Russia Could Lose The Ukraine War If It Does Not Escalate, But North Korea May Provide A Less Risky Option

On the night of September 13, Ukraine struck the Crimean port city of Sevastopol, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet home base, using cruise missiles and maritime kamikaze drones. 

Russia’s Defense Ministry confirmed the strike in a statement, saying that Kyiv forces had fired ten cruise missiles at the Sevastopol Shipyard overnight.

“Last night, the Armed Force of Ukraine fired ten cruise missiles at the ship repair plant named after S. Ordzhonikidze in Sevastopol and three uncrewed boats at a detachment of Black Sea Fleet ships on a sea crossing,” the statement reads.

“Air defense systems shot down seven cruise missiles. The patrol ship Vasily Bykov destroyed all the unmanned boats. The enemy cruise missiles damaged two ships under repair.”

The commander of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Oleshchuk, confirmed that British Storm Shadow cruise missiles attacked Sevastopol.

Unconfirmed reports identified the vessels damaged in the attack as a Ropucha-class landing ship and Kilo-class Russian Black Sea Fleet submarine.

Following social media reports that both warships had been destroyed, the RuMoD clarified that the damaged warship would be restored and they would rejoin the Black Sea fleet.

Russian Ropucha-class LST on fire in the Sevastopol drydock

“Two Navy ships undergoing scheduled repairs at the ship repair plant named after S Ordzhonikidze in Sevastopol, damaged as a result of today’s missile strike by the Kyiv regime, will be fully restored and will continue to serve in combat as part of their fleets.”

Ukrainian Attack On Russia’s Black Sea Fleet Analyzed

Since the start of Russia’s Special Military Operation (SMO) in Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Ukraine has repeatedly attacked Russian Black Sea fleet warships with maritime drones and missiles. Russia has lost the following warships of the Black Sea fleet as a result of Ukrainian attacks.

Saratov, a Russian Navy Alligator-class landing ship, docked in Berdiansk, Ukraine, caught fire on 24 March 2022 and was reportedly scuttled.

Moskva, a Slava-class cruiser, was hit by Ukrainian Neptune anti-ship missiles on April 13, 2022. The ship caught fire and sank while being towed to port.

A Ukrainian Bayraktar TB2 drone on Snake Island struck and sunk a Serna-class landing craft on May 7, 2022.

A Buyan-M class corvette and a tug towing it were reportedly lost on June 17, 2022.

Olenegorsky Gornyak, a Project 775 Ropucha-class landing ship, was seriously damaged on August 4, near the Port of Novorossiysk.

Olenegorsky Gornyak
Olenegorsky Gornyak

Rostov-on-Don, a Kilo-class submarine, and Minsk, a Project 775 Rapoucha class landing ship, were damaged on September 13.

The Ukrainian attack on the night of September 13 will likely raise alarm bells in Russian military leadership, not just because it put two warships out of action, but because it is easily repeatable.

The Irony In Ukraine’s Targeting of Black Sea Fleet Warships

Ukraine’s attacks against Black Sea fleet ships take a lot of resources. Ironically, the warships are not participating in the SMO substantially, other than through an occasional launch of cruise missiles from a submerged submarine near Odesa. Using a submarine reduces warning time, which is not critical to Ukraine’s air defense capability.

Ukraine’s war aims to regain its territories that switched allegiance to Russia forcibly. So why is Ukraine repeatedly striking Russian air and naval assets in Crimea instead of focusing on its three-month-old counteroffensive? Despite considerable losses in personnel and weapons, the counterattack has made little progress in over three months.

US/NATO Fighting A War

The reason is straightforward. The resources being expended on attacking Black Sea fleet warships are almost entirely those of the US and NATO. The attacks aim to weaken Russia, a clearly articulated US/NATO war aims. Yes, the US and NATO have a war aim.

Make no mistakes, on an aside to the Ukrainian conflict, the US & NATO are waging a separate low-intensity war aimed at weakening Russia, mainly Russia’s grip on the Black Sea and its influence in the region.

Scores, possibly hundreds of personnel, contributed to the success of the Sevastopol attack on the night of September 23. Of those, only a handful were Ukrainians – ten pilots and some Su-24M  technicians. The rest were US/NATO personnel, including pilots and ISR aircraft crew (RC-135, MQ-9, RQ-4), and data analysts in US and NATO nations who identified:

  • Targets from the data gathered by the ISR assets;

  • Russian AD systems use radar and communication frequencies;

  • Location and state of readiness of Russian AD systems.

Others in leadership positions helped in target selection at a command and control center. Technicians from the UK, based at Starokonstantinov airbase in Ukraine, programmed the Storm Shadow missiles to follow a specific route and attack a particular target.

Why Russia Turns A Nelson Eye

Russia has chosen to turn a Nelson eye towards the sub-kinetic US & NATO war being waged against it. A war that doesn’t help Ukraine regain its lost territory. A war that is militarily weakening Russia.

Russia has ignored the war on the side because it is adhering to the first and foremost principle of war – Selection and maintenance of aim.

Russia aims to demilitarise and denazify Ukraine. Fighting NATO will not help Russia achieve that aim.

The US and NATO don’t want Russia to succeed with its war aims. So they are trying to get Russia embroiled into a wider conflict or relinquish its war aims out of fear of Western might. In pursuit of its aim, the US is escalating the conflict in a carefully calibrated manner.

US Escalation Explained

The US is on the verge of supplying ATACMS 300 km range guided rockets to Ukraine. Germany, too, is toying with the idea of providing Taurus air-launched stealth cruise missiles.

The US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, speaking in the context of the proposed ATACMS supply on ABC, clearly stated, “In terms of their targeting decisions, it’s their decision, not ours.” He was overstepping a Russian red line that the US had earlier accepted. In the past, President Biden has acknowledged that ATACMS supply could provoke Russia to escalate the conflict.

As such, the attacks on Russian Naval and air bases in Crimea are not just likely to persist; they are likely to intensify and get more deadly.

Russia’s Dilemma

How many more warships of the Black Sea fleet does Russia want to lose to what are essentially US/NATO attacks aimed at weakening Russia? Once the Russian Black Sea fleet is debilitated, the next logical step for the US would be to move a carrier group into the Black Sea. Turkey’s desire and ability to stop the US, a NATO ally, from moving a carrier group into the Black Sea is questionable.

Once a US carrier group moves into the Black Sea, Ukrainian special forces, who currently get cluster bombed into oblivion in their high-speed boats when they make surreptitious attempts to beach in Crimea at night, will be able to arrive unscathed in Crimea in beachwear on sailboats whistling tunes during the day!

Ukraine’s ability to wrest Crimea from Russia would increase significantly. A Russian defeat could well be on the cards. Victory will still be a grind to the last Ukrainian, and it will take time.

After the US fleet moves into the Black Sea, Russia’s only option to prevent defeat would be to fight NATO by shooting down US/NATO ISR assets and, if necessary, attacking their low earth surveillance and communication satellites.

So the big question for Russia is – Why not fight NATO now when it still has its Black Sea fleet intact?

Before we go any further, let us make a fact very clear. A conventional war between NATO and Russia will certainly not lead to a Russian defeat. Here are some excellent reasons why I believe that is the case.

Collateral Damage

In a US-Russia conventional war, being a continental island protected by surrounding oceans, the US will largely remain unscathed while  Russia will experience a lot of devastation. What is, however, not true is the extrapolation that Russian inability to hit the mainland US will translate to an American victory.

Here is the problem with that thinking. Russia will experience devastation because the Russian military could be positioned within Russian borders. When the Russian military is attacked, there will be collateral damage, hence the destruction.

Most US military might be positioned outside its borders, in bases in Europe and Pacific nations. When the US military might be attacked, host nations will suffer the corresponding collateral damage.

US ISR, Communication, And Airborne Refuelling Advantages

The sophistication and large number of aerial ISR assets available to the US and its allies will give the US an overwhelming advantage over Russian forces. A gift that will indeed ensure a Russian defeat. This is why Russian forces shot the ISR assets and tankers out of the sky from the start of the war with an extended range of Russian air defense and air-to-air missiles.

The US will still enjoy a significant advantage based on its space-based ISR and communication satellites. Russia can use kinetic kill ASAT weapons and lasers to degrade US imaging (optical and radar) and navigational satellites.

It may not exercise the option initially to avoid space debris, but if the tide turns against Russia, the need to survive will leave Russia no choice.

Bereft of their ISR and navigational assets, US forces will never emerge victorious in any war game, let alone a war.

Russia Still Has A Less Riskier Option

With time, the going will likely become increasingly more challenging for Russia because the US and NATO will continue tightening the noose.

With time, the going could get increasingly more challenging for Ukraine if Russia tightened its own noose around the Ukrainian neck. Some reasonable indications are that Russia has a lower-risk plan to stave off its existential threat without resorting to escalation from its side – using North Korean artillery!

Just as the lowly rated Iranian Shahed kamikaze drones have imposed heavy monetary and personnel costs on Ukraine and its Western backers, North Korean artillery will also likely prove game-changing.

I am not just talking about North Korean 152 mm shells for Russian barreled artillery. I am talking about North Korean MLRS systems such as the 170-mm, 40/60 km self-propelled artillery units M-1989, the 240 mm, 65 km range M1985 / M1991, and the 600-mm, 380 km range KN-25.

The first two mimic capabilities already available with Russian forces so that they could cover gaps in Russian supply. The KN-25 MLRS represents a capability that Russia currently does not have.

It is a more robust and longer-range weapon system than the M270 ATACMS. Its 3-ton rockets follow a controlled ballistic trajectory and feature a 300 kg warhead. They are possibly guided using inertial navigation with SATNAV updates.

For Russia to improve the accuracy and EW resistance of these long-range rockets, as they did with the Iranian kamikaze drones, will not be a big challenge. It would also be possible for Russia to develop cluster bomb warheads for the rockets.

The US is on an irrational, escalatory trajectory and indicative of a leadership void. NATO nations, even erstwhile great powers such as Germany, France, and the UK, now come through as US vassals. The US president’s demeanor and lack of coherence sometimes don’t inspire confidence. Russia faces grave danger and has to tread very carefully.

  • Vijainder K Thakur is a retired IAF Jaguar pilot. He is also an author, software architect, entrepreneur, and military analyst. VIEWS PERSONAL
  • Follow the author @vkthakur