KIMS Periscope

KIMS Periscope No. 299

What insights can be gained for navies from the conflict in Ukraine?

Deborah Sanders

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has resulted in a prolonged and brutal conventional war in the heart of Europe and has reignited debates around the utility of military power. Although this conflict is ongoing, lessons, particularly those relating to the land and air campaigns, are beginning to emerge. These include the salience of strategy, the importance to land power of effective logistics and combined arms manoeuvre, the difficulty of establishing air superiority, and the continued challenges in coordinating ground and air options.  Much less has been written, however, about the possible maritime, or more specifically naval, lessons that have emerged from this conflict. This article begins this important discussion by identifying six naval lessons from this conflict.

Before discussing what this conflict means for navies, we must start with an important caveat. Drawing lessons from this conflict is inherently problematic. First, the conflict appears to be far from over. Second, as with any conflict, important contextual factors will shape the applicability to other conflicts of lessons derived from operations in Ukraine. Finally, in the maritime domain, the Russian Navy has not confronted a peer competitor. This has very much been an asymmetrical conflict where the Russian Navy has dwarfed that of Ukraine. As such, rather than ‘lessons’ from this conflict, it is perhaps more appropriate to talk about drawing ‘insights’: tentative observations on issues relevant to the future utility and challenges facing navies.

The first insight relates to the broader relevance of maritime power. The war has shown that navies continue to matter even in campaigns that are heavily land oriented. Enhancing the capability and size of the fleet and building up its maritime infrastructure in the Black Sea has provided a powerful force multiplier for the Russian Federation. The deployment of Bastion and Kalibr missiles in occupied Crimea and aboard the sizable Russian Black Sea Fleet has provided Russia with a formidable strike capability in support of land operations. Russian naval infantry units have provided some of the most effective of its ground forces. The Black Sea Fleet’s amphibious capabilities have throughout the conflict posed a latent threat, helping to stretch Ukrainian defensive resources. Local sea control has been critical in defending the southern maritime flank of Russia’s advance and in helping to isolate defending Ukrainian forces from support and re-supply. More broadly, Russian control of the Black Sea has helped undermine the Ukrainian economy by blocking its maritime trade, deterred the deployment of NATO maritime forces to the region, and has allowed Russia to manipulate politically global reliance on grain deliveries from the region.

As this conflict has also shown, however, there are also limits to the flexibility of maritime power given its contextual nature. Navies tend to see maritime power as central in any conflict, but the relevance of navies to contemporary conflicts will ultimately depend on many things not least strategic geography and politics. There are also limits to the flexibility of maritime power particularly for smaller navies. Ukraine for example developed a navy primarily for maritime security tasks, but the combination of Russia’s geographical closeness and the expansiveness of the Russian strategic goals have rendered that far less relevant. This conflict demonstrates therefore that there is an urgent need for all navies to engage in a comprehensive review of what strategic and operational factors enhance and hinder maritime flexibility.

A second insight from the Russian invasion is that establishing and sustaining sea control has become much more difficult, even for larger navies like the Russian Navy in the twenty first century.  Ukraine is a state with virtually no navy, and yet it has managed locally to deny the Russian Navy sea control through the use of a combination of land-based assets and newer technology, in particular drones. The sinking of the Russian flag ship of the Black Sea Fleet, the Moskva, and the Admiral Makarov by Ukraine’s Neptune anti-ship missiles sent a powerful signal that the threats facing modern navies are as likely to be land-based as sea-based. In addition, the inability of the Russian Navy to hold Ukraine’s Snake Island in the face of concerted missile attacks by the Ukrainians is also a significant reminder that even powerful navies find it difficult to hold land. Ultimately, this conflict has shown that smaller, less powerful states with virtually no traditional naval capabilities can successfully challenge a superior adversary and cause it to modify its behaviour significantly. As a result of Ukraine’s success, the Russian Navy has been forced to adopt a defensive posture in which patrols are increasingly limited to the waters within sight of the Crimean coast.

The third key insight from this conflict is the importance of maritime infrastructure in any conflict. For Ukraine, its inability to defend its maritime ports and naval bases from Russian land and air attack has had a detrimental effect on Kyiv’s ability to use the maritime domain either commercially or militarily. The Russian seizure of key Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov early in the campaign and its bombardment of ports in the Black Sea, including Ukraine’s main naval base in Odesa, has essentially turned Ukraine into a land-locked state. As a result, the Ukrainian economy, in particular its agricultural sector, has been very badly hit. Ukraine produces as much as half the world’s sunflower seeds, a tenth of its wheat and up to a fifth of barley and rapeseed and since February has been unable to ship its products to international markets.  Despite a recent UN and Turkey-brokered deal to allow some wheat shipments to leave Ukrainian ports, Ukraine will be unlikely to reach previous export levels.  It is clear that naval and maritime infrastructure, in particular port and port facilities, are a key vulnerability for all maritime states, particularly those highly dependent on maritime trade. Ultimately this conflict has reinforced our traditional understanding of the inter-relationship between the domains.  Just as land power may have important maritime components, so maritime power can also have important land-based dimensions.

A fourth insight from this conflict is that the ability to conduct amphibious operations, an important element of many states’ maritime power projection strategies, remain tremendously difficult and can only really be effectively conducted in a permissive environment. While there are claims that Russia did conduct an amphibious landing around the Ukrainian port of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, it has struggled to repeat this on Ukraine’s west coast around Odesa. The challenges Russia has faced are not new but do bear repeating as they reinforce many of the enduring challenges of conducting successful amphibious operations, even against an inferior enemy. Russia has been faced with the challenges of terrain, where the Ukrainian coast is ringed by steep cliffs, the difficultly of sustaining air control and issues related to logistics which include the challenges of landing a sufficient number of forces and supplies over a short period of time into theatre to establish a beachhead.

A fifth insight from this conflict is that small navies might need to reconsider how they configure their capabilities and assets to engage in an effective strategy of sea denial against a superior maritime power. While Ukraine made some notable progress in rebuilding its maritime power after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, the conflict has shown just how quickly a small navy, such as the Ukrainian navy, can be destroyed by a more powerful navy. As navies can take decades to develop and are extremely costly, Ukraine, and other small navies, including the Bulgarian and Romanian navies, could look at how to deny sea control through cheaper and easier means. A state like Ukraine, for instance, could look at developing Fast Attack Crafts (FAC) which are much cheaper than larger naval platforms and much quicker to bring online. These can also be easily donated by allies, quickly enhancing a state’s maritime power. FAC can be used for reconnaissance, intelligence and interdiction, in essence giving a state the ability to ‘see’ the maritime domain, an important element of any sea denial strategy, even if they cannot control it. The second component of a potentially successful sea denial strategy for smaller navies, would be to develop land based anti-ship missiles as these have proven to be very effective against the Russian navy. Lastly, this conflict has shown the utility of sea mines.  Although the latter have proved controversial, as Russia has claimed, as part of its disinformation campaign, that Ukraine is responsible for the sea mines that have become untethered and pose a threat to shipping in the Black Sea, they do remain a cheap and effective way for states with small or no navies to exercise a degree of limited sea denial and protect their coastlines.

The last insight from this conflict is that the enmity that now characterises Russia’s relationship with the West will make the Black Sea and other maritime domains, much more challenging for the operations of western navies, in particular those of NATO. The imposition of western sanctions against Russia and western military and diplomatic support of Ukraine, as well as Russia’s increasing isolation have led to a rapid deteriorating in relations between Russia and the West. As a result, over the next few years the leadership in Moscow, whoever is in power, President Putin or a successor, is likely to remain hostile the West, and see Western maritime activity through a prism of enmity and suspicion. This is likely to make naval operations more risky, and, in light of the threat the Russian Navy is likely to pose, all navies are going to need highly trained, motivated and well-educated service personnel able to deal with a highly contested and potentially explosive maritime environment.

Sanders 박사는 영국 합동지휘참모대학 (UK Joint Services Command and Staff College) 소재 킹스칼리지런던 국방학과 (Defence Studies Department) 소속 국방안보학 (Defence and Security Studies) 조교수이자 부학장이며, 전문 분야는 흑해의 안보문제 및 소규모 해군의 전략적 도전 과제이다. 그녀는 북대서양조약기구 (NATO)에서 흑해 관련 고문을 맡고 있고, 영국 해군 전략연구소 (UK Royal Navy Strategic Studies Centre)의 객원교수이다.

  • The author’s opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and does not reflect the view of KIMS.

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