On November 25, Russian coast guard and naval forces confronted two Ukrainian Gyurza-M artillery boats and a tugboat attempting to pass under a new bridge connecting the Russian mainland to the Crimean Peninsula. The Russian ships and aircraft opened fire; then the ships rammed and seized the Ukrainian boats and arrested their crews. The incident stoked fears of a long-term Russian blockade of the Sea of Azov and an escalating naval confrontation in the Black Sea.
Russia has had a Black Sea Fleet (BSF) in one form or another since 1783, initially supporting Moscow’s campaigns against the Ottoman Empire. During World War II, the fleet battled Axis forces besieging Odessa and Sevastopol by resupplying ground forces, landing Soviet marines behind German lines and evacuating key personnel when those cities eventually fell. Today, the fleet continues to secure Russia’s southern maritime flank, while also projecting naval power into the Mediterranean for contingencies such as the Syrian Civil War.
However, because Russian ships must pass through the Turkish-controlled Bosporus Strait to enter the Mediterranean, a NATO-Russia conflict would likely confine the fleet to the Black Sea. As a result, the BSF has few large ships for blue water operations and no nuclear-powered submarines.
The fleet’s main base has traditionally resided in Sevastopol, which lies in Ukraine. When the Soviet Union dissolved, Soviet successor states usually inherited the military systems deployed on their territory. However, Russian captains in Sevastopol refused to hand over their ships to Ukrainian service. Eventually, Kiev and Moscow struck a compromise in which most of the ships were retained by Russia, which also leased access to the base in Sevastopol.
For years the terms of the lease remained a bone of contention between Kiev and Moscow. When in February 2014 an uprising overthrew the pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, Putin dispatched Russian special forces to seize the Crimean peninsula in a coup-de-main—which also snatched twelve of the Ukrainian Navy’s seventeen ships.
The Cruiser Moskva
The flagship of the Black Sea fleet is the Moskva, the first of three Slava-class cruisers laid down by the Soviet Union in the 1970s. A fourth remains unfinished in Ukraine. The 12,000-ton missile cruiser has a crew complement of 480 and is longer than two football fields at 186 meters long.
The Moskva was built to kill aircraft carriers using sixteen P-1000 Vulkan missiles loaded in huge 11-meter long launch canisters on either side of her deck. The 5.3-ton missiles can traverse over 300 miles while traveling two-and-a-half times the speed of sound. The Moskva also boasts S-300F missiles that can provide an area air defense umbrella, a twin 130-millimeter deck gun, numerous close-defense missiles and auto-cannons, and anti-submarine torpedoes.
However, there’s a not-so-little problem with the Moskva—it’s been at dock awaiting a three-year modernization since January 2016. It’s also unclear when funding for the refit will come through—if ever. This is a common problem for Russia’s theoretically formidable surface warships.
Admiral Grigorovich-class Frigates
More immediately useful to the BSF are its three new Admiral Grigorivich-class missile frigates. The 4,000-ton vessels are designed for radar and infrared stealth. They also carry advanced decoys and electronic warfare systems. The ship’s eight-cell vertical launch-system can mount Kalibur or ramjet-powered Oniks supersonic anti-ship missiles that can strike ships up to 400 miles away. Another thirty-two vertical-launch cells carry Buk missiles that can splash aircraft and small boats within forty miles. Furthermore, the versatile frigates mount anti-submarine torpedoes and rocket-launchers and can carry a chubby sub-hunting Ka-27PL helicopter.
However, frigates employ Ukrainian-built gas-turbine engines. Thus, the Russo-Ukrainian rupture has indefinitely held up plans to deploy three more of the heavily armed vessels.
The BSF also musters two older Krivak-class missile frigates and the missile destroyer Smetlivy, first commissioned in 1969.
The Tarantul-class Corvette
Ten corvettes reinforce the fleet’s firepower in its 41st Missile Brigade. Measuring less than a third the length of the Moskva, the Brigade’s five Tarantul-class corvettes might seem unimpressive. However, each of the 500-ton boats is loaded with eight sea-skimming P-270 Moskit missiles that zip towards targets up to 170 miles away at three times the speed of sound. While such small vessels can’t take much punishment in return, they are equipped with powerful radar jammers to avoid being hit in the first place.
The 41st Brigade also includes two P-270-armed Dergach-class hovercraft-corvettes with a flank speed of 55 knots, a Buyan-M corvette mounting eight Kalibur cruise missiles, and two older Nanuchka-III corvettes, one of which (the Mirzah) sank a Georgian patrol boat with a Malakhit missile in 2008.
The Improved Kilo-class Submarine
Six improved Kilo submarines (Varshavyankas) are based at Novorossiysk in the 4th Submarine Brigade. An upgrade of a 1980s-era design, the Improved Kilo is arguably one of the stealthiest diesel-electric submarines in service today—not counting types equipped with Air-Independent Propulsion or Lithium Ion-Batteries. This is thanks to the anechoic tiles coating the Kilo’s tear-drop shaped hull, which absorb and misdirect active sonar waves while reducing sound emissions detectable by passive sonar, and the isolation of its machinery. One study found the improved Kilo to be just as stealthy as the U.S. Navy’s improved Los Angeles-class nuclear-powered submarines.
With a range of 7,500 miles and a max diving depth of 300 meters, the Kilos are well suited for short-range patrols in the shallow confines of the Black Sea. The diesel-electric submarines carry eighteen 533-millimeter heavyweight torpedoes, but can also launch Kalibur cruise missiles while submerged at land or sea targets hundreds of miles away. Indeed, in 2015, the BSF’s Rostov-on-Don was the first Russian submarine to fire in anger since World War II when it launched cruise missiles at Syrian rebels.
The Kilos, therefore, constitute a formidable threat to opposing warships and submarines—and can also serve as a stealthy land-attack platform.
The Black Sea Fleet has additional support assets. For amphibious landing operations, it has a Marine brigade and seven Alligator and Ropucha class landing ships. To comb the sea for submarines and mines, there are six Grisha-class anti-submarine corvettes and eight minesweepers. Local naval aviation units count dozens of anti-submarine helicopters and anti-ship-capable Su-24M swing-wing bombers and Su-30SM attack jets. Land-based anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles contribute additional firepower. Even the frigates and corvettes of Russia’s landlocked Caspian flotilla 500 miles away can support with Kalibur land-attack cruise missiles.
All in all, the Black Sea Fleet may not have many large warships, but it has a lot of small, stealthy platforms that can threaten adversaries at a considerable distance.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.