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who is still afraid of the Russian fleet?

The Russian fleet in the Black Sea has undertaken a vast withdrawal in the face of Ukrainian attacks, according to the Wall Street Journal. Ship movements which remain to be confirmed, but which could illustrate an unprecedented configuration in the history of war: how a country without a military fleet managed to gain the upper hand at sea.

She was to reign supreme over the waters of the Black Sea. Being able to organize a blockade to stifle Ukraine and support an amphibious assault on cities like Odessa. We are far from it. The famous Russian Black Sea fleet would even have been forced to partially withdraw from the strategic port of Sevastopol, assures the Wall Street Journal, in an article on Wednesday October 4 based on satellite images of Crimea taken a few days earlier .

At least three attack submarines, two frigates and a patrol boat have been redeployed to the port of Novorossiysk, a Russian city on the eastern coast of the Black Sea, details the North American daily. In all, ten ships from the Black Sea Fleet – which has between 50 and 100 boats – would have left Crimea to take shelter in Novorossiysk, specifies the American military analysis site of the Institute for the Study of War, which has become a reference for its daily updates on the war in Ukraine.

Withdrawal or not?

These significant boat movements mark “the operational defeat of the Russian fleet in the Black Sea”, rejoiced James Heappey, the British Minister for the Armed Forces, during the Warsaw Conference on Security, which began on Monday. If this redeployment were to be confirmed, “it would be an unprecedented victory in modern history,” recognizes Huseyn Aliyev, specialist in the conflict in Ukraine at the University of Glasgow.

Indeed, Ukraine no longer has a military naval fleet, destroyed by the Russians in February 2022. Kiev would thus have succeeded in gaining the upper hand in the Black Sea “with only its naval drones and missiles”, specifies Danilo delle Fave, specialist in military strategy at the International Team for the Study of Security (ITSS) Verona.

But the extent and even reality of this withdrawal of the Russian fleet remains to be confirmed. Indeed, “if we look at the satellite images of the last few hours, the claims of a massive withdrawal seem somewhat exaggerated,” says Sim Tack, a military analyst for Force Analysis, a conflict monitoring company.

“The most recent images show that there are still around a hundred Russian ships (military fleet and civilian boats, editor’s note) in Sevastopol,” adds this specialist, who has been studying satellite images of the Black Sea since the start of the great Russian offensive in February 2022. The arrival of vessels in Novorossiysk, including attack submarines, “is not surprising and this has already happened in the past”, specifies Sim Tack.

The only new thing in the last two months concerns the small military port of Feodossiia, another town in Crimea. “The number of warships there has doubled since the end of summer,” noted Sim Tack. Feodossiia, further from the Ukrainian coast, is more difficult for kyiv’s missiles and naval drones to reach.

That being said, whether it is “a partial or major redeployment, long term or just for a few days, it does not change the fact that there has been a change in the balance of power in the Black Sea”, assures Basil Germond, specialist in international and maritime security issues at Lancaster University.

According to him, recent developments prove above all that “Russia has lost control of the Black Sea.” There were the “three drone assaults in recent months on the Sevastopol military base which proved that the fleet was not safe there”, recalls Danilo delle Fave.

On September 11, Ukraine also managed to capture an oil and gas platform in the Black Sea occupied by Russia since 2015. An important victory for Kiev on a military level because “this installation (located between Odessa and Crimea, Editor’s note) “is large enough that it can be used to launch missiles, making it even easier to reach the fleet at Sevastopol,” said Gavin Hall, an expert on international security issues who has previously written about the importance of the sea battle. Black.

Find a solution to the Ukrainian threat

Ukraine also announced at the end of September “having finished the development of an improved version of its underwater drones, capable of diving really deep. Most Russian ships are not equipped to defend themselves against this threat”, explains Huseyn Aliyev.

In the absence of a massive withdrawal, the Russian fleet seeks refuge while waiting to find a solution. Ukrainian capabilities to damage Russian ships with these high-tech weapons represent “a serious problem for Russia because the ships are among the most expensive elements of a country’s war arsenal. They also take a long time to replace in the event of loss”, underlines Basil Germond.

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The Russian Black Sea Fleet cannot, moreover, count on reinforcements from elsewhere. “Turkey refuses the passage of Russian ships through the Bosphorus Strait in application of the Montreux Convention which limits the movement of vessels in times of war in the straits,” notes Danilo delle Fave.

In this regard, “passage through the port of Novorossiysk can serve not only to shelter these boats, but also to deliver weapons to them from Russia in order to enable them to better respond to the threat of naval and submarine drones. -sailors,” said Huseyn Aliyev.

Sevastopol too important

Russia cannot, however, completely desert the port of Sevastopol, which is too strategically important. “It is the only one in this region capable of accommodating the entire Russian Black Sea fleet,” recalls Sim Tack. And that’s not all: “It is also the only one equipped with dry docks, which means that there is no other place for ships that need significant repairs or maintenance”, adds this specialist.

Thus, “it is perhaps a little early to say that Ukraine has won the battle of the Black Sea, but it has managed to considerably restrict the Russian field of action,” summarizes Huseyn Aliyev. Between the most fragile ships which have gone to hide in Novorossiysk or Feodosia, and the rest of the fleet which will hesitate to leave the protection of the anti-missile defenses installed in Crimea, the role of the Russian fleet in the Black Sea is difficult to define.

“It can still attack commercial ships – like those transporting Ukrainian grain – but its capacity to cause harm is much less significant,” notes Gavin Hall. A development which proves that “the Russian blockade has lost credibility. This is important because the weaker the Russian threat appears, the more easily Kiev will be able to find agreements with maritime insurers”, specifies Basil Germond.

If submarines can still be used to send missiles to Ukraine, “the hypothesis of an amphibious landing in Odessa is no longer at all credible”, says Gavin Hall.

No wonder, in this context, that Russia is seeking to build a new military port in Abkhazia, a separatist region of Georgia. Aslan Bjania, the president of this self-proclaimed Republic, confirmed Thursday that this project was indeed on his agenda… without giving further details.

The objective is clear: “The war in Ukraine proved to Moscow that it was risky to have only one important home port for its fleet in the Black Sea,” explains Huseyn Aliyev. Abkhazia is also much further from Ukraine than Crimea and if Moscow succeeds in building a large-scale military port there, “this could constitute a good fallback base to threaten Ukraine from further away”, assures Gavin Hall.

Although the project could take years to complete, Russia would not have to wait to use it. “Building the few infrastructures necessary to start welcoming ships could only take a few months,” estimates Sim Tack. In other words, a future port in Abkhazia could be useful in the current war. Especially “if Ukraine decides to try to retake Crimea,” concludes Sim Tack.

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