Food security is a key casualty of the war in Ukraine, as Ukraine produces 10% of wheat, 15% of corn, 13% of barley, and 50% of the global sunflower oil market. An inability to export these products can lead to famine in the poorest parts of the world.
Last year, Turkey and the United Nations brokered a parallel set of agreements to allow both Ukraine and Russia to export food and fertilizer. However, Russia began blocking all Ukrainian shipments in April 2023, before refusing to renew the agreement in July 2023.
RELATED STORY: Global food security depends on Ukraine winning the Battle of the Black Sea
The United Nations and humanitarian groups warned that Russia’s blockade threatened to cause famine in the most vulnerable parts of the developing world. Russia responded to these concerns by extending an offer of free and discounted grain that amounted to 2% of pre-war Ukrainian exports, and limited to six Russian-aligned African nations, half of whom host Russian Wagner mercenary forces. None of the six nations were on the U.N.’s list of most vulnerable nations for starvation.
Russia’s price for lifting the Black Sea blockade? The lifting key Western sanctions aimed at limiting Russia’s ability to effectively wage war on Ukraine, most particularly to reconnect one of Russia’s major state-owned banks to the international banking system, known as SWIFT.
Russia then launched a series of attacks on Ukrainian port facilities and grain storage sites, destroying 270,000 tons of grain over the summer. Russia also began harassing freighters, stopping and boarding the Turkish freighter Sukru Okan on Aug. 12, 2023, and now threatens to sink any freighter headed toward Ukrainian ports.
Ukraine has responded to Russia’s belligerence with a systematic campaign to wrestle control of the western Black Sea from Russia. Ukraine’s pushback has so weakened Russian air and sea assets in the area that the first shipping freighter, the Joseph Schulte, broke through the Russian blockade in mid-August by hugging the coastline within the territorial waters of NATO states Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania for most of its journey. Russia was powerless to act without triggering a broader conflict it couldn’t hope to win.
It’s even better than the map above suggests, as shipping from Odesa exposes commercial tankers during their trek down that slice of Ukrainian territory southwest of the port city, east of Moldova. That's why 65% of grain shipments originate in the Danuban ports of Reni and Izmail. Freighters sail up the western Black Sea coast then turn west up the Danube River to reach the two Ukrainian grain ports. This means the freighters are only in Ukrainian waters for a few kilometers to reach the mouth of the Danube River.
However, this approach limits the amount of grain shipped because the largest cargo ships can’t travel up the Danube. They would have to travel at least 140 km up the Ukrainian coast, to Chornomorsk, just south of Odesa.
While Russia has boarded and forcibly turned back freighters bound for Ukrainian ports, it has not shown a willingness to directly attack neutral freighters, despite many threats.
Instead, Russia has heavily targeted port infrastructure at Reni and Ismail to destroy stored grain and dissuade ships from entering harbor. So long as Russia remains in Crimea, it will be impossible to push them outside of cruise missile or drone range of these ports.
However, removing Russia’s naval presence from the western Black Sea would make it impossible for Russia to physically impede safe passage, and open a transit corridor that Russia could only stop by launching missiles or suicide drones directly at civilian targets.
The Battle of Snake Island
On Feb. 24, 2022, the first day of Russia’s invasion, Russian troops stormed Snake Island, in the western Black Sea. It was here that the Ukrainian garrison’s defiant response to Russian calls for surrender, “Russian warship, go f-ck yourself,” became a national, and international, rallying cry.
From that island, Russia could closely surveil the movement of any ships across the entire Ukrainian western seaboard. That’s why it was important for Ukraine to retake it—which it did, isolating the island by systematically targeting its occupying forces with anti-ship missile batteries, drones, and artillery attacks. The early U.S. decision to send ground-launched Harpoon anti-ship missiles, with a range of 110 km, gave Ukraine a potent weapon to protect its coastal waters. Russian ships could only approach the Ukrainian coastline at great peril. Snake Island is only 35 kilometers from Ukraine’s mainland.
Ukraine famously sank the Russian flagship missile cruiser Moskva during this time with a coordinated drone and land-based Neptune anti-ship missile attack on April 14, 2022. By June 30, 2022, Snake Island was back under Ukrainian control.
The island’s liberation would bear the hallmarks of subsequent Ukrainian Black Sea naval operations: coordinated use of land-based anti-ship missile batteries, drones, and small ground forces operating on speed boats, paired with artillery and missile strikes.
2023 Black Sea Campaign
The start of the Black Sea Grain Initiative that began in July 2022 (just after Ukrainian liberation of Snake Island) somewhat muted the urgency of further Black Sea operations.
Still, Russia continued to launch infrastructure strikes from Russian missile frigates and submarines operating in the region. Degrading the Russian navy’s abilities remained an active concern.
However, the Battle of the Black Sea took on fresh urgency in 2023 after Russia’s abandonment of the grain deal, which also marked the start of Russia’s aggressive targeting of Ukrainian port facilities.
Russia primarily relies on three types of vessels to exert influence in and around the Black Sea.
- Missile Frigates: These are the Black Sea Fleet’s remaining first line warships, capable of firing cruise missiles and anti-air missiles. Russia’s most modern ships in the Black Sea fleet are its three 4,000-ton Project 11356 frigates such as the Admiral Makarovm, capable of firing their most modern Kalibr cruise missiles. They cost around $500 million per ship. Russia also has a few older missile frigates operating, as well.
- Submarines: The Black Sea Fleet had six Kilo-class and improved Kilo-class submarines, capable of firing cruise missiles and torpedoes. They cost approximately $300 million per submarine.
- Patrol boats: aka Corvettes. These are small and fast surface vessels, around 200 to 250 feet long and equipped with an auto-cannon and up to eight anti-ship missiles or cruse missiles and with short-range SAM capabilities. These cost approximately $34 million per ship.
Frigates and patrol boats are of particular concern to Ukraine, as they can stop and openly intercept freighters. So Ukraine began to ruthlessly exploit three weaknesses of the Russian Black Sea Fleet to wrest back control of its commercial sea lanes:
- Russian radar and air defense’s limited ability to detect low flying objects, like cruise missiles.
- Russian radar and air defense’s limited ability to detect small flying objects, like drones.
- Russian naval radar’s inability to detect low surface profile objects, like naval suicide drones.
After the sinking of the Moskva, it was clear that the Russian navy could not operate close to the Ukrainian coast. Russia’s new tactic was for its frigates and submarines stationed in Sevastopol to venture out a short distance, always at least 130 kilometers (80 miles) from the Ukrainian coast, launch a salvo of cruise missiles, then quickly return to the safety of harbor.
Ukraine needed to remove that literal safe harbor, making Sevastopol too dangerous for the Black Sea Fleet.
This was dramatically accomplished on Sept. 13, 2023, when Ukrainian cruise missiles struck the Russian submarine Rostov-on-Don and a large landing ship while in drydock at Sevastopol. Both ships were destroyed beyond repair.
Ukraine followed up by striking the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, also with Storm Shadow or SCALP cruise missiles.
These attacks were possible because Ukraine successfully stripped Russia of its air defenses around Sevastopol, enabled by Ukrainian access to more powerful and sophisticated weapons from its foreign allies and domestic development.
First, Ukraine used ship-fired Brimstone/Sea Spear anti-ship missiles, which arrived in May 2023. While they have a far shorter range than the Harpoon anti-ship missile, they can be deployed on small speedboats (the extent of Ukraine’s navy), and their 25-kilometer range is perfect for striking smaller enemy surface ships—like Russian patrol boats.
These capabilities likely gave Ukraine the confidence on Sept. 12 to liberate oil rigs occupied by Russia since 2014, which had turned them into de facto military installations, installing radar equipment to observe air and naval targets, with garrisons to defend them.
Additionally, Ukraine modified its super-low altitude Neptune anti-ship missile to strike land targets, likely using them to knock out incredibly valuable S-400 batteries in western Crimea.
The S-400 is a powerful long-range anti-air system with a powerful radar and long-range missiles capable of engaging targets over 180 km away. Costing over $600 million per battery, the S-400 is Russia’s equivalent to NATO’s top-of-the-line Patriot air defense missile battery.
However, foreign operators who purchased the system, most prominently Turkey, have criticized the systems’ capabilities, particularly its inability to detect and track low-altitude targets.
Ukraine appears to be fully exploiting this weakness, striking two S-400 batteries in a span of two weeks from late August to mid-September, leaving only three operational S-400 batteries in Crimea. This further degraded Russian anti-air capabilities in the western Black Sea, and reduced their radar detection abilities. (Tangentially, yet another S-400 battery was reportedly destroyed around the Russian city of Belgorod by a drone strike today).
Note that cruise missiles like the Neptune and Storm Shadow rely on stealth to approach their targets. Low-flying objects are harder to detect from long distances due to the curvature of the earth.
Forward-deployed early warning radars on tall towers—or oil-drilling rigs—can help detect incoming cruise missiles, allowing an effective integrated air defense system to share information and ready interception.
Without those “eyes,” an unprepared air defense system cannot react in time for the arrival of cruise missiles—which hit their targets just 10-20 seconds after being detected.
Thus, eliminating those Russian forward observation radar sites on those oil drilling platforms opened up Sevastopol to successful Ukrainian cruise missile attacks.
By Oct. 3, the Russian Black Sea Fleet concluded that Sevastopol was no longer safe and withdrew its primary fleet assets almost 400 km east to Novorossiysk.
This was a bitter strategic blow to Russian naval operations, not only due to the increased distance from the fighting and its logistical burdens, but because Sevastopol had the only permanent repair or maintenance facilities for the Black Sea Fleet, including the only permanent dry docks in the entire Black Sea. While Russia has a number of temporary dry docks, including in Novorossiysk, they are unsuitable for complex, larger warships like frigates or submarines.
Warships in combat operations require periodic maintenance every few months. The lack of those specialized maintenance facilities could delay or hamper maintenance efforts, resulting in long periods of unavailability for Russia’s most valuable warships, and even worse if any of them receive serious combat damage.
Despite the withdrawal of Russia’s biggest ships, Russian patrol boats continued to operate aggressively in the southwestern Black Sea. To counter this threat, Ukraine has deployed suicide drone boats.
These drones have an extremely low surface profile, with only a tiny portion sticking up above the water. They are packed with explosives and are controlled via satellite communications to strike enemy targets.
Ukraine has found them to be particularly effective during inclement weather with high waves, as the surface movement and height variation makes the drones even harder to detect by radar.
In a two-day span of poor weather and high seas on September 13-14, 2023, Ukraine struck as many as four Russian patrol boats with surface drone strikes. As Russia has only 30 patrol boats in the Black Sea Fleet (and is unable to reinforce it as the Bosporus remains closed to warships by the Turkish navy), Russia may have lost over 10% of its patrol boats in a two-day span.
One thing that shows the desperation Russia feels in countering the threat of drone boats has been its deployment of 1960s-era floatplanes on the front lines.
Demonstratively unable to detect incoming cruise missiles or surface drones, Russia has even began deploying a Be-12PS floatplane for reconnaissance. A 1960s-era relic, the slow-flying turboprop is believed to be unlikely to have any operational radar or sonar detection abilities. Thus, the Russian navy appears to be using it for visual reconnaissance, searching for targets with binoculars.
This approach is unlikely to be particularly helpful at spotting targets at night or in adverse weather conditions, but the Russian navy appears to be mobilizing almost anything at its disposal, no matter how outdated, in a desperate attempt to detect enemy threats that have repeatedly struck them without notice.
As if Russia didn’t have enough to worry about, Ukraine’s newest weapon is entering its final stages of development: the Marichka-class suicide drone submarine.
Russian leadership never anticipated the need to guard against a submarine threat to its Black Sea Fleet.
The Black Sea Fleet’s ASW (anti-submarine warfare) arm is handled by the 181st Antisubmarine Ship Division, which has just three ships equipped with sonar—1,070-ton Grisha III Corvettes which were cutting-edge … when they first entered Soviet service in 1976. These are reinforced by perhaps a dozen Ka-27 ASW helicopters with sonar buoys. That’s it, for the entire Black Sea.
That’s why Ukrainian suicide submarine drones don’t need to be overly sophisticated or quiet to be effective. Merely traveling a foot or two underwater at periscope depths may be enough to render them virtually undetectable in the overwhelming majority of the Black Sea.
With such limited resources, Russia might not even be able to protect the entrances to its primary harbor. In 1977, the Royal Navy submarine Swiftsure (S-126) famously infiltrated a Soviet battlegroup, spending hours underneath the Russian aircraft carrier Kiev collecting enormous amounts of intelligence on Russian battlegroup naval operations (The War Zone covered the story in detail here). Ukraine could exploit similar vulnerabilities.
The capabilities of the new Ukrainian suicide submarine drones are unknown, but given the dearth of ASW assets in the Black Sea Fleet and Russian difficulties in combating the threat of surface drones, the Ukrainian submarine drones may serve as coup de grace to the beleaguered Black Sea Fleet.
As a result of these actions, Ukraine’s control over the western Black Sea is growing. Russia’s ability to enforce a blockade is eroding.
In the past two weeks, 10 freighters have now passed through to Ukrainian ports through the safe corridor hugging the western Black Sea coast and through a deep water route charted by Ukraine, allowing passage by the largest freighters. The bulk freighter Eneida was even able to dock at Chornomorsk, the major port just south of Odesa, load its cargo, and make a safe return.
A drastic drop in perceived risk by freighters and insurers has led to a drop in freight costs by 30-40% in the past month. The flow of freighters to Ukrainian ports is picking up.
The risks have not completely abated. Russian patrol boats could still raid Ukrainian waters. Russian cruise missiles and drones continue to strike Ukrainian port facilities and grain storage sites. And should Russia choose to launch unrestricted submarine, missile, or drone attacks on freighters, that would dramatically escalate both the war and Ukraine’s maritime defense needs.
But for now, there is a growing sense that Ukraine is winning the Battle of the western Black Sea.
Indeed, the conflict may be shifting to a new stage as Ukraine consolidates its hold on the western Black Sea and goes on the offensive—to interdict and to complete the destruction of the Black Sea Fleet and to navally isolate the Crimean Peninsula by blockading the five major ports of Crimea.