One year ago, when the Russian invasion of Ukraine started, the Ukrainian Navy was just adequate enough to protect its coast and the approaches to its important harbors. Since the partition of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet the Ukrainian Navy was the lesser of the two fleets. Compared to the Russian Black Sea Fleet it had fewer ships. The ships were old and not diverse enough to support a large range of maritime missions. Other than sending one warship to NATO missions in the Mediterranean, a few times the Ukrainian Navy was more or less confined to the Black Sea.
After the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, some of the ships and the sailors manning them simply choose to return to the Russian Black Sea Fleet, leaving the Ukrainian Fleet in a precarious situation. The Mosquito Fleet concept was designed by the Ukrainian Navy and aimed to rectify its weakness by investing in asymmetrical warfare through small boats with large punches. Ukraine’s efforts to use its own shipbuilding industry for warship production did not make important progress, forcing Ukraine to procure warships from abroad. The USA donated 4 Island-class large patrol boats. And Ukraine has procured one Milgem class corvette from Turkey with one as an option. However, these actions were not enough to boost the Ukrainian Navy at the start of the Russian Invasion in February 2022. The American-made boats were too small and lacked any effective armament, whereas the Turkish-made corvette was still under construction.
The Russian Black Sea Fleet was in much better shape at the start of the war. Since the invasion of Crimea Russia has invested in the Black Sea Fleet procuring 6 new frigates, 6 new patrol submarines, and 8 corvettes all capable of firing Kalibr, and long-range cruise missiles with land attack ability.
Furthermore, the Fleet was just reinforced with tank landing ships from other Fleets. The Slava class cruiser Moskva, the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet with her long-range radars and 64 SA-N-6 Grumble (S-300F) missiles was able to provide a large air defense bubble. The Black Sea Fleet was able to efficiently protects its units and conduct attacks on Ukrainian targets and dominate the maritime front of the war from the start.
In the first few weeks of the invasion, the Russian Black Sea Fleet indeed did dominate the seas. The immediate occupation of snake Island in the western part of the Black Sea was done in a quick and efficient way. It enabled Russia to control the approaches to the main Ukrainian ports outside of the Azov Sea. The majority of the Ukrainian warships were out of action. They were either scuttled by their crew, seized by advancing Russian troops, or sunk in action. The Russian amphibious ships sailing off the Ukrainian coast pretending to make a landing, tied up land forces near the coast when they were urgently needed on other fronts. The Kalibr salvos from frigates, corvettes, or submarines destroyed important Ukrainian military targets or infrastructure.
For a few weeks in the Spring of 2022, the Russian Black Sea Fleet seemed to have total dominance over the Black Sea and was dictating the action upon the Ukrainian side. The Ukrainian Navy was largely absent in action and no civilian ship could enter or leave the Ukrainian ports, bringing seaborne foreign trade in Ukraine to a complete halt.
We now have the hindsight that this dominance was not as total as Russia wanted us to believe. The self-combustion of the Alligator class landing ship Saratov at the Berdiansk port when unloading ammunition and her consequent sinking was a clear sign that not all was well within the Black Sea Fleet. That incident showed that there were important shortcomings, omissions, or neglect in training, damage control, in safety procedures related to the handling of hazardous material.
The Black Sea Fleet leadership failed in in keeping the ships in a fully operational state -as turned out to be the case in the loss of Moskva. The crews received inadequate training in damage control or their equipment failed or not functioned. Even in the absence of a naval force, Ukraine was determined to break the Russian choke and push the Black Sea Fleet away from the Ukrainian coast by asymmetrical means. With the attack on the cruiser Moskva, Ukraine was able to take in the initiative from Russia.
The loss of the cruiser was a big blow for Russia, a big morale boost for Ukraine, and a big wake-up call for the West which was more or less convinced itself Russian A2/AD bubble was impenetrable. The sinking of Moskva stripped away the defensive umbrella over the ships supplying Snake Island. The Russians made efforts to reinforce the garrison on the island with additional air defense weapons however these were destroyed by Ukrainians when they were still in the landing craft. The Russians were not able to prevent Ukrainian armed forces from bombarding the island from the air and from the Ukrainian shores. In the end, Russia had to retreat from the island in the early Summer of 2022, ending the choke it had put on Ukraine.
Less than a month later, as a direct result of Russia abandoning Snake Island, the Black Sea Grain Initiative was signed, and Ukraine was able to export its grain to the whole world again. The naval front of the war is at a stalemate. While the Russian side has a clear superiority in numbers and capability it lacks the will and apparently the courage to bring the war back to Ukraine's shores again. The Russian seems to be happy with the “fleet in being”.
On the other hand, Ukraine was able to create its own humble A2/AD bubble without a navy and break the Russian Fleet's will to fight. But it lacks the very basic ability of any naval force to conduct any operations on high seas and has very limited means to bring the fighting to the Russian shores.
At the beginning of the invasion, the naval actions affected the fighting on land. Since last summer this seems to have reversed. The outcome of the fighting in the naval domain will be determined by the actions on land.