Attrition: Black Sea Graveyard for Russian Warships

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February 11, 2024: Since Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022, the Ukrainians, who lack any warships at all, have destroyed twenty Russian Navy ships. These include warships as well as support vessels like landing ships. Ukraine has used long-range missiles and USVs (Unmanned Surface Vessels) to attack Russian ships, forcing the survivors to distant ports in the far northeastern portions of the Black Sea. Even though these ports are a thousand kilometers from Crimea, the Ukrainians can still reach them with USVs, despite the risks of some USVs being lost from equipment failure on the long journey, or attacks by Russian weapons when they reach the distant Russian port.

Ukraine wants to control who has warships in the Black Sea so they can protect the vital grain exports from Ukrainian ports. The primary port for this is Odessa, the largest port in Ukraine. The only problem Odessa has is Russian naval mines that are still floating around the Western Black Sea. These mines were deployed in early 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine. The Russians expected the Ukrainian resistance to be brief and ineffective. The Ukrainians put up a more effective defense than Russia expected, and now Russian forces are being forced out of Ukraine and unable to do anything about the mines they put into the Black Sea. Not only are the mines still out there but many, if not most, of them are not tethered to a weight on the sea bottom and are floating free and are a danger to all ships. Russia has also declared that they will continue to put naval mines into the Black Sea. They can do this by bringing the mines into the Crimean Peninsula by truck to the small ports along the Crimean coast and use small boats to get these mines out to sea where they are planted using tethers.

Eventually some of those mines either broke loose or were cut loose and drifted into shipping lanes used by Ukrainian and NATO ships. By early 2023 over 40 of these mines had been found and destroyed. It is unknown how many mines are still out there but the NATO countries that border the Black Sea continue to look for them. Some of these mines were bottom mines which, unlike floating mines, are kept in place by a chain attached to a weight on the seabed and sometimes the chain breaks. There are also bottom mines that are placed on the seabed and don’t drift around. Russia does not appear to have used bottom mines in the Black Sea.

In mid-2023 there was a sudden increase in the number of free floating mines between Crimea and the narrow straits Turkey controls that lead to the Mediterranean and the world’s oceans. Turkey and other NATO nations control most of the Black Sea coastline, especially the southern and western Black Sea coasts. At that time the Russian navy still controlled most of the eastern Black Sea and was believed responsible for more than 400 free floating naval mines showing up west of Crimea since mid-2023.

Few of these mines appear to be tethered mines that broke loose from their chains. That is an old problem with Russian made floating mines. Tethered mines are designed to have their weighted base sink to the bottom of shallow, less than 20 meters of water. Most of the mines currently in the Black Sea were apparently released into the water without any tether. The use of naval mines is diminished because they are not much of a threat to warships, which are constantly on the lookout for them, and most commercial ships are too big to sink after encountering one of these mines. There is some hull damage and flooding, but not enough to sink a ship. The damage is sufficient to require repairs because any damage to the hull can become worse if rough weather and strong seas are encountered.

The mines are an immediate danger to smaller commercial ships, especially fishing trawlers, not to mention some large private vessels like yachts. Some NATO counties with Black Sea coastlines have organized a mine clearing operation. Turkey, Romania, and Bulgaria contributed mine clearing vessels and equipment. NATO members that do not border the Black Sea, but do have a lot of commercial shipping operating in the Black Sea, tried to contribute some mine clearing ships and equipment but the Turks, who control the only entrance to the Black Sea, refused to let these mine clearing ships in.

The situation worsened because of a massive storm that ravaged the Black Sea coastline on November 26th and 27th 2023. Such a storm has not occurred in the Black Sea for over a century and the damage was extensive. Military facilities and fortifications on the coast were damaged or destroyed. Ships at sea, especially smaller ones, were damaged or sunk. Some ships at sea ran ashore. The ten meter high waves were particularly damaging to ports and coastal military facilities in Crimea.

A less visible form of damage was the number of moored, by a chain to a weight on the sea bottom, naval mines. The powerful storm broke the chains and set these mines free. This added another hazard for commercial shipping in the Black Sea.

While Ukraine has destroyed all the Russian warships in the Black Sea, there are still Russian naval mines in the water and Russia is quietly putting more mines into the Black Sea to threaten Ukraine’s vital grain exports. The Russian attitude is, if we can’t have any ships in the Black Sea, we will do what we can to ensure that no one else does either. This is primarily aimed at Ukrainian grain exports. There is a problem in that the Russian mines are threatening shipping moving to ports of NATO members Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey. These three nations agreed in 2014 to establish a joint mine clearing force. Only mine clearing ships belonging to these three countries would be involved and Turkey would not allow any additional mine clearing ships to enter the Black Sea. Currently, mine clearing vessels concentrate on keeping a mine free corridor on the west shore of the Black Sea to allow ships to safely travel to and from Odessa as ports in Romania and Bulgaria. This corridor extends from Odessa in Ukraine south along the 245-kilometer Romanian coastline, then the 278-kilometer Bulgarian to the Turkish Straits and the exit to the Mediterranean.

 

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