Surface Forces: Russian Landing Ships in the Black Sea

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August 21, 2023: On August 4th Ukraine launched an attack on Russian ships at the Russian naval base at Novorossiisk, which is east of Crimea and a major commercial port for oil exports as well as other goods. As naval bases in Crimea come under increasing attacks by Ukrainian missiles and unmanned attack boats, Russia moved most of its remaining warships and support ships to Novorossiisk. Now Ukraine is attacking Russian ships at Novorossiisk. using unmanned speed boats carrying up to half a ton of explosives. Most of these attack boats are intercepted and sunk but one of them got through and damaged the Ropucha-class LST (landing ship, tank) Olenegorsky Gornyak. The explosion caused the landing ship to take on water and tug boats were seen assisting the listing landing ship to a safer berth.

Olenegorsky Gornyak was one of six landing ships from the Russian Baltic and Northern fleets that were sent to the Black Sea in 2022 to support Russian operations against Ukraine. Olenegorsky Gornyak was one of 28 Ropucha-class landing ships built for the Soviet Union navy in Poland between 1974 and 1991. Newly independent Ukraine inherited one of those Ropucha-class ships in 1991. Russia took that ship back in 2014 when they seized control of Crimea.

The Russian Navy has about twenty LSTs and some of these were used in the Black Sea to move passengers, vehicles and cargo from Novorossiisk to Crimea because the Kerch Strait bridge was damaged and its ability to handle vehicle traffic limited. There are currently three classes of LST in service. The oldest are the three 4,600-ton Tapir-class LSTs that were built in the 1960s and 70s. The most recent are two 6,600-ton Ivan Gren-class ships that entered service in 2018 and 2020. These are supposed to replace the Ropucha-class ships but not enough money has been available to do that. The three Tapir-class LSTs will have to be retired by the end of the decade. The Ropucha-class ships will begin retiring in the 2030s. Unless there is money to build more Gren-class ships, most Russian LSTs will be retired by the end of the 2030s. This pattern is similar with nearly all classes of Russian warships. Only a few classes of submarines are exempt. The Russian surface fleet is fading into retirement and eventually most Russian naval power will consist of submarines.

Russian warships in the Black Sea are the only ones currently engaged in combat, if only because Russia is trying to use these warships to block grain exports from Ukraine via the Black Sea. Russia was once the major naval power in the Black Sea, but since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 most nations bordering the Black Sea have joined NATO. Turkey, which controls the only entrance to the Black Sea, was already a NATO member and Ukrainian efforts to join NATO were one of the reasons for the Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022. Unless Russia wins in Ukraine, the Black Sea will become a NATO controlled sea, similar to what has happened in the Baltic Sea. That leaves Russian warships dependent on bases in the north, near the land border with Norway, and in the Far East, near Japanese and South Korean naval bases. The Japanese and South Korean fleets are far larger than the Russian Far East fleet. This is a post-Cold War development. Before the 1990s, the South Korea fleet was largely non-existent and the Japanese fleet tiny and purely defensive. Chinese naval power began to emerge by the late 1990s but took another decade to become a significant force. Then as now the American West Pacific fleet was a major naval power in the region.

 

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