Russia withdrawing its warships from Sevastopol in Crimea to Novorossiysk in the face of consistent Ukrainian strikes is a relocation that does not change its active maritime posturing in the Black Sea.
Russia may have moved its Black Sea Fleet away from Crimea to check if NATO’s intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance (ISR), electronic warfare (EW) planes, and drones continue to aid Ukrainian forces in attacking Russian warships at Novorossiysk.
A NATO-backed Ukrainian attack at Novorossiysk, an internationally recognized Russian territory, legitimizes Russia’s shooting down NATO planes flying over western Ukraine and eastern Poland, setting the stage for World War III.
A Russian strike on NATO assets or territory activates the Charter’s Article 5, where an attack on one member is considered an attack on the entire bloc. It legally mandates all member-states to rush to the attacked member’s aid.
Russian strategists have, therefore, long debated how shooting down these US and NATO aircraft would permanently deter West-supported Ukrainian strikes but also put Moscow on a warpath with the West.
Make Crimea ‘Untenable’ for Russia
Western jubilation over the Black Sea Fleet’s withdrawal is about how Ukraine’s persistent naval kamikaze drone and missile strikes finally make Crimea “untenable” for Moscow, in line with a strategy evolved in the US.
It is expected to weaken Russia’s hold over the Crimean peninsula that it annexed in 2014, which can be subsequently leveraged to oust Russia from southern and eastern Ukraine.
Reports said that the Black Sea Fleet headquarters has relocated to Novorossiysk in far southwest Russia on the Black Sea, just north of Sochi. Western technical and arms aid to Ukraine supports the Russian view that the war, in general, and the Black Sea strikes, mainly, are Western strikes carried out by Ukraine. Russia restrained itself from retaliatory action on NATO territory and planes to avoid Article 5 invocation.
But now, a hit on mainland Russia will justify Moscow taking such a recourse since it can argue that Article 5 cannot be a blanket cover to attack a non-NATO country’s sovereign territory.
The fact that Russia has conducted the war in a way that has not escalated beyond Ukraine and reached Romanian, German, or Polish territory, from where the US sends arms and provides technical help to Kyiv, might be cited to bolster Moscow’s case.
US and NATO specialist aircraft like the RQ-4B Global Hawk, MQ-9 Reaper UAVs, E-3 Airborne Warning Control System (AWACS), and the RC-135 Rivet Electronic Warfare & Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) aircraft have been flying over NATO territory nearly 24×7 since the start of the war.
The planes fly over the southern Black Sea, eastern Poland, but skirt the borders of western Belarus, the Finnish-Russo boundary, and over the Barents Sea outside the port city of Murmansk.
They gather information on Russian ground positions and air defense radar emissions to help Kyiv conduct its aerial drone strikes into Moscow, Belgorod, and Crimea. They also share targeting data for Ukraine’s naval drone strikes in the Black Sea.
Following an attack on Novorossiysk, NATO can be portrayed to have struck Russian territory, which legitimized a Russian retaliation, weakening the casus belli behind Article 5.
Consequently, shooting down one of these planes might also deter such specialist mission flights, tremendously weakening Ukraine’s military position since it entirely relies upon Western military backing, having lost nearly all its military hardware and defense industrial base in the first year of the war.
Russia Still Strong In Black Sea
From a tactical standpoint, Russia basing the Black Sea Fleet headquarters in Novorossiysk still does not prevent Russian warships from firing cruise missiles into Ukraine from the Black Sea. In effect, the Black Sea Fleet has merely changed the port where they dock, i.e., from Sevastopol to Novorossiysk.
Moreover, except for the Moskva and the Kilo-class submarine, the Black Sea Fleet has not lost a single capital ship. It still controls the Black Sea with various warships and naval aviation assets that shoot down Ukrainian drones.
The increasing attacks on mainland Russia and the opening up of the Black Sea front by Ukraine since October 2022 have led to rising demands by a section of Russia’s military bloggers to shoot down these aircraft. However, an Article 5 activation would have put the US and Europe on a direct warpath with Russia — a scenario that both parties want to avoid.
This Russian dilemma emboldened the West to increase support to Ukraine beyond specialist mission aircraft and the US$ 40 billion in arms donations. The US and NATO also contributed advisors and technical analysts on the ground, training and assisting Kyiv’s military.
From Russian strategists’ perspective, Russia is arrayed against the entire Western technological, financial, logistical, and industrial infrastructure, making a case for striking these assets.
The perception that the West is using Ukraine to conduct its war against Russia has hardened, leading to calls for shedding restraint. “Western arms and logistical backing to Ukraine is as much an existential threat to Russia even without direct Western participation,” is the growing sentiment in Moscow, going by various Russian Telegram groups.
President Vladimir Putin’s recent wielding of a new nuclear-capable RS-28 Sarmat ballistic missile can be seen in this context. Putin has long maintained that Russia will use nuclear weapons if its territory faces an “existential threat.”
Some analysts even assess that Russia can still deter a NATO Article 5 activation even after shooting down NATO aircraft or striking its territory from where weapons flow into Ukraine. This is if the attacks are preceded by formal warnings of such retribution in the form of a televised address by Putin.
It is expected to convey that Moscow has long been silent over European territory being used to attack it. The continued NATO practice has crossed Russia’s red lines, and Russia is within its rights to attack these legitimate targets.
Such a gradual and step-wise approach would also diplomatically compel NATO not to activate Article 5 since Russia has signaled it has put its security ahead of fears of a large-scale war in Europe. Put differently, Russia will no longer be constrained by fears of a direct war with the West.