For most citizens of the EU and Russia, the Black Sea was probably primarily a tourist concept until spring 2022: Varna and Sevastopol were and are the tourist strongholds on its west and north coast. However, with the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, its military relevance also became the focus of European and transatlantic security policy. As a result of the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine, it literally jumped into the focus of the media public.
The Black Sea is an inland sea at the geostrategically important interface between Southeast Europe and Asia. This is why maritime, continental and geostrategic interests collide in this region. Its neighbors can be divided into three groups: Russia in the north, the NATO countries Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey in the west and south, and Ukraine and Georgia in the north and east. It is connected through the Kerch Strait with the Sea of Azov, which from the Russian perspective forms a unit with the Black Sea. The Black Sea only has access to the open sea via the Turkish-controlled straits of the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus. However, the inland sea is also of great economic relevance for China as part of its New Silk Road (Chinese: “A belt, a street”) inside. This is where the interests of several major and regional powers as well as multinational organizations clash. Since February 2022, this has been clearly and lastingly demonstrated by the war in Ukraine.
Naval supremacy in the arms alliance
In the maritime sphere, the naval forces are usually the means of exercising military power. Because the Black Sea is an inland sea, long-range anti-aircraft defense systems, land forces, air forces, and long-range coastal missile batteries play as important a role as ships and boats. In the current conflict, it was not ships or boats that caused the largest ship casualties, but rather land-based weapon systems. It must therefore rather be spoken of as an amphibious weapon combination. The navies still play a prominent role in gaining and exercising naval supremacy on the open sea.
The largest military actor in the Black Sea is NATO, represented by the three navies based there, followed by the Russian Black Sea Fleet. In periods of peace and tension, the Alliance repeatedly deployed its permanent NATO task forces, the Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 ( SNMG2) or the Standing NATO Maritime Countermeasures Group ( SNMCMG2), to the Inland Sea as a sign of its interest in stability in the region. But only the three navies of Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey are allowed to station permanent naval forces there for the transatlantic alliance. The basis for this is the Montreux Agreement concluded in 1936, which guarantees Turkey complete sovereignty over the western straits.
Non-riparians may only send warships with a maximum displacement of 10,000 tons and a total fleet tonnage of 30,000 tons to the inland sea for a maximum of 21 days. In total, no more than 45,000 tons of non-resident warships are allowed in the Black Sea. The Montreux Agreement ultimately gave Turkey a key geostrategic position. Since February 28, 2022, Turkey has blocked the passage for warships, which preserves the maritime balance of power from the beginning of the war.
The Russian Black Sea Fleet
The second largest maritime player in the Black Sea is the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Already Tsar Peter I the Great strove for Crimea and Tsarina Catherine II the Great annexed it after the Russo-Turkish War 1768-74 on April 8, 1783. The property was only recognized by the Ottoman Empire in the treaty by Jassy on January 9, 1792. The Russian founding of Sevastopol in 1793 was largely due to the fleet. Since then, the city has been the main base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. The fierce battles to defend the port and the fortress during the Crimean War of 1854/55 and during the Second World War in 1941/42 established the glorious aura of the Russian and Soviet Black Sea Fleet and the “primeval Russian” naval port, which to this day has great appeal in the cultural memory of many Russians owns.
Today’s Black Sea Fleet emerged from the Soviet, dissolved in 1991, whose legacy was an open point of contention between Ukraine and Russia until 1997. Only the Russian-Ukrainian naval contract of May 1997 regulated the division of the fleet (18.3% Ukraine and 81.7% Russian Federation), the use of the naval base Sevastopol and other bases in Crimea on the basis of a lease, with gas supplies from Russia were charged to Ukraine. Accordingly, Russia was allowed to station up to 25,000 soldiers, 132 armored combat vehicles, 22 aircraft and 24 artillery systems in the bases there. The treaty only came into force in 1999. Until 2014, Russia never exhausted the limits. On April 21, 2010, both countries signed the so-called Kharkiv treaties, which allowed Russia to continue using the bases until 2042. After annexing Crimea, Russia unilaterally terminated the treaty on March 31, 2014, at the same time taking over most of the Ukrainian fleet. As a result, more than 5,000 Ukrainian seamen voluntarily defected to the Russians. Although some of the ships were returned to the Ukraine in early summer 2014, the return was suspended again on July 5, 2014.
After the territorial annexations in Ukraine in 2014, Russia’s maritime strategic focus increasingly shifted to this region. By 2022, her modernization at the expense of the Baltic Fleet was given a high priority as part of the 2015 Russian Maritime Strategy. At the same time, the military leadership recognized the amphibious character of the region and decided in 2017 to improve the joint capabilities of its troops. This manifested itself in the massive armament of Crimea. In 2018, around 32,000 soldiers, 40 tanks, 174 artillery systems and 113 aircraft were stationed there. This was more than a tripling of the size of the forces, and it already shows the emphasis of the Russian armed forces on artillery.
The ice-free deep-water port of Sevastopol is the main base of the fleet, where around 80 percent of the combat units were stationed at the beginning of the war. It is the only major Russian deep-water port on the Black Sea. Other bases in Crimea are Yevpatoriya, Saky and Feodosiya. The largest Black Sea base on Russian territory is Novorossiysk in the foothills of the Caucasus. In 2022, Russian forces captured the Ukrainian base at Berdyansk. Since then, Russia has dominated the entire north-central region and the north-east of the sea with its bases.
The sinking of the “Moskva”
The Russian Black Sea Fleet is currently a mixture of old Soviet ships and powerful new ships. The core of the modern fleet are three frigates of the “Admiral Grigorovich” class, four corvettes of the “Buyan-M” class, four corvettes of the “Vassily-Bykov”. class and six Kilo-III submarines. These ships also have modern SS-N-30 “Kalibr” cruise missiles. In addition, many old warships of the types “Kriwak”, “Tarantul” and “Ropucha” are still in use. The amphibious landing ships of the “Ropucha” class in particular are an expression of the offensive strategic approach of the Russian Navy. Shortly before the start of the war of aggression, the Russian Navy had moved additional landing ships from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.
At the beginning of the war, the fleet consisted of around 50 warships. Until April 14, 2022, the flagship was the missile cruiser commissioned in 1982 as the lead ship of its class under the name “Slava”, which has been called “Moskva” since 1996. The “Moskva” with a displacement of around 10,000 tons was the warship that was credited with having the highest fighting power in the entire Black Sea at the beginning of the war. This is generally derived from the interaction of military technology, the technical condition of the ships, crew training, logistical supply and the morale of the units. On the “Moskva”, however, there seem to have been clear deficits in several of these areas. With two land-based “Neptun” anti-ship missiles, Ukraine succeeded with the help of USUnited States-American reconnaissance results catastrophically hitting the cruiser near Snake Island on April 13. He sank a day later. The greatest loss of a warship in combat operations since the Second World War was a major setback for the Russian Navy and the Russian army as a whole, which propaganda could not play down. It almost seems like an irony of history that the “Moskva” was optimized for anti-aircraft defense and was intended to protect its own fleet. Without temporary air supremacy or a strong maritime anti-aircraft defense system, amphibious operations against the Ukrainian coast are likely to have become impossible for the time being.
On the defensive
The sinking of the Moskva ended the first phase of the Russian naval war in the Black Sea. In this, the fleet initially acted offensively, occupied the strategically important Snake Island and threatened the Ukrainian coast in the Cherson and Odessa regions with its landing ships through possible amphibious operations behind the land front. The loss of a DropShip off Berdyansk by Ukrainian missiles and the “Moskva” led to a more defensive approach from the end of April. During this second phase, the Russian fleet controlled and exercised naval supremacy in the northern Black Sea, but only to within reach of Ukrainian shore batteries. During this period, the fleet fired “Kalibr” cruise missiles in support of land combat and at strategic targets. However, Ukraine managed expand their position in the foreshore through the skilful use of drones and shore batteries. At the end of June she even recaptured Snake Island. This initiated the third phase, in which the Russian naval forces made no appearance except for the blockade of the Ukrainian sea lines of communication and the “Kalibr” shelling. Since the end of September, as a result of the Ukrainian counter-offensive on the land front, there have been indications that the Black Sea Fleet is retreating to bases on the Russian part of the Black Sea coast that are further away from the front. During the course of the war so far, no combined and coordinated deployment of naval aviation forces from the Saky air base in the Crimea could be observed. This points to communicative deficits, poor leadership skills and a lack of training or leadership.
Using artillery, missiles and drones, Ukrainian forces apparently destroyed more than 10 other Russian ships and boats. This is a reflection of the amphibious nature of naval warfare in the area. In addition to the enemy naval forces, there is also a considerable threat to ships and boats from land and from the air. The Ukrainian successes probably prevented landing operations planned by Russia. On August 9, 2022, Crimea itself came within range of Ukrainian airstrikes when the Saky Naval Air Base was attacked. The Russian naval aviators lost at least eight aircraft. The headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet has also been targeted twice by Ukrainian drones.
The second largest fleet in the Black Sea failed to establish naval supremacy off the enemy coast. In the course of the Ukrainian counter-offensive in early autumn 2022, the stationing of the vulnerable Russian submarines in Sevastopol apparently became too risky, which is why their retreat to Novorossiysk, further away from the front, began on September 20. The vulnerability of Sevastopol was exposed on October 29 when several drones on the water surface attacked and damaged ships in the port. For the first time in the history of naval warfare there was a coordinated attack with sea drones driving independently on the water.
Port blockades and grain deals
However, the Black Sea Fleet managed to blockade the Ukrainian ports. Outside the reconnaissance and effective range of the Ukrainian weapons group, the Russian naval forces were also able to successfully seal off the sea lines of communication, for which they also used mines. This had and still has a massive impact on foreign trade because there were no more sea transports to and from Ukraine. The export of grain and other bulk goods, which is dependent on ship transport, was and is associated with considerable economic consequences for the global economy. Because Ukraine is not only one of the most important grain producers, but also one of the most important fertilizer producers worldwide. Only through the mediation of the United Nations and Turkey did Russia, in the so-called Grain Agreement of 22 July 2022 the export of grain, other food, fertilizer and ammonia from the three Ukrainian ports of Odessa, Chornomorsk/Chernomorsk and Yuzhne/Yuzhnoye along a defined corridor. The agreement was valid for 120 days until November 19, 2022 and was extended for another 120 days until March 11, 2023. To ensure that no goods are exported that are on the sanctions list, which includes theUnited StatesUnited States of Americaand the EU have imposed on Russia, a Joint Coordination Center set up in Istanbul on June 27 controls the ships involved when entering and leaving the Black Sea with the help of inspection teams. In the coordination center are representatives of Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and the UNUnited Nationsemployed. Russia has repeatedly used the threat to suspend the agreement as a lever to put pressure on Ukraine and the international community and the West.
If one looks at the deployment of the Russian Black Sea Fleet since the beginning of the war, it can also be seen that it is increasingly running out of precision ammunition as a result of western sanctions. Attacks with Kalibr cruise missiles on point targets in Ukraine have decreased significantly. Since the summer of 2022, the Black Sea Fleet has only been used sporadically. Until then, Russian naval warfare had primarily followed the concept of high-intensity naval warfare based on the experiences of the Cold War and NATO combat missions, such as Operations Deliberate Force 1995 and AlliedForce 1999, or the Russian fleet in the Syrian civil war. Since the autumn, Russia has been increasingly carrying out drone attacks. Apparently, this indicates a shift in warfare towards cheap unmanned and autonomous weapon systems in the Russian armed forces. In this field, the Ukrainian armed forces acted more creatively from the start and optimized warfare with drones.
The Ukrainian Navy
The second fleet involved in the war is that of the Ukrainian Navy. As already mentioned, the Ukrainian Navy emerged from the bankruptcy of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet. 18 percent of these should go into the possession of Ukraine. There were also many unfinished ships from the Soviet era in Ukrainian shipyards. Because Sevastopol, as the main naval base on Ukrainian soil, was used by the Russian Navy, Ukraine established its headquarters in Odessa. From then on, the former Soviet naval base there became the most important of the Ukrainian Navy. Three other small bases were used in Crimea until 2014. Other bases are Mykolaiv/Nikolaev and Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov, captured by Russia in 2022.
The Ukrainian Navy’s operational capabilities are limited to coastal defense. Until she scuttled herself in March 2022, the Ukrainian flagship was a Soviet-built “Kriwak-III” frigate, which also took part in international operations such as Operation Active Endeavor (2008) or Operation Ocean Shield (2014) .attended. Otherwise, only a few speed and patrol boats are available to the fleet. An exact specification of the Ukrainian boats and aircraft is not possible because of the current war. The Ukrainian Navy was and is clearly inferior to the Russian Black Sea Fleet in terms of ships and boats. In relation to other navies, however, the proportion of marine infantry forces is very pronounced. In addition to infantry, it also has its own tank battalions and strong artillery troops. These include coastal missile batteries, which have had western “Harpoon” in addition to the Ukrainian “Neptune” anti-ship missiles since the summer of 2022 and are to receive Swedish RBS-17 in the future. Certainly the most spectacular success was the sinking of the “Moskva” by two Ukrainian “Neptun”.
At the beginning of the war, the Ukrainian naval aviation consisted of about ten helicopters, six reconnaissance aircraft and, since 2021, six Baykar Bayraktar TB2 combat drones. Ukrainian armed drones using anti-tank guided missiles sank several Russian boats. The composition of the navy is due on the one hand to the amphibious character of the region and on the other hand to Ukraine’s strategic focus on the land war since the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Even though the Ukrainian Navy is quite creative and skilful in combining reconnaissance weapons with drones, artillery and coastal missile batteries, it was hardly able to counter the blockade of its sea lines of communication by Russia. It is capable of protecting its coasts. However, she lacks the necessary naval forces to act on the sea. That is why it is not in a position to take advantage of the Russian maritime retreat since the autumn.
The Navy of Turkey
The largest navy in the Black Sea is that of Turkey. Although Turkey is a NATO member and, for example, supported a Romanian initiative to build a Bulgarian-Romanian-Turkish Black Sea Fleet in 2016, it also maintains active contacts with Russia. To the chagrin of many NATO countries, in October 2017 Turkey decided to acquire the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft system for its armed forces instead of a Western system. In the same year, the Turkish Navy also visited the Novorossiysk naval base. Thanks to this active seesaw policy between East and West, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan can also play the mediating role between Russia and other states, for example in the Syrian civil war and in the Ukraine war. On the one hand, Turkey’s policy paved the way for the grain agreement and repeatedly opened up communication channels for possible ceasefire negotiations between the warring parties, but on the other hand it also uses its position as a political lever against NATO, such as the Turkish conditions for Finland and Sweden joining NATO show clearly. With its seesaw policy, it also accepts the paralysis of the alliance for the implementation of national interests. As a result, Turkey has increasingly developed into a regional power with corresponding national ambitions over the past ten years. as the Turkish conditions for the NATO accession of Finland and Sweden clearly show. With its seesaw policy, it also accepts the paralysis of the alliance for the implementation of national interests. As a result, Turkey has increasingly developed into a regional power with corresponding national ambitions over the past ten years. as the Turkish conditions for the NATO accession of Finland and Sweden clearly show. With its seesaw policy, it also accepts the paralysis of the alliance for the implementation of national interests. As a result, Turkey has increasingly developed into a regional power with corresponding national ambitions over the past ten years.
An important means of their military development is the Turkish Navy. Of 14 naval bases, four are on the Black Sea and three in the Sea of Marmara. Under a central naval command there are two regional commands: South for the Aegean and Mediterranean, and North for the Straits and Black Sea. The Turkish fleet is not assigned to any of these areas, but is moved back and forth between them according to strategic-operational needs. The naval command in Gölcük leads the national task force, which consists of the three task groups north, south and west. While the Turkish Navy in the past was primarily German and USUnited Statesships, the maritime armaments industry is currently able to carry out the new construction itself. As in other areas, Turkey is increasingly self-sufficient in this sector and is increasingly appearing as an arms exporter. The best known is the drone type Baykar Bayraktar, which, as a result of clever propaganda staging by Ukraine, has become a symbol of successful resistance against the Russian armed forces.
The core of the Turkish fleet consists of 12 German-built Type 209 submarines, 16 frigates, 9 corvettes, 18 missile boats, 16 patrol boats, 11 anti-mine units and 34 landing ships and boats. A modern amphibious assault ship of the Anadolu type is in the process of being completed. At the end of this decade, 15 destroyers, frigates and corvettes built in our own shipyards will initiate a renewal of the Turkish Navy. The fleet also includes maritime patrol aircraft, naval helicopters and combat and reconnaissance drones. The capabilities of the Turkish Navy are rounded off by a brigade-size marine infantry force consisting of three marine battalions, one tank battalion, one artillery battalion and one logistics battalion. The Turkish Navy, by controlling the straits, can move its ships to the Black Sea at any time and can therefore be regarded as the largest fleet in the Black Sea, without actually having more ships stationed there than Russia at present. However, it is to be expected that part of the fleet will always remain in the Mediterranean in order to substantiate the claims to natural gas fields in the Aegean against other countries and above all Greece. This dispute between two NATO countries in the southeast of the alliance is also an Achilles’ heel of the alliance in the region. that part of the fleet will always remain in the Mediterranean in order to substantiate the claims to natural gas fields in the Aegean against other countries and above all Greece. This dispute between two NATO countries in the southeast of the alliance is also an Achilles’ heel of the alliance in the region. that part of the fleet will always remain in the Mediterranean in order to substantiate the claims to natural gas fields in the Aegean against other countries and above all Greece. This dispute between two NATO countries in the southeast of the alliance is also an Achilles’ heel of the alliance in the region.
Other maritime players
In the event of a NATO operation in the Black Sea, the Martime Command MARCOMAllied Maritime Commandin Northwood/ UKUnited Kingdomguided. A uniform picture of the situation in accordance with NATO standards cannot currently be drawn up for the Black Sea. The other two alliance states, Bulgaria and Romania, have navies that are a mix of old Soviet-designed ships, their own designs and older NATO ships. Frigates, corvettes, speedboats, anti-mine units and helicopters make up their naval forces. As a sign of the Alliance’s interest in the Black Sea, NATO’s permanent task forces made frequent visits to the inland sea, thus demonstrating Alliance solidarity. Another neighboring country that should be mentioned here is Georgia, which does not have its own navy, but only a coast guard and therefore does not play any significant military role.
The Role of China
Finally, another geostrategic player in the region that does not have its own fleet there but plays an important role in many decisions by the neighboring countries should be mentioned: China. Because an important part of the New Silk Road runs through these countries, China has made extensive investments there. These took place primarily in Bulgaria, Georgia and the Ukraine, some of which also took on very high debts for the construction of infrastructure projects for the New Silk Road. Georgia plays a key role as an Asian logistics center for Euro-Asian trade. The counterpart in the west is Varna in Bulgaria, which also offers access to the European internal market. Kyiv/Kyiv, in turn, aims to to reduce its own dependence on the Russian market via the Silk Road. Should Russia be able to secure the entire north coast of the Black Sea, this would have geostrategic effects, with shock waves aimed mainly in an easterly direction. It can therefore be assumed that China has an inherent interest in a stable status quo in this region in order to create legal and operational certainty for its investments.
The war in Ukraine is currently changing little in the existing naval conditions in the Black Sea. The respective national strategic decisions based on the results of a peace treaty between Russia and Ukraine are likely to be decisive for the future maritime development of the region. After the conflict, the geostrategic cards will be reshuffled and one of the instruments affected will also be the navies of the neighboring countries.
Frigate Captain Dr. Christian Jentzsch is a scientist in the Deployment Research Department at the Bundeswehr Center for Military History and Social Sciences. His research includes the history of the German Navy and the maritime development of NATO.