October 20, 2021

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Moscow moves 15 warships from the Caspian Sea to the waters off Ukraine Euromaidan Press

Ships of the Russian Navy's Caspian flotilla on parade in Astrakhan in 2012 (Source: Wikipedia)

The Russian Defense Ministry announced today (April 13) that Moscow will send 15 military ships from its Caspian flotilla to the waters off Ukraine to take part in military exercises there. Previously, the Russian and Ukrainian media had reported on fewer stories. Although the ships have to cross a 100-kilometer-long canal with more than 13 locks, they will likely be able to arrive before other ships, sent by the Russian Baltic fleet, reach the Black Sea basin. Also, although the ships are smaller and more armed less heavily than those from the Baltic, the Caspian Flotilla has developed in recent years a landing capacity that could make it a central element in any new Russian invasion of Ukraine from the sea (RIA Novosti, 13 April 2021; see EDM, 7 June 2018).

Moscow is implementing this move as well as the simultaneous transfer of armored units from the eastern parts of the North Caucasus to Russian-occupied Crimea (Vzglyad, April 13; Mishen24, April 10). Analysts, however, are divided over whether this movement of Caspian Flotilla ships and related coastal units is simply part of an effort to blackmail Ukraine and its Western backers, whether it is a response to Turkey’s decision. to allow the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). warships to cross the Turkish Strait and enter the Black Sea, or if it represents the final stages of Russian preparations for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine (Rosbalt, April 2; Avia.pro, April 10; Sudebno-Yuridicheskaya Gazeta , April 11th ).

Obviously, the answers to these larger questions depend on Moscow’s broader plans for operations involving Ukraine. But two analysts have focused on what the role of the Caspian Flotilla might mean. In the comments for the Kavkazsky Uzel news agency, independent Russian security analysts Aleksandr Golts and Pavel Felgenhauer link what is happening with the ships of the Flotilla to the growing activity of NATO forces in the Black Sea (Kavkazsky Uzel, April 10). Golts stressed that the respective Russian ships themselves “are not a powerful strike force and are relatively small”. The larger ships simply could not pass through the canals as the 15 ships are now doing. As a result, he argued, the decision to relocate the Caspian Flotilla ships is a form of Russian “rattling saber”, designed to send a message that Moscow could, if it so wishes, launch “a major military operation”.

The three largest warships from the Baltic Sea, the Minsk, the Kaliningrad and the Korolyev, as well as the smallest Boykiy, have a greater impact, but cannot arrive as fast as the ships of the Caspian Flotilla and cannot perform the same functions as the smaller Caspian ships, Golts suggested.

Felgenhauer agreed, although he pointed out that even the smallest ships in the Caspian could bring in troops and equipment for an invasion of Ukraine.

There is a precedent for Moscow using ships from the Caspian Sea to put pressure on Ukraine without following any new invasion.

In May 2018, although with far fewer ceremonies than today, Moscow quietly moved five Caspian Flotilla ships to the Sea of ​​Azov, a move that Russian authorities then launched as necessary to defend against a Ukrainian attack on occupied Crimea and to ensure that Moscow could protect its shipments to the region from any assault (see EDM, May 31, 2018). After tensions eased, Moscow withdrew those Caspian Flotilla ships and relied on its own coastal ships in the Sea of ​​Azov controlled by the Federal Security Service (FSB) and a skeleton force of ships operated by the self-proclaimed. “Republic” as its “independent” Azov Flotilla (Svobodnaya Pressa, May 29, 2018).

Once the 15 ships of the Caspian Flotilla and the 4 of the Baltic Fleet are in place, Russia will have 50 warships in the waters around Ukraine, a force large and powerful enough to counter NATO ships that are entered the Black Sea to this day. But more troubling is that the inclusion of Caspian Flotilla ships suggests that Russian commanders are at least as interested in having a landing capability as they are in projecting a defensive shield against NATO forces sent to signal support for Ukraine. This is because, more than any other ship involved, those of the Caspian Flotilla have dedicated their training to disembarking troops and equipment to defend Russian positions under attack or to attack those of others (see EDM, May 31, 2018, November 27, 2018, 4 December 2018, 28 May 2019).

This makes today’s announcement and the deployment of the Caspian Flotilla ships to the Black Sea in the coming days a critical indicator of Moscow’s intentions. If these ships were held in the Sea of ​​Azov, as they were largely three years ago, it would suggest that these Russian naval assets are likely to be used as an attempt at intimidation but not necessarily invasion. If they are moved further west, towards Odessa, this would indicate that these forces are being put in position for the kind of large-scale invasion that many fear.

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