An inspection group of the Maritime Guard of the State Border Service of Ukraine prepare to disembark to board a cargo ship for inspection for prohibited items and substances before entering a port in the northwestern part of the Black Sea, on 18 December 2023, amid the Russian invasion in Ukraine. This patrol is part of Kyiv’s strategy aimed at keeping the Russian military fleet away from the Ukrainian coast, with the key mission of securing the corridor set up since August between Ukrainian ports in the Odessa region and the Bosphorus Strait, after Moscow slammed the door on an international grain agreement. (Photo by Anatolii Stepanov / AFP)
(AFP) – A Ukrainian maritime patrol boat sets off from Odesa on the Black Sea — a historic and strategically vital port city that is regularly targeted by Russian strikes.
Standing on its prow, a border guard scours the sky with a Stinger missile on his shoulder as the crew set off to inspect a cargo ship heading to Ukraine.
While the front line on land has remained largely static, Ukraine has managed to push Russia‘s navy back from its shores and claimed another success on Tuesday saying it had destroyed a Russian landing ship.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has hailed these Black Sea successes as “a big victory,” allowing the grain producing nation to export to world markets.
Despite Russia‘s threats of strikes and its supposed naval superiority, Ukraine‘s efforts have managed to keep open a maritime corridor for food exports.
“The achievement is remarkable because Ukraine is virtually bereft of warships,” read a recent commentary in DefenseNews, a specialist US website.
It has been Ukraine‘s only major military success this year as its advances on land have been very limited.
Following a series of Russian retreats in 2022, the front line has remained virtually unchanged in 2023 after a Ukrainian counter-offensive largely fizzled out.
Russian forces in recent weeks have put additional pressure on Ukrainian positions and claimed some gains on the eastern front.
But on the Black Sea, Russia was now “on the defensive,” Ukrainian navy spokesman Dmytro Pletenchuk said.
That’s a contrast from the maritime blockade that Russia‘s navy was able to impose on Ukrainian ports after the invasion began in February 2022.
– ‘Twelve ships’ destroyed –
Control of the Black Sea has become critical after Russia in August quit an international deal that had allowed some Ukrainian grain exports.
Ukraine has since carved out a maritime corridor in the western part of the Black Sea to link Ukrainian ports with the Bosphorus straits and onto the Mediterranean.
Crimea, a peninsula annexed by Moscow in 2014, is located in the northern part of the Black Sea and has become a vital military base for Russia to supply its forces in southern Ukraine and carry out strikes deep into Ukrainian territory.
Ukraine has stepped up attacks on the peninsula this year, including a spectacular strike on the headquarters of Russia‘s Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol, which forced Moscow to pull its warships back to Novorossiisk and Tuapse, Black Sea ports further to the east.
Ukraine claimed a further success on Tuesday saying it had destroyed a large Russian landing ship, the Novocherkassk, in the Crimean port of Feodosia.
Pletenchuk said anti-ship missile systems such as the US-made Harpoon and Ukraine‘s Neptune have “changed the rules of the game”.
He said Ukraine had also created a brigade specialising in warfare using surface and submarine drones.
Speaking before the Feodosia attack, he said these weapons have allowed Ukraine to destroy 12 Russian ships and damage 22 more since the start of the war.
The claim could not be independently verified.
– ‘Unique’ naval drones –
Ukraine‘s SBU security service also told AFP that it had developed “unique” maritime drones capable of carrying up to “800 kilogrammes of explosives for 800 kilometres in moderate storm conditions”.
The new type of weapon is nicknamed “Sea Baby” and the SBU said it has been used to hit the Russian-built Crimea Bridge and 10 Russian ships in 2022 and 2023.
Despite this arsenal, Ukrainian forces in the Black Sea face the constant danger of Russian mines, drones and missiles.
As the cargo ship entered the territorial waters of Ukraine after passing along the shores of Bulgaria and Romania, the Ukrainian border guards in full battle gear prepared to board, setting off for the 225-metre Liberia-flagged ship in a small boat.
Oleksandr Yakovenko, an assistant to the commander of the Odesa Marine Guard detachment, said the mission was to inspect the crew and check for “arms, ammunition and explosives” on board.
The Ukrainian Maritime Guard and the Naval Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine patrol some 200 kilometres (124 miles) of coastline and the ports of Pivdenny, Odesa and Chornomorsk, as well as Izmail on the Danube River further south.
Despite Russian attacks and threats, Ukraine says it has been able to export 10 million tonnes of produce on 302 ships to 24 countries since August along its maritime corridor.
Once they finished their checks, the armed border guards made their way off the ship down a shaky rope ladder that swayed in the sea’s swell.
Yakovenko said border guards have checked more than 2,200 arriving and departing vessels since the start of the year.
He said the only attacks at sea were two civilian cargo ships damaged by Russian mines, though there are regular strikes on the ports themselves.
“The danger is present,” he said.
© Agence France-Presse