Russian Gunboats Head To The Black Sea To Join Military Buildup Near Ukraine

The deployment of additional naval assets to the Black Sea comes as other signs, including a spike in GPS jamming, point to a new looming crisis.

byJoseph Trevithick|
Russia photo


The Russian Navy is sending 10 vessels, a mixture of landing craft and small gunboats, from its Caspian Sea Flotilla to the Black Sea. The deployment is ostensibly part of a larger series of readiness drills, but comes amid a continuing and worrisome Russian military buildup near the country's borders with Ukraine. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, or OSCE, has also said there has been a spike in GPS jamming in the region, which has impacted its ability to monitor the situation as part of an existing agreement between Russia and Ukraine. All of this only further fuels concerns that a significant escalation in the conflict between these two countries may be imminent.

The Russian Ministry of Defense announced the planned movement of the boats from the Caspian on Apr. 8, 2021. The press release said that the Caspian Flotilla vessels would join their Russian Navy counterparts in the Black Sea for exercises focused on testing their "readiness to repel sea and airborne assault forces." Russia's Southern Military District, which includes the Black Sea Fleet, as well as the Caspian Flotilla, had announced on Apr. 2 that there would be major upcoming readiness drills involving approximately 15,000 personnel. On Apr. 6, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said there would be other such exercises, which the Russians refer to as "control checks," coming across the country, too.

A Russian Navy Project 11770, or Serna class, landing craft., Russian Ministry of Defense

Russia's Ministry of Defense did not specifically identify what vessels are now set to head to the Black Sea, but its press release did include a picture of three Project 11770, or Serna class, landing craft. The release also used the phrase "artillery boats," a term Russia applies to its Project 1204, or Shmel class, gunboats. The Caspian Flotilla has around six Serna class landing craft and four Shmel class gunboats, which would align perfectly with the statement that 10 vessels, in total, would take part in the forthcoming exercises.

The 84-foot-long Sernas displace around 100 tons with a full combat load and are designed to carry a single T-72/T-90-series or T-80-series main battle tank, two BTR-80-series wheeled armored vehicles, or up to 92 troops or 50 tons of other cargo. They have a range of approximately 600 nautical miles when traveling at a cruising speed of 12 knots, or around 100 nautical miles at their top speed of 30 knots. The Black Sea is only around 700 miles across, east to west, at its longest. The distance between Russia and Ukraine across the Sea of Azov, just to the north of the Black Sea and the site of a major skirmish between Ukrainian and Russian forces in 2018, is under 200 miles.

The approximately 71-ton displacement Shmels have a primary armament consisting of a 76mm D-56TS gun in a bow turret derived from the one on the PT-76 light tank. They also have two 25mm cannons in a turret at the stern, as well as provisions for various machine guns and automatic grenade launchers. They can also have a single 17-tube 140mm BM-14-17 rocket launcher, capable of bombarding targets close to shore, and can carry naval mines, as well.

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Though Russian officials have said that this deployment is part of the recently announced "control checks," it's hard not to see it as part of a broader signal the Kremlin is sending to its counterparts in Kyiv. These 10 vessels are just part of a massive stream of military assets, including huge trainloads of tanks, other armored vehicles, artillery, air defense assets, and other military equipment, that have been flowing into southwestern Russia for nearly two weeks now, as you can read more about here

A new Russian military outpost with dozens of tanks and other vehicles has also now appeared in the country's Voronezh Oblast. Transport-erector-launchers associated with the Iskander-M short-range ballistic missile and the Iskander-K ground-launched cruise missile have been spotted in Voronezh, as well. This region sits right on the border with Ukraine.

The statement about the deployment of the Caspian Flotilla vessels coincided with Ukraine announcing its own snap naval drills in the Black Sea. CNN

has now reported that the U.S. Navy may be looking to deploy its own warships into that body of water in a show of force, as well.

Yesterday, the U.S. Air Force also sent two B-1B bombers from Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota on a long-range, round-trip mission to the Aegean Sea, just south of the waterway leading into the Black Sea. The ostensible reason for these sorties was to “showcase the U.S. commitment to European security," which would seem to be related, at least in part, to the situation developing along the Russia-Ukraine border. It's also worth noting that the Air Force previously disclosed that a mission that B-1Bs conducted in the Black Sea region last year effectively saw those aircraft train to decapitate Russia's Black Sea Fleet.

With regards to the newly announced deployment of additional naval assets, the Russian Navy's Black Sea Fleet does already have more robust amphibious warfare and other light boat capabilities, as well as larger warships and submarines. However, the 10 Caspian Flotilla vessels would still provide useful additional amphibious landing and inshore fire support capacity during any actual combat operations.

It's also worth noting that Russia has conducted exercises in the region, including in and around the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, in the past, which did not presage new rounds of major fighting. This has included dramatic amphibious landing drills, among other things. Since 2014, the government in Kyiv has been fighting separatists in eastern parts of the country known collectively as the Donbass. Though ostensibly local, these groups have significant ties to Russian intelligence agencies and are actively supported by actual Russian military units.

At the same time, there is a growing consensus, among foreign governments, as well as experts and observers, that aspects of this particular situation do more strongly point to an impending crisis of some kind. In a press conference on Apr. 7, top Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby specifically said that the U.S. government had a "concern" about what he described as "the deteriorating security situation resulting from increased Russian Federation activity along the Ukrainian border."

"The rapid and building presence of Russian forces along that border and in Crimea certainly are not conducive to creating an air of stability, you know – you know, in – in Ukraine," he continued. "As I said yesterday, it's not completely clear what the Russians are doing there, we'd like to understand that more, and that uncertainty is obviously not contributing to a more stable, more secure situation."

Online flight tracking software has shown a flurry of aerial intelligence-gathering activity on the part of the U.S. military, as well as the United Kingdom, in the region in recent weeks, but it's unclear what they may have been able to glean about the troop buildup. U.S. Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk drones, as well as RC-135V/W Rivet Joint spy planes, have been observed flying in the region. U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol planes and U.K. Royal Air Force Rivet Joints, have been spotted, as well.

 "I'm not going to get into intelligence assessments here from the podium," Kirby told reporters yesterday.

As already noted, however, OSCE has also reported increased GPS jamming in the region, something that has been a factor, on various levels, for years now and is almost universally linked to Russian forces. This has had a major impact on its ability to monitor developments along the de facto boundary, or "line of contact," between separatist regions in eastern Ukraine and the rest of the country. This international organization has a formal mandate to conduct surveillance of military activities in this region under the Minsk Protocol, as well as the subsequent Minsk II deal, which Russia and Ukraine first agreed to in 2014 and that is aimed at ultimately resolving the ongoing conflict diplomatically.

"On the evening of 6 April, an SMM [Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine] long-range unmanned aerial vehicle(UAV) was unable to take off from its base ... to conduct regular monitoring of areas on both sides of the contact line, due to dual GPS signal interference assessed as caused by jamming," according to an OSCE release on Apr. 7. "This is the first time such interference has prevented a take-off since the Mission launched long-range UAV operations in October 2014."

An OSCE map giving a good general view of the de facto boundary between areas of eastern Ukraine under separatist control and the rest of the country. , OSCE

"Since 21 March 2021, the SMM’s long-range UAVs have been experiencing increased levels of GPS signal interference on take-off and landing, affecting both of their GPS receivers," the statement continued. "Over the last two months, 62.5 percent [sic] of SMM long-range UAV flights encountered GPS signal interference, and on 75 percent [sic] of the affected flights, it occurred more than once."

For its part, Russia has begun to actively criticize Ukraine, as well as NATO, accusing them of being the ones to inflame the situation. This kind of rhetorical deflection is a tactic that the Kremlin has been observed employing to varying degrees, often through misinformation and disinformation, in the past and is often meant to distract from its own malign activities.

“We are closely watching the situation. Concrete measures will be taken depending on how it develops,” Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of the Russian Security Council Patrushev, told Russia's Kommersant newspaper in an interview published on Apr 7. "Russia is closely monitoring the situation in Donbass, based on its development, specific measures will be taken."

“I support the assessments that also exist inside Ukraine that the beginning of hostilities is the beginning of the end of Ukraine,” Dmitry Kozak, Deputy Chief of Staff to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said today. He added that the Russian military would come to the defense of Russian citizens in Eastern Ukraine, a reference to separatists groups in Ukraine, in the event of a significant surge in fighting, "depending on the scale of the fire."

Despite reports of the recent arrival of military aid from the United States, the Pentagon told The War Zone flatly that no emergency assistance of any kind has been provided to Ukraine since the troop buildup began. The Department of Defense directed further questions about previously scheduled deliveries of any military or internal security-related equipment, or related assistance, to the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv. At the time of writing, we are still waiting for responses to our queries from both of those entities. The U.S. government did facilitate the delivery of a shipment of Humvees and very small boats to Ukraine's military in January.

As for what may be driving the current situation, a water shortage in Crimea has reached crisis proportions in recent months. Ukraine put dams in place to block the supply of water to the Peninsula after Russian forces took control of it in 2014, but a confluence of factors has resulted in Crimean reservoirs running dry, creating immense hardships for residents. Absent some kind of agreement with Ukraine, which has said it will not ever supply water to Crimea until it comes back under its control, Russia would have to seize a substantial chunk of territory to gain physical access to natural sources of fresh water.

Russia's President Putin has also been under greater than usual political pressure domestically, as well as on the world stage, in recent months, which could be another factor. The Russian leader has faced particular scrutiny over the imprisonment of long-time critic and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, who recently went on hunger strike and is now said to be in worryingly poor health. Navalny was arrested immediately upon his return to Russia in January on charges he and his lawyers say politically motivated. He had previously been in Germany, where he received treatment after an attempted assassination by Russian government operatives.

However the situation on the Russia-Ukraine border continues to evolve now, the steady influx of additional forces, which now included naval assets, together with the rhetoric emanating from the Kremlin, continues to point more and more toward at least major crisis, if not a larger conflagration.

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