Pulled out of the water, smashed to pieces, is a Ukrainian TB2 drone, recovered over the past two days off the coast of Romania and almost certainly the legacy of a daring attempt to retake Snake Island earlier in the month.
The previously unimportant 17-hectare (42-acre) low rock, nearly 30 miles off the coasts of Ukraine and Romania, has become of increasing strategic importance as Russia seeks to maintain its blockade of the remaining coastline from Ukraine.
For all the videos of TB2 drones destroying Russian air defense systems, helicopters and landing craft this month, Ukraine has failed in its bid to retake the island, memorably lost in the early days of the war when its garrison told the attacking Russian warship to “fuck you”.
Over the weekend, a Togolese-flagged ship passing near Snake Island was warned by the Russians to “leave Russia’s territorial waters, otherwise weapons will be used”, according to the Ukrainian Navy. This amounted to “illegally appropriating Ukrainian territory”, the Navy added.
The Russian Navy has dominated the Black Sea since the start of the war, not least because Ukraine had no real maritime force to speak of. It had lost three-quarters or more of its navy when Russia captured Crimea in 2014 and its only remaining frigate was deliberately scuttled days into the war to prevent its capture.
However, Russia lost its flagship missile cruiser Moskva in mid-April to a Neptune cruise missile strike from the Ukrainian mainland. The ship had provided air and sea defense capability to the rest of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, consisting of 20 or more warships and submarines.
The Moskva had helped capture Snake Island, and without it the Russian fleet was pushed further from the Ukrainian coast (Neptune missiles have a range of up to 200 miles), bringing the island back into play. Russia to cling to the rock shows that it is in fact an alternative to the sunken ship.
“Think of it as an unsinkable destroyer,” said Andy Netherwood, an air defense expert. “If you place radar and surface-to-air missile systems there, it allows you to dominate the airspace of the northern Black Sea, including the strategically important approach to Odessa.”
Russia has used its Black Sea dominance to launch Kalibr cruise missile attacks on Ukrainian targets, including from submarines. The missiles can have a range of 1,200 miles, in theory capable of striking virtually anywhere in Ukraine.
But it is above all the economic aspect that takes precedence. “In a conflict of attrition and erosion, the ability to maintain an economic blockade can become important. World War I springs to mind,” said Dr Sidharth Kaushal, a naval power expert at the Rusi think tank, referring to the long English blockade of Germany which is widely believed to have contributed to the war. eventual collapse of the Central Powers towards the end of 1918. .
Ukraine, however, is a net exporter of food products, especially cereals and sunflower oil. Previously, 70% of its exports were shipped by sea, including 99% of its grain deliveries to countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia, Lebanon and Yemen. Although some grain is now being moved overland, that will not be enough.
Discussions revolved around the idea of creating a naval protection convoy for merchant shipping to Ukraine, as proposed by Lithuania this week. But while the UK and others are sympathetic, it would require broad international support, including China, Royal Navy sources suggested on Tuesday.
It would also require the involvement of Turkey, which closed the strait to all warships – except those returning to their homeports – at the end of February, a situation welcomed by Ukraine in the era as it prevented more Russian warships from entering the Black Sea. .
Opening the strait would allow limited access to NATO warships, for up to 21 consecutive days under the 1936 Montreux Convention, but also to Russia – meaning any convoy solution might have to be agreed with Moscow. It would also require clearing the Ukrainian coast, which was somewhat hastily defended when the war broke out.
Amid these complications, attention remains focused on military solutions. Lloyd Austin, the US Secretary of Defense, said on Monday that Denmark would send a Harpoon cruise missile system to Ukraine, with an operational range similar to that of the Neptune – the first reported deployment of such a naval system.
This will help keep Russian warships away from Ukrainian shores, although Moscow’s Kilo-class submarines will still be able to move much more freely. Despite attempts to retake Snake Island and growing international calls to reopen the Black Sea, Russia’s grip on the strategic body of water remains firm.