The Ukrainian navy will watch for any unexpected activity from the Russian naval station in Novorossiysk. The Kerch naval base is located further from the coast under Ukrainian control than the well-known Sevastopol base in Russian-annexed Crimea. The unexpected action may, nevertheless, be crucial.
On Wednesday morning, ships and submarines of the Russian Navy were seen leaving en masse their base in Novorossiysk, in the Russian area of the Black Sea. This is very unusual and may indicate operations to develop.
It also contained the three Project 636.3 Improved-Kilo-class submarines that were present at the base. Analysis suggests other warships, including frigates and corvettes, also set sail, leaving only a few smaller warships and support vessels in port. Novorossiysk has probably been the emptiest in many months.
Recently, the Pyotr Morgunov has had to transport supplies from Russia to Sevastopol after the Ukrainian attack on the Kerch bridge on October 8, 2022. Although Russia has gotten some repairs, the bridge remains limited in capacity.
So the landing ships of the Russian Navy have been put into service as transports. However, the simultaneous departure of the submarines suggests that it may be more than just a resupply mission.
Possible reaction to the Ukrainian threat
One explanation could be that the mass sortie is a drill to check crew readiness. Or possibly a precaution against an imminent threat from long-range missiles or marine drones. Until now, the base has not been within range of Ukrainian aerial drones or shorter-range missiles. However, despite its remoteness from the Ukrainian-controlled coast, it is within range of Ukrainian maritime drones.
These little boats are unmanned and laden with bombs. Sevastopol, on October 29, is where they first gained widespread attention. By November 18, one of the drones had made it to Novorossiysk. Damage was minimal, but word got through that the base wasn’t far away.
Russia had already strengthened the defenses of its naval bases, and warships and submarines were now protected by multiple floating barriers. The barriers should protect against maritime drone attacks. So this explanation seems less convincing.
The remaining explanation is that Russian Navy assets are involved in an operation. The last time we reported an unusual increase in Russian Navy activity was before extensive missile attacks against Ukraine.
Improved-Kilo-class submarines have been used to launch Kalibr cruise missile attacks against Ukraine. They were largely withdrawn from Sevastopol in Crimea in September 2022 following Ukrainian drone strikes on the port city.
They still return to Sevastopol to load Kalibr missiles. But three of the five (four improved-Kilo and one original of the kilo class) had been in Novorossiysk for weeks without being able to leave the Black Sea as Turkey did not allow their re-entry again in case they wanted to return to this inland sea.
This does not explain the mass exodus because it would be unique if all three participated in a single attack. In addition, the combination of amphibious ships and submarines suggests that these are not missile attacks.
The boldest move: amphibious landings
One explanation that will be on analysts’ minds is some form of an amphibious landing. The target could be southwestern Ukraine to establish a land bridge to Transnistria.
This country is part of Moldova and is supported by Russia. The rest of the world does not recognize it. Joining the war has always been seen as part of Russia’s bigger goals for the war. Submarines would help gather more information or provide cover for amphibious ships.
Given what happened when the Russians moved forward early in the war, the landings don’t seem like a good idea. Even though the landings were often threatened, they never happened. At the same time, the naval infantry, like the marines, was sent to the country’s interior.
They have been severely cut down and plans to grow the naval infantry force will take months or years. Even with everything, we can’t rule out some kind of operation that takes place on both land and water.
Undoubtedly, analysts and managers in Ukraine will closely monitor this development. In times of peace, this kind of migration wouldn’t be newsworthy if there wasn’t a story behind it. But since the war is still going on, it takes on a new meaning.