Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Russia is losing the battle for the Black Sea

image: getty images

From The Economist by 
Ukraine wants to keep trade flowing and destroy Russia’s fleet 

On september 19th military and civil shipping officers huddled in a secret control room to watch the Resilient Africa as it departed Odessa’s Chornomorsk port.
As the first vessel to enter and leave using Ukraine’s new emergency shipping corridor, established after the collapse of a un-brokered grain deal, tensions were high.
Russia had warned it could open fire on ships using the corridor.
Emergency services were on standby.
“We readied ourselves for any scenario,” says one of those present in the room.
“We were really quite nervous.” In the event, the ship sailed without incident, hugging 150km of Ukrainian coastline before entering first Romanian, then Bulgarian territorial waters, and continuing on through the Bosphorus to its eventual destination, Haifa.

The declaration of a shipping corridor in defiance of Russian bombardment was always going to be risky.
But for Ukraine, it was a strategic necessity.
Before the war, 60% of the country’s trade went through its deep-sea ports, travelling to markets in Africa and the Middle East as it had done for centuries before.
Russia’s decision to reimpose a blockade was an act of economic war.
So, secretly, Ukraine began developing its own alternative route.
It chose the shallowest waters, safe from Russian submarines, and close enough to the coast to be covered by shore artillery.
“We believed it would work, but it was about convincing others,” says Yury Vaskov, Ukraine’s deputy infrastructure minister.
The first ships sailed at a loss, but confidence has seen the cost of insuring ships that take the route fall by three quarters, and profits return.
Nearly 500 vessels have followed the Resilient Africa in and out of Odessa.

image: the economist

With 6.3m tonnes of goods exported in December, the Odessa region’s three ports—Odessa itself, Chornomorsk and Pivdenny—are now almost back to pre-war volumes.
On an unusually sunny day in late January, the port of Odessa clinked to the rhythm of metal on metal.
Fourteen ships stood loading in dock.
Another 11 hung on the horizon, waiting their turn to be inspected by border officials, who shuttled in and out on speedboats.
The border service is not only inspecting goods on board these days, but also checking for Russian saboteur groups, which remain a threat.
Another wartime change has seen all traffic in the region subordinated to a single maritime command.
“We connect traders with the emergency services, ecological services, weather reports, missile attacks, and air raid alerts,” says Yuriy Lytvyn, head of Ukraine’s Sea Port Authority.
“It’s a unique lego puzzle, a crazy amount of work.”

On dry land, the work is much the same as it ever was: delicate, demanding, dangerous.
Dockers down their tools only during air raid alerts, which can last several hours at a time.
The raids add about 30% to loading times, says Denys Paviglianiti-Karpov, head of the Odessa port authority.
But the constant threat of missiles and drones means no one is in the mood to cut corners.
Crimea is just 160km away and the missiles sometimes land even before the sirens start,” he says.
Inside the port, you don’t have to look hard to grasp the mortal dangers.
The wreckage of the passenger terminal, mangled by an Onyx anti-ship missile on September 25th, is Russia’s most prominent calling card.
But it is rare to see an intact roof or undamaged window here, with glass now mostly substituted by corrugated plastic sheeting.
The roads are pockmarked.
A smell of burning lingers.
In all, Russia has attacked nearly 200 port facilities since it withdrew from the grain deal in July, killing five port workers and injuring 23.

Ukraine has released dramatic footage of sea drones sinking a Russian warship in the Black Sea overnight.
The drones were filmed homing in on the Ivanovets, a Tarantul-class missile corvette, over choppy waters as the Russian sailors on board fired a hail of bullets at them.
They struck the ship’s hull multiple times, causing heavy damage which eventually sank the vessel.
“As a result of a number of direct strikes to the hull, the Russian vessel sustained critical damage causing immobilisation – it heaved aft and sank,” Ukraine’s Ukraine’s military intelligence agency (GUR) said.
Russia has not commented on the incident and the numbers of casualties and survivors are not known.
Ukraine had to work hard to establish its own corridor, overturning Russia’s dominance of the Black Sea without a single working warship.
According to Navy spokesman Dmytro Pletenchuk, the unlikely success came in three phases.
The first breakthrough came in the early weeks of the full-scale war, when Ukraine prevented an amphibious landing.
It was a close run thing, but the key moment was halting the Russian westward encirclement of Odessa 100 km away at Voznesensk in March 2022.
Two months later, Ukraine was able to impose a 100-nautical-mile buffer in the north-western part of the Black Sea after destroying Russia’s Moskva flagship and regaining control of the strategic Snake Island.
The third phase, completed over 2023, saw Ukraine push Russian warships entirely from the north-western, central and even south-western parts of the Black Sea.

This final part of the jigsaw was predicated on Ukraine’s maritime forces — the navy, domestic intelligence (sbu), military intelligence (hur), border guards and army—developing a new arsenal of cruise missiles and naval drones to hunt and sink Russian warships.
In total, Ukraine has destroyed at least 22 of the 80 working combat vessels of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, and damaged another 13.
These figures would be even greater had Russia had not salvaged a few sunken ships.
Now, not even the eastern coast of Crimea is considered safe, and Russia’s most capable ships are sheltering in Novorossiysk, 600km away.
“It’s a matter of time before we destroy the Black Sea Fleet in its entirety,” says Mr Pletenchuk.

Crucially, Ukraine’s new deterrence capability has also allowed it to make a bet: Russia will not deliberately attack a foreign merchant ship.
Not only would an attack invoke international opprobrium, but the threat of escalation now means it would increase insurance premiums right across the Black Sea, including for Russia-bound shipping.
The bet has largely worked, with the exception of one Liberian-flagged ship, which was probably struck by accident while docked in Pivdenny port in November 2023.
Ukrainian officials believe the dangers to shipping are only acute while a ship is in dock.
Russia can and does throw glide bombs from the air in the general direction of the emergency corridor.
Mines from the second world war are also an occasional problem.
Both are a nuisance, but not enough to deter large cargo ships.

The return of Odessa’s deep sea ports comes as a timely boost to Ukraine’s battered economy.
Oleksiy Sobolev, Ukraine’s deputy economy minister, says the unblocking of the sea is forecast to add at least $3.3bn to exports in 2024, adding useful exchange-rate stability and a predicted 1.23 percentage points to GDP growth.
But any boom will take a while to trickle down into strained government budgets.
Traders are likely first to work through their significant wartime losses, says Serhiy Marchenko, the finance minister.
“The fiscal effect of the corridor might only become clear in 2025.”

Those involved are too cautious to declare victory.
One trader, responsible for one of Odessa’s largest private terminals, asked not to be named because he feared Russia would target his business.
Mr Vaskov admits that the new corridor does not yet have enough air defences, international monitoring and, ideally, international military escorts to make it fully secure.
But its functioning at the worst of times had proven a point: shipping can continue even during Russia bombardment.
Ships can be found, crews can be found, and captains with conflict experience can be found.
Mr Vaskov recalls a text message he received from the Resilient Africa shortly after it had docked in Israel.
The ship’s captain had written back to say another war had broken out.
“Felt safer in Chornomorsk,” he quipped.
It raised a rare laugh in the ministry.

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