Developing: Skirmishes in the Sea of Azov

Russia effectively began blockading Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov earlier today when sealing the Kerch Strait by placing a merchant vessel across the sea lane passing under the Kerch Strait bridge and forcing a small convoy of Ukrainian vessels to head back. The incident included vessels of the two sides making contact with limited damage. However, pictures have surfaced of another Russian Border Guard vessel with damage apparently from a collision, and it is unclear if more vessels than originally reported were involved, if the incident is unrelated, or if the pictures are old.

However, a while ago reports started coming in that a firefight have taken place. Apparently the first casualty was Ukrainian patrol craft (gun) Berdyansk (pennant U175) which reportedly lost propulsion. After that Russian forces tried boarding the vessel, with Berdyansk returning fire.

Berdyansk is a relatively new unit, having been launched only in 2016. Source: Ukraine MoD via Wikimedia Commons

Exactly what has taken place since is even more unclear, but it should be remembered that the closing of the strait lead to a significant number of civilian vessels being stuck in the area waiting for things to clear up that they could continue their journeys. There is a very real risk for these, including both Russian and Ukrainian ones, being caught in crossfire. Significant air activity was also observed throughout the day, including Su-25 attack aircraft and armed Ka-52 attack helicopters. One report stated that following the exchange of fire both Berdyansk, sister Nikopol, and a naval tug has been captured by Russian forces, but currently the word is that six Ukranians are wounded, two vessels are under tow by friendlies, and one vessel is held by Russian forces.

The Kerch Strait after hostilities had started. The connection across is roughly 15 km in length. Source: Marinetraffic.com

Unconfirmed reports have stated that the Ukrainian Navy has left its base in Odessa, but it is very unclear if this indeed has happened, what vessels are at sea, and if there is some battleplan. The Russian Black Sea Fleet together with air and ground units will have no problem stopping the Ukrainian Navy if they try to force passage through the strait. The sole major surface combatant of the Ukrainian Navy is the Krivak III-class frigate Hetman Sahaydachniy (U130). It should be noted that the Krivak III was the coast guard-version of the class, and while very heavily armed for a coast guard vessel, it still lacks any kind of anti-ship missiles. The Ukrainian Navy has a number of older fast attack craft as well, but their operational status is unclear. If this motley flotilla is supposed to survive, let alone do any damage to their Russian counterparts, it will need some serious air support.

Ukrainian flagship Hetman Sahaydachniy. Source: Ukrainian MoD via Wikimedia Commons

Both Ukraine and Russia have large numbers of aircraft in the region, including Su-24M which while old still can do serious damage to surface units, especially as the target vessels in many cases are old as well with limited air defences (though it should be noted that the Russian Black Sea Fleet include a number of modern corvettes and frigates which likely will eat Su-24s for breakfast). For Ukraine the question is where any potential battle would take place, as the Kerch Strait is ‘behind’ occupied Crimea. If Ukraine is to secure even limited air superiority, the battle will likely have to take place somewhere else, which might require the Russian Navy cooperating. Another question is if things could now deescalate as it seems the active battle at the strait has died down following the Russian capture of one of the vessels involved? There is no longer an urgency on the part of the Ukrainian to rush headlong into the waiting Russian forces.

Ukrainian Su-24M armed with unguided rockets. Source: Ukrainian MoD via Wikimedia Commons

On the other hand, the wheels might already be in motion, and a serious question is at what level command currently rests on both sides? If the politicians have transferred operational decisions to the military things could keep on escalating. In the same way, decisions by local commanders in the field can have outsized impacts upon the continued developments on the Russo-Ukrainian War as a whole. This would not be the first time that politicians have had to come to grips with the fact that measured escalation is difficult.

In the end, a conflict over Russia blockading the strait has been one of the scenarios discussed numerous times since 2014, and as predicted it shows signs of escalating easily. A crucial factor regarding the timing is that Europe is focused upon Brexit, diminishing the potential of EU to work as a stabilising factor. At the same time, it should be remembered that early reports seldom are to be trusted, and by tomorrow morning we should all be wiser.

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Su-24 Down in Syria

Earlier today a Russian Su-24 was shot down close to the Turkish-Syrian border. According to Turkish media, the unidentified plane was shot down in Turkish airspace, after repeated warnings (10 warnings over five minutes being quoted). Russian sources claim the aircraft was brought down in Syrian airspace, something which seems to be corroborated by the fact that it was later the rebels who showed pictures of the dead pilots.

An interesting piece of evidence that surfaced surprisingly fast was a purported radar track of the Turkish F-16 as well as the Russian Su-24. According to this track, the Su-24 overflew a salient, crossing approximately 2.5-3 km of Turkish territory. In practice, even if the plane flew at low speed, it would not have spent more time in Turkish airspace than 10-30 seconds. Even if the F-16 fired an AMRAAM (the usual weapon of choice for today’s F-16 pilots) the moment the Su-24 crossed the border, chances are it would have been back in Syria by the time the missile impacted. However, a more likely explanation is that Turkey is getting fed up by the Russian intrusions, and as they never manage to shoot down an intruder during the act, they instead opted to chase it down over the border.

Overflight

This brings up the question of Rules of Engagement, or ROE for short. These are a the rules set out by countries to govern their armed forces use of force, in this case the Turkish government/higher command stipulating when their fighters are allowed to fire air-to-air missiles. In western countries during peacetime the usual rule set is variations on theme of “use of force is allowed only if fired upon first, or if there are definite indications that the enemy is about to fire”. This has clearly not been the case here (the Su-24 can carry R-60 short-range missiles for self-defence, but I find it extremely hard to believe it would have tried to take on an F-16 in a fight), and even more interesting is a tweet alleging that the Turkish fighter had shot down an ‘unidentified’ intruder. Visual identification is more or less a pre-requisite for handling this kind of incidents, and not positively identifying your target prior to shooting it down could quite possibly be a violation of international rules (if the quote was indeed correct).

Both pilots seems to have been killed, the most popular story in circulation is currently that Syrian rebels fired upon the pilots while they were descending in their parachutes. If so, this is a clear violation of international law, but in all honesty should not come as a surprise, given the extremely dirty nature of the Syrian civil war.

The Russian Air Force has obviously been aware of the fact that it could one day face the possibility of having a pilot down behind enemy lines, and that given the nature of the conflict, the best way to get any downed pilot back alive was by retrieving him themselves. As fast as possible. For that use, a single Mil Mi-8AMTSh transport/assault helicopter has been standing ready for CSAR-duty (Combat Search and Rescue, pronounced ‘Caesar’) in Latakia. The Mil Mi-24P attack helicopters operated by Russia in the area also have the ability to transport a small number of passengers, and unlike the Mi-8, they provide a decent level of armour protection.

It seems that after the plane was shot down, the CSAR team was alerted, and the Mi-8AMTSh set out together with at least one Mi-14P as escort. It appears the helicopter was damaged by fire from the ground, and had to make an emergency landing in friendly territory. There, the helicopter was then destroyed by a TOW anti-tank missile launched by rebels. The fate of the crew of the helicopter, as well as the Spetsnaz team presumably carried for the CSAR mission, is not clear.

The political fallout from this incident is far harder to judge. Apparently, Turkey has decided to play it hard, either in an attempt by Erdogan to bolster his approval ratings and/or to discourage Russia (and Assad) from attacking the rebels in north-western Syria, which include Syrian Turkmens. Incidents like this doesn’t necessarily have to escalate, during the Cold War there was a number of incidents involving airplanes being shot down, colliding in mid-air, or crashing due to aggressive manoeuvring (mock dogfights). However, Putin’s language in his speech today was confrontational, accusing Turkey of siding with terrorists:

However, today’s loss is a result of a stab in the back delivered by terrorists’ accomplices. There is no other way I can qualify what happened today.

Our aircraft was shot down over Syrian territory by an air-to-air missile launched from a Turkish F-16 plane. It fell on Syrian territory, four kilometres from the Turkish border.

[…]

They were conducting an operation to fight ISIS in northern Latakia – a mountainous area where militants, mainly those coming from the Russian Federation, are concentrated. In this sense, they were doing their direct duty delivering preventive blows at terrorists who could return to Russia at any moment. Those people should certainly be classified as international terrorists.

We have long been recording the movement of a large amount of oil and petroleum products to Turkey from ISIS-occupied territories. This explains the significant funding the terrorists are receiving. Now they are stabbing us in the back by hitting our planes that are fighting terrorism. This is happening despite the agreement we have signed with our American partners to prevent air incidents, and, as you know, Turkey is among those who are supposed to be fighting terrorism within the American coalition.

[…]

We will of course carefully analyse what has happened and today’s tragic event will have significant consequences for Russian-Turkish relations.

We have always treated Turkey not merely as a close neighbour, but as a friendly state. I do not know who benefits from what has happened today. We certainly do not. Moreover, instead of immediately establishing contacts with us, as far as we know Turkey turned to its NATO partners to discuss this incident. As if we had hit their plane and not the other way around.

Do they wish to make NATO serve ISIS? I know that every state has its regional interests, and we always respect those. However, we will never turn a blind eye to such crimes as the one that was committed today.

The stage is set, and it seems like two Presidents’ with far reaching powers and agendas are bound to collide.