As all eyes are on the atrocities and sheer horror of Russia’s war against Ukraine, and most naval eyes are on the sinking of the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet and what that means for 21st century seapower, it is perhaps time to raise our eyes to the near future. The Moskva’s sinking was an iconic naval moment, the first warship lost to missile attack for decades, and there are undoubtedly lessons to be learnt about the use of intelligence, targeting, drones, anti-access/area-denial, tactical posture, anti-ship missile defence, mission command, damage control, and more. But there is a bigger picture.
From the start of the war, the Russian Navy sought and quickly gained sea control in Ukraine’s near waters. The Sea of Azov really was a Russian lake. The Ukrainian navy was all but neutralised. Ukrainian ports were blockaded. Russian littoral manoeuvre was used to support operations ashore. At first the success was all the Kremlin’s, but as time passed the inevitable vulnerabilities and shortfalls in the attacker’s plan became ever more apparent. Several Russian ships were sunk, the anticipated amphibious assault against Odessa never materialised, and the battle for Snake Island showed the world not just the strategic significance of a tiny rocky outcrop, but the reality that neither belligerent could actually achieve command of the sea with their ships alone.
Yet the Black Sea[↗] is closed. Merchant vessels have been attacked and destroyed. The Turkish Straits, one of the world’s great maritime chokepoints, remain shut and for now the Montreux Convention remains respected. This latter point may be a triumph for international law but it also carries dire consequences for the global economy and the growing global food crisis. Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, has now warned the world that the inability to get Ukraine’s vast food exports out to its natural markets by sea is fuelling famine and inflation. And, of course, Ukraine’s economy is crippled. Even for a continental state such as Ukraine, sea lines of communication (SLOCs) are a vital lifeline.
A time will come, hopefully soon, when the horrific war is over and peace returns. However, at least at first it will be a precarious peace. The economic lever of power which has been so instrumental in this conflict to date will need to be wielded again, albeit differently, to rebuild Ukraine and to avert or reverse humanitarian crises elsewhere as rapidly as possible.
Navies are well placed to help in this endeavour. In the paragraphs above certain terms such as sea control, command of the sea, littoral manoeuvre, maritime chokepoints, blockade, SLOCs and international law have been deliberately deployed because they are as relevant to navies in peacetime as they are in war. So what comes next in the precarious peace of the future? Navies can uphold international law, they can ensure safe routes through choke points, they can provide escort to trade inward and outward, they can rebuild, train and assist local navies to get them back to sea, they can police exclusive economic zones, and if necessary they can exert pressure on a foe and enforce any legal sanctions or embargoes that may be put in place.
Crucially, they can also send a powerful message of friendship, solidarity, and reassurance to partners without the encumbrance and political straight-jacket of too many boots on the ground. The traditional roles of navies – military, constabulary, diplomatic – are as relevant as ever and as relevant in peace as they are in war, and in those blurred, uncertain areas between.
Alongside NATO allies and regional partners, there is much that the Royal Navy can offer Ukraine and the Black Sea[↗] in the months and years ahead. Current hydrographic and mine countermeasures ships, and future autonomous mine hunting capabilities (MHC), can survey the affected waters and open them up for safe passage and strengthen food security. Current and future frigates and destroyers can protect merchant vessels from rogue and unprovoked attack, as they have for years in the Gulf. Those same frigates and destroyers can equally be used for interception, interdiction, and boarding and make sure that Russian or third-party vessels do not break sanctions. Offshore patrol vessels can work with Ukrainian forces within the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone to enable the resumption of legitimate economic activity there.
All can reassure. All can signal intent. All can build a tapestry of deterrence, to be integrated with other services and nations. Navies such as the Royal Navy will not win a war alone – though without maritime power wars can be lost overnight – but they can win the peace.
Capt. Dr Kevin Rowlands is Head of the Royal Navy’s Strategic Studies Centre. He is also the Julian Corbett Associate Fellow in Naval Strategy at the Council on Geostrategy. He writes here in a personal capacity.
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