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  • Writer's pictureRichard Murff

How to Beat a Navy Without One

The Russia navy was proving its impotence when it left the UN brokered Black Sea grain deal back in July, and it hasn’t improved its effectiveness much since. Angry Polish, German and French farmers have actually had better success in choking off trade routes for Ukrainian grain than what had been advertised as the world’s number two navy.

Some of this is timidity in the face of staggering naval losses:  Ukrainian special forces just sank the Sergei Kotov, a warship worth about $65mm in the Kerch Strait with the same domestically produced Magura V5 naval drones used to sink the Caesar Kunikov in February. Intelligence reckons that Ukraine has destroyed 22 vessels, and damaged another 13 more, of the 80 combat ships Russia has in theater. These ships can’t be replaced by pulling from Russia’s Baltic and Far East fleets for the simple reason that the only way in or out of the Black Sea is the Bosporus Strait, which is controlled by Turkey, a Nato member, which won’t let any military vessels through. Nor does it help that Sweden’s joining the alliance has effectively made the Baltic a Nato lake.

Another factor is the simply ingenuity of Ukrainians with their backs against the wall. Prior to the invasion, some 60% of the Ukrainian trade went out the Black Sea to deep water ports in the Middle East and Africa. Making the bet that Russia would not make all-out war on all commercial shipping, Kyiv created an alternate route that hugs some 150 km of coastline where the water is too shallow for submarines and close enough to land for artillery cover. Complicating the route for Russia is that the lane snakes through the territorial waters of Romania and Bulgaria - both members of the EU which, like Nato, has its own collective security agreement. Russia can’t attack these waters without risking a wider European war that, through Nato, will likely draw in the US.

The first ship to take the route from the beleaguered port of Odessa was the optimistically named Resilient Africa, in September. The trip was successful but, given the insurance underwriting, unprofitable. Since then some 500 ships have taken the coast-hugging route, and the insurance rates have some 75% making the routes profitable, if slightly slower. This year, through the country’s three major ports, grain exports are closing in on pre-war volumes and adding better than $3 bn to the economy.


The Knock-Ons:

The blockage never really effected grain prices, but the opening of a trade route should keep future wartime spikes at bay. Another knock-on is less pleasant: it's only a matter of time before non-state actors pick-up how the Ukrainians are making those cheap, deadly effective naval drones, which will really gum up the shipping lanes.

It also tells us what we really should already know about Russian foreign policy. Unlike the US, which loves a straight-forward John Wayne style frontal assault and a clean victory, Moscow (since the time of the Tsars) tends to employ bluffs, circumspection, lying and saber-rattling first, and tends to treat military challenges (and losses) with a philosophical air. In other words, scaring the crap out of them works just fine.    


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