The Ukrainian military’s success in sinking and damaging Russian warships could have a happy side-effect for Ukraine’s war effort on land.
The destruction of at least two Russian ships—and damage to several others—makes a Russian amphibious assault on Odessa even less likely. And that could free up Ukrainian forces currently defending the strategic port. In particular, a fresh tank brigade.
Analysts disagree just how badly the Ukrainians have bloodied the Russian navy’s Black Sea Fleet. They’ve confirmed three successful attacks.
On or before March 22, Ukrainian troops under siege in Mariupol fired two old Konkurs anti-tank missiles at a range of several hundred yards and scored at least one hit on a Russian Raptor-class patrol boat.
On March 24, an apparent strike by a Ukrainian Tochka ballistic missile set ablaze the Russian landing ship Saratov in the occupied port of Berdyansk. The 370-foot ship, one of a dozen vessels in the Black Sea Fleet’s amphibious flotilla, later sank.
Most dramatically, a Ukrainian missile battery near Odessa on the morning of April 13 fired two Neptune anti-ship cruise missiles at the cruiser Moskva, the flagship of the Black Sea fleet and, at 612 feet long, the biggest and most powerful warship in the region.
Moskva burned through the morning and later sank, taking with her potentially dozens of sailors from her 500-person crew.
Those losses seriously degraded the Black Sea Fleet. And it’s possible the fleet has lost additional vessels. The apparent Ukrainian rocket strike on Berdyansk also damaged two other landing ships that were moored alongside the doomed Saratov.
Alexander Chirva, skipper of the landing ship Tsesar Kunikov, sailed his 369-foot vessel away from Saratov as the latter burned. Chirva later died of his wounds, implying that the damage to Tsesar Kunikov was serious. It’s unclear whether the vessel remains capable of operations.
In the hours following Moskva’s sinking, the roughly half-dozen smaller surface combatants left in the Black Sea Fleet sailed farther from the Ukrainian coast, putting at least a hundred miles between them and any additional Neptune missiles in the Ukrainian arsenal.
At the same time, the surviving Russian amphibs sortied from Sevastopol, in Russian-occupied Crimea. It’s possible the Black Sea Fleet’s commanders were spooked, and sailed their vessels deeper into the sea for safety’s sake.
Help isn’t coming. Turkey controls the Bosphorous Strait—the only channel into the Black Sea—and won’t allow Russia to send in fresh ships to replace the Black Sea Fleet’s losses.
Even before the strike on Moskva, foreign governments considered a Russian amphibious assault on Odessa prohibitively risky. It’s gotten even riskier. No one outside of Kyiv knows for sure how many Neptunes the Ukrainians have left. And then there are the short-range missiles and mines.
Any attempt by the Russians to storm the beaches along Odessa could end in a bloodbath for the attackers.
For Ukraine, that’s an opportunity. Odessa and surrounding smaller ports accounted for 70 percent of pre-war Ukraine’s seaborne trade. With Mariupol’s likely fall, Odessa is critical to Kyiv’s post-war reconstruction plans. Defending the city is paramount.
But as the Black Sea Fleet reels, Kyiv could shift some units from Odessa’s garrison to reinforce Ukrainian troops along the main line-of-contact in southern Ukraine. There’s at least one really good candidate: the reserve 5th Tank Brigade.
The Ukrainian army began the current war with just two active tank brigades. The 1st Tank Brigade with its 100 or so T-64 tanks successfully defended Chernihiv, northeast of Kyiv, until Russia’s northern invasion force collapsed starting in late March. The 17th Tank Brigade has been fighting along the eastern front outside Kharkiv.
Then there are the reserve tank brigades—four of them. No sooner had the first Russian invader stepped deeper into Ukraine on the morning of Feb. 24 than the reservists began mobilizing. Today the reserve 4th Tank Brigade is fighting alongside the 17th outside Kharkiv.
The 5th Tank Brigade, overseeing three battalions each with at least 30 T-72 tanks, rolled into Odessa to bolster the city’ garrison, which also includes a marine brigade and assorted territorials.
It made sense to stiffen Odessa when a Russian landing seemed plausible. Now it might make more sense for the mechanized forces in Odessa to head east and help the formations around Russian-occupied Kherson, including two marine brigades, a parachute brigade, a pair of mechanized brigades and territorials.
The 5th Tank Brigade in particular could give the forces around Kherson the firepower they need to drive toward the city. While the reserve tank brigade with its T-72s isn’t the most capable in the Ukrainian army—the 1st and 17th Tank Brigades use the superior T-64 tank—it is at full strength, having spent the first 50 days of the wider war waiting for a Russian beach assault that never came.
Analysts have made much of the Kremlin’s efforts to reinforce its armies in eastern Ukraine with battalions that retreated from the north as well as fresh units from across Russia. If and when Mariupol falls, the roughly dozen battalions encircling that city could shift north, as well.
But the Ukrainians also are shifting forces as the war enters its second and potentially bloodier phase, where risky amphibious operations are unlikely but slow, cataclysmic clashes of mechanized troops could occur daily. Watch for the 5th Tank Brigade to enter the fray.