24 August 2018

Russia show of force sends a message to Ukraine and NATO. A Russian frigate launched an anti-ship missile in the North West of the Black Sea.

Sandu Valentin Mateiu

By closing the maritime space between Crimea and Snakes Island for 24 hours and launching an anti-ship missile by one of the most modern ships of the Black Sea Fleet, the Admiral Grigorovich frigate, Russia sends a clear message about who has the command of the sea in the North West of the Black Sea, area which is Ukraine’s access gate to the Black Sea, the Mouth of the Danube and the Mediterranean Sea. By launching a Kalibr anti-ship missile in this area, Russia is showcasing its prowess in a disputed aero-maritime space, vital for Ukraine, but also an unrecognized border of Russian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and Romanian EEZ, respectively NATO’s.Culminating a trend of increased Russian military activities in this aero-maritime space and in the surrounding region, Transnistria and Crimea, and also of the Donbass war, the action not only crossed a threshold in the naval activities in this area of confrontation between Ukraine and Russia, diffusing the naval tensions from Azov Sea, but it is also a challenge to the maritime security of Romania.

Image source: Mediafax

The launch of the anti-ship missile

On 16th August, the Black Sea Fleet of the Russian Federation announced that the frigate Admiral Grigorovich launched a Kalibr anti-ship missile in “a Black Sea maritime area” within the "planned combat training", this being the first launch of a Kalibr missile from a naval platform in the Black Sea. The missile has reached its target, "a ship of a hypothetical enemy", situated at a distance of 40 nautical miles (about 80 km), the hit being recorded by drones and made public. Previously, the "maritime area" had been closed for 24 hours. The launch took place on 15th August and the press release was issued on 16th August. No less than 11 Russian ships were involved in securing the area.

The Admiral Grigorovich frigate is the first of the six frigates of Admiral Grigorovich-class (Russian classification, Project 11356) that is the backbone of the Black Sea Fleet. Continuing the Krivak IV and Talwar-class frigates (built for India), Admiral Grigorevici-class frigates are powerful ships, having not so much modern but rather already tested sensors and weapons systems, with the ability to launch from the UKSK 3S14 VLS (vertical launch system) eight anti-ship missiles Kalibr, Oniks/Yakhont (a supersonic anti-ship missile) and, in the future, Zircon (an hypersonic anti-ship missile), and also the Kalibr SS-N-30A land attack cruise missile able to strike land targets at a range of 1,500 / 2,500 km with a conventional / nuclear warhead.




One of the most modern Russian anti-ship missile, the anti-ship missile 3M54T is the surface ship launched variant of a precise sea-skimming missile family Kalibr/ SS-N-27 Sizzler and can reach supersonic speed in the terminal approach to the target. The missile Kalibr/ SS-N-27 Sizzler can be launched from surface ships, submarines and aircrafts. Most of the Russian fighter-bombers are certified for launching this missile, including the Su 30 SM Flanker-H deployed in Crimea. The anti-ship missile Kalibr/SS-N-27 has a range, depending on the platform and other parameters, between 270 and 410 nautical miles (440 and 660 km).

In this case, the range of the launched missile, of only 40 nautical miles (about 80 km), is suspiciously small. Perhaps, the reason for such a small range is the need of securing the area (to minimize the possibility of the missile drifting from the course), given the limited area in which it was launched and the proximity of land. This reveals the fact that the launch area was chosen for political, not military reasons.

The communiqué states that the frigate Admiral Grigorovich, commissioned in 2016, has carried out missions in the Mediterranean Sea and the ship fired its anti-ship and anti-aircraft artillery. Why did not Admiral Grigorovich launch Kalibr anti-ship or cruise missile in the Mediterranean Sea, being known that Russia sent there even the small Buyan M corvettes in order to fire Kalibr LACM missiles against targets in Syria? Probably, being the first in her class, the frigate Admiral Grigorovich has encountered difficulties with the integration of the Kalibr missile system. In the communiqué it is also stated that the launch of a Kalibr missile is not a novelty in the Black Sea: in October 2017, the Kilo II, Project 636.3, submarines Rostov on Don and Novorossisk launched such missiles in the Black Sea, but in another maritime area, far away from Ukrainian and Romanian EEZ.

Closed maritime area

Previously, Russia announced as a closed maritime area on 15th August, from 7 am to 8 pm, the zone stretching from the Crimea peninsula to the Danube Delta, precisely to the Ukrainian territorial waters around the Snake Island.




The map speaks for itself: Russia has blocked Ukraine's access to the Black Sea. Thus, the closed area is stretching from the Crimean peninsula, including its territorial waters, to the territorial waters of Ukraine, belonging to the Snake Island. The closed area covers the EEZ of Ukraine and Crimea and overlaps entirely the East sea lines[1] (from Odessa to the East of the Black Sea) and, partly, the West sea lines (Odessa - Bosporus). Very likely, the closure of the maritime area has caused the change of the courses of merchant ships. More important than what has happened is what has been suggested: Russia can close almost completely, when it wishes, Ukraine's access to the Black Sea and the Mouth of the Danube.  

This explains why Ukraine has paid attention to the defense of the Snake Island (such exercises were carried out in the past). If Russia occupies the Snake Island (of course, Russia would find an explanation later, as it found one for violating the international law and the Budapest Memorandum after the occupation and annexation of Crimea), Ukraine’s maritime access from Odessa will be blocked. Already, in the Azov Sea, Ukraine’s maritime access is controlled by Russia at the Kerch Strait. Thus, without a major invasion, Russia would turn Ukraine into a country practically landlocked. The next step, which would give Ukraine the coup de grace, would not be the “big invasion”, which Russia cannot afford, but the occupation of Odessa, Bugec and Mikolaev (the area has an important Russian speaking and, at a lesser extent, pro-Russia population). In this way, the Novorossia project would have been accomplished with minimal military and political costs (the political cost for a "riot" in Odessa and an intervention to help the “separatists” by the Russian troops from Crimea would be lower than that of a “big invasion” from Donbass to Crimea, and on, to Odessa).

For Roumania, the issue is about international law: not recognizing the occupation and annexation of Crimea by Russia, it can neither recognize the EEZ of Crimea occupied by Russia, so the boundary between the two EEZs cannot be recognized by Roumania. EEZ of Roumania has boundary only with "EEZ of Crimea, part of Ukraine". But in a concrete situation, with whom will Roumania discuss about the boundary? More than that, we have to be prepared for the eventuality when Russia would announce: "We were not at the Haga Court, the Ukrainians were there, so we do not recognize the EEZ boundary". Such a scenario seems remote, but it would be reasonable to take it into account. This time, the closed area was a little bit to the north of Romanian EEZ, but we do not have any guarantee that the next time the area will not be extended to the south. 

[1] The sea lines are marked with blue on the map.


Military considerations

The launch was a success and the frigate Admiral Grigorovich passed the final test with such a successful launch during the exercise. At the tactical level, there were many difficulties: launching in a relatively small area (200 nautical miles), too small compared with the range of the missile and the danger of a failure with significant consequences, given the fact that the area was in the vicinity of populated areas. In addition, the launch in such an area, far to the west of the usual training areas of the Black Sea Fleet (southeast of the Crimea and Novorassisk) increased the danger of an adversary obtaining information, including ELINT, about the missile and the naval platform that launched it, especially as flights of the NATO's reconnaissance aircrafts are frequent in the region.

Also at the military level, it should be noted the Russian reply to the RAF press release regarding the interception of six Su 24 bombers over the Black Sea: "there were not six Su 24, but four other bombers". Russia emphasized the fact that the British aircrafts did not make visual identification, but only radar identification. In fact, Russia is saying that the reaction time of the NATO air defense, from the radar detection (and other early warning assets), decision taking up to the taking off of the planes is not low enough for an interception with visual identification. Thus, Russia claims to have not only command of the sea, but also control of the air in the north-west of the Black Sea. It is clear that the A2AD system based in Crimea (consisting of sensors, air defense systems, anti-ship missiles systems, Black Sea Fleet ships, naval and tactical aviation, helped by strategic aviation) can find an answer only from a very advanced surveillance and air defense system and tactical aviation (modern fighters, designed to operate in a "network-centric" battlefield environment, and very good pilots, radar operators and commanders).

Regarding the Black Sea Fleet's new frigates, on 18th August, the third frigate of Admiral Grigorovich-class, the frigate Admiral Makarov, began the deployment from the Baltic Sea, where she was built and tested, to the Black Sea. Probably, she will launch missile from Mediterranean Sea against targets located in the "Syrian shooting range".


Political situation

Precisely because the missile was launched in an area involving so many tactical and technical problems, it raises the question: why did Russia prefer to launch a missile in such an area, an unusual one? The answer could be only a political one: the Kremlin has decided that it is time to give a lesson to Ukraine, but also to Roumania, demonstrating that it "does whatever it wants" in the west of the Black Sea, especially that it can block Ukraine’s maritime access to the Black Sea. Previously, Ukraine and Russia had incidents in this area: Russia captured an Ukrainian oil rig and ships were intercepted. Also, anti-ship missiles were launched by the Russian costal defense system Bastion in the vicinity of this area. But such a missile launch, blocking almost completely the maritime access, is without precedent.

The context is revealing: Russia is in the bizarre situation of an hostile US imposing new sanctions, but with a Trump Administration open to dialogue headed by a friendly president, Donald Trump (we still do not know why, but we can guess). Trying to capitalize as much as possible on the Helsinki agreements, the Kremlin is preparing the meeting of the chiefs of National Security Councils to discuss all issues, from Syria and Iran, to Ukraine and Arms Control (strategic nuclear weapons - New START and INF, which Russia has violated, although it does not recognize). In Ukraine, Russia has stepped up military action: in Donbass there were heavy artillery fire (caliber 120mm) and GRAD MLRS. Moreover, the OSCE drones have detected four Russian electronic warfare systems deployed in Donbass. In Transnistria, the OGRT (Operative Group of Russian Troops from Transnistria) and separatist forces executed an unauthorized exercise, breaching the Nistru river, an aggressive action that could have, in a real situation, only one objective: the capital, Chisinau. Also, an US military transport ship entered the Black Sea after an AEGIS destroyer had previously entered, although this is not an event, given the frequent entry of NATO ships in the Black Sea.



Russia has considered that it is the time "to open" the "Black Sea Northwest Maritime and Air Operations Theater", very important in the equation of the war with Ukraine and the confrontation with NATO, by executing a missile launch that almost completely blocked Ukraine's maritime access for 24 hours. Russia wants to demonstrate that it undoubtedly has naval and air supremacy in this strategic area, vital for Ukraine and "border" with NATO.

Ukraine has received the message, immediately testing an anti-ship missile system launched from coastal batteries. Given the fact that it cannot challenge the Russian naval supremacy in the northwest Black Sea region, Ukraine is trying to limit this supremacy restricting the freedom of action of the Russian ships (sea denial). The same will be done by Romania after acquiring new coastal batteries with anti-ship missile.

For Romania, the lesson is clear: it has to develop strong naval and air forces capable of defending its interests, from deterring an aggressor to ensure security of the territorial waters and EEZ.

The Romanian proverb "shut up and do something" is valid: developing strong naval and air forces trained and with high readiness is better than far-fetched (or mistaken!) statements. Also, the Russian proverb "Что русскому хорошо, то немцу - смерть?" (What is good for the Russian really mean death for the German?) must not be ruled out: to the necessary military forces has to be added an intelligent foreign policy, remaining firmly loyal to our allies, but seeking dialogue, even with a potentially aggressive state. Of course, only if it is possible and in fair terms.