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Weekend Update #46
An Astonishing Week for the War at Sea; the Counteroffensive--Tokmak or not?; Second Ukraine-Russia War Talk podcast this week.
This week witnessed one of the most well executed and planned operations of this war so far, the Ukrainian attack on the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastapol. This kind of operation is one of the reasons I remain confident that Ukraine will win the war—they have the ability to execute complex operations at a much higher level than the Russians.
The Sevastopol attack came after a number of other operations to weaken Russian defenses, making it possible for the Ukrainians to launch the attack with actually a small number of missiles and drones. Sevastopol should have been one of if not THE most heavily defended places for Russia anywhere in the area of fighting—and yet the Ukrainians pulled it off. If they can keep it up, as I said when I first heard of the attack, it could signal the end of Russia’s ability to hold Crimea.
What it also showed and subsequent events supported this further, is that hear we are, 19 months after the full-scale invasion, and what is staring us in the face is that Ukraine is not only holding its own in the seapower war—it is actually winning it. This is even more shocking to most than what is happening on land, so it might be worth spending some time on how we got here.
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An Astonishing Week for the War at Sea
The developments over the last week came tumbling one after another—culminating last night with the docking last night of two cargo vessels, Resilient Africa and Aroyat, in Ukrainian ports.If these vessels are now safely loaded with grain and make their ways out of the Black Sea (which has not happened yet) it will mean that Ukraine has been able to defy Putin’s declared blockade of shipping into and out of Ukraine. This blockade has been one of the key elements of Russian strategy since last year. It achieved a number of important things for Putin. First it was to economically damage Ukraine, by depriving Ukraine of the ability to export grain, one of the most important parts of the Ukrainian economy. The second, and most perverse, was to drive up grain prices, potentially causing great economic harm worldwide (particularly in the global south) even leading to significant starvation—the idea being that this would put pressure on Ukraine’s backers to force Ukraine to accept a bad deal and let the grain flow. Finally, a blockade on Ukrainian grain would force up the price of Russia’s own grain exports, giving Putin more cash. All in all, you can see why the blockade was so important.
And, btw the way the blockade is the clearly stated policy of the Russian government. The earlier grain shipment deal, which suspended the blockade, was ended by Russia in July.Thus the Russian position is that they can stop all shipping in and out of Ukrainian ports—it just seems that now they cant. And much of the reason can be seen by what has happened over the last week or so. To make it clearer, it might be useful if I go through the most important steps, so you can see how they build upon each other, revealing that, remarkably, Ukraine seems to be in a better position in the naval war (without a navy).
In going to start by going back a few weeks ago and mention this event—the destruction of one of the most advanced anti-air systems in the Russian arsenal, which so happened to be based in Crimea.
This in itself was an extremely well planned operation (which allowed the Ukrainians to even film it). Why this important because its been part of a Ukrainian plan to weaken Russian anti-air capabilities in Crimea. Crimea overall and Sevastopol in particular, was one of the highest priorities for Russian air defense, and the Ukrainians have gone about weakening Russian capabilities.
These earlier efforts were key to allowing for the most spectacular operation of the week, the attack on Sevastopol itself. This really was thought out. The Ukrainians could see that the Russians had two valuable warships in drydock, one a Kilo class submarine (which is capable of firing missiles at Ukraine) and the landing ship Minsk, which is capable of transporting significant loads of supplies (logistics).
What the Ukrainians seem to have done is used a mixture of air launched cruise missiles (Storm Shadows and Scalps) with some decoys to confuse the Russian anti air assets that were operating.Whatever the number (the Russians said 10 missiles were launched, but my guess is that they added missiles and decoys together) at least two got through and made direct hits on the ships.
These were so well selected targets. Not only were the warships themselves extremely valuable and important, but the Ukrainians might very well have severely degraded the repair and maintenance facilities at Sevastopol. Note, this wont be because of damage to the drydocks themselves, but because of the heavy tools and equipment needed to affect the repairs. Its worth seeing how long it takes the Russians to clear the drydocks and get new hulls in their for work (if they actually risk doing it again).
This one attack is extremely ominous for the Russians. If the Ukrainians can keep it up and continue to sink Russian shipping in Sevastopol, they could force the Black Sea Fleet to rebase to Russia, which would be a key step in their plan to seize back Crimea. I talked about that in my midweek substack.
Of course the attack on Crimea was not all. There were also, almost simultaneously, sea drone attacks by the Ukrainians on Russian vessels out in the Black Sea. Though the numbers are rather unclear, since September 13 the Ukrainians have attacked successfully at least three and maybe four Russian ships at sea, another extremely worrying sign for the Russians.There was at least one picture of a Russian patrol vessel being towed back into port with a significant list—a sign of damage.
I think we can say that the Russians are now very worried about these attacks, as they have started to pull ships out of the Black Sea into the Sea of Azov (this is exactly what Ukraine wants).Russian ships in the Sea of Azov are marginalized away from the action—as you can see in this map.
This brings up back to where this update started—with merchant ships now proceeding into Ukraine for loading. With the Russian navy being forced back and out of the action, the only option the Russians have is to attack these ships with missiles and try to sink them that way. They dont have the ability to stop the ships and force them from Ukrainian ports. This is exactly the decision the Russians didnt want to have to make. Its very different destroying merchant ships with citizens from around the world, and at the same time sinking ships bringing grain to the Global south—than stopping them. So far the prospect of trying to sink these vessels is too problematic for even Putin to do—which is why these ships have safely reached Ukrainian harbor.
If they load up and safely lead, its could mark a very important moment in the war at sea. The moment the initiative transferred almost entirely to the Ukrainians (who dont have a large warship at their disposal). You can see why it was quite a week.
The Counteroffensive--Tokmak or not?
Its been interesting to see how the discussion of the Ukrainian counteroffensive has moved over the previous weeks. In some ways, the understanding of what is slow, what is achievable, what is a success/failure has improved. If I would say what is the most important development of the last few days, its the appearance of Tokmak as the ultimate goal of this stage of the counteroffensive.
Now both Estonian intelligence and UK intelligence are discussing the Ukrainians reaching or making Tokmak a very high priority in the coming weeks/months.
Tokmak always made sense as a serious priority for the Ukrainians. Its deep enough into Russian controlled territory that it would allow the Ukrainians significant fire control over the movement of supplies from east to west. Using Andrew Perpetua’s excellent map, you can see where it is.
If the Ukrainian reach Tokmak, this will work extremely well with their ongoing plans to isolate Crimea. Basically, it means that getting supplies to the Russian army west of Tokmak (a large area all the way to the Dnipro in Kherson oblast) will be severely restricted. So keep your eyes on Tokmak—we might have a real marker at that point to judge success or not for the Ukrainians in the counteroffensive.
Second Ukraine-Russia War Talk podcast this week
I just wanted to give you a heads up that Mykola Bielieskov and I will record our second podcast this week, as part of our new series entitled Ukraine-Russia War Talk. The first episode was a much bigger hit than we could have imagined, more than 13000 downloads just through this substack.
We are working to get it on Apple and will try to get it more professionally packaged (we are trying to source a logo). We just never expected it to be quite so popular. Im not sure we will have a logo by this week—but we will have another podcast. And rest assured, there will be lots of talk about Crimea, Sevastopol and the war at sea (amongst other things).
Have a great rest of the weekend everyone!