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The Ukraine War Could Soon Be a Naval War Like No Other

Kirov-class Battlecruiser. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Kirov-class Battlecruiser. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Could the war in Ukraine become a war at sea and determine the ultimate outcome of who wins and who losses the conflict? 

Ukraine’s victory in Kherson Oblast has confirmed the centrality of sea access in the war with Russia. As Ukraine plans its next move, and Russia responds to Ukraine’s advances, Western policymakers must prioritize Ukraine’s victory at sea, and ensure that Kyiv has the tools it requires to break Russian sea control. Like World War II’s struggle for the continent the Ukraine War may be fought on land, but it can be won at sea.

The Russian retreat from Kherson demonstrates the effectiveness of Ukraine’s operational approach. Ukrainian troops never conquered Kherson, replicating the vicious urban assaults that have defined the Russian invasion. They instead played to their strengths, patiently eroding Russia’s position with long-range artillery strikes against supply depots and logistical hubs. This strategy won the Battle of the Donbas, halting the apparently overwhelming Russian onslaught at Severodonetsk/Lysychansk. It also ultimately won the Kherson Offensive. In both cases, Russian forces became too degraded to undertake effective offensives.

Unlike in the Donbas, however, Ukraine could present Russia with an operational dilemma. Right-bank Kherson Oblast held political and strategic importance, as the key to the Crimea Canal, the area in which a newly annexed Russian Oblast’s ostensible capital was and is still located, and as the most viable staging point for new offensives. But maintaining a stable position in Kherson required around 20,000 soldiers at any given time, complete with heavy artillery, armored vehicles, and the requisite ammunition and supplies to fight, even from static lines.

Ukraine’s anti-logistical efforts made right-bank Kherson logistically untenable: it was a strategic deadweight on Russia’s broader position, sucking up valuable resources and men who could hold the line elsewhere. It also put Russia with its back to the Dnieper, an extremely wide river, rather than leveraging the Dnieper as a defensive barrier. Ultimately, Russian commander Sergei Surovikin placed tangible military considerations above the political imperative to hold Kherson, withdrawing from the city.

Russia’s withdrawal from Kherson has improved operational position. It remains to be seen whether the damage Ukraine did to withdrawing Russian units will limit the combat power Surovikin can harvest from the retreat, although it appears that a significant amount of Russian equipment made it across the Dnieper. Yet Russian forces now have the Dnieper before them. Crossing the river will be extraordinarily difficult for Ukraine – this fact shaped Ukraine’s anti-logistical strategy in the first place – and even if viable, an extremely risky proposition for a military with a handful of high-value maneuver brigades. Hence Russia need not defend left-bank Kherson Oblast from a Ukrainian offensive very heavily, at least not soon.

Indeed, Russia’s withdrawal simplifies the strategic choices Surovikin must make. Offensive operations are no longer viable. But the defensive front line is now shorter in practical terms. Mobilized Russian infantry may be useless for maneuver but remain capable of defending static lines with artillery and air support. With a shorter front and more conscripts to employ, Surovikin can peel off actual trained line units, creating an operational reserve to counter a Ukrainian mechanized offensive.

Ukraine will continue to press on land, and likely should launch an offensive between early winter and mid-spring, taking advantage of Russia’s low morale, need to redeploy east, and inability to bring its nominal 300,000 new troops rapidly into the fight.

Nevertheless, looking for other offensive axes would be fruitful. Ukraine has only a single strategically consequential offensive path. The Svatove Line in the Donbas remains under pressure, and Ukraine may very well break that. But even if Ukraine does, and Russia retreats to the pre-February 24th Line of Contact in the Donbas’ north, the war’s strategic fundamentals will not have changed. Driving Russia from all the Donbas, meanwhile, involves a southern-directed offensive anyway. By contrast, considering the difficulty of a Kherson Oblast offensive, an attack in Zaporizhzhia Oblast is eminently viable and strategically relevant. It would threaten all Russian forces in southern Ukraine, thereby giving Kyiv an opportunity to reclaim the south, secure Ukrainian ports, and ensure post-war Ukraine’s economic future. 

It is the economic question, moreover, that has come to the forefront of the Western commentariat’s current round of conflict-skepticism. First it was Russia’s overwhelming military dominance before February 24th that guaranteed Ukraine’s collapse, then Russia’s sheer volume of fires that would grind down Ukraine in the Donbas, now it is Russia’s war on Ukraine’s electric grid that will shatter its economy. Never mind that Russia’s bombardment signals a failed war. No longer capable of conquering territory, it seeks to degrade Ukrainian resources and will by destroying Ukraine’s critical infrastructure. Equally incapable of breaking Ukrainian air defenses and bombarding cities, it resorts to expending high-value precision missiles against power stations while waves of Iranian-supplied, slow, low-payload drones make up the difference.

This campaign is unlikely to break Ukrainian will. Perhaps it will trigger another refugee wave, although many Ukrainians who have not yet left have committed to staying in-country during the war. It will siphon off resources, strategic flexibility, and air defenses critically necessary for a future ground offensive given Russia’s remaining air assets, and Ukraine’s limited fixed and rotary-wing fleet. It will also frighten the West, not because of a notional refugee wave, but because it will ensure that Ukraine requires extensive economic support long after the war. In an ironic inversion of fascist rhetoric, with inflation surging and public debts rising, the conventional wisdom seeks to understand why soft social welfare states would support a fledgling democracy in its fight against a tyrant. Rational observation indicates that, rather than speaking against support for Ukraine, the economic question would demand far greater support for Ukraine’s ability to retake its south, thereby unlocking its export potential and stabilizing global food supplies.

Attacking Russia at sea would benefit Ukraine’s long-term objectives and provide Ukraine a means to pressure Russia beyond ground offensives. Ukraine will continue an anti-logistical strategy, particularly since its new position in Kherson Oblast puts all Russia’s southwestern supply lines and the Isthmus of Perekop in Ukrainian artillery range. Of course, if Ukraine had ATACMS, all of Crimea would now be vulnerable to strikes. But there is no better logistical pressure Ukraine can apply than at sea.

The Kerch Strait Bridge is the central link between Crimea and Rostov Oblast. If Ukraine could destroy it, as the explosion in late September demonstrated, it could knock out the core of Russian combat power and potentially compel a retreat to Crimea with enough pressure. However, destroying the Kerch Strait Bridge requires a series of shaping operations that reduce its defenses and disrupt Russian naval forces.

Moreover, if Ukraine hopes to attack in Zaporizhzhia Oblast, it would be well served by degrading the Russian Navy. Russia’s warships, even near port, has cast a shadow on the entire war, from the capture of Snake Island to the more recent strikes across Ukraine. As the fight for Kherson demonstrated, by breaking local Russian sea control, Ukraine gained much greater operational freedom of action – the Moskva was an air defense platform and Russia’s Grigorovich-class frigates are packed with land-attack missiles – enabling the extended interdiction campaign that compelled a Russian retreat.

A Ukrainian naval presence would also open up, over time, offensive options in Kherson Oblast, rather than Zaporizhzhia Oblast – as Ukrainian ships gain control over the coastline, Ukraine’s ground interdiction campaign can increase depending upon the weapons it fields, and perhaps fast attack craft can even facilitate a crossing of the Dnieper.

Finally, a sufficient Ukrainian naval force would knock out the final route Russia would employ to supply Crimea and the south, its limited naval sustainment forces. If Ukraine can destroy Russian warships, Russian transports will be thoroughly vulnerable to interdiction.

A naval focus would also benefit the U.S. and its allies. Russia’s greatest leverage in this war is its long-term ability to disrupt grain supplies. This comes from Russia’s control of Crimea and its Black Sea Fleet. Destroying the Black Sea Fleet, or at least ensuring it remains bottled up in port, would vastly strengthen the security of the Black Sea grain corridor, and thereby allow the West to continue the war at much less macroeconomic cost.

The U.S. has transferred some naval capabilities to Ukraine. But these have been secondary to ground capabilities. Ukraine now has an unclear number of Harpoon anti-ship missiles, mounted on mobile launchers, perhaps a few remaining Neptune anti-ship cruise missiles, and some dozen patrol craft. It will receive, according to the most recent tranche of American military assistance, some 40 patrol boats of an unspecified class over the coming months. Ukraine is also leveraging its technical ingenuity and knack for dual-use modifications to create 100 assault craft of the same model used to attack the Russian Black Sea Fleet in port in late October.

Yet more is needed. Three steps in particular should be undertaken. First, the U.S. should accelerate the transfer of anti-ship missiles to Ukraine. These can include the Harpoons Ukraine already employs, any identified legacy Soviet systems, advanced Western technology like the Norwegian-developed Naval Strike Missile, or most ambitiously, a large tranche of advanced Korean missiles building off the initial cooperation between the U.S., ROK, and Ukraine.

Second, the U.S. should work with its allies to identify legacy patrol craft and fast attack boats that Ukraine could employ. In this context, quantity does exceed quality. Ukraine requires enough craft, even simply armed with machine guns and MANPADS, to gain control of the Dnieper to conduct a crossing at some point. Any vessels the U.S. can identify, both in its own civil-military stocks and those of the European powers, would be invaluable for boosting Ukrainian capacity.

Third, the U.S., when transferring larger craft to Ukraine, should work with Ukrainian technical specialist to ensure they can deploy a variety of weapons. Achieving sea control will jeopardize Russia’s entire logistical structure. But Ukrainian patrol craft, armed with even short-range land-attack missiles, could degrade Russian forces rather rapidly in concert with Ukraine’s traditional artillery. An offensively-equipped Ukrainian brown-water fleet would make it viable for Kyiv to cut Crimea off in full, and thereby gain enough leverage over Russia to consider seriously war termination.

Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of Mayday and Seablindness. This first appeared in RealClearDefense

Written By

Seth Cropsey is founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of Mayday and Seablindness.