H.I. Sutton, an independent journalist focusing on naval warfare, has spotted more than a dozen of the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s remaining warships, intact and underway.
They include Admiral Makarov, one of the fleet’s three frigates and arguably the top target for Ukraine’s drones and anti-ship missile batteries.
Sutton’s analysis of new commercial satellite imagery seems to confirm that last week’s rumors about a successful Ukrainian attack on Admiral Makarov were just that—rumors. The frigate survives.
But it’s worth noting where Sutton found Admiral Makarov on or before Monday: sailing near Sevastopol in the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula. In other words, close to home.
Indeed, Sutton narrowed the locations of most of the underway Black Sea Fleet to a swathe of ocean off the west coast of Crimea. Just two ships—a landing craft and one unidentified vessel—were near Snake Island, the current locus of naval combat between Ukraine and Russia.
Near to Crimea, Russian ships enjoy the protection of shore-based S-400 surface-to-air missile batteries and the Russian navy’s Su-30 fighter jets. Closer to Snake Island—which sits astride the main shipping route to Ukraine’s strategic port Odessa, 80 miles to the north—ships are at greater risk of coming under attack from Ukrainian TB-2 armed drones and whatever Neptune anti-ship missiles Ukraine has left.
Sutton’s work seems to confirm what analysts expected weeks ago after a pair of Neptune missiles holed, and ultimately sank, the Russian cruiser Moskva as she sailed between Snake Island and Odessa.
Moskva was the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet with its, at the time, two dozen or so major warships. The 612-foot cruiser with her 64 long-range S-300 surface-to-air missiles also was the fleet’s main air-defense vessel. Her loss underscored Russian ships’ vulnerability to anti-ship missiles and compelled Black Sea Fleet commanders to pull bigger vessels away from Odessa.
In addition to sinking Moskva, the Ukrainians also have sunk or damaged three Russian landing ships, five Raptor-class patrol boats and a landing craft. Ukraine’s escalating denial campaign targeting the 110-acre Snake Island, which Russian forces led by Moskva seized the day after the Russia-Ukraine war widened on Feb. 23, has claimed four of the Raptors and the landing craft.
On paper, the Black Sea Fleet still is a significant force. The fleet’s surviving ships include most of the dozen or so big landing ships it had before the wider war plus the 409-foot Admiral Makarov and her two sisters with their 24-apiece Buk medium-range SAMs.
But it’s clearer than ever that the Kremlin is reluctant to risk these ships, even though the Ukrainian navy, having scuttled its flagship frigate in Odessa, no longer has a single large vessel. No, Kyiv’s drones and missiles are the threats. And they’re significant ones.
The inability of the Russian fleet significantly to reinforce the Black Sea undoubtedly is a factor in the Kremlin’s naval hesitancy. For a big ship, there’s just one way into the Black Sea—from the Mediterranean via the Bosphorous Strait. But Turkey controls the strait and has blocked warships from entering.
It’s possible the Russians could put fresh patrol boats into the Black Sea by shipping them over land. But absent a profound shift in Turkey’s response to Russian aggression, no additional frigates or landing ships are coming. The big ships the Black Sea Fleet has left are the ships it must fight with … probably until the war ends.