Full spectrum: maritime domain plays significant role across war in Ukraine

Sailors onboard the US Navy aircraft carrier USS George H W Bush are pictured moving equipment from an aircraft elevator, while the ship was sailing in the Baltic Sea in January 2023. NATO navies have increased high-end presence across the Euro-Atlantic theatre to help deter risk of Russo-Ukraine conflict overspill. (US Navy)

The Russia-Ukraine war can appear at first glance to be a land-centric conflict. Focus has fallen largely on two armies engaged at close quarters on the ground.

In the air, missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles have been the dominant factor, rather than crewed aircraft.

At sea, superficial analysis of naval and wider maritime activity since the start of the war may suggest the maritime domain has had only tangential impact. However, a deeper dive reveals that maritime matters have mattered, from the strategic to operational to tactical levels of war, and across a range of tasks.

Several examples underline this point.

The sinking of the Russian cruiser Moskva in April 2022, following strikes by Ukrainian Neptune anti-ship missiles, impacted at all three levels. In strategic terms, it underlined that ships will be sunk in high-end conventional conflict. Operationally, it pointed to the importance of the Black Sea as an access and influence point. Tactically, it highlighted the vulnerability of ships sailing close to shore.

The way in which NATO and Russian naval forces have deployed widely across the Euro-Atlantic theatre has had strategic impact, too. On its northern and southern maritime flanks, NATO has bolstered its readiness and filled its standing naval forces to deter risk of conflict spillover into other regions. Russia has increased surface task group and submarine operations across the theatre to tie down NATO naval assets. The activity levels across the North Atlantic, Baltic Sea, and Mediterranean Sea demonstrate how NATO and Russian naval forces have been seeking to use the maritime domain to shape the strategic balance around the crisis to operational advantage.

Geophysically, the Black Sea has been separated from this theatre-wide naval activity. Yet it is perhaps the key area of maritime focus around the conflict.

Following Russia’s invasion, Turkey invoked the 1936 Montreux Convention. This closed access to the Black Sea for any naval platform – from Russia or Ukraine, as well as non-belligerents in the conflict – that is not homeported there. Nonetheless, Black Sea naval activity has been significant, demonstrating for example the use of new technologies and a range of naval warfare disciplines.

Black Sea waters have been heavily mined to prevent access to key regions. Russian ships and submarines have fired sea-launched cruise missiles against land targets in Ukraine. Perhaps most prominent, though, has been the use of uncrewed vehicles. Both belligerents have deployed uncrewed surface vessels (USVs) to target infrastructure ashore: in Ukraine’s case, it has used USVs to attack Russia’s two Black Sea Fleet bases, at Novorossiysk and Sevastopol, Crimea. It has also deployed USVs to target Russian ships at sea, for example in the May 2023 attack on the Russian Project 18280 Ivanov-class intelligence ship Ivan Khurs.

Ukraine’s demonstrated capacity to reach into Russian ports, and to attack Russian ships at sea, has arguably had significant deterrent effect on Russian Black Sea naval activity.

USV operations and land-attack strikes have largely been visible. It goes without saying that sub-surface activity across the Euro-Atlantic theatre is not so visible but undoubtedly very significant. A snapshot of such activity is provided by social media coverage, for example with photographers’ images showing a regular drumbeat of UK, US, and French submarines sailing in and out of the UK Royal Navy’s submarine facility at HM Naval Base Clyde, Faslane. US and French boats will use Faslane to support more sustained operations across the North Atlantic.

The conflict’s hybrid component has also been evident at sea. Three examples are worth noting.

First, in September 2022 the two Baltic Sea Nordstream gas pipelines suffered unexplained explosions. NATO and Western countries pointed to sabotage. The incident has accelerated significantly Western navies’ development of seabed capabilities and operations to provide deterrence and defence against threats to critical underwater infrastructure.

Second, the strategic-level debate surrounding the Black Sea Grain Initiative – under which commercial ships could carry Ukrainian grain being exported to other countries – underlined the fundamental importance of the maritime domain, with Ukraine’s economy being affected by whether it could ship grain or not.

Third, the collapse (possibly as the result of an explosion) of the Nova Kakhovka dam to the east of Kherson in southwest Ukraine sent significant volumes of water downstream along the Dnipro River and its banks towards the Black Sea, complicating the conduct of any planned Ukrainian offensives south from Kherson towards Crimea while also creating a humanitarian crisis. Moreover, the floodwater has displaced large numbers of mines, adding further to the humanitarian risk.

As the war intensifies in its second year, these examples demonstrate that the maritime domain will continue to provide an axis of influence.

by Dr. Lee Willett, London