that sustain them. Most of the trade in question is sea-based at least to some degree. There is moreover a decidedly maritime complexion to the league of liberal states who are at the forefront of the campaign to punish the Putin regime. Not surprisingly, therefore, the exercise of naval power and naval influence is crucial to the campaign to shape global attitudes and punish Russia by inflicting as much economic and diplomatic damage as is possible, while taking due precaution against all manner of possible Russian reprisals.

This campaign is very wide-ranging indeed. Part of it is deterrence at and from the sea, in order to reduce the threat of Russia seeking to escalate its way out of trouble by widening its war into one against the whole European and global order. It is against this possibility that major NATO exercises like NEPTUNE STRIKE 22 in the Mediterranean and COLD RESPONSE were planned, extended and executed.[6] The Russians have done the same, at one point deploying some 140 units in the Barents, the North Atlantic, the Gulf (where they exercised with the Chinese and the Iranians) and the Northwest Pacific.[7]

There is now also a special need for the kind of naval diplomacy that helps persuade countries to join in trade embargoes, to deliver alternative energy supplies, to think again about the consequences of excessive reliance on the acquisition of Russian weaponry. More generally naval diplomacy perhaps in the form of the AUKUS deal or as manifested by the naval exercises of the so-called Quad (of Australia, India, Japan and the US) is an obvious means by which what used to be called the ‘Free World’ can come closer together in the defence of shared values. Another manifestation of the important diplomatic dimension of maritime power is Turkey’s use of the Montreux convention. Choosing to re-define Putin’s ‘special military operation’ as a ‘war’ allowed the Turks to deny passage to a group of Russian destroyers and frigates from other fleets that may have been en route to support the amphibious task group which had already passed through the Straits on its way to Odessa.[8]. The French seizure in the Channel of the Baltic Leader a Russian car-carrier was another interesting example of maritime lawfare which could easily be extended.[9]

None of this will have an immediate effect equivalent to Putin’s main battle tanks crunching their way through the shattered streets of Kyiv or the final destruction of the Ukrainian forces in the East, but in the longer term, it may well prove ultimately decisive. In particular, maritime power and the possibilities it offers could be an effective answer to one of the major weaknesses in NATO’s early response to Russia’s aggression. Constant and publicly repeated anxieties about the dangers of the crisis spreading into NATO territory and/or involving direct hostilities with Russia (possibly even involving weapons of mass destruction) effectively provided Putin with ‘escalation dominance’ – or an enhanced ability to set the rules of the game.[10] The West’s open and repeated assurances that it would not send people into Ukraine, or enforce a no-fly zone, instead of keeping such dire options on the table, meant Putin had less to worry about.

In the parlance of Russia’s Main Operations Directorate, the unexpectedly serious Ukrainian response meant what had been a ‘special military operation’ had in fact already escalated to a Local War, which they define as being between two states for limited purposes and with limited means. It quickly became clear that this was also not going to be a re-run of a ‘one (decisive) blow’ operation like their 1945 attack on Japanese forces in Manchuria or the 1968 intervention against the Prague Spring. The scale of Putin’s wider objectives, moreover, would logically seem to justify resort to the more expansive techniques appropriate to the next theoretical level of conflict up – Regional War which would likely be a lot less limited in both respects. The West’s refusal to accept this possibility, however, means that Putin can make use of these more coercive means this approach justifies with much less fear of retaliation. Certainly, the West’s taking such military responses off the table was no way to discourage him from thus aggressively testing NATO’s red lines if that’s what the destruction of the Ukraine requires. Such Western concerns about unacceptable risk were understandable, even inevitable, in the circumstances, but arguably made aggression more likely.[11]

Maritime power in the wider sense could help offset this. Since the Revolution, the Soviet and then Russian General Staff have cultivated the concept of certainty of outcome as a prerequisite for strategic military action. In the Cold War era, a 10,000 strong Military History Directorate processed experience to come up with ‘norms’ of what outcomes they could reasonably expect if they did this or that. In theory this should allow them more accurately to assess the level of risk. This didn’t of course mean that their estimates were always right, because manifestly they were not, but it remains a key habit of Russian military thought.[12]. NATO’s understandable candour about what it would not do effectively removed a major imponderable from the Russian equation, which might otherwise have deterred the invasion, or at least moderated its prosecution.

Maritime power, on the other hand, – still one of the West’s strongest advantages after all – offers a means of helping compensate for this, because the sheer range of the responses and reprisals it makes possible should greatly complicate the Russians’ problem of assessing in advance the likely consequences of their actions. It may be too late to deny Putin a pyrrhic victory of sorts in the Ukraine but properly and determinedly wielded, the resolute application of maritime and economic power could impose a level of political, military and diplomatic cost that would make further such actions less likely. Given the likelihood that even when the Ukrainian tragedy is over, the world will be facing a new dark age of extreme competition, the West needs to make the most of the maritime resources it has available.


1 Could anything be more expected to stiffen Ukrainian resolve ?

2 This alternative way of looking at the Russian campaign is compellingly argued in an RUSI commentary by Sam Cranny-Evans and Sidharth Kaushal ‘Not Out of the Woods Yet: Assessing the Operational Sitiation in Ukraine,’ 14 March 2022.

3 Reuters, Ukraine says Russian drills render shipping virtually impossible, 10 Feb 2022.

4 Alison Bath, ‘US Navy and NATO presence in the Black Sea has fallen since Russia took part of Ukraine, figures show.’ Stars and Stripes on line, 28 Jan 2022.

5 Michael Kofman and Andrea Kendall-Taylor,’ The Myth of Russian Decline: Why Moscow Will Be a Persistent Power.’ Foreign Affairs, November/December 2021.

6 NATO Communique, NATO Allies Demonstrate Strength and Unity with Exercise Cold Response in Norway,’ 14 Marc 2022.

7 ‘Japan Again Raises Concerns over 10 Warship Russian Navy Surface Group.’ US Naval Institute, 11 March 2022.

8 Cornell Overfield, ‘Turkey Must Close the Turkish Straits Only to Russian and Ukrainian Warships’ https:/ 5 March 2022

9 ‘France seizes suspected Russian-owned ship in Channel, The Guardian, 26 Feb 2022.

10 Eliot A. Cohen, ‘American Hesitation is Heart-breaking’ The Atlantic 14 Mar 2022.

11 For a sobering analysis along these lines see Kevin R James, ‘The Case for Direct Military Intervention in Ukraine’ The Strategist, 15 Mar 2022.

12 I t is worth making the point that the professionals of the Main Operations Directorate are typically pragmatic and cautious, significantly less adventurist than the current leadership and Foreign Ministry