The Russian invasion of Ukraine: Implications for the Black Sea

Deborah Sanders
Dr., Reader in Defence and Security Studies
Defence Studies Department, King’s College London

The war President Putin is fighting in Ukraine isn’t the war he expected, or, as we have seen, planned for. Russia expected a quick and decisive ‘special military operation’ that would seize key political centres and decapitate the Ukrainian government. They assumed that Ukrainian morale would be quickly broken, and resistance would evaporate without requiring extended and costly military operations. What Russia has actually faced on the ground, however, is a protracted and attritional campaign. Where Russian forces have had some success, however, is on Ukraine’s coast, although Ukrainian resistance is notable here as well as in major cities. Given that Russia has seized swathes of Ukraine’s coastline what does this mean for the Black Sea?

Starting with Ukraine, it is clear that Kyiv has lost all access to the Sea of Azov. This was always likely to be a prime Russian objective in any conflict. Over the last few years, Russia has engaged in aggressive action to limit Ukraine’s access to the sea, including building a bridge to Crimea which limits the height of maritime transport into the area, imposing an inspection regime on all commercial vessels transiting the Kerch Straits heading to Ukrainian ports, actually attacking and then capturing three Ukrainian naval vessels and its sailors in 2018, and, perhaps most significantly, closing off the Sea of Azov to all maritime traffic under the pretext of military exercises.

Russia has long wanted a land bridge linking Crimea to Russia and due to its success in seizing Ukrainian territory it is now on the verge of obtaining one. The loss of key Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov, in particular Berdyansk and Mariupol, will have a damaging effect on the Ukrainian economy as Ukraine is highly dependent on exports and much of its grain and sunflower oil goes by sea – these losses will, of course, affect Ukraine’s ability to rebuild economically after the war.[i]

The recent demands by Russia that Ukraine accept the independence of the separatist republics of Donetsk and Lugansk as part of any ceasefire agreement will also reinforce the loss of Ukraine’s access to the Sea of Azov, its commercial ports, and planned new naval base there. The constitutional border of Donetsk oblast, as opposed to the former line of contact that Ukrainian forces held against the separatists, includes Mariupol.[ii] Working closely with the UK, Ukraine was looking to build a new Ukrainian naval base in the Sea of Azov; this clearly is no longer an option and the Ukrainian navy, or at least what remains of the navy after this conflict, will be forced to relocate to the Black Sea.[iii]

Picking up on the previous point, Ukraine will forfeit the progress it has made in restructuring its maritime forces. Navies are difficult and costly to construct, and Ukraine has faced many challenges rebuilding its capabilities since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.[iv] The scuttling of the Ukrainian flagship, Hetman Sahaidachny (U130), was a huge psychological blow to the navy and a clear sign of the immense challenges small navies face when confronted by reality of the application of superior maritime power.[v] Ukraine’s ability to rebuild its navy will ultimately be dependent on the outcome of the conflict and what ‘ceasing military action’ and ‘neutrality’ (two key demands Russia has made to end hostilities) actually mean in practise.[vi]

The Russian Federation has moderated its initial stated war objective of ‘demilitarising’ Ukraine and more recently President Putin has settled for ‘ceasing military action’. It is not clear at the moment what the relationship is between these two objectives. The demilitarisation of Ukraine would affect the type of maritime capabilities and assets Ukraine could be allowed to retain or be able to acquire in the near future. Whereas ‘ceasing military action’ suggests that Ukraine will be allowed to retain whatever is left of its maritime power (albeit in truncated form) and will be able to continue to operate and protect its interests in the maritime domain. Ukraine’s ability to protect its interests in the maritime domain and address what are also pressing non-traditional maritime security challenges in the Black Sea will be severely affected if it does not retain its navy.[vii]

A change to the Ukrainian constitution to enshrine neutrality could have a pernicious effect on the ability of the Ukrainian government to rebuild its military forces, including its navy and coastal defence systems. The Ukrainian navy has benefited enormously from capacity building, most notably with the UK, from the donation of maritime platforms from the US and from the Ukrainian navy’s participation in NATO maritime training and maritime security operations. It is not clear if any of these options will be allowed to continue under Moscow’s interpretation of what constitutes a ‘neutral state’ on its border. While neutral states, such as Finland, do actively engage with NATO training exercises, it is worth remembering that neutrality was not imposed on Helsinki by a larger more powerful neighbour and Finland is not Ukraine.

So what are the wider implications for the Black Sea from the Russian invasion of Ukraine? If Russian ceasefire demands are met and Ukraine is forced to recognise Crimea as Russian, then Romania will share a maritime border with Moscow. As Romania and Bulgaria, like Ukraine, operate what can best be described as small navies and have limited coastal defence capabilities, they will be forced to develop more advanced land-based options to substitute and augment their limited maritime power, creating an even more militarised maritime domain. Suggestions have included looking at how Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey, enhance their coastal defence systems and their ability to counter Russian sea control with overlapping Coastal Defence Cruise Missile coverage.[viii] There is also highly likely to be a further increase in NATO, and in particular US, forward presence in Romania and Bulgaria to send a very clear message about what NATO’s red lines are in the Black Sea.

Further Russian advances along Ukraine’s coastline in the west, including the seizure of Odesa, will also give Russian control of both the western and eastern side of the Black Sea, in essence giving it sea control over the whole of the Black Sea. While Russia’s ability to project power in the Black Sea has increased significantly since the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, control over the western side of the Black Sea could make this enclosed sea a no-go area for NATO ships.

More widely, and whatever the outcome of the current conflict, the enmity that now characterises Russia’s relationship with the West will make the Black Sea an even more hostile environment for the operation of NATO maritime forces, with even the most peaceful of deployments likely to result in difficult confrontations.

[i] ‘Explainer: Will Ukraine lose Sea of Azov to Russia?’, 20 July 2018, as reported on BBC Monitoring,
[ii] ‘Ukraine: The line’, The International Crisis Group, Briefing number 81, 18 July 2016.
[iii] Claire Mills, ‘Military assistance to Ukraine’, House of Commons Library Research Briefing, 7135, 14 February 2022.
[iv] Deborah Sanders, ‘Rebuilding the Ukrainian Navy’, in Robert McCabe et al, Europe, Small Navies and Maritime Security, (Routledge, 2020), 168-184.
[v] Tyler Rogoway, ‘The Ukrainian navy’s flagship appears to have been scuttled’, The War Zone, 3 March 2022.
[vi] Holly Bancroft, ‘Russia issue four key demands Ukraine must follow to halt invasion ahead of peace talks’, The Independent, 8 March 2022.
[vii] Deborah Sanders, ‘Maritime Security in the Black Sea: Out with the new, In with the Old’, Mediterranean Quarterly, 28/2 Autumn 2017, 4-29.
[viii] Brian Harrington, ‘The US and NATO must counter Russia’s dominance in the Black Sea’, The Hill, 4 November 2021.

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