How Ukraine, With No Warships, Is Thwarting Russia’s Navy

In a small, hidden office in the port city of Odesa, the commander of the Ukrainian Navy keeps two trophies representing successes in the Black Sea.

One is the lid from the missile tube used in April 2022 to sink the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, the Moskva, a devastating blow that helped chase Russian warships from the Ukrainian coast. On the lid is a painting of a Ukrainian soldier raising his middle finger to the ship as it bursts into flames.

The other is a key used to arm a British-made Storm Shadow missile that slammed into the headquarters of the Russian fleet in Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula.

“We dreamed of making a beautiful recreation park for children in this place, to take away the center of evil that is there now,” said Vice Adm. Oleksiy Neizhpapa, the Ukrainian naval commander.

He held the key in his hand, and although his eyes were tired, he said there was nothing to do but fight.

“Sevastopol is my hometown,” he said. “For me, it is my small homeland, where I was born, where my children were born. So, of course, I dream that the time will come, hopefully soon, that we will return to our naval base in Sevastopol.”

Vice Adm. Oleksiy Neizhpapa, the commander of the Ukrainian Navy, in Odesa this month.Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

Despite having no warships of its own, Ukraine has over the course of the war shifted the balance of power in the naval conflict. Its use of unmanned maritime drones and growing arsenal of long-range anti-ship missiles — along with critical surveillance provided by Western allies and targeted assaults by Ukraine’s Air Force and special operations forces — have allowed Ukraine to blunt the advantages of the vastly more powerful Russian Navy.

“At this point, the Russian Black Sea Fleet is primarily what naval strategists term ‘a fleet in being’: It represents a potential threat that needs to be vigilantly guarded against, but one that remains in check for now,” said Scott Savitz, a senior engineer at the RAND Corporation, a federally financed center that conducts research for the United States military. “Remarkably, Ukraine has achieved all this without a substantial fleet of its own.”

Admiral Neizhpapa cautioned that Ukraine remains vastly outgunned on the Black Sea. It lacks the battlecruisers, destroyers, frigates and submarines that populate the Russian fleet. Russian planes still dominate the skies above the sea, and Russia still uses its fleet to launch long-range missiles at Ukrainian towns and cities, threatening armed forces and civilians alike.

On Wednesday, a missile struck a commercial ship pulling into the port of Odesa, killing the pilot and wounding three crew members. It was the first civilian vessel hit since shipping to Odesa resumed in late August.

The Spaso-Preobrazhensky Cathedral, also known as the Transfiguration Cathedral, which was hit by a Russian missile strike in Odesa in late July.Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

The Russia Navy also dominates the Sea of Azov, a body of water connected to the Black Sea by the narrow Strait of Kerch, and is increasingly using Azov ports in the occupied cities of Mariupol and Berdiansk to help alleviate logistical challenges on land.

Ukraine has nevertheless managed to negate some of those advantages and lately has gone on the offensive. Over the last two months, it has launched both stealthy nighttime operations by small units on jet skis and powerful missile strikes. Those strikes have hit not just the Sevastopol headquarters but also a Kilo-class submarine and a shipbuilding plant in eastern Crimea, an attack that damaged a new missile-carrying Russian warship.

The latter strike “will likely cause Russia to consider relocating farther from the front line,” the British military intelligence agency reported on Wednesday.

Ukrainian officials also said that the Russian strike on a civilian ship as it pulled into port in Odesa would not stop the shipping. About 100 cargo vessels carrying more than 3.3 million tons of agricultural and metal products have made the journey in a little over two months, according to Western and Ukrainian officials.

Russia’s recent attack on a commercial ship was the first hit on a civilian vessel since shipping to Odesa resumed in late August.Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

Even as forward movement on the ground has largely shuddered to a halt, with neither Russian nor Ukrainian forces able to break through heavily fortified lines, Ukraine has effectively turned around 10,000 square miles in the western Black Sea off its southern coast into what the military calls a “gray zone” where neither side can sail without the threat of attack.

And Admiral Neizhpapa stressed that Ukraine’s combined armed forces and its security services were all playing integral roles in the battle of the Black Sea.

James Heappey, Britain’s armed forces minister, told a recent security conference in Warsaw that Russia’s Black Sea fleet had suffered a “functional defeat” and contended that the liberation of Ukraine’s coastal waters in the Black Sea was “every bit as important” as the successful counteroffensives on land in Kherson and Kharkiv last year.

The war at sea has also demonstrated the impact of emerging technologies, transforming long-held theories about naval warfare in ways that are being studied around the world, perhaps nowhere more closely than in China and Taiwan.

“The classical approach that we studied at military maritime academies does not work now,” Admiral Neizhpapa said. “Therefore, we have to be as flexible as possible and change approaches to planning and implementing work as much as possible.”

For example, he said, it takes years to develop and build warships and more time to update them to meet new challenges. Yet maritime drones are evolving every month.

Admiral Neizhpapa acknowledged that Russian air superiority over the Black Sea is a problem and has stressed the value that F-16 fighter jets would bring to Ukraine’s naval war. The United States has pledged F-16s, but Ukrainian officials have said they are unlikely to be seen in Ukrainian skies before next summer.

An artist’s rendition of the sinking of the Moskva, the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, in an office used by the Ukrainian Navy in Odesa.Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

Russia main response to setbacks at sea has been a relentless bombing campaign aimed at crippling Ukrainian port infrastructure and punishing the people of Odesa. In recent weeks, its naval aircraft have been dropping “mine-like objects” in the shipping lanes from Odesa, the admiral said, but shipping has not stopped.

“Of course, they want to stop our initiative by all means,” he said. “But we believe that they will not succeed.”

While much attention over the past 20 months has focused on the land war, Europe’s largest since World War II, a desire to control the Black Sea was a key factor in President Vladimir V. Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. In 2014, when Russia illegally annexed Crimea, Ukraine lost nearly all of its ships; about 5,000 of its sailors defected, cutting the size of its navy by two-thirds.

Despite Ukraine’s recent intensified assaults, Crimea still functions like a huge aircraft carrier parked off Ukraine’s southern coast. It is a critical logistics hub for Russian occupation forces in the south, a base for Russian fighter jets and attack helicopters, and a platform to launch missile and drone strikes across Ukraine.

Admiral Neizhpapa is fond of citing an adage of Alfred Thayer Mahan, the famed American naval officer and historian: “A nation must defend its own coast starting from the coast of the enemy.”

For the admiral, who left the peninsula in 2014 with other sailors who remained loyal to Ukraine, that means taking the war to Crimea.

The warship Novocherkassk, part of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, in Sevastopol in 2021.Credit…Ulf Mauder/Picture Alliance, via Getty Images

Russia, however, is also adapting and bolstering its defenses.

“What we did a year ago is no longer working or is not working as effectively,” Admiral Neizhpapa said. “We have to be flexible and change our tactics.”

Ukraine must not only innovate, he said, but also deploy new weapons quickly. Ukraine has unveiled several iterations of uncrewed surface vessels, and officials recently offered a glimpse of what they said was Ukraine’s first unmanned underwater vehicle.

Christened Marichka and measuring about 20 feet from bow to stern, the vessel can travel beneath the surface of the waves for more than 600 miles, although the size of its payload has not been made public and there is no evidence that it has been used in combat.

About two dozen Russian ships and one submarine have been damaged or destroyed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion, Admiral Neizhpapa said. Oryx, a military analysis site that counts only losses that it has visually confirmed, has documented at least 16 damaged or destroyed ships.

Standing in front of a classified chart that lists damage done to Russian vessels, Admiral Neizhpapa said he had no time for what he called “wishful sinking” — any exaggeration of what Ukraine has achieved.

There are still scores of powerful Russian warships that Ukraine wants to take off the board. On Friday, Ukraine’s intelligence agency released a video of a naval drone attack on two ships that it said played an important role in the layered air defenses that protect Russia’s fleet. The extent of the damage was not clear.

“The enemy also learns very quickly, and he also makes his own conclusions, counteracting our actions,” Admiral Neizhpapa said. “The war at sea can only be won with new solutions that must implemented as quickly as possible.”

Anna Lukinova, Nataliia Novosolova and Anastasia Kuznietsova contributed reporting.

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