The hunt for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet: Fleeing Ukrainian attacks, stuck in the Sea of ​​Azov?

It’s a modern-day “Hunt for Red October,” a Putin-era Russian Navy mystery. Instead of Washington’s hunt for a missing Soviet submarine, today’s hunt is for the remains of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.

Last week, Western satellites photographed remnants of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet steaming out of their safe haven in Novorossiysk, a deepwater oil port on the Russian mainland.

Russian Navy captains took refuge there after Ukrainian naval drones and French and British cruise missiles sank or damaged about half of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet during the first two years of the war. But on May 17, Ukrainian long-range drones reached Novorossiysk and hit the oil terminal.

At the same time, videos emerged of Ukrainian naval drones slaloming around ships and steel nets to hit warships at their moorings. These kamikaze drones are actually motorboats packed with powerful explosives and are controlled from Ukraine – hundreds of kilometers away.

To get out of drone range, a natural move would be to move north and seek refuge in the Sea of ​​Azov. Surrounded on all sides by Russian-controlled land, the Azov presents its own challenges. The Azov is the shallowest sea in the world. Depths range from three to 46 feet. This requires ships to follow predictable navigation channels.

The Azov has two chokepoints that could make it a trap for the remnants of the Black Sea Fleet. On the south side lies the 4 mile wide Strait of Kerch. A $3.7 billion, 12-mile road and rail bridge across this strait has been hit twice: once by a Ukrainian truck bomb and once by a swarm of Ukrainian Sea Baby drones. Now British Defense Intelligence reports that Russia is driving eight ships in front of the bridge to block the naval drones.

Despite these protective measures, bomb damage has halted train traffic. Road traffic was briefly suspended on Monday due to air warnings, Crimean Wind, a dissident Telegram channel, reported.

On May 29, Ukrainian drones hit both ends of Russia’s alternative supply line to Crimea: an 11-mile rail ferry. In the port of Kerch, on the Crimean side, Ukrainian drones sank one ferry and seriously damaged another.

On the Russian mainland side, at Port Kavkaz, Ukrainian drones damaged the ferry terminal and set fire to an oil depot. Now Russia’s alternative military supply route is the ‘land bridge’, a highway running along the northern bank of the Azov.

Pursued by Ukrainian drones, Russian Navy captains know there is a possible escape route on the north side of the Azov. The 100-kilometer-long Volga-Don ship canal leads to the safety of the Caspian Sea. However, ships must pass through 13 locks.

The canal was built in the early 1950s under Stalin and provides passage for ships with a maximum draft of 3 meters. Two last month

Russian missile carriers escaped the war by sailing through the Channel to the Caspian Sea.

However, the Russian Roucha-class landing ships have a draft of 12 feet and 2 inches. By leaving a few tanks on shore, a Ropucha might be able to push through.

As analysts search the Black Sea for the missing Russian surface fleet, the Ukrainian Navy appears to have solved the mystery. Last weekend they reported that ten Russian naval boats had crossed the Sea of ​​Azov. The Ukrainians counted that there was only one Russian warship left in the Black Sea.

Instead, Russia is prowling the Black Sea with four submarines, including three missile carriers, Ukrainian military spokesman Dmytro Pletenchuk said on national television Monday.

Other reports state that three amphibious assault ships, three missile ships and twelve surface warships are concentrated in the Azov for “exercises.” Last April, British Defense Secretary Grant Shapps tweeted that Russia’s Black Sea Fleet had effectively become “functionally inactive.”

And the Azov doesn’t look like a safe haven.

On Monday, Ukraine’s military intelligence announced that its naval drones had penetrated the Azov and the Engineer Smirnov tugboat near the Russian port of Yeysk. Military Intelligence spokesman Andriy Yusov said: “The devastating fire damage was inflicted after a successful breakthrough of the Russian defense line in the Black Sea.”

Ukrainian military news site Defense Express reported: “This was the first time in the full-scale war that Ukrainian drones hit a Russian target in the Sea of ​​Azov.” Crimean Wind wrote: “The fact that there is a real hunt for the Russian fleet in the Sea of ​​Azov is simply mega-positive news that is difficult to overestimate.”

For the Russian surface fleet, this marks a break from its continued presence in the Black Sea since 1783, the year Prince Grigory Potemkin founded the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol. Even during the Nazi occupations of Odessa and Sevastopol during World War II, the Black Sea Fleet continued to operate.

With the Black Sea Fleet stuck in the Azov, it is unclear what Ukraine’s strategy is. This week, Ukraine used as many as 20 of the US-supplied ATACM cruise missiles to take out about six Russian anti-S-300 and S-400 land-to-air missile units in Crimea.

Some analysts say these missile strikes are intended to pave the way for the arrival of Western-supplied Ukrainian F-16s in the coming weeks.

Many Russians on the peninsula seem to feel the tightening of a noose.

Atesh, a pro-Ukrainian partisan group that operates a widely read Telegram channel, reported this week that Russian air defense commanders have issued a “recommendation” to their soldiers to evacuate their families from Crimea to the safety of military camps in southern Russia. .

And for Russian ship captains who reach the safety of the Caspian Sea, bad news awaits. This week, Ukrainian long-range Lyutiy drones were spotted circling over Kaspiysk, a Russian port on the Caspian Sea. There, the Dagdizel Plant, a subsidiary of the Moscow-based Tactical Missiles Corporation, produces torpedoes for the Russian Navy.

To change the subject from Ukraine, the Russian Navy is promoting its power projection by steaming to Havana, Cuba, on Wednesday for a five-day goodwill visit. As television cameras buzzed and Russian diplomats took selfies, the frigate took off Admiral Gorshkov and the nuclear-powered submarine Kazan entered the port of Havana. Speeches made no mention of the slow demise of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.