As the conflict in Ukraine continues to evolve, it’s time to reflect on what tactics were successful in the early Crimea campaign. One event in particular should serve as a wakeup call for US naval strategists. In March, pro-Russian forces sunk two ships in the narrow channel that connects Ukraine’s Southern Naval Base to the Black Sea. With the entrance blocked, several Ukrainian ships were trapped in Donuzlav Bay.
American ships are not adequately prepared for this tactic, and would have been hard-pressed to escape the bay. In the open sea, US Navy ships are powerful actors, protecting sea-lanes and projecting American power abroad. Near shore, however, their advantage is lost and they are vulnerable to asymmetric attacks. The US Navy must put more resources into preparing for and countering this sort of unconventional threat.
The tactic was startlingly simple. Early in the morning of March 6, pro-Russian forces intentionally sank the decommissioned Russian cruiser Ochakov in the navigation channel separating Donuzlav Bay from the Black Sea; one day later, they scuttled a second, smaller ship. The sunken Ochakov easily blocked the narrow, shallow waterway—lying on its side on the seabed, 50 percent of its hull was exposed above water.
With the channel blocked, the Ukrainian ships were trapped and all but defenseless: all six were eventually boarded and taken over. The minesweeper Cherkasy heroically struggled to the end and its final efforts to free itself provide additional insight.
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