The Russo-Ukrainian War At Sea: Retrospect and Prospect

tags: military history, Russia, Ukraine, naval history

BJ Armstrong is a contributing editor with War on the Rocks and is the principal associate of the Forum on Integrated Naval History and Seapower Studies. His fourth book, Developing the Naval Mind, coauthored with John Freymann, was published in NovemberOpinions expressed in his article are offered in his personal and academic capacity, and do not reflect the positions or policies of the U.S. Naval Academy, the Department of Defense, or any other agency.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine appears, on the surface, to be a land war. Newspapers lead with photographs of burned-out tanks, and on television and online we hear about the Belorussian border and truck convoys and listen to the expert commentary of generals. But this is a naval war as well.

Fighting has taken place both around the inland capitol of Kyiv, but also on the coast and over control of key port cities. While Russian explanation for new drive in the east focuses on the Russian-speaking population and territorial expansion, there is also a second and more strategic reason: the desire for a land bridge to Crimea, which would reduce the vulnerability of the Russian naval base at Sevastopol. When examining the maritime elements of the war, three points of analysis are worth consideration: first, the nature of conflict at sea and its existence out of sight of land and in a different domain which confounds our understanding; second, how the Russian navy pursued the basic elements of naval strategy reflects their continued relevance in this century; and third, the ways in which Ukraine has adapted to the conflict, and how it might make future adjustments, requires understanding of the naval past and creative thinking about the naval future.

Sea Blindness in Theory and in Practice

Over a decade ago, Butch Brakenel and James Kraska wrote that the “United States suffers from a kind of ‘sea blindness’ — an inability to appreciate the central role the oceans and naval power have played in securing our strategic security and economic prosperity.” Most use of “sea blindness” has tended to be metaphorical or focused on the grand economic and security connections between nations and the sea. Yet, in the Russo-Ukrainian war, the United States is experiencing sea blindness in a literal sense.

As various observers scroll through social media in search of open-source intelligence on the war, we are presented with a wealth of information that we then assess for validity and usefulness. However, very little of it is focused on the seas. Photos of burned-out T-72 tanks and trucks, video clips from targeting drones, or after-action threads that summarize changes in the fighting fill our feeds. For the most part, those of us who rely on open sources are blind to what is happening on the Ukrainian coast and in the Black Sea. The exceptions, like the final stand on Snake Island or the sinking of a Russian Alligator-class LST at the pier in Berdyansk, prove the rule. The early reports of the events surrounding the sinking of the cruiser Moskva illustrate this point also. These were based on the reposting of dueling press releases or online press reports rather than imagery, video, or on-scene information, which did not start to come until well after the fact.

A handful of media outlets and online trackers are trying to keep up with the maritime war. H.I. Sutton has been keeping the Covert Shores maritime open-source intelligence outlet going with information and writes reports for USNI News when they can confirm details. But an accurate picture of what is happening at sea is difficult. Truly actionable intelligence requires more than an occasional commercial satellite image or screenshots of maritime transponders. They involve electronic intercepts, radar, sonar, and elaborate collation and analysis efforts. All of these realities mean that while the NATO navies and Russian navy are actively producing their own maritime awareness, most of the rest of us are left in the dark about the conflict at sea.

But the fact that our Twitter feeds and Instagram scrolls are not filled with naval or maritime news does not mean that nothing is happening. It is important to remember that any war which takes place in a coastal territory (and many which take place in landlocked territory) have naval elements. The Russian invasion and Ukrainian defense of their sovereignty are no different, regardless of our sea blindness.

Retrospect: Naval Strategy in Action

As Bernard Brodie reminded us, boiled down to its simplest ideas, naval strategy can be described in a clear way. It begins with the need to establish command of the sea. It is taken further by determining what to do with the control that command of the sea offers.

Establishing command of the sea does not have to be global or even regional, but could simply be local to the area of operations. There tend to be two main ways to establish command. The first is to defeat the opponent’s navy or main battle fleet. By sinking the enemy, you keep them from being able to stop your use of the sea. But there’s a second way to establish command, and that is to keep your opponent’s navy from ever putting to sea. Whether through blockade or by conducting strikes that sink them or limit their mobility while still in port, this can be equally effective.

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