For 11 months, a fragile truce allowed Ukraine to ship 32 million tons of grain from Odesa and smaller ports out of the Black Sea to global markets. This despite the Russian navy controlling much of the Black Sea.
The Black Sea Grain Initiative collapsed on July 17 after Russia unilaterally withdrew from the agreement. It surely is no coincidence that Moscow killed the deal at the same time Ukrainian forces were advancing along several axes as part of their long-anticipated 2023 counteroffensive.
An embargo is only as good as its enforcement, of course. So it should come as no surprise that the Black Sea Fleet is positioning at least one of its 30 warships, the corvette Sergey Kotov, in the southern Black Sea within striking range of the main sea routes from Odesa to the Bosporus Strait.
With the end of the BSGI, commercial shippers are reluctant to risk their ships on the 720-mile round trip through the Bosporus to Odesa and back.
But Russian commanders aren’t waiting for shippers to change their minds. “There is a realistic possibility that it will form part of a task group to intercept commercial vessels Russia believes are heading to Ukraine,” the U.K. defense ministry warned with regard to Sergey Kotov.
The corvette isn’t a large warship. Displacing just 1,700 tons, she’s 15 percent as big as a U.S. Navy destroyer is.
Sergey Kotov’s crew numbers just 80. But she’s heavily armed for a vessel her size, with a 76-millimeter gun and Kalibr land-attack cruise missiles. She certainly can threaten an unarmed cargo ship.
As built, Sergey Kotov and her five Black Sea Fleet sister ships lacked major air-defenses, however. After the Ukrainian navy sank the Black Sea Fleet cruiser Moskva with a Neptune anti-ship cruise missile in April 2022, the fleet hastily chained a Tor air-defense vehicle to Sergey Kotov’s deck. It’s unclear how effective this ad hoc air-defense is.
Despite scuttling its sole large warship, the frigate Hetman Sahaydachniy, in Odesa in the early days of Russia’s wider war on Ukraine starting in February 2022, the Ukrainian navy has deployed Neptune and Harpoon missiles, aerial drones and explosives-laden unmanned boats and successfully contested control of the western Black Sea.
All that is to say, Sergey Kotov is not safe. On Monday, two Ukrainian drone boats got within gun range of the corvette before the Russian crew blew the boats out of the water. “There are no casualties,” the Kremlin stated. “The Black Sea Fleet’s ship Sergey Kotov continues accomplishing assigned missions.”
Ukraine’s cheap, speedy unmanned surface vehicles are a growing problem for the Black Sea Fleet. USV raids have kept most of the fleet bottled up in its ports for most of the 15 months since Moskva’s sinking.
Sergey Kotov might not survive her foray into the southern Black Sea. In the meantime, however, she might be just enough of a threat to spook shipping companies and enforce a blockade of Ukraine’s grain ports.