A Russian Attack On Odessa Could Be Naval Suicide
I write about ships, planes, tanks, drones, missiles and satellites.
Apr 4, 2022,08:00am EDT
Russia had a chance to cut off Ukraine from the sea. It blew it. Now it’s highly likely, however and whenever the war ends, that Ukraine still will have access to sea trade—and an opportunity to rebuild its economy.
Ukraine prior to 2014 had several strategic ports. From east to west, they included Mariupol and Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov, Sevastopol on the Black Sea side of the Crimean Peninsula and Mykolaiv, Kherson and Odessa on the Black Sea.
Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in early 2014—a prelude to a Russian attack on eastern Ukraine that same year—took Sevastopol off the map for Kyiv. When Russia widened its war on Ukraine starting the night of Feb. 23, several Ukrainian ports quickly fell under Russian occupation or blockade.
The Russians occupy Berdyansk and Kherson. Mariupol is surrounded and under siege. The Russian Black Sea Fleet has blockaded Mykolaiv even as Ukrainian forces steadily push back Russian troops around the city.
Odessa, however, remains fully under Ukrainian control. Normal sea trade is impossible owing to the Black Sea Fleet’s presence not far from the historic port city. At the same time, there’s almost zero prospect of the Russians ever seizing Odessa and transforming Ukraine into a landlocked country.
“Russian naval forces maintain their distant blockade of the Ukrainian coast in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov, preventing Ukrainian resupply by sea,” the U.K. Ministry of Defense reported on Sunday. “Russia still retains the capability to attempt an amphibious landing,” the ministry added, “but such an operation is likely to be increasingly high risk due to the time Ukrainian forces have had to prepare.”
Taking no chances, the United Kingdom and other countries on Thursday pledged to supply Ukraine with coastal-defense weapons, among other hardware. If the donors make good on their promises, the likelihood of a successful Russian attack on Odessa—already near zero—could drop further.
Capturing Odessa wasn’t always impossible for Russia. After staging 200,000 troops in more than a hundred battalion tactical groups along Ukraine’s borders starting last spring, Moscow had a choice. Besides simply not launching an unprovoked assault on a neighboring state, Russia could have opted to pursue narrow war aims.
It could have focused on the Ukrainian coast, sending in troops from Russia, occupied Crimea and the breakaway Transnistria region of Moldova in order to press Ukraine’s coastal defenses from three sides. The Black Sea Fleet, which swelled in strength thanks to reinforcements from Russia’s other fleets, could have concentrated its dozen large landing ships for an amphibious landing near any one of Ukraine’s ports.
A coastal strategy might have succeeded.
Fighting continues in the south and east. Kherson and Berdyansk still are under Russian control. The siege of Mariupol grinds on. But barring a profound change in its fortunes, Russia lacks the manpower and momentum to mount a threat by land to Odessa, through which three-quarters of Ukraine’s pre-war sea trade flowed.
An attack by sea remains a theoretical possibility—but an extremely risky one. The Black Sea amphibious flotilla, with its Ropucha and Alligator-class landing ships, could haul the better part of a naval infantry brigade with several thousand troops and dozens of vehicles.
But even with the protection of the fleet’s cruisers, frigates and corvettes, the amphibs are vulnerable. Just ask the crew of the Saratov, an Alligator-class landing ship that burst into flames while pier-side in Berdyansk on March 24 and quickly sank.
It was a Ukrainian attack. But what kind of Ukrainian attack remains unclear. Maybe one of Kyiv’s TB-2 drones managed to slip through local air-defenses and plug Saratov with a guided missile. Maybe the Ukrainians got lucky with a ballistic missile.
In any event, the sinking only underscored the danger of attacking Odessa. “The destruction of the Saratov landing ship at Berdyansk will likely damage the confidence of the Russian navy to conduct operations in close proximity to the coast of Ukraine in the future,” the U.K. defense ministry stated.
To be clear, Ukraine apparently didn’t manage fully to deploy its new Neptune anti-ship missile before the war disrupted production. The tiny Ukrainian navy in the early days of the wider war scuttled its sole frigate in Odessa, clearly fearing the vessel might eventually fall into Russian hands.
But even without Neptunes or a navy, the Ukrainian military is fully capable of repelling an amphibious assault on Odessa. The city’s defenders have built obstacles on the beaches. There are mines under the sand—and in the water, too, if you believe Russian claims. New drones and anti-tank guided missiles and old-fashioned artillery and rockets could make quick work of any landing ships that manage to slip through the minefields.
Consider what Ukrainian troops in Mariupol did to a Black Sea Fleet Raptor-class patrol boat on or before March 22. Firing two old Konkurs wire-guided ATGMs, members of the far-right Azov Battalion scored at least one hit on the boat at a range of several hundred yards.
Now imagine the crews of old Ropuchas and Alligators trying to disgorge naval infantry while under attack by dozens of ATGMs. Odessa’s garrison doesn’t even need those new coastal-defense systems Britain promised in order to defeat a Russian landing force.
If the Russians can’t reach Odessa by land and won’t risk an assault by sea, the worst they can do to the strategic port is lob a few rockets at it. Which, of course, is exactly what they’re doing.
But considering that Russia at one point could have turned Ukraine into a landlocked country, those rockets practically are an admission of defeat. This war eventually will end and Ukraine will resume trading with the world. It’s a safe bet most of that trade will pass through a free Odessa.
I’m a journalist, author and filmmaker based in Columbia, South Carolina.