As the conflict at sea intensifies, Russia’s prospects for victory seem more distant than ever

The Ukraine war is at a strategic turning point. As the Russian offensive intensifies in the Donbas without generating substantial gains, Western leaders warn the war will be long and support for Ukraine must be sustained for the long term. At the same time, a less perceptible change is taking place. The war at sea intensifies.

From the blockade in the Black Sea to the rising tensions in the Baltic Sea, Ukraine’s assertiveness in destroying Russian naval assets, and the role played by the civilian maritime sector in sanctioning Russia, the maritime aspects of the war are now emerging and are likely to be more influential in the outcome of the conflict. Consequently, Russia, which is a continental power, is now more likely to be strategically defeated.

The longer a war is, the more likely it is to be won by a sea power. As the maritime dimension of the conflict intensifies, the West’s dominance of the sea, its dominance of relevant maritime forums (such as the International Maritime Organization (IMO)) and its influence over large insurance brokers and shipping companies will eventually be fatal for Putin. war.

Russia, like its predecessor, the Soviet Union, lacks a maritime perspective, which prevents Moscow from understanding the strategic importance of sea power beyond its short-term naval preponderance in the Black Sea.

Ukraine is as much a land power as Russia. But Putin is also up against a coalition of (mainly Western) maritime nations, which defend freedom of navigation, have superior naval capabilities and strong influence in world maritime affairs. This gives the West the ability to gradually suffocate the Putin regime by exercising strategic sea power.

Ukraine’s blockade, which prevents grain and other agricultural products from being shipped to the global south, is responsible for a global food crisis. This has drawn attention to the importance of freedom of navigation.

Movements and strategies

At first glance, Russia appears to be in a dominant position. It can blockade Ukraine and use the resulting food crisis as a bargaining chip (or blackmail tool) to negotiate the lifting of Western sanctions. But this also offers the West the chance to get ahead where they have a comparative advantage: defending the freedom of the sea and rallying partners under the banner of humanitarianism.

Technical, legal, operational and strategic difficulties make it difficult to establish a safe corridor to and from Ukraine. In particular, agreeing procedures and safeguards with Russia, clearing the corridor of mines to a level acceptable to maritime operators and insurance, and managing Turkey’s interpretation of the Montreux Convention, which gives Ankara control over access routes between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. and beyond.

It is also crucial to prevent access to the port city of Odessa from becoming vulnerable to Russian attack following its clearance and to prevent a possible escalation between Russian forces and escort ships. However, this option is still on the table.

Ukraine itself is proactively targeting Russian assets in the Black Sea. Since the sinking of the Moskva cruiser in April, the Russian navy has been unsure when operating too close to shore.

No longer the ‘pride’ of the Black Sea fleet – the Russian cruiser Moskva in better times.
EPA-EFE / Sergei Ilnitsky

The pressure exerted by Ukraine in the Black Sea has increased further in June. Using Western-supplied harpoon missiles, Ukraine successfully attacked a Russian tugboat supplying Snake Island, which is strategically vital to Russia’s control over the area. Ukraine has also attacked oil rigs located in Crimean waters (occupied since 2014) and launched airstrikes against Russian installations on Snake Island.

These tactical victories challenge Russia’s ability deny Ukraine access to the northwestern Black Sea, with long-term strategic consequences. Furthermore, a weakened Russia in the Black Sea could open the door to the establishment of a secure corridor.

At the diplomatic level, freedom of navigation, especially when its interruption causes food shortages, is a fundamental norm of the global maritime order that seafaring nations, led by the West, pledge to uphold. The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, has said that the blockade of Ukraine that disrupts grain shipments is “a true war crime.”

The blockade could further diplomatically isolate Russia by prompting the global south, hitherto reluctant to condemn Russia’s aggression, to review its stance and side with the West in pointing out Russia’s misdeeds. But there is still a long way to go.

Beyond the Black Sea

There is also a strong civilian maritime dimension to the war. All major shipping companies except Chinese have stopped operations to and from Russia. Ships owned, operated or sailing under the Russian flag are prohibited from ports in the EU, UK, US and most other ports. This is gradually putting great pressure on the Russian economy and, in the future, on its war machine.

Russian Navy sailors stand in front of a naval ship in Kronstadt, near Saint Petersburg, Russia, on April 14, 2022.
Russian Navy: impressive in the port, hesitant in the wave of the ocean.
EPA-EFE / Anatoly Maltsev

The Baltic Sea is also becoming a theater of tensions between Russia and the West. The potential accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO will further transform the Baltic Sea into a “lake” controlled by the EU and NATO, while it has always been an important sea lane of communication for Russia. Both NATO and Russia have recently held naval exercises in the Baltic Sea.

Furthermore, to implement the EU sanctions, Lithuania has now blocked the transit of prohibited goods (particularly metal ores) from Russia to Kaliningrad, which is the headquarters of the Baltic Sea Fleet. As a result, freedom of navigation in the Baltic Sea becomes even more crucial for Russia in order to guarantee supplies to the Russian “exclave”.

Read more: Kaliningrad: Russia’s ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’ deep within NATO territory

At the same time, the recent incursions of Russian warships into Danish territorial waters (which, by the way, supplied Ukraine with harpoon missiles) demonstrate Russia’s willingness to assert its status as a Baltic Sea power, but also demonstrate his nervousness before the determination of nations

Advantages of sea power

The consensus among scholars of sea power (for example, see the books by American maritime expert Colin S Gray and British maritime strategist Geoffrey Till) is that the possession of powerful naval forces is not enough to win a war. But mastery of the sea provides strategic advantages, from the ability to control the global supply chain to carrying out projection operations such as targeted air strikes and amphibious assaults.

But for sea power to exert its influence over a continental enemy requires time and perseverance. Therefore, the longer the war, the more likely it is to be won by a coalition of maritime nations.

Beyond its naval dominance, the West, as a collective of maritime nations, has been in a position to shape international order at sea, from IMO procedures to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). ) and the laws of naval warfare. Similarly, the main civilian stakeholders, especially marine insurers, are closely associated with Western interests.

The preponderance of sea power in war, peace, and hybrid contexts (such as the current confrontation between Russia and the West) stems from the ability of maritime nations to use their dominance for strategic effect through their control of the supply chain. and its ability to deny such control to continental states. These effects can only be felt in the long term.

Russia can exert some pressure on Europe through its control of energy supply in the medium term. It has also managed to operate naval units in the Black Sea in a way that currently impedes the free flow of goods to and from Ukraine.

But as a traditional continental power, Russia lacks the ability to oppose the coalition of maritime nations in the long term and on a global level. Sea power will eventually contribute to Moscow’s strategic failure.

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