The Russian Navy has announced live-fire drills for a large swath of the Black Sea and the majority of the Sea of Azov, effectively limiting access to Ukraine’s commercial seaports.
From February 13 to 19, commercial shipping and air traffic are advised to avoid the designated areas. For the duration of the exercise, one area spans the northern entrance to the Kerch Strait, potentially cutting off all seaward access for Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov. Mariupol, Berdyansk, and Henichesk are among the ports included. Russia has previously blockaded the Strait due to maritime sovereignty disputes.
Two exercise areas radiate out from the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula on the Black Sea, one to the west towards Odessa and one to the southwest towards Bulgaria. The western exercise area leaves only a narrow strip of coastal waters connecting Odessa to the Bosporus.
The announcement of the exercise area coincided with the arrival of three Russian Navy tank landing ships in the Black Sea. Three more are on their way through the Bosporus and should arrive by the end of the day on Wednesday. These ships will supplement the Black Sea Fleet’s seven existing amphibious assault ships, and they are expected to play a supporting role in the event of a potential invasion of Ukraine.
According to Rochan Consulting analyst Konrad Muzyka, at least three of the six tank landing ships are carrying elements of the 336th Naval Infantry Brigade. The BTR-82A armoured personnel carrier, a fully amphibious 8×8 vehicle propelled by a waterjet in waterborne mode, is fitted to these units.
Meanwhile, multiple Russian Navy assets from the Pacific and Northern Fleets are on their way to the Mediterranean for an exercise deployment. On Monday, the Northern Fleet’s flagship, the cruiser Marshal Ustinov, entered the Mediterranean through the Strait of Gibraltar. Last week, the cruiser Varyag, destroyer Admiral Tributs, and oiler Boris Butoma arrived in the Eastern Mediterranean via the Suez Canal.
On land, Russia has stationed 100,000 to 135,000 troops along Ukraine’s northern, eastern, and southern borders, from Belarus to Rostov-on-Don and the Russian-occupied Crimea. According to the White House, the start of a large-scale offensive “could happen at any time.”