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Russian Navy Restricts Black Sea Shipping With Live-Fire Drill Areas

Live fire drills
Three Russian amphibs under way for the Black Sea, February 8 (Russian Ministry of Defense)

Published Feb 9, 2022 3:23 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Russian Navy has announced live-fire exercise areas for a wide swath of the Black Sea and the majority of the Sea of Azov, effectively constraining navigation to Ukraine's commercial seaports. 

Commercial shipping and air traffic are advised to stay out of the designated areas from February 13-19. One area spans the northern entrance to the Kerch Strait, potentially cutting off all seaward access for Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov for the duration of the exercise. This includes the ports of Mariupol, Berdyansk and Henichesk. Russia has blockaded the Strait in the past over maritime sovereignty disputes.

On the Black Sea side, two exercise areas radiate out from the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula, one to the west towards Odessa and one to the southwest towards Bulgaria. The western exercise area only leaves a narrow strip of coastal waters to connect Odessa with the the Bosporus. 

"We don't want any panic, but this is very similar to preparing for something like a 'sea blockade' of Ukrainian ports, about which we've been warning for two years," commented Andrii Klymenko, editor of Ukrainian outlet BlackSeaNews. "This has to be stopped. At the highest international level. . . . There are no corridors for the passage of trade vessels. This has not happened [since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014]."

The announcement of the exercise area was released at about the same time as the arrival of three Russian Navy tank landing ships in the Black Sea. Three more are transiting the Bosporus and are expected to arrive by the end of the day on Wednesday. These ships augment the seven existing amphibious assault vessels of the Black Sea Fleet, and they are expected to play a supporting role in the event of a potential invasion of Ukraine. 

According to analyst Konrad Muzyka of Rochan Consulting, at least three of the six tank landing ships are carrying elements of the 336th Naval Infantry Brigade. These units are equipped with the BTR-82A armored personnel carrier, a fully amphibious 8x8 vehicle propelled by a waterjet in waterborne mode. 

Meanwhile, multiple Russian Navy assets from the Pacific Fleet and Northern Fleet are on the move for an exercise deployment to the Mediterranean. The flagship of the Northern Fleet, the cruiser Marshal Ustinov, entered the Med via the Strait of Gibraltar on Monday. The cruiser Varyag, destroyer Admiral Tributs and oiler Boris Butoma arrived in the Eastern Med via the Suez Canal last week.

On land, Russia has deployed 100,000-135,000 troops around the northern, eastern and southern borders of Ukraine, from Belarus to Rostov-on-Don to Russian-occupied Crimea. The start of a large-scale offensive "could happen at any time," according to the White House.