On Point: Ukraine's Battle for the Black Sea -- And Free Europe

by Austin Bay
April 24, 2024

Can Ukraine defeat Russia? That's a question roiling the U.S., Canada and Free Europe.

Free Europe: That's my term for Europe defended by the NATO alliance members and non-NATO European countries willing to defend themselves against violent authoritarian aggression.

Since February 2022, the publicly professed membership of Free Europe has demonstrably expanded. Finland and Sweden have joined NATO. These two "Cold War super neutrals" are now armed and vocal members of NATO.

This additional kicker demonstrates the strategic price Russia has paid for invading Ukraine. Greater Free Europe now includes Switzerland. The "forever neutral" Swiss have declared they will participate in the European air and space defense Sky Shield Initiative. Austria is also interested. Why? Because Vladimir Putin's murderous invasion of Ukraine has convinced the Swiss a Putin-led Russia threatens everyone's freedom.

I confess I spent the entire Cold War being ticked at Finland's, Sweden's, Switzerland's and Austria's "neutral" hypocrisy. I got into it with Finns, Swedes, Swiss and Austrians at the level of heated personal debate. When pressed, they all caved and admitted their national pose was a charade.

It took Putin's invasion of Ukraine to shred their charade.

Shredding the charade partially answers the question, "Can Ukraine defeat Russia?" Ukraine's heroic defense has already dealt Russia a profound strategic-level defeat. Tucker Carlson doesn't get it, but at the strategic military and political level, Putin's invasion of Ukraine sobered Europe west of Ukraine, spurred European rearmament and solidified the collective resolve of their free, intelligent citizens to combat Moscow.

As for Ukraine defeating Russia at the operational and tactical levels of combat? Ukraine's 2023 counteroffensive needed F-16 fighter bombers for close air support and long-range missiles for "deep" interdiction missions. Remember, Washington initially denied both because the Biden administration didn't want to be provocative.

April 2024's stalemated front of trenches and artillery is a war of attrition, one that in the long run favors Russia.

However, look to the sea for a major fact only war-smart media outlets discuss: Ukraine controls the Black Sea, at least the 65% to 80% that matters to ocean freighters carrying Ukrainian grain and material cargoes to international seaports.

Get a map of the Black Sea. Draw a line south-southwest from the Ukrainian seaport of Odesa to the Bosporus -- the eastern Turkish strait that passes Istanbul. Via the Sea of Marmara and the Dardanelles, ships enter the Mediterranean and global sea lanes.

As I write this essay, Russian surface naval forces have withdrawn from the western Black Sea and basically taken refuge in northeastern seaports and the Sea of Azov.

Ukraine won this victory with next to no naval vessels -- at least conventional naval vessels. Ukraine has used anti-ship cruise missiles. In April 2022, upgraded Ukrainian Neptune anti-ship missiles sank the Black Sea Fleet's flagship, the missile cruiser Moskva.

Anti-ship cruise missiles are 20th-century weapons. Ukraine's sea control arsenal, however, is decidedly 21st century, with aerial drones, unmanned surface vessels/vehicles (USVs) and unmanned subsurface variants. Think of the unmanned vessels as "drone" warships. Weaponized seagoing USVs are hard to spot visually and on radar.

Russia's air force failed to gain air superiority over land and over the Black Sea. Russian ships and land-based defenses failed to protect the Crimean naval base at Sevastopol from aerial and sea drone attacks. Sevastopol has become a graveyard for Russian warships. In August 2023, Ukrainian USVs damaged a Russian ship near the naval base at Novorossiysk -- eastern Black Sea, about 300 kilometers east of Sevastopol. That's a long-range attack. Since that attack, Russia has made limited use of Novorossiysk.

Russia still operates Black Sea submarines. Ukraine, however, is about to take delivery of the Swedish Torpedo 47 -- an anti-submarine weapon that can be fired from a land-based launch or dropped from a helicopter.

In late March, a Ukrainian Navy spokesman told the Associated Press that since February 2022, "Ukraine has sunk or disabled a third of all Russian warships in the Black Sea ..."

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To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.


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